While the recent hit movie “Shakespeare in Love” was no treatise on theological issues, one of the main characters offered a helpful response for those of us today who find ourselves grappling with such issues. When asked a question for which he had no answer, he would simply reply, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” What a great answer! It would certainly be an appropriate response to many a theological question today. While I am not advocating ignorance or suggesting that there is no value in research and study and healthy dialogue, I am suggesting that we must come to grips with the fact that there are some issues that our finite minds simply cannot resolve. To admit that we do not have all the answers is not synonymous with failure or ignorance. Rather, it’s a sign of wisdom. It recognizes that God is much greater than we are and that his mysteries are unsearchable.
There are many theological questions to which we might suitably answer, “I don’t know; it’s a mystery,” but it is likely that none has received as much attention in the last few years (or throughout Church history, for that matter) as, “How does one reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s freewill?” After 2000 years, theologians and philosophers still pursue an answer, for as Donald Bloesch points out, “the human mind is not content to bow before mystery. From the beginning of Christian history people have sought to resolve the paradox of salvation either in the direction of embracing divine determinism or in the direction of accentuating human responsibility and autonomy.”
In spite of man’s best effort, it is improbable that he’ll ever be able to reconcile the issue of how exactly God relates to his creatures—of divine sovereignty and human freedom. He will have to be content responding, “It’s a mystery.” But this response is not an intellectual copout. In fact, it is a very fitting response, because it’s biblical. According to Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” It is part of God’s glorious nature to “hide” certain things from us. If we knew everything, we’d be gods ourselves. As Bloesch rightly states, it would be too much for us: “…even in his revelation, God remains partially hidden (Deus absconditus). For God to cause his light to shine on us directly would be to overwhelm us. God reveals only what is adequate for our salvation and vocation as his ambassadors and heralds. God remains mystery even in his revelation . . .” The apostle Paul affirms this in Romans 11:33 when he declares, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”
While acknowledging such a mystery, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger are nonetheless among those of late who have wrestled with the issue of divine sovereignty and human freedom. They have sought to explain the nature of God and his relationship with humanity in a book called The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Their “openness theology,” or freewill theism, is a new model, an attempt to find the middle ground between classical theism and process theology.
This new model, while thought-provoking, raises certain theological problems which must be addressed. Additionally, there are profound missiological implications involved, and the way the Church does mission is at stake. If only their response to the age-old question had been, “We don’t know. It’s a mystery.” But since it is not, since they have propounded a new theological model, we must consider its theological and missiological implications.
II. Overview of “Openness” Theology
Before proceeding to the theological problems and missiological implications of openness theology, let us first view the five basic tenets of the system, as outlined by David Basinger:
1) God not only created the world ex nihilo but can (and at times does) intervene unilaterally in earthly affairs.
2) God chose to create us with incompatibilistic (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 . . .
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 well at times be able to predict with great accuracy the choices we will freely make.
The authors flesh out these five points thus:
“God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God’s will for their lives, and he enters into dynamic, give-and-take relationships with us. The Christian life involves a genuine interaction between God and human beings. We respond to God’s gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses…God takes risks in this give and take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in in working toward his ultimate goals… Sometimes…God works with human decisions, adapting his own plans to fit the situation. God does not control everything that happens. Rather, he is open to receiving input from his creatures. In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being.”
III. Theological Problems with “Openness” Theology
As we move on to some of the very serious theological problems posed by freewill theism, it should be noted that the authors of The Openness of God shoot themselves in the foot by giving the impression—readily apparent above and throughout the book—that they themselves aren’t entirely convinced about their own argument. They hedge a lot with strategically placed escape hatches. For example, throughout the book the authors fall heavily on the side of human freedom, yet they qualify every statement pertinent to their view. For example, in reference to number two above, they say that God cannot exercise total control over human freedom. The implication is that He can exercise at least some control. In fact, their first proposition says that God can intervene unilaterally in human affairs. In other words, God can do what He wants when He wants, even if it means overriding human freedom. This seems antithetical to their premise. Another example can be found in the third proposition, where they state that God does not normally override human freedom. Again, on page 159 of their book, they state, “We maintain…that God voluntarily forfeits control over earthly affairs in those cases where he allows us to exercise this freedom” (italics mine). These “escape hatch” qualifiers appear throughout the book, thoroughly weakening the argument for freewill theism, for no matter how they state their case, the authors leave room for God to act unilaterally. Thus they end up right back at the determinism that they are so strongly against, for whether God is 1% in control or 100%, humankind is still not 100% free! God can still guarantee his outcome, which is contrary to freewill theism as these authors have defined it. Their only recourse would be the “mystery” approach, but they are far too rational for that.
This attempt by the authors to find a balance between the two poles is admirable—even if they don’t succeed—but their treatment of God’s nature, especially of his omniscience, is alarming. Openness theology does succeed in making God out to be vulnerable, not fully actualized, subject to the actions of others and the confines of temporality, incapable of knowing the future and capable of making mistakes. They succeed in humanizing God and bringing Him down from the heavenlies into the depths of our world in a way that is simply not biblical. They pay too much attention to God’s love and empathy at the expense of his power (his “almightiness,” as Donald Bloesch calls it), majesty and glory. Bloesch may have pinpointed the reason for this. He keenly observes that “A God who is all-powerful contradicts the democratic ethos in which decisions are arrived at by concensus rather than by arbitrary fiat. It also calls into question the individualism of Western culture, which prizes personal freedom over adhesion to community values and tradition.”[ 6]
Let us now consider some of the key doctrinal problems of freewill theism, a theology that John Piper calls “seriously defective.” There are, in fact, too many issues to be addressed in one brief paper, so we will consider only a sampling.
The treatment of God’s omniscience is perhaps the most alarming aspect of openness theology. Freewill theists hold to a limited omniscience that denies God the ability to fully foreknow the future. Clark Pinnock states that “The future does not exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated, even by God.” Similarly, Gregory Boyd writes that to “assume that [God] knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act assumes that each person’s free activity is already there to know – even before he freely does it! But it’s not…So God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.” David Basinger declares that
Proponents of the open view do not believe . . . that God always knows beforehand what would happen, given each option open to us. In fact, we do not even believe that God always knows beforehand exactly how things will turn out in the future . . . God does know all that will follow deterministically from what has occurred, and can, as the ultimate psychoanalyst, predict with great accuracy what we as humans will freely choose to do in various contexts . . . But . . . we believe that God can never know with certainty what will happen in any context involving freedom of choice. In other words, freewill theists hold to an omniscience of all that exists. They believe that God knows everything that there is to know, but that He must process every new bit of information and every decision as it occurs. This view seems to presuppose, wrongly, that God is somehow limited by time, moving through time with us, as opposed to being unconstrained by time.
Pinnock contends that Scripture supports his argument when he states that “The Bible thinks of an open future that is not completely certain.” I believe, however, that the Bible clearly speaks, on numerous occasions, to God’s ability to know the future before it happens. Psalm 139:4,16 is an obvious example: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. . . All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” These verses make it clear that God knows things before they happen, some things that even an “ultimate psychoanalyst” could not predict. He knows the future, pure and simple.
Romans 8:29 is a key New testament verse in support of God’s foreknowledge: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” There is no way to wiggle out of the natural interpretation of this verse: God knew certain people from eternity past. He knew when they would be born, what they would be named, and how they would live their lives. He knew all this because He had determined to make it come to pass. Ephesians 1:11 serves to confirm this understanding: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
In a similar vein, God’s Old Testament prophecies reflect his foreknowledge. Isaiah 42:9 declares: “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” It should be noted that God’s omniscience is intricately and perfectly intertwined with his omnipotence, for his ability to foreknow what will happen relates to his ability to make things happen. We can be confident in every promise and prophecy He has made, for He, and He alone, can bring them to fruition. “What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.” (Isaiah 46:11b)
While traditional theology holds that God has power over everything, the open view cheats God of this trait, propounding that He is without absolute control over the future. Rather, He can be taken by surprise, even saddened, by events that are beyond his control, just as humans are: “. . . we, unlike proponents of specific sovereignty, need not assume that some divine purpose exists for each evil that we encounter. We need not, for example, assume when someone dies that God “took him home” for some reason… We can justifiably assume, rather, that God is often as disappointed as we that someone’s earthly existence has ended at an early age…” That is to say that God is not in control of the situation and is caught off guard. More than that, the logical end of this reasoning is that God can even fail: “God sets goals for creation and redemption and realizes them ad hoc in history. If Plan A fails, God is ready with Plan B.” In other words, Plan A, a plan hatched by God, could, and sometimes does, fail. The failure may logically be imputed to God, since it was his plan in the first place. Yet this is far from what the Bible teaches about God’s plans for the future and his ability to accomplish them. In fact, the Bible refutes this specific example (not to mention the general principle) on numerous occasions:
1) Ps. 139:16—“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
2) Ps. 31:15a—“My times are in your hands…”
3) Ps. 36:9a—“For with you is the fountain of life…”
4) Ps. 37:18a—“The days of the blameless are known to the LORD…”
5) Ps. 39:4-5—“Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.”
6) Ps. 40:5b—“The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.”
7) Acts 17:28—“For in him we live and move and have our being.”
8)Phil. 1:6—“. . . He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
9) Col. 1:16,17—“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
God is clearly fully capable of bringing about his plans for creation in his time.
C) Self-Sufficiency(Aseity, Transcendence)
While God’s self-sufficiency may be seen as part of the above-mentioned incommunicable attribute of God called omnipotence, it is nonetheless worthy of our special consideration.
“The open view of God stresses qualities of generosity, sensitivity and vulnerability more than power and control. It allows us to think of God as taking risks. Instead of locating God above and beyond history, it stresses God’s activity in history, responding to events as they happen…The picture of God I receive from the Bible is of One who takes risks and jeopardizes his own sovereignty…” Elsewhere, Pinnock states that “God is everywhere present in all that exists . . . God is present in every created being.” As Michael Horton rightly points out, “This view so identifies God with the world that the Creator and his creation are nearly fused.” An unbiblical interdependency is created whereby God is to some degree dependent upon his creation. He does not stand independent from his creation and He cannot achieve his goals without human participation. He needs us. “. . . God’s activity consists in large measure in responding to human decisions and actions. What he actually decides to do depends directly on the actions of human beings.” If we make the right choices, then He can achieve his goals. If we don’t, according to open view logic, God’s plans may be thwarted. But this view is patently unscriptural. It forces God to submit to someone outside of himself, to something beyond his control. In reality, He does not need us, and his plans cannot be thwarted. “The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” (Psalm 33:10,11) Some have eve argued that God needs us for reasons of loneliness, but this, too, is wrong, for “He is a community of persons within himself and derives the satisfaction of intimate fellowship from within himself as a Trinity of persons.”
God’s divine name, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:13,14), also points to this self-sufficiency. He is qualitatively distinct from the rest of his creation. He alone is the great “I AM.” “As biblical Christians we must affirm that God has no fundamental need for the world, that his act of creating the world is gratuitous, not a metaphysical or rational necessity.”
Classical Evangelical theology has held to God’s immutability, his “never-changingness.” He does not change in his nature and He does not change his mind (although in Scripture He chose to give the impression of having done so). Freewill theism, however, contends that while the first type of changelessness is true of God, the second is not. In fact, Pinnock and friends devote much of their first chapter trying to demonstrate that God really does change his mind (He repents and even regrets what He’s done) since sometimes human actions surprise him—are not what He had hoped for or counted on—and force Him to switch to a Plan B. Gregory Boyd, in his Letters from a Sceptic, does much the same thing.[20 ]
Perhaps the most alarming issue that derives from this view is the possibility of God’s being fallible, making mistakes. David Basinger states that “. . . since God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.” In other words, while God may “shoot for” the best, He may not always get it. He may get second best or worse. It could prove to be an outright mistake. This is certainly not behooving of Yahweh. Yet this is the logical outcome of the openness view, and it is confirmed by free theist Gregory Boyd in his treatment of Jeremiah 3:19b-20, where God says, “I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel.” John Piper comments that[Boyd] says that God predicted one thing and that another came about: “He genuinely thought his people would behave differently.” He softens this with the words, “The Lord thinks one thing will most likely occur while it turns out that something else occurred.” And again, “The Lord, having a perfectly accurate assessment of all probabilities, thought his people would do the former when this situation came about,” but they did not do what he thought they would do. Dr. Boyd does not call this a “mistake,” because he does not believe it is a mistake when you mis-predict on the basis of the best knowledge available. But most people do call this a mistake. And what a costly mistake, indeed, for Deuteronomy 18:20-22 makes it clear that one who is guilty of making a false prediction must be put to death! In light of this consequence, it is inconceivable that God would make a mis-prediction! The implication is profound: God could make his absolute best prediction based on his infinite knowledge of the present yet still err because of human self-determinism. He’d be vulnerable and not perfectly capable of governing the world and of bringing his plans to fruition. This is assuredly not the majestic picture that the Bible paints of God!
Another bothersome implication of a changing God is that He is subject to learning, just like his creation. Pinnock writes that “It would seriously undermine the reality of our decisions if they were known in advance . . . This implies that God learns things . . .” If God learns, however, He cannot be considered fully actualized or complete or perfect. This is a slam in the face of the biblical God who is characterized as perfect (Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:31; Job 37:16; Mt. 5:48;) and whose “word is flawless” (Ps. 18:30) and whose will is perfect (Rom. 12:2). Clearly, God cannot be a changing God in the sense that the open view defines it.
IV. Missiological Misgivings About “Openness” Theology
If the theological problems of openness theology are significant, the missiological ramifications are huge. Pinnock himself gives lipservice to this fact, but apparently he either doesn’t follow his propositions to their logical conclusions or he does not think those conclusions are damaging to the cause of Christ. I will attempt to name a few reasons as to why the open view simply cannot be embraced by any Christian who is serious about the Great Commission.
A) Because followers of other religions need to see that Yahweh is ABSOLUTELY more powerful (including omniscience) than their god(s). This is especially true in Islam. Muslims must know that God is powerful, like Allah, but absolutely so. Yet freewill theism denies this possibility by making God out to be vulnerable and giving the impression that He is less than omnipotent and bordering on wishy-washy. How can we expect a faithful Muslim to convert to a Christianity where the god is incapable of bringing his plans and desires about? Certainly this god, in a Muslim’s eyes, is unworthy of loyal devotion and service. Likewise, how can we expect an animist to give any more credence to such a “weak” god than he does to any of the other beings in the spirit world? He would view this god merely as one more spirit to try to manipulate through incantations and sorcery. He is apparently no different than, for example, the Zulu “sky god”, who “is limited to controlling the weather and to capricious acts which the Zulus can neither predict nor anticipate.” Furthermore, the more closely God seems to resemble man, the less reason those involved in forms of Eastern mysticism and the New Age movement will have to believe in Him. After all, they are already gods, or in the process of becoming so. The god of the open view doesn’t seem to merit any special position in their belief system.
B)“Because God’s foreknowledge of all that shall come to pass is viewed by Isaiah as evidence of God’s unique deity among all the gods.” Isaiah 46:9-10 says, “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” This is similar to the first implication, but whereas the first focused on God’s omnipotence, this focuses on his omniscience. If God were to lack the ability to fully foreknow, He would join a plethora of other gods and be qualitatively indistinguishable from them. He would be no more worthy of service or worship than they.
C)“Because the openness view of God imputes to him a massive ignorance and a continual process of learning and adapting to the unknowable future, which is unworthy of the biblical vision of God.” The 1 Bible depicts an omnipotent, omniscient, magnificent and majestic God who deserves glory from men. (Ex. 14:31; Ex. 15:6; Ps. 8:1; Isa. 42:8) This is the kind of God who is worth following!
D)“Because Jesus teaches that his ability to predict the free acts of responsible people (John 6:64; 13:19) is an essential part of his divine glory, so that the denial of this foreknowledge is, whether intended or not, an undermining of the deity of Christ.” Without the centrality of the God-Man Jesus Christ, there is no message to preach and no way to salvation.
E) Because “the denial that God foreknew the sinful volitions of responsible creatures tends to undermine confidence in the plan of salvation.” If God could not see Adam’s free choice to sin—hence the Fall of man—then He would have had no need to plan to offer salvation through Jesus Christ. And even if He had, the God of free theism would not be capable of bringing that redemptive plan to fruition. Yet, according to Tim. 1:9, that is exactly what happened. From eternity past God planned for salvation through Jesus Christ in response to the consequences of the Fall that He foreknew. And He made it happen.
F) Because to say that “each person’s eternal destiny will ultimately be determined by God on the basis of the “light” available to him or her (or by other criteria),” is to imply that the work of Christ on the cross is not unique in redemptive history and perhaps was not even necessary. It undermines the need to call upon his name to be saved. (Rom. 10:9) This gives the false hope that other religions and ideologies may somehow lead to reconciliation with God and is potentially damaging the Evangelical missionary movement by removing one of the main motivations to do missions. Jesus himself taught against this form of universalism when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
G) Because conveying the idea that God and the world are mutually interdependent by saying that “God is everywhere present in all that exists . . . God is present in every created being” borders on panentheism, the idea that God is substantially present in everything. The Bible states in no uncertain terms that God stands separate from, and supreme over, his creation. (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 8:3-8)
H) Because the idea that salvation is one’s choice implies that human decisions – works—may be responsible for salvation. Furthermore, a God who does not have the ability to bring his plans to fruition cannot guarantee that someone will stay in a relationship with Him once he’s entered into it. The responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the human. That is to say, salvation is earned by works and can be lost by works. Yet that Bible clearly teaches that “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9)
Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger make a commendable effort to provide rational and systematic evidence for their belief in an open God. They (actually Basinger, on their behalf) nonetheless conclude their book on a very subjective note by stating that
…it is obvious from the manner in which I have discussed these implications that I, like the other authors of this book, consider the open model not only to be significantly different from its main competitors but to be superior . . . I do not consider our model to be logically superior to all others…Nor do I believe the open model to be experientially superior…But I do believe the open model to be superior in the sense that I personally find it to be the most plausible, appealing conceptualization of this relationship. (italics mine)
And I hope to have shown why I do NOT believe the open model to be superior in the sense that I personally find it to be extremely wanting in the light of scriptural evidence and extremely dangerous in light of the missiological ramifications. The open view works for Pinnock and others. It provides them a framework in which to find the answers they need based on their presuppositions about God. The traditional Evangelical model, however, works for me, and for innumerable others throughout the history of the Church. For us, it is the “most plausible, appealing conceptualization” of God’s relationship with man. It provides the framework to know and understand God to the degree that He allows, and it gives the freedom to respond to such tensions as God’s sovereignty versus man’s freewill with the simple answer, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
*****FOOTNOTES***** Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty, p. 71.  Bloesch, p. 36.  Clark Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God, p. 101. “The concept of God is the most important in theology—and the most mysterious.”  Pinnock, et al., p. 156.  Ibid., p. 7.  Bloesch, p. 54.  John Piper, “God, Foreknowledge and the Baptist General Conference,” p. 5.  Pinnock, et al., p. 123.  Piper, p. 5.  Pinnock, et al., p. 163.  Ibid., p. 122.  Ibid., p. 170.  Ibid., p. 113.  Ibid., p. 125.  Ibid., p. 111.  Michael Horton, “Is the New News Good News?” Modern Reformation, September/October
1999, p. 13. Pinnock, p. 25.  Bloesch, p. 44.  Ibid., p. 22.  John Piper ably refutes Boyd in pages 29-35 of his booklet entitled, “God, Foreknowledge and
the Baptist General Convention.” Pinnock, et al., p. 165.  From Greg Boyd’s unpublished paper, “The Bible and the Open View of the Future,” as
quoted by Piper on page 12 of his his booklet entitled, “God, Foreknowledge and the Baptist
General Convention.” Pinnock, et al., p. 123.  Ibid., p. 102. He states that the doctrine of God is “of great missiological and practical
importance.” John Mark Terry, Ebbie Smith, Justice Anderson, Missiology, p. 353.  Piper, p. 13.  Ibid., p. 12.  Ibid., p. 13.  Ibid., p. 13.  Pinnock, et al., p. 175.  David Basinger makes this statement abruptly in The Openness of God. At no point do the
authors attempt to justify this view biblically. Pinnock, et al., p. 111.  Ibid., p. 176.
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Bloesch, Donald G. God the Almighty. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
Davis, William C. “Does God Know the Future?” Modern Reformation, September/October
1999: pp. 21-25.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983.
Horton, Michael. “Is the New News Good News?” Modern Reformation, September/October,
Kreider, Glenn R. “The Openness of God” (Book Review). Bibliotheca Sacra 152, No. 608
(October 1995): pp. 487-489.
Pinnock, Clark, et al. The Openness of God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Piper, John. “God, Foreknowledge and the Baptist General Convention.” Report prepared for the
Baptist General Conference. St. Petersburg, Florida, June 22, 1999.
Terry, John Mark; Smith, Ebbie and Anderson, Justice. Missiology. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman
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João Mordomo has been a cross-cultural missionary for nearly 20 years, five of them in Belgium and 13 in Brazil, where he still serves. He has preached, taught and trained leaders in nearly 40 countries on subjects such as evangelism, missions and leadership. In addition to having pastored and planted churches, he is the co-founder of a Bible institute, a “Kingdom Business” consultancy, and two mission agencies, both of which he still helps lead. He is a member of the Lausanne “Business as Mission” working group, author of numerous chapters and articles, professor of missiology at several seminaries and is currently working on his doctorate in missiology. João and his wife and two young children live in Curitiba, Brazil.