Open theism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Open theism is a theological movement that has developed within evangelical and post-evangelical Protestant Christianity as a response to certain ideas related to the synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology. It is typically advanced as a biblically motivated and philosophically consistent theology of human and divine freedom (in the libertarian sense), with an emphasis on what this means for the content of God's foreknowledge and exercise of God's power.[1][2] In short, open theism says that since God and humans are free, God's knowledge is dynamic and God's providence flexible. While several versions of traditional theism would picture God's knowledge of the future as a singular, fixed, trajectory, open theism would do so as a plurality of branching possibilities, with some possibilities becoming settled as time moves forward.[3][4] Thus, the future as well as God's knowledge of it is open (hence "open" theism). Other versions of classical theism hold that God fully determines the future, entailing that there is no free choice (the future is closed). Yet other versions of classical theism hold that even though there is freedom of choice, God's omniscience necessitates God foreknowing what free choices are made (God's foreknowledge is closed). Open theists hold that these versions of classical theism are out of sync with (1) the biblical concept of God, (2) the biblical understanding divine and creaturely freedom, and/or (3) result in incoherence. Open Theists tend to emphasize that God's most fundamental character trait is love, and that this trait is unchangeable. They also (in contrast to traditional Theism) tend to hold that the biblical portrait of God is of one deeply moved by creation, experiencing a variety of feelings in response to it.[5]

Historical development[edit]

The first known post-biblical Christian writings advocating concepts similar to open theism with regard to the issue of foreknowledge are found in the writings of Calcidius, a 4th-century interpreter of Plato. It was affirmed in the 16th century by Socinus, and in the early 18th century by Samuel Fancourt and by Andrew Ramsay (an important figure in Methodism). In the 19th century several theologians wrote in defense of this idea, including Isaak August Dorner, Gustav Fechner, Otto Pfleiderer, Jules Lequier, Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, Joel Hayes, T.W. Brents, and Lorenzo D. McCabe. Contributions to this defense increased as the century drew to a close.

The term "open theism" was introduced in 1980 with theologian Richard Rice's book The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. The broader articulation of open theism was given in 1994, when five essays were published by Evangelical scholars (including Rice) under the title The Openness of God. Theologians of note currently espousing this view include: Clark Pinnock (deceased as of 2010), John E. Sanders, Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Rice, Gregory Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, C. Peter Wagner, John Polkinghorne, Hendrikus Berkhof, Adrio Konig, Harry Boer, Matt Parkins, Thomas Finger (Mennonite), W. Norris Clarke (Roman Catholic), Brian Hebblethwaite, Robert Ellis, Kenneth Archer (Pentecostal) Barry Callen (Church of God), Henry Knight III, Gordon Olson, and Winkie Pratney. A significant, growing number of philosophers of religion affirm it: William Hasker, David Basinger, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Dean Zimmerman, Timothy O'Connor, Richard Swinburne, Peter Van Inwagen, James D. Rissler, Bethany Sollereder, Keith DeRose, Richard E. Creel, Robin Collins (philosopher/theologian/physicist), J. R. Lucas, Vincent Brümmer, Peter Geach, Richard Purtill, A. N. Prior, Alan Rhoda, Jeffrey Koperski, Dale Tuggy, and Keith Ward. Biblical scholars Terence E. Fretheim, Karen Winslow, and John Goldingay affirm it. Others include writers Madeleine L'Engle and Paul C. Borgman, mathematician D.J. Bartholomew and biochemist/theologian Arthur Peacocke.[6]

The dynamic omniscience view has been affirmed by a number of non Christians as well: Cicero (1st century BC) Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century) and Porphyry (3rd century). God’s statement to Abraham “Now I know that you fear me” (Gen 22:12) was much discussed by Medieval Jewish theologians. Two significant Jewish thinkers who affirmed dynamic omniscience as the proper interpretation of the passage were Ibn Ezra (12th century) and Gersonides (14th century).

Philosophical arguments[edit]

Open theists maintain that traditional classical theists hold the classical attributes of God together in an incoherent way. The main classical attributes are as follows:[7]

  • All-good: God is the standard of moral perfection, all-benevolent, and perfectly loving.
  • Simplicity: God has no parts, cannot be differentiated, and possesses no attribute as distinct from His being.
  • Immutability: God cannot change in any respect.
  • Impassibility: God cannot be affected by outside forces.[8]
  • Omnipresence: God is present everywhere, or more precisely, all things find their location in God.[9]
  • Omniscience: God knows absolutely everything: believes all truths and disbelieves all falsehoods. God's knowledge is perfect.
  • Omnipotence: God can do anything.

Contradictions in the traditional attributes are pointed out by open theists and atheists alike. Atheist author and educator George H. Smith writes in his book Atheism: The Case Against God that if God is omniscient, meaning God knows the future, God cannot be omnipotent, meaning God can do anything, because: "If God knew the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it – in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it.".[10] While this argument has historically been used by some Open Theists, currently most Open Theists affirm that God knows the future perfectly, but simply deny God believes the future is fixed. Such Open Theists would still use the argument if the referent of "the future" is that of a complete and unchanging future. Some traditional theists would respond to the above argument by pointing out that God is the author of the future, and thus there is no more contradiction in saying God knows the future and is sovereign over it than in saying "Shakespeare was free to make Romeo and Juliet as he would, but having made it he is not free to make it different from how he had." However, this response is only available to classical theists who believe God determines the entirety of the future. A traditional theist would also postulate that since God is omniscient, God would also know every possible future. But while this response is available to traditional theists who reject determinism, it creates a problem for traditional freewill theists who think God knows the future to be linear and static, because there would be a mismatch between God's linear understanding of the future and the dynamic, branching future itself.

Open theism also answers the question of how God can be blameless and omnipotent even though evil exists in the world. H. Roy Elseth gives an example of a parent that knows with certainty that his child would go out and murder someone if he was given a gun. Elseth argues that if the parent did give the gun to the child then the parent would be responsible for that crime.[11] However, if God was unsure about the outcome then God would not be culpable for that act; only the one who committed the act would be guilty. This position is, however, dubious, as a parent who knows his child was probable, or likely, or even possibly going to shoot someone would be culpable; and God knew that it was likely that man would sin, and thus God is still culpable. An orthodox Christian might try, on the contrary, seek to ground a Theodicy in the Resurrection, both of Christ and the general Resurrection to come,[12] though this is not the traditional answer to evil. Another position put forth by Orthodox Christians is to point out that God is the ultimate law giver and thus there exists no objective standard of good or evil above God regulating God. Therefore the so-called problem of evil, which presupposes such an independent standard, is not an objection that a Bible believing Christian has to respond to. (For example, see Gordon Clark "God and Evil Problem Solved")

Another claim made by open theists is that the traditional understanding of providence is incompatible with a real love relationship with God. It is claimed that for someone to have a real love relationship, it must be give and take. Each member opens themselves up and becomes vulnerable. They point out that God, throughout the Bible, is shown as grieving over Israel's rebellion. They claim that if the future was known to be fixed, then Israel could not have freely chosen to rebel and God could not be genuinely grieving, knowing that this was the only possibility. Israel's actions would have been set in stone millennia before they were ever born. They would have been compelled by fate or providence to take those actions. This would be the same as a relationship between a programmer and computer. Open theists, such as John Sanders, claim that the only way a relationship can be real is if there is freedom to choose.

It should be noted that open theists believe God's infinite intelligence affords him an infinite understanding of all possibilities in the universe. God, therefore, is never caught off-guard by any event which comes to pass, but is perfectly prepared.

Varieties of open theists[edit]

Philosopher Alan Rhoda has described several different approaches several open theists have taken with regard to the future and God's knowledge of it.

  • Voluntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because he has voluntarily chosen not to know truths about future contingents. Dallas Willard was thought to hold this position.
  • Involuntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because truths about future contingents are in principle unknowable. William Hasker, Peter Van Inwagen,[13] and Richard Swinburne espouse this position.
  • Non-Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions about future contingents are neither true nor false. J. R. Lucas and Dale Tuggy espouse this position.
  • Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions asserting of future contingents that they 'will' obtain or that they 'will not' obtain are both false. Instead, what is true is that they 'might and might not' obtain. Greg Boyd and Arthur Prior hold this position."[14]


Open theism has been strongly criticized by some Protestant, especially Calvinist, theologians and ministers. Some of these opponents include Bruce A. Ware, Tom Schreiner, John Frame, John Piper, Millard Erickson, and Norman Geisler. Geisler, in his book Creating God in the Image of Man? argues against open theism and in favor of a view which includes all the traditional attributes of God. He quotes Exodus 3:14 ("I am who I am") and claims that it establishes God's aseity. From there, Geisler deduces Simplicity, Necessity, Immutability, Impassability, Eternity, and Unity. While Open Theists would affirm God's aseity, they would derive this attribute on other grounds, and deny that it entails all the attributes Geisler thinks it does.[15] Geisler also addresses the claims that the Classical attributes were derived from the Greeks with three observations:

  1. The quest for something unchanging is not bad
  2. The Greeks did not have the same concept of God
  3. Philosophical influences are not wrong in themselves[16]

An Open Theist would say that all such criticisms are misplaced. As to #1, it is not characteristic of Open Theists to say that the quest for something unchanging is bad. Indeed, Open Theists believe God's character is unchanging.[17] As to #2, Open Theists do not characteristically say traditional forms of classical theism have exactly the same concept of God as the Greeks. Rather, they argue that it imported some unbiblical assumptions from the Greeks.[18] They also point to theologians of the Christian tradition who, throughout history, didn't succumb so strongly to Hellenistic influences.[19] As to #3, Open Theists don't argue that philosophical influences are bad in themselves. Rather, they argue that some Hellenistic influences on Christian theology are unbiblical and theologically groundless. Further, Open Theist Alan Rhoda has characterized the movement as admittedly adhering to the philosophical principles of perfect-being-theology, just as traditional classical theism always has.[20]

Opponents of open theism, such as pastor John Piper,[21] claim that the verses commonly used by open theists are anthropopathisms (see anthropopathy). They suggest that when God seems to change from action A to action B in response to prayer, action B was the inevitable event all along, and God divinely ordained human prayer as the means by which God actualized that course of events.

They also point to verses that suggest God is immutable, such as:

  • Malachi 3:6: For I, the Lord, have not changed; and you, the sons of Jacob, have not reached the end.[22]
  • Numbers 23:19: God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent. Would He say and not do, speak and not fulfill?[23][24][25]
  • 1Samuel 15:29: And also, the Strength of Israel will neither lie nor repent, for He is not a man to repent."
  • Isaiah 46:10: [I] tell the end from the beginning, and from before, what was not done; [I] say, 'My counsel shall stand, and all My desire I will do.'

Those[who?] advocating the traditional view see these as the verses that form God's character, and they interpret other verses that say God repents as anthropomorphistic. Authors who claim this can be traced back through Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Ambrose, and Augustine. Open theists note that there seems to be an arbitrary distinction here between those verses which are merely anthropopathic and others which form God's character. They also note that the immediate sense of the passages addressing God's inalterability ought to be understood in the Hebrew sense of his faithfulness and justice.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Tuggy, Dale (2007). "Three Roads to Open Theism". Faith and Philosophy 24 (1): 28–51. doi:10.5840/faithphil200724135. ISSN 0739-7046. 
  4. ^ Rhoda, Alan R.; Boyd, Gregory A.; Belt, Thomas G. (2006). "Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future". Faith and Philosophy 23 (4): 432–459. doi:10.5840/faithphil200623436. ISSN 0739-7046. 
  5. ^ The Openness of God, ch. 1
  6. ^ To see documentation to verify most of the people on this list see John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, revised edition (InterVarsity press, 2007) 166-169.
  7. ^ Classical theism
  8. ^ Divine Impassibility by Richard Creel p. 11
  9. ^ Augustine, Confessions 1.3-1.4
  10. ^ Smith, George H. (1974). Atheism: the case against God. New York City: Nash. p. 74. ISBN 0-8402-1115-5. OCLC 991343. 
  11. ^ Elseth, Howard R.; Elden J. Elseth (1977). Did God Know? A Study of the Nature of God. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Calvary United Church. p. 23. OCLC 11208194. 
  12. ^ N. T. Wright Evil and the Justice of God
  13. ^
  14. ^ Rhoda, Alan (February 21, 2006). "Alanyzer: Four Versions of Open Theism". Retrieved January 30, 2014. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ Geisler, Norman L.. Creating God in the Image of Man. Minneapolis: Bethany House. p. 96. ISBN 1-55661-935-9. OCLC 35886058. 
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Piper, John (January 1, 1976). "The Sovereignty of God and Prayer". Retrieved January 30, 2014. 
  22. ^ Rashi: "For I, the Lord, have not changed": Although I keep back My anger for a long time, My mind has not changed from the way it was originally, to love evil and to hate good.
  23. ^ Rashi: "God is not a man that He should lie": He has already promised them to bring them to and give them possession of the land of the seven nations, and you expect to kill them in the desert?- [See Mid. Tanchuma Mass’ei 7, Num. Rabbah 23:8] -- "Would He say…": Heb. הַהוּא. This is in the form of a question. And the Targum [Onkelos] renders,“who later relent.” They reconsider and change their minds.
  24. ^ Singer, Tovia. "Monotheism". Retrieved 19 August 2013. 
  25. ^ Spiro, Ken (Rabbi, Masters Degree in History). "JEWISH FOLLOWERS OF JESUS". Seeds of Christianity. Retrieved 19 August 2013. 


  • Trinity and Process, G.Boyd, 1992
  • "Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy", Greg Boyd (2001) ISBN 0-8308-1550-3
  • The Case for Freewill Theism: a Philosophical Assessment, David Basinger, 1996, InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-1876-6
  • The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will, Richard Rice, 1980, Review and Herald Pub. Association, ISBN 0-8127-0303-0
  • The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, Clark Pinnock editor, et al., 1994, InterVarsity Press ISBN 0-8308-1852-9, Paternoster Press (UK), ISBN 0-85364-635-X (followup to Rice book includes contribution from him)
  • The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, John Sanders, revised edition, 2007. InterVarsity Press, ISBN 978-0-8308-2837-1
  • The Nature of Love: A Theology, Thomas Jay Oord, 2010. Chalice Press, ISBN 978-0-8272-0828-5
  • God, Time, and Knowledge, William Hasker, 1998, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8545-2
  • God of the Possible, Gregory A. Boyd, 2000 reprint, Baker Books, ISBN 0-8010-6290-X
  • Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness (The Didsbury Lectures), Clark Pinnock, 2001, Baker Academic, ISBN 0-8010-2290-8
  • Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God, William Hasker, 2004, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-32949-3
  • Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science, Thomas Jay Oord ed., 2009, Pickwick, ISBN 978-1-60608-488-5
  • God's Lesser Glory, Bruce A. Ware, 2000, Crossway Books, ISBN 1-58134-229-2
  • Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (editors), 2000, Baker Academic, ISBN 0-8010-2232-0
  • Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, Douglas Wilson editor, et al., 2001, Canon Press, ISBN 1-885767-84-6
  • No Other God: A Response to Open Theism, John M. Frame, P & R Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-87552-185-1
  • Consuming Glory: A Classical Defense of Divine-Human Relationality Against Open Theism, Gannon Murphy, Wipf & Stock, 2006, ISBN 1-59752-843-9
  • Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, John Piper et al., 2003, Crossway Books, ISBN 1-58134-462-7
  • What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge, Millard J. Erickson, Zondervan, 2006, ISBN 0-310-27338-2
  • How Much Does God Foreknow?: A Comprehensive Biblical Study, Steven C. Roy, InterVarsity Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8308-2759-5
  • The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty, James S. Spiegel, Crossway Books, 2005, ISBN 1-58134-616-6
Multiple views
  • The Sovereignty of God Debate, D. Steven Long and George Kalantizis editors, 2009 Cascade Books, ISBN 978-1-55635-217-1
  • Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, Bruce Ware editor, 2008, Broadman and Holman Academic, ISBN 978-0-8054-3060-8
  • Divine Foreknowledge: 4 Views, James Beilby and Paul Eddy (editors), et al., 2001, InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-2652-1
  • God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature, Gregory E. Ganssle and David M. Woodruff (editors), 2002, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-512965-2
  • God & Time: Four Views, Gregory E. Ganssle (editor), et al., 2001, InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-1551-1
  • Predestination & Free Will, David and Randall Basinger (editors), et al., 1985, Intervarsity Press, ISBN 0-87784-567-0
  • Searching for an Adequate God, John Cobb and Clark Pinnock (Editors), et al., 2000, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8028-4739-0

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]