Creating Neotheism: Orthodox or Unorthodox/Part 2
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2013|
|Professor Greg Boyd’s view is part of a broader movement called “Free Will Theism” or the “Openness View of God,” a position embraced by some noted contemporary evangelicals like Clark Pinnock. A more descriptive name for the view is neotheism, since it rejects crucial aspects of classical theism in favor of neo-classical theism also known as process theology.|
Neotheism: Orthodox or Unorthodox? – Part 2
A Theological Response to Greg Boyd
Is Boyd’s Neotheism Heretical?
Boyd seems especially sensitive to the charge of heresy, since he denies it repeatedly in his book (Boyd, 8, 9, 12, 19, 20, 84, 115, 116, 172). To use the less emotive word, let us ask whether neotheism is “unorthodox”? In response, several points are significant.
Some of Boyd’s Grounds for Orthodoxy are Questionable
For starters, one must reject Boyd’s statements that Christians should not divide over issues like this, since they are only a “peripheral” matter (Boyd, 8, 9, 19, 20). The nature of God is no peripheral matter. It is fundamental to virtually every other essential Christian teaching. Furthermore, it is possible to have heretical views of God, as even Boyd acknowledges from his former beliefs as a Oneness Pentecostal (who deny the Trinity).
Furthermore, Boyd’s stated criterion for orthodoxy is faulty. He contends that “No ecumenical creed of the orthodox church has ever included an article of faith on divine foreknowledge” (Boyd, 116). First of all, this misses the point, since there are other things about Boyd’s view other than divine foreknowledge that can be challenged, namely his denial of God’s eternality, immutability, and simplicity which the creeds do address.
Second, the creeds do no need to contain an “article” on a matter for it to be included and clear as to their view. Third, the test is too narrow, since the creed did not contain an article on the Inspiration and infallibility of Scripture and, but it is clear that it was entailed in all their pronouncements.
Likewise, his implication that unity at any price should be achieved falls short of the mark (Boyd, 8, 9, 19). The same logic could be used with a Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, or with an evangelical who denies the infallibility (and inerrancy) of the Bible.
The Importance of Separating the Questions
Before proceeding to answer the million dollar question of whether Boyd’s neotheism is unorthodox, it is necessary to make two distinctions. First, a person can be orthodox on every other Fundamental Christian doctrine and still be unorthodox on one. Many evangelicals, for example, accept the other fundamentals of the Christian Faith and deny inerrancy. Hence, they are orthodox in general but unorthodox in this particular doctrine.
Also, it should be pointed out that someone can be unorthodox on some particular doctrine (such as inerrancy) and still be saved. Salvation is dependent on believing certain soteriological doctrines, such as the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-4) but not on explicitly believing all essential evangelical doctrines (e. g., the inspiration of Scripture and the Bodily Return of Christ). Our knowledge of Boyd’s belief has not yielded any evidence that he is not evangelical on the other essential doctrines of the Faith.
Defining Orthodoxy on the Nature of God
Typically, an unorthodox doctrine is a denial of a fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christianity as judged by the orthodox Fathers and confessions of the early Church. Taking this as a standard to evaluate neotheism, the question of Boyd’s doctrinal orthodoxy is another matter. Here, it appears that two points must be made before we can arrive at a conclusion.
First, there is a difference between explicit unorthodoxy and implicit unorthodoxy. The former is a formal denial of some fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith, and the later is a denial by implication. That is, it is a position that logically entails the denial of a fundamental teaching of the Faith.
With this definition in mind, it appears that neotheism, as embraced by Boyd and others, is implicitly unorthodox on its doctrine of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. For if Boyd is right, then the Bible contains unconditional predictions about the future that could be wrong. For example, the Bible predicted that the Devil is free but that his ultimate fate in Hell is predetermined (Rev. 20:10). But according to neotheism, this prediction cannot be infallible. Hence, at least this part of the Bible is not infallible. The same logic would apply to all unconditional predictive prophecy of which there were many about Christ (e.g., Dan. 9:24f; Psa. 16:10 cf. Acts 2:30-32; Micah 5:2). Even Boyd admits that God made an infallible prediction of the Cross (Boyd, 46), but how is this possible on neotheistic grounds when Jesus said He freely chose to go to the Cross (Jn. 10:18).
Neotheist’s attempts to avoid this conclusion are inadequate. Clearly not all biblical predictions are conditional, and God’s knowledge of the character of individuals is no guarantee they will not change (Boyd, 160, 171). And if God can know for sure in advance they will change, then He has infallible foreknowledge of free will, which is exactly what Neotheists deny.
So the minimum that can be said of Boyd’s view is that it logically undermines a crucial tenet of orthodoxy (and possible others). Some object to taking implicit unorthodoxy as test for orthodoxy, since there are other things (like a bad theological method) that seem to do the same. Yet many evangelicals are unwilling to label these methods as unorthodox, at least not in the sense they would other unorthodox beliefs.
However, this stance seems to be theologically myopic, since a bad theological method it can be equally devastating to the Christian Faith as outright denials of major doctrines. For example, certainly the Evangelical Theological Society would not tolerate in its membership someone who claimed to be believe in inerrancy, but utilized a method of interpretation that totally allegorized all literal, historical truth away, including the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, some years ago some 75% of the ETS membership voted from its ranks a New Testament scholar who utilized a Midrash method of interpretation of Matthew that denied the historicity of only parts of that Gospel, not including the death and resurrection of Christ. Along with the vast majority of ETS members, we conclude that orthodoxy can be both implicit as well as explicit, methodological as well as confessional. Indeed, the former can be as harmful to orthodoxy as the latter.
This leaves one more question to answer: does Boyd engage in more than implicit or methodological unorthodoxy. That is, does he explicitly deny a fundamental tenet of the Christian Faith? The answer to this seems to depend on the answer to two other questions: 1) Is the nature of God a fundamental tenet of the Christian Faith? and 2) Are the early Creeds, Councils, and Confessions of Christianity a test for orthodoxy?
Early Statements of Orthodoxy on the Doctrine of God
Inasmuch as the early pronouncements of the Christian Church were an expression of the beliefs of the great Fathers of the Church, their views on these matters are also a test of orthodoxy.
Statements of the Fathers Behind the Creeds
Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 107). The earliest known precreedal statement of a Church Father reveals crucial elements of a classical view of God. It reflects a predictive prophecy from Scripture that implies God’s infallible foreknowledge that Christ is waiting in heaven “till his enemies are put under his feet” (Schaff, CC II, 12). Ignatius added, Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible [Schaff, ANF, I, 94]. He also spoke “…of the nature of God, which fills His works with beauty, and teaching both where God must be, and that He must be One [Schaff, ANF, II, 131].
Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-c 165). Justin concluded that God, therefore, is…an uncompounded intellectual nature, admitting within Himself no addition of any kind; so that He cannot be believed to have within him a great and a less (Schaff, ANF, IV, 243). He added, For Moses said, He who is…. But either of the expressions seems to apply to the ever-existent God. For He is the only one who eternally exists, and has no generation (Schaff, ANF, I, 282).
Clement of Alexander (A.D. 150-215). He declared that All things, therefore, are dispensed from heaven for good…according to the eternal foreknowledge, which He purposed in Christ (Schaff, ANF, II, 319, 320). For He shows both things: both His divinity in His foreknowledge of what would take place, and His love in affording an opportunity for repentance to the self-determination of the soul (Schaff, ANF, II, 228).
Tatian (c. A.D. 160). He declared: I was led to put faith in…the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being [Schaff, ANF, Vol II, 77].
Irenaeus (A.D. 180). Philip Schaff calls Irenaeus “the most important witness of the doctrinal status of the Catholic Church at the close of the second century.” Irenaeus affirmed there was “one God” (a reference to God’s unity and possibly His simplicity) who “made the heaven and the earth” “out of nothing” and who made predictions of Christ’s “birth from the Virgin,” of His “passion,” “the resurrection from the dead,” His “bodily assumption into heaven” and His “appearing from heaven” at the Second Coming. That God’s foreknowledge is infallible is seen in the fact that “His Son…was always heard in the prophets…” (Schaff, CC, 12-19).
In his seminal work Against Heresies, Irenaeus declared that: God alone…(remains) truly and forever the same. And in this respect God differs from man… [who] is made and He who makes always remains the same. God is referred to as “the Father invisible” (denoting His immateriality). He also implies God’s infallible foreknowledge that the angels would never change their will and thus will be sent into “eternal fire.” Likewise, the “Rule of Faith” is said to be “immovable and irreformable,” thus reflecting the character of God whose Word it is.
Irenaeus also wrote: He also ascended to the heavens, and was glorified by the Father, and is the “Eternal King. Now what has been made is a different thing from him who makes it. The breath then is temporal, but the Spirit is eternal [Schaff, ANF, I, 538]. He also added of God that He is a simple, uncompounded Being without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to Himself (Schaff, ANF, I, 374]).
Athanagoras (2nd Cent). The early athenian Christian thinker Athanagoras affirmed that “It is evident That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God, uncreated, [and] eternal [Schaff, ANF, II, 133].
Tertullian (A.D. 200). He replies to Marcion by noting we must vindicate those attributes in the Creator which are called into question namely, His goodness, and foreknowledge, and power [The Five Books Against Marcion, Chap. 5]. Moreover, he affirms the eternality of God when he states, This rule is required by the nature of the One-only God, who is One-only is no other way than as the sole God; and in no other way sole, than as nothing else [co-existent] with Him. So also will He be first, because all things are after Him; and all things are after Him, because all things are by Him; and all things are by Him, because they are of nothing [Against Hermongenes, Chap. 17].
Tertullian also declared that, As God, because He is uncreated, (He) is also unalterable. Citing Scripture, he also said: “‘Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail…’ pointing out plainly…who it is that doth endure for ever God.”
Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 230). Although Origen embraced some unorthodox teachings, He did not appear to deny the classical attributes of God. He declared: For God, comprehending all things by means of His foreknowledge, and foreseeing what consequences would result from both of these, wished to make these known to mankind by His prophets [Schaff, ANF, IV, 594]. He also wrote of “One God” who “created and framed everything” as well as God’s omnipotence in Christ’s birth of the “Virgin” and “resurrection” from the dead (Schaff, CC, 23).
Novatian of Rome (A.D. 250). He speaks also of God as “Almighty” and “Maker of all things,” including this temporal world (which places Him beyond time) (Schaff, CC 21).
Gregorius Thaumaturgus of Neo-Caesarea (c. A.D. 270). His belief embraces “one God” with “eternal power” who has the power which “produces all creation.” This God is both “Invisible,” “Immortal,” “Incorruptible,” “Everlasting,” “a perfect Trinity,” and “not divided,” having both “eternity” and “sovereignty.” God is “ever the same, unvarying and unchangeable.” Here we have almost all the attributes of classical theism most of which are rejected by neotheism, including immutability, eternality, and simplicity (indivisibility) (Schaff, CC 24, 25).
Alexander of Lycopolis (3rd Cent). In truth I think it to be more accurate doctrine to say that God is of a simple nature [Of the Manicheans, Chap. 10, Vol. 6]
Lucian of Antioch (A.D. 300). He confessed belief in “one God the Father Almighty, the maker and Provider of all things.” God is “unchangeable,” “unalterable,” and “immutable.” He then “anathematizes all heretical and false doctrine” (Schaff, CC 26, 27).
Arius (A.D. 328). Even though his view of Christ was unorthodox, nonetheless, in the “Private Creed of Arius” he confessed that God was “Almighty” and that by him “all things were made.” Noteworthy is the phrase “before all ages” which reveals His belief that God is before time, namely, non-temporal which is another attribute rejected by neotheism (Schaff, CC 28-29).
Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 325). Like others before him, Eusebius affirmed the central attributes a the God of classical theism, declaring: “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” God is also described as “Light,” “Life.” The resurrection and ascension of Christ are also acknowledged as manifestations of God’s omnipotent power (Schaff, CC 29-30).
Cyril of Jerusalem (c. A.D. 350). confession agreed in almost every point with Eusebius, saying: “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in one Lord Jesus Christ,… begotten of the Father before all ages, very God, by whom all things were made.” Thus affirms both God’s unity and eternality (Schaff, CC 31).
The Creeds of Epiphanius (A.D. 374). In his first formula he confessed: “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and all things visible and invisible….” God and His Son are eternal, existing “before all worlds [ages].” He speaks of God’s one “substance” or “essence” which Christ shared. He adds the attribute of “perfection” as well as the ability to make predictions through the “Prophets” and denies that Christ is “changeable” or “variable” in “substance or essence” from God the Father (Schaff, CC 33-34; 37-38).
Since it is well known that the views of St. Augustine, St. Anselm (1033-1109) and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) are clear statements of classical theism, they need not be added here. Likewise, it is well known that the Reformers were also classical theists. Indeed, no major Father up to and through the Reformation deviated from the central attributes of the God of classical theism.
The Statements of the Creeds Themselves
The Creed of Nicaea (A.D. 325)
This creed refers to one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things one substance. And those who say God is created, or changeable, or alterable, these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes (Bettenson, DCC, 36].
The Dedication Creed (A.D. 341)
This creed refers to one God, Father all sovereign, framer, maker and providential ruler of the universe, from all things came into being before all ages unchangeable and immutable (Bettenson, DCC, 57-58).
The Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381).
Like its precursors, this creed confessed “one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Likewise, God was “before all worlds.” He has “one substance (essence).” God’s omnipotence is manifest not only in His ability to create the world, but to perform the miracle of the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and ascension of Christ (Schaff, CC, 58-59).
The Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451).
Although stressing the deity of Christ, this creed refers to God as “perfect,” existing “before all ages,” having a “nature,” producing the supernatural “Virgin” birth, and making prediction through “the prophets from the beginning” (Schaff, CC, 62-63).
The Athanasian Creed
This creed by a noted defender of orthodoxy begins by declaring that “Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep the whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” This includes believing that there is “Unity” in God’s “Substance (essence)” without “dividing”; that each member of the Trinity is “eternal,” “uncreated” and “incomprehensible” or “unlimited.” God is also “Almighty.” He is not “Three Gods” but “one.” He is also “perfect God.” God’s power to “raise the dead” is also mentioned (Schaff, CC, 66-69).
It is evident that the early Creeds and Confessions of the Faith embraced classical theism on the crucial attributes denied by neotheism such as simplicity, eternality, immutability, and infallible foreknowledge of all events, including future freely chosen ones. What is more, the teachings of the Fathers behind these creeds and confessions is unequivocally on the side of classical theism and opposed to neotheism.
Further, it is clear that the doctrine of God is a crucial doctrine of the Christian Faith by any adequate standard for a fundamental doctrine. For it is essential to almost every other, if not every other, doctrine of the Faith.
Therefore, if this is the case, then neotheism is explicitly unorthodox on its view of God. To consider it otherwise, is to create a new test for orthodoxy.
One thing is certain, whatever term one chooses to use of neotheism’s view of God, the minimum that can be said is that: 1) It is contrary to the great orthodox creeds, confessions, and councils of the Christian Church, as well as the virtually unanimous teachings of the Fathers of the Church up to and through the Reformation into modern times; 2) It is internally inconsistent; 3) It reduces logically to process theology, and 4) It undermines the infallibility of the Scriptures. If these are not sufficient to merit the charge of unorthodoxy, then we are left to ask: what deviation on the fundamental doctrine of God would qualify as unorthodox and by what standard.
- See Boyd’s excellent refutation of this heretical view in his book, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992).
- See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983 reprint), Vol. II (Hereafter CC) and Norman L. Geisler, Decide for Yourself: How History Views the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982), Chaps. 2-3.
- In defending his view in The Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society (March 1983, p. 114), Gundry agreed that no one who confesses belief in inerrancy should be eliminated from ETS because of an unorthodox method, even if it were the method of total allegorization of Scripture (such as held by the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy)!
- All Schaff citations are from his The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983 reprint), Vol. II (Hereafter CC).
- Philip Schaff, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976), hereafter ANF.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies in Ante-Nicene Church Fathers, ed. by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956)I.411, hereafter ANF.
- Irenaeus, in Schaff, ACF, I, 474.
- Irenaeus in Schaff, ANF, I, 577.
- See Schaff, ANF, 162f.
- Tertullian, in Schaff, AFC, II, 95.
- See Norman L. Geisler, What Augustine Says (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982), Chap. 3 for citations.
- For Anselm’s views see St. Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury: Trinity, Incarnation, and Redemption, trans. by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1970), especially 152-199.
- See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1-19.
- See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), Vol. I.
- All Bettenson citations are from his Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).
- Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), hereafter DCC.