The God Who Trusts (Curtis Holtzen) - A Review


THE GOD WHO TRUSTS: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, and Love. By Wm. Curtis Holtzen. Foreword by John Sanders. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019. Xv + 262 pages.

If you find yourself part of the open and relational theology community, as am I, you need to ask how God relates to creation? If you embrace a more determinative position, where God's sovereignty ultimately overrules anything we might do, then God has no worries about what the future holds. If you take an open and relational position, you have to ask whether God might be taking a few risks with this creation thing. Another way to put this question, might we follow Curtis Holtzen and embrace the idea that God is one who trusts and even lives by faith? This idea is a bit novel. As part of God’s creation, we’re called to trust God and live by faith, but why would God have a need to trust that which God has created? Why would God need faith? Doesn’t God know everything that needs to be known?

As we consider this question with Holtzen, we might want to define faith. According to the Book of Hebrews, faith is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Could God exhibit such faith in us? That is a question that a theological system like Open Theism could raise.

Open Theism is a theological system that is found mostly among evangelicals, like the late Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and others like them, who have an Arminian/Wesleyan orientation. To limit Open Theism to that particular group is probably a bit too narrow. Holtzen, for example, is rooted in the Stone-Campbell Movement (as am I, though we're not of the same branch). As such, I'm not sure he would adopt the Arminian tag-line. However, he shares a theology similar to persons like Tom Oord and Greg Boyd, as well as John Sanders, who writes the foreword to this book. It’s a position that I find attractive as well. As for his background, Holtzen is a professor of philosophy and theology at Hope International University in Fullerton, California. He holds a DTh from the University of South Africa and has co-edited several books.

Holtzen's premise is this: "if God is authentically relational and humans significantly free, then God is a being of faith. More precisely, if God is genuinely loving, relational, and morally good, while humans are free to accept or reject God's invitation to be partners in the creation of a beautiful world and divine kingdom, then faith, both human and divine is necessary" (p. 1-2). In other words, he understands the divine-human relationship to be mutual and even reciprocal.

The first two chapters lay the groundwork for grasping the premise that God is one who has faith and who trusts. Holtzen moves from raising the question of what it might mean for God to be one who trusts, to laying out what faith means in this context. He suggests that one can look at faith through several lenses, including belief, trust, hope, and love. He shows us how these lenses might work. Then in chapters 3-6, he moves through each, starting with the premise that God loves, and moving on to the God who believes, the God who trusts, and the God who hopes. The idea that God loves should be non-controversial, but the remaining three lenses should cause us to pause for a moment. To say that God believes presents a problem. It raises questions about true and false beliefs. It raises the question of what God knows about the future. In other words, what is the nature of God's omniscience? Could God have doubts? Holtzen believes this is possible. What that means is that if God doesn't know the complete future, might God have "reason to vacillate" with regard to our actions? To believe is to take a risk. That is Holtzen's point.

Faith can also be described in terms of trust. While we ought to put our trust in God, should God put trust in us? If God has the power to control all things, then this is irrelevant. God neither trusts nor mistrusts because God determines what takes place. This, however, in Holtzen's mind (and mine), is not a relational position, and in his estimation, it’s not a biblical position either. While I agree with Holtzen on this matter of God’s relationality, I wonder how trustworthy we really are! If God Trusts, might God hope as well? If the future is open, then can God hope we will respond positively? If we follow the open theist position, God cannot have any assurance that we will respond positively. However, God can and does act in the hope that we will respond appropriately. As Holtzen writes, "hope is not divine hand-wringing, expecting disaster but action, nonetheless, as if there is a chance" (p. 189).

After exploring the concepts that involve God loving, believing, trusting, and hoping, Holtzen addresses the question of how Jesus fits into this conversation. He looks at Jesus' faith in God and God's faith in Jesus. He affirms a Trinitarian perspective, but he looks at the relationship between Father and Son through the lens of kenosis. In other words, in the incarnation, the Word sets aside the trappings of divinity, to live as a human being. This will entail faith and trust between Father and Son. Part of the discussion in the final chapter concerns the role of the cross in this vision of trust between Father and Son. He doesn't take a specific position on the atonement, other than affirming that in Christ's death the divine-human relationship broken by sin is healed, at least potentially. He holds out the possibility of universal salvation, but he does not seem to be fully committed to it. The future, after all, remains open. We don't know how everyone will respond. I wonder if that might even include God.

Holtzen makes a strong contribution to the ongoing conversation about open and relational Christianity with this volume. I believe that some of what he raises in the book is more of an issue within evangelicalism, which is likely why he largely addresses that audience with this book (of course, IVP Academic is focused on that same audience). There are those who would call what Holtzen and others like him are trying to do heresy. As for me, this simply makes sense. If God truly loves, then the relationship needs to be reciprocal. While God's love might be perfect, can we say the same about our response? Thus, this theology offers us a risk-taking God. I'm comfortable with that, but not everyone is, which is why many choose a more deterministic path where God is in complete control of everything. For those who are open to following a risk-taking God who lives relationally with creation, trusting creation, including the human creation, to respond positively, this should be a well-received book. O might, however, be a bit less sanguine about human trustworthiness, but ultimately this about God and whether God is willing to trust us.

So, who makes up the audience of this book? The fact that it is the product of the IVP Academic line would lead to the assumption that the majority of expected readers would be students of philosophy and theology, as well as professors, and clergy who like to dive deeper into matters of philosophy and theology. That is about right. This won’t be an easy read for those who don’t have at least some theological and philosophical training. Nevertheless, reading it will be a valuable exercise for those willing and able to engage with it. I will say that while I embrace an open and relational theology, I will need to think more about this idea that God has faith. Yes, there is much to think about as one engages Hotzen's The God Who Trusts.  

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