Terminology Tuesday: Neotheism

Meaning of the Term. Proponents of this view variously describe themselves as holding the “openness of God” view or “free will theism,” by which they mean God is open to change and that humans have free will as opposed to any divine determinism of the future in advance. Nonetheless, “neotheism” appears to be a more appropriate, simpler, and more descriptive term. By their own confession, they see themselves as theists but have adopted some of the tenets of panentheism or process theology (see WHITEHEAD, A. N.).

Some Proponents of Neotheism. Proponents of neotheism include Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger (see Pinnock et al., The Openness of God). Others who have written in defense of the position include Greg Boyd, Stephen T. Davis, Peter Geach, Peter Lang, J. R. Lucas, Thomas V. Morris, Ronald Nash, A. N. Prior, Richard Purtill, Richard Swinburne, and Linda Zagzebski.

Some Basic Tenets of Neotheism. In their own words neotheists believe that “1. God not only created this world ex nihilo but can and at times does intervene unilaterally in earthly affairs. 2. God chose to create us with incompatibilist (libertarian) freedom—freedom over which he cannot exercise total control. 3. God so values freedom—the moral integrity of free creatures and a world in which such integrity is possible—that he does not normally override such freedom, even if he sees that it is producing undesirable results. 4. God always desires our highest good, both individually and corporately, and thus is affected by what happens in our lives. 5. God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of exactly how we will utilize our freedom, although he may very well at times be able to predict with great accuracy the choices we will freely make” (Pinnock, 76–77).
Neotheism can best be described by noting what it holds in common with traditional or classical theism (see) and also what it holds in distinction from it.

Tenets Held in Common with Theism. In accord with classical theism, neotheists believe that God is a personal, transcendent, all-powerful Being who created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing (see CREATION, VIEWS OF), and who can and has performed supernatural acts within it. God is in charge of the universe, but he has given human beings the power to make free choices.

Tenets Held in Distinction from Theism. By way of contrast with traditional theism, neotheism holds that God does not have an infallible knowledge of future free acts. In addition, he can and does change his mind in response to our prayers. Furthermore, God is not absolutely simple nor is he nontemporal or eternal. Thus, he is not able to completely control or predict exactly the way things will turn out.

An Evaluation of Neotheism. Positive Features. There are many positive dimensions of neotheism. These include all the things its adherents hold in common with classical theists.

Creation ex nihilo. One of the signature beliefs of classical theism, in contrast to other worldviews, is that God created the universe out of nothing. This clearly distinguishes the view from panentheism and places its adherents in the broad theistic camp.

Affirmation of miracles. Unlike panentheists and like theists, neotheists affirm miracles. This places them alongside traditional theism and in contrast to naturalism and current neoclassical theism known as process theology.Emphasis on God’s relatability with creation. Neotheists are deeply concerned, and rightly so, to preserve God’s relatability with the world. A God who cannot hear and answer prayer is less than personal and is not the God described in the Bible.

Stress on Free Will. Along with classical theists, neotheists desire to defend free choice against forms of determinism that would eliminate genuine free will. This is commendable.

Along with this should be mentioned that neotheists are right in stressing that there are some things that are impossible for God to do, once he has decided to make free creatures. He cannot, for example, force them to freely choose something. Forced freedom is a contradiction in terms (see FREE WILL; EVIL, PROBLEM OF).Negative Critique. On the negative side of the ledger, neotheists are to be criticized in part for creating God in their own image (see Geisler, all). They have in fact bought too deeply into panentheism and are subject to many of the same criticisms.

Neotheism is unbiblical. Since Christian neotheists claim to accept the authority of the Bible, they can be judged by its standards (Geisler, chap. 4). And the Bible, in contrast to neotheism, clearly affirms that God cannot change. The self-existent I AM (Exod. 3:14) of Scripture says “I the Lord change not” (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 1:12; James 1:17). and who “knows the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). God is “infinite in understanding” (Ps. 147:5) and, hence, “foreknows” the elect (Rom. 8:29; 2 Peter 1:2). He “is not a man that he should change his mind” (1 Sam. 15:29).When the Bible speaks of God “repenting” it is only from our perspective, as when there is a repentance on the part of man (Jonah 3). For example, when one reverses course after peddling his bike against the wind, it was not the wind that changed. Even neotheists admit there are anthropomorphisms in the Bible.
Neotheism is incoherent. For example, neotheists believe God created the temporal world out of nothing. If so, then he must be prior to time and not temporal himself. But neotheists deny that God is a nontemporal Being. This is inconsistent, for if God created time, then he cannot himself be temporal, any more than God can be a creature if he created all creatures (see Geisler, chap. 6).

Likewise, neotheists admit God is a necessary Being yet they deny he has Pure Actuality. But here again they cannot have it both ways. For a necessary Being has no potentiality for nonexistence. If it did, then it would not be necessary in its being. But if it has no potentiality not to exist, then its existence must be Pure Actuality (with no potentiality).Finally, if God is a Necessary Being, then he cannot change in his Being. For a Necessary Being must necessarily be what it is; it cannot be other. However, neotheists claim God can change, that is, he is not immutable. But both these things held by neotheists cannot be true.

Neotheism undermines infallibility. Although many neotheists claim to believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, this is inconsistent with their basic beliefs. If God cannot know the future infallibly, then the predictions in the Bible that involve free acts (as most do) cannot be infallible. That is, some of them may be wrong. Further, we have no way of knowing which ones. Thus, neotheism undermines the infallibility of all biblical predictions (see PROPHECY, AS PROOF OF THE BIBLE).

Neotheism destroys a biblical test for false prophets. The Bible declares (in Deut. 18:22) that a false prophecy is a test of a false prophet. But, as just noted, according to neotheism there may be false predictions in the Bible. If this is so, then a false prediction cannot be a test of a false prophet, since even God himself could make false predictions.Neotheism undermines confidence in unconditional promises. If neotheism is correct, even God’s unconditional promises cannot be trusted, including the answer of prayer (see Geisler, chaps. 5, 6). For as well-meaning as God may be in making the promise, if the fulfillment in any way depends on human free choices (which most do), then God may not be able to deliver on his promise.

  By Neotheists
  G. Boyd, Trinity and Process  S. T. Davis, Logic and the Nature of God  C. Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God  W. Haskers, God, Time, and Knowledge  N. Nash, The Concept of God  R. Rice, God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will  R. Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism
  Against Neotheism
  St. Augustine, City of God.  St. Anselm, Proslogion.  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica  J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion  S. Charnock, Discourse Upon the Existence and Attributes of God  R. Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and Nature  N. L. Geisler, Creating God in Man’s Image  R. Gruenler, The Inexhaustible God  E. Mascall, He Who Is  H. P. Owen, Concepts of Deity

Geisler, N. L. (1999). Neotheism. In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (pp. 526–527). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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