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Vander Stelt essay contest prompts wrestling with issue of open theism

By Andrew De Young

Stephen De Wit (second from left) and Everett Baker (far right) were this year's recipients of the John C. Vander Stelt Essay Award.  They are pictured with Vander Stelt (center), Jay Shim, Tom Wolthuis, and Mark Tazelaar

Stephen De Wit (second from left) and Everett Baker (far right) were this year's recipients of the John C. Vander Stelt Essay Award. They are pictured with Vander Stelt (center), Jay Shim, Tom Wolthuis, and Mark Tazelaar

The theology and philosophy professors who judged the John Vander Stelt Essay Contest had a tougher job than usual this year. Having received two excellent essays from senior Stephen De Wit and junior Everett Baker, they spent a long time before deciding, ultimately, that Baker would receive the award. They needn’t have worried.

“We had decided beforehand that we would split the money if either of us won,” says De Wit, who shares an on-campus apartment with Baker. When they told Philosophy Professor Roger Henderson about their plans, De Wit says with a smile, he had an interesting reaction. “He was actually upset, because he had spent so much time deciding which one of us would win.”

The essay contest, designed to engage students in a discussion of current philosophical and theological topics, was on a concept called “open theism.”

“It deals with the question, is God open, can he change his mind?” explains Baker. “Open theism says yes, his plans aren’t set in stone, and because God is love he’s willing to change and adapt.” Although both Baker and De Wit took a stance against open theism, they both acknowledge that it has valuable insights about the nature of God. “It’s good because it highlights God’s relational intimacy, but it also minimizes his otherness and transcendence,” says Baker.

But ultimately, Baker’s dislike of open theism was what got him involved in the competition in the first place. He wasn’t planning to submit an essay for the competition until he came home one night and found a book De Wit was using to research the topic. He picked it up and began reading.

“It frustrated me so much that I stayed up and read almost the whole thing,” he says.

And ultimately, his winning essay ended up focusing on God’s otherness and transcendence, the qualities that open theism minimizes, qualities that Baker was primed to write on after taking an independent study on postmodern Christianity.

“It ultimately helped me iron out the paradox of God and to systematize God’s mystery,” says Baker. “But I did it in a language of praise, starting the essay in a prayer.”

De Wit says that the competition was valuable for him, even aside from the Honorable Mention and the prize money that he and Baker will share.

“It’s interesting how writing helps you figure things out,” says De Wit. “I took a stance against open theism, but the questions raised were valid questions that traditional theists need to address.”

Asked if the competition was valuable for him, Baker has a much different answer. “It was just nice to know that there might be some money in philosophy after all,” he says, then smiles.