(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
Within liberal Christianity, there is a false theology of panentheism that is practised. On the scholarly level, there are books such as that by Episcopalian Marcus Borg (1997) that support this redefinition of God. He stated that this is his view of God:
Panentheism as a way of thinking about God affirms both the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. For panentheism, God is not a being “out there.” The Greek roots of the word point to its meaning: pan means “everything,” en means “in,” and theos means “God.” Panentheism thus means “everything is in God.” God is more than everything (and thus transcendent), yet everything is in God (hence God is immanent). For panentheism, God is “right here,” even as God is also more than “right here” (Borg 1997:32).
(Marcus Borg, courtesy Wikipedia)
Anglicans Down Under ask:
May Anglicans be panentheists?
Many Episcopalians are panentheists, at least according to no lesser an authority than Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (on an interview on Lutheran radio, with transcript via Virtue Online):
“WILKEN: On that issue of “people-of-faith” the subtitle of the book is “Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything.” so it might sound to some like pantheism. Do you believe that the “sacred”, as you define it, is found in all religions?
JEFFERTS SCHORI: Yes, I think it probably is. We’re not pantheists, many Episcopalians might be understood to as “panentheists”. The difference being that pantheists see everything as God and panentheists see God reflected in all of God’s creation. When we talk about human beings being made in the image of God that’s a piece of what we are talking about and we would extend that to all of creation. “
But being part of a ‘diversity-in-unity’ Communion, if it is okay for Episcopalians to be panentheists, it is okay for any Anglicans to be panentheists.
On the popular level, there are comments like these to support panentheism:
I believe that all are in God and God is in all. There is nowhere that God is not. No place, no moment, no thing where God is not present. Thus, in the end, we are in God and we return to God (though, to be honest, our separateness from God is illusion)….
I believe that all are in God and God is in all and to God we all return. I don’t know the details. It is not given for me to know the details. So, I can explain no further. I have never been to the afterlife. Thus, I cannot say what it is, where it is, what it is like, or furnish any other detail.
I’m not “saved” through the redemptive work of the Christ. I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or many other theories of atonement. Jesus was Savior and Christ for me because his life was truly a “with God life.” He exemplifies a life lived completely an fully in the transformative-relational power of God. As, such he is my exemplar.
The approach to salvation I take (that I live and move and have my being in God, and thus can never be separate from God and to God I will return…whatever that may mean in the end of my life.) does come from scripture, as interpreted by process theology and my own experience. I’m not very concerned about the afterlife. Like Reform Judaism (which has profoundly influenced both my theology and view of end of life things), I think that our lives as lived now are far more important than what will happen when we die. Whether I cease to exist or there is a conscious afterlife existence, I will love God, work with God, and serve my fellow human beings, other creatures, and the earth that God created and continues to create in every moment of existence. I trust in God that “all that can be saved will be saved (myself included).”
Panentheism, not to be confused with pantheism, has the literal meaning, ‘all in God’. It is also known as process theology, ‘since it views God as a changing Being’. It is sometimes called bipolar theism as ‘it believes God has two poles’ (Geisler 1999:576). By contrast, pantheism means ‘all is God’.
Panentheists agree that God has two poles: (1) an actual pole, which is the world; and (2) a potential pole – beyond the world. This is not the view of Almighty Yahweh God revealed in Scripture. It is a liberal invention of God that does not line up with Scripture as the article by Geisler demonstrates.
What is theism? Briefly, ‘theism is the worldview that an infinite personal God created the universe and miraculously intervenes in it from time to time. God is both transcendent over the universe and imminent in it’ (Geisler 1999:722). However, that kind of description could apply to the three dominant theistic religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
What is the difference between theism and panentheism?
Norman Geisler has provided this helpful summary of the main contrast with the orthodox doctrine of God:
|God is Creator.||God is director.|
|Creation is ex nihilo.||Creation is ex materia.|
|God is sovereign over world.||God is working with world|
|God is independent of world||God is dependent on world.|
|God is unchanging.||God is changing.|
|God is absolutely prefect.||God is growing more perfect.|
|God is mono-polar.||God is bi-polar.|
|God is actually infinite.||God is actually finite.|
From Norman L. Geisler 1999. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, p. 576. Geisler’s article can be found at: Panentheism – Part One; Panentheism – Part Two.
Panentheists agree that God has two poles: (1) an actual pole, which is the world; and (2) a potential pole – beyond the world (Geisler 1999:576).
(Photo courtesy Southern Evangelical Seminary)
When Episcoboi supports panentheism, he is picking and choosing from the Bible and he is really a syncretist with regard to God. His God is not the God revealed in Scripture and made manifest through Christ’s life and death. He admitted his syncretism:
I guess my way is syncretic. I come from a background that includes significant time in Reform Judaism. In Reform Judaism, God is affirmed as being One, but what is meant by “God” is different to different Jews in the Reform movement. Also, in Reform Judaism, afterlife beliefs are of secondary importance to this life and the way it is lived. Actually, my definition of God, defined as panentheism, is definitely found in Scripture. Or else, where did the early Chassidic Jews get it. Or, where do many modern and historic Rabbi’s get it from. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of Conservative Judaism, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology was deeply grounded in Torah and his Deep Theology shares many aspects with process theism. Rabbi Michael Lerner. I’m using these examples as proof that there is biblical (at least in the Hebrew Bible and Tradition) for my theology, agnosticism about the afterlife, etc. It may not be apparent in the NT, but it is definitely scriptural.
Again, my way is syncretic. But, that also stems from my belief that all religions have truth and the divine in them.
You can learn more about the God I’m talking about by talking with Rabbi’s, especially of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Movements in Judaism. And, from biblical scholars, theologians, and teachers from the Christian tradition such as John Cobb, Catherine Keller, Bruce Epperly, David Ray Griffin, Marjorie Suchocki, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Charles Hartshorne.
If he is not interested in what happens when he dies, he again affirms that he is not a supporter of biblical Christianity. His definition of god is from a different source than the Scriptures of the OT and NT. This is his agnosticism about what happens at death:
I’m not a total agnostic. Only about the afterlife. I never say that I’m the ultimate authority. I’m only saying that I leave afterlife to God who knows. I think that how we live in this life is of much more importance than spending time speculating about what the afterlife is or what it may be like. From God we come and to God we return. The Hebrew Bible is not very clear and really doesn’t deal overmuch with the afterlife. The new testament also does not deal a lot with what the afterlife may or may not be like. In the NT there is much talk about redemption and salvation, but not much detail about the afterlife.
A study of Jewish theological development shows that the idea of an afterlife of reward and punishment only began to develop after the Babylonia Captivity and only came to be truly developed in the Hellenistic period and the early Rabinnic (sic) period. To this day even Orthodox Jews will tell you that they believe in Olam Haba, but cannot go into great detail about what it is.
This is false! The NT does speak considerably about life after death. See the exposition by Robert A. Morey 1984. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers. See the article by Robert Morey, ‘Sheol, Hades and Gehenna’. See also Death and the Afterlife, Terence Nichols. I also refer you to my articles on this homepage, Truth Challenge:
- What is the nature of death according to the Bible?
- What happens at death for believer and unbeliever?
- Where will unbelievers go at death?
- Paul on eternal punishment;
- Does eternal destruction mean annihilation for unbelievers at death?
- Torment in OT hell: The meaning of Sheol;
- Those who live and believe in Jesus shall never die;
- Did the thief on the cross go to Paradise with Jesus – at death?
- Children and heaven;
- Theology I learned in a hospital cardiac ward;
Episcoboi says he loves God? Which God is he talking about? What are this God’s attributes and how can we learn about his God? Where do I go to find this God’s attributes? The summary by Geisler above is an adequate overview to know that this is not the God of Scripture who was manifest in Jesus Christ. He’s another god. This is not the view of Almighty Yahweh God revealed in Scripture. It is a liberal invention of god, derived from theism, that does not line up with Scripture as the articles by Geisler demonstrate.
What is biblical theism?
Henry Thiessen has provided a brief definition of biblical theism as
the belief in one personal God, both immanent and transcendent, Who exists in three personal distinctions, known respectively as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the position of Christian Theism…. It is a form of monotheism, yet not of the Unitarian, but of the Trinitarian type. The Christian holds that since all the other [theistic] beliefs … have a false conception of God, his view is the only truly theistic view (Thiessen 1949:49).
Borg, M 1997. The God we never knew. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Carson, D A 1996. The gagging of God: Christianity confronts pluralism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
I sometimes seek to explain the difference between supernatural theism and panentheism by inviting my students to imagine how one might diagram God in relationship to the universe. I suggest representing the universe as an oval. Where is God in relationship to the universe? Supernatural theism thinks of God as being outside the oval; God and the universe are spatially separate. Panentheism would represent God as a larger oval that includes the oval of the universe; God encompasses the universe, and the universe is in God. Of course, these diagrams cannot be taken literally. It does not make sense to think of either the universe or God has having borders, as the ovals suggest (Borg 1997:51, n.2).
 Christian Forums, Theology, Soteriology, ‘What is your view of salvation?’, Episcoboi #44, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7685449-5/ (Accessed 14 September 2012). I have interacted with him as OzSpen.
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 18 June 2016.