Open Theism: What Is It?

The other day I mentioned that I was beginning to read a book on Open Theism titled The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God by Clark Pinnock, et al.  So I had someone ask me to explain Open Theism in laymen’s terms.  I’ve decided to post my response below (keep in mind that I am a novice on the subject of Open Theism, so I may be way off):

Dear Reader,

In Open Theism the word “Theism” is a short-hand word for a particular biblical and theological understanding of God.  Because Christians believe in God and have a certain understanding of who God is, Christians have a certain “Theism” view.  

The key word in Open Theism is “Open.”  In traditional theology, going back at least to the Protestant Reformation, Christianity held a closed (as opposed to open) view of God.  By closed, I mean that Christians understood God’s sovereignty to have complete foreknowledge of the future.  Even for those church groups who traditionally have believed that God granted humanity free-will choice (e.g. United Methodist, Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God), God still has foreknowledge of the free choice people will make.

The Open Theism view holds that God, in his sovereignty, has chosen not only to grant humans free choice to, by way of example, either love him or hate him (btw, I firmly believe the Bible teaches the concept of free-will) but also that God has chosen not to know every decision humans make with their free-will choice.  As a result, God’s relationship with humans is more dynamic in that rather than every event in history being pre-ordained, God responds and reacts to the choices humans make.

Open Theism holds this view because is believes that Closed Theism does not tell the entire picture portrayed of God in the Bible.  For example, why did God need to repent from making humanity (Gen 6.6) if he already foreknew how wicked people would become?  Or…In Genesis 18 when Abraham pleaded for God to change his mind about casting his judgmental wrath on Sodom, God repeatedly told Abraham that if he could find X number of righteous people then he will change his mind?  If God foreknew that Abraham would not find any righteous people then this was simply an exercise in futility.  However, could it be that God, in his sovereignty, had chosen not to know and instead was responding to Abrahams prayers with a promise to change his mind if Abraham did find such righteous people?  

These are just a couple of examples in the Bible that Open Theism points to.  I am not trying to defend Open Theism but I am open (no pun intended) to it.  I am more concerned with letting the Bible speak and shape our theology rather than letting our preconceived notions of doctrine and dogma force the Bible to say what we want it to say.  Both Open Theism and Closed Theism can/could easily become guilty of this.

What I lastly want to point out is that as far as I can tell, Open Theism still believe in the sovereignty of God (despite what some of its critics would claim).  They first believe that God’s openness is made by his own sovereign choice to not know all future events.  Secondly, Open Theism still believes that God is at work bringing his redemptive objectives to their historical goal.  Thus, Open Theism is not the same as Deism (a view that believes God has no control over the world and the historical course it is plotting).  

Does that make sense?  I hope this helps.

If you’ve done any reading on the subject of Open Theism, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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27 responses to “Open Theism: What Is It?

  1. It’s my belief that open theism (or perhaps “open futurism”) show’s God as STRONGER rather than weaker. Read the passages in Isaiah that talk about God declaring the end from the beginning, then take a step back and look at what else He says. In every case he makes it clear that he makes things happen. It isn’t that everything that happens is what God willed, but rather that what God decrees MUST HAPPEN. Also, speaking from my personal walk with Christ, I can say that I clearly made the wrong decisions at times. Not always because of sin, but that and also sometimes I lacked wisdom. From those errors He has still worked out the good.

    • That makes sense and would not be inconsistent with the story of scripture, which depicts God continually bringing about his good will amidst the many woeful and destructive decisions made by humans.

  2. I think it’s important when talking about open theism to talk about that in philosophical terms, it is more about the nature of the future, rather than the nature of God. In Open Theism, God is still omniscient. He hasn’t chosen to not know certain facts – God still knows EVERYTHING. But under the Open Theistic view, the future is divided into two things, things that will or won’t happen (i.e., because of laws of physics or because God will make it happen) and things that might or might not happen (because of free will.) If the future exists partially of events that might or might not happen, then God is omniscient if (and only if) he sees the future as such.

    Anyway, my point is just that it’s important to say that Open Theism still holds that God is omniscient, and to say that “God doesn’t know the future” or even “God doesn’t know certain things about the future” does not apply to Open Theism, and can be confusing to people if you use that kind of language.

    • I think my previous post might be a *tad* confusing, or technical, so I’ll try to explain it a little differently.

      Say I’m thinking about eating a sandwich for lunch tomorrow but I haven’t decided yet.

      So we can say that I might eat a sandwich, or that I might not eat a sandwich. We can’t say I will eat a sandwich – that would be false because I might not eat a sandwich. We can’t say I won’t eat a sandwich – that would be false because I might eat a sandwich. So if “I will eat a sandwich” is false, and “I won’t eat a sandwich” is false (as we have just demonstrated), then if God believes either of these to be true, he is not omniscient at all, because he believes falsehoods. So if the truth is “I might or might not eat a sandwich”, then God will believe this as the truth, because he is omniscient.

      So Open Theism isn’t as much about God hiding facts about the future from himself, but is more about Him setting up a universe in which facts about the future exist partially as “might and might not” rather than “will or will not”.

      I haven’t read the book you mention, but have read Greg Boyd’s excellent, “God of the Possible”, as well as read through much of the articles on the open theism website, http://www.opentheism.info/ and this is what I read just about everyone saying.

    • Thanks for that clarification. I’m more interested in how scripture informs our understanding of God than how we should philosophically understand God’s nature. Nevertheless, I understand the clarification you are making and appreciate it. Also, thanks for the Open Theism link.

      • My main point was just that God’s omniscience (which I believe scripture does attest to) is not called into question by Open Theism, and that when telling people about Open Theism, I have to make that very clear very quickly, or else the response is, “So God doesn’t know everything?” Most people will just reject open theism out of hand as something that has a low view of God, so I just feel it’s an important thing to at least briefly touch on, even if all you say is that Open Theism still affirms all the same attributes of God: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience. And I was mainly referring to your statement, “God has chosen not to know every decision humans make with their free-will choice” which isn’t quite how many Open Theists would see it (as it implies that God isn’t omniscient.)

        And you’re welcome for the link – I have found it very helpful myself, although much of it definitely is more on the philosophical side of things.

      • Again, thanks for the clarification which is very helpful as I learn more about what Open Theism is.

  3. This is a very intriguing subject! I’ve never heard of this. I’ve gotta be honest here – when I first read the title, I was like, “Oh no, Here we go.” Let me explain. I thought it was going to kind of be a “universalist” thing. That’s also God humbling me to remember to “not judge a book by its cover”, so to speak. I really like this post. Thanks!

  4. Having read a lot both for and against it, it is clear to me that Open Theism is an unattainable conclusion. I can’t help but call into question many of these pronouncements that such a system still affirms God’s incommunicable attributes. Sure it does, as long as it is able to completely redefine what they mean. For example: I can say I believe in the Abominable Snowman. Everybody reading that statement will think that I believe in some kind of monster that lives in the snowy Alps, or something very similar to that. But in my mind I’m thinking of a white cat I saw cross the road last night. So with Open Theism. It claims to affirm God’s incommunicable attributes, yet when one digs a little further one comes to realize the attributes are completely redefined and re-categorized to make them nearly unrecognizable to their original meanings.

    I would affirm what John Mark said on FB: that human rationalism and reason are king in the Open Theism approach. If I may add, it brings into question sustenance, governance, and concurrence, and thus approaches the realm of dualist theism. Additionally, it (along with Process Theology) opposes the biblical and historical testimony of God as being involved in evil (again, the sustenance and governance issues). In my opinion, the position attempts to save God from Himself (as He is presented in the Whole Counsel); and it is rather unique in prominence in the post-enlightenment, rationalistic, overly self-absorbed West, where freedom and democracy is king (instead of a King being King). [let me state that I’m referring to the message as opposed to ad hominems]

    For your readers, there are plenty of really good resources where Open Theism has been well opposed. They include John M. Frame’s “No Other God: A Response to Open Theism” and Bruce Ware’s two works titled “Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God” and “God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism”.

    Grace be with you –
    Jr

    • I think tomorrow I might put together a selected bibliography of works that are for and against Open Theism. Thanks for sharing.

    • Well there’s a big list of assertions with not an argument in sight…

      Jr – I am an open theist, and I claim the attributes to God that I mention above – Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnibenevolence. I do not twist them in any way but still believe them in the classical sense. Heck, I even believe God knows the future. The difference between my beliefs and the beliefs of a traditionalist aren’t primarily about the nature of God, though, but are about the nature of the future.

      I have read much of the anti-open theism literature too, and none of it really even understands the basics of what open theism is. I would enjoy seeing someone who understands it debate against it, but have yet to see it happen.

      • James: Perhaps it is better to say there are wings of Open Theism that differ from others. According to you what I have written does not address your Open Theism, but it certainly does in literature that I have encountered.

        I wish not to misrepresent a position and be intellectually dishonest. I, as one who is more on the Reformed side of things, certainly have encountered such things against it which are intellectually dishonest and I do not want to do the same. So in looking at your position, it does seem to differ from Open Theist texts and people that I have been in contact with. Therefore, so I can be honest in evaluation of your specific position, could you point out how your view, then, differs from, say, a classical Arminian position or more drastically (perhaps) the Reformed position (hopefully rightly understood)? If it is too lengthy to do here, is there a specific link or links that I could access which would point to specific differences between the two?

        Grace be with you –
        Jr

      • Hi Jr,

        Thanks for the response. I think for me the main difference between my views and a Classical Arminian or Calvinist view is that in my view, as I stated above, the future is made up partially of events that will or will not happen, and partially of events that might or might not happen. A classical Arminian or a Calvinist would deny the latter, that the future is only made up of what will or will not happen. All 3 of us would believe God knows the future, but I believe that the future, at least partly, contains possibilities. If that is true, then God, being omniscient, would also see them as possibilities (for if that is how the future exists, for God to see it otherwise would be for him to believe falsely.) I think everything else about Open Theism can roll out from there.

        To be honest, I see Open Theism as being just as close to Calvinism as Arminianism – for instance, in Calvinism, God’s knowledge of future “will or will not” events comes from his Sovereign control over them, and this is the same as in Open Theism.

        To me this view still holds on tightly to God’s omniscience, and at the same time helps us to understand passages where God seems to regret, or seems surprised, or tells people, “If you do this, this will happen, and if you do that, that will happen.” With Open Theism, I can take the passages where God says that he knows what’s going to happen and is in control, as well as the ones where God says that people are making choices that are unexpected, etc., and I do not have any reason going in to automatically decide that one is more likely to be literal than the other. I can, at first look, at least, accept them both in a literal manner.

        (As an appendix, since I referred to it, I’ll just mention that when God says he’s surprised, I don’t believe that He didn’t see the possibility of the event happening – He was as fully prepared for that outcome as He was for any other outcome – but I think He can be honestly “surprised” in that the event that occurred had a smaller probability of occurring than other possible events.)

  5. Hmm – I replied to Jr’s comment above, but it isn’t posting for me. but when I try to post it again, it says I’m trying to post a duplicate post. I’m not sure what happened.

    • Let’s try again:

      Hi Jr,

      Thanks for the response. I think for me the main difference between my views and a Classical Arminian or Calvinist view is that in my view, as I stated above, the future is made up partially of events that will or will not happen, and partially of events that might or might not happen. A classical Arminian or a Calvinist would deny the latter, that the future is only made up of what will or will not happen. All 3 of us would believe God knows the future, but I believe that the future, at least partly, contains possibilities. If that is true, then God, being omniscient, would also see them as possibilities (for if that is how the future exists, for God to see it otherwise would be for him to believe falsely.) I think everything else about Open Theism can roll out from there.

      To be honest, I see Open Theism as being just as close to Calvinism as Arminianism – for instance, in Calvinism, God’s knowledge of future “will or will not” events comes from his Sovereign control over them, and this is the same as in Open Theism.

      • To me this view still holds on tightly to God’s omniscience, and at the same time helps us to understand passages where God seems to regret, or seems surprised, or tells people, “If you do this, this will happen, and if you do that, that will happen.” With Open Theism, I can take the passages where God says that he knows what’s going to happen and is in control, as well as the ones where God says that people are making choices that are unexpected, etc., and I do not have any reason going in to automatically decide that one is more likely to be literal than the other. I can, at first look, at least, accept them both in a literal manner.

        (As an appendix, since I referred to it, I’ll just mention that when God says he’s surprised, I don’t believe that He didn’t see the possibility of the event happening – He was as fully prepared for that outcome as He was for any other outcome – but I think He can be honestly “surprised” in that the event that occurred had a smaller probability of occurring than other possible events.)

      • To me this view still holds on tightly to God’s omniscience, and at the same time helps us to understand passages where God seems to regret, or seems surprised, or tells people, “If you do this, this will happen, and if you do that, that will happen.” With Open Theism, I can take the passages where God says that he knows what’s going to happen and is in control, as well as the ones where God says that people are making choices that are unexpected, etc., and I do not have any reason going in to automatically decide that one is more likely to be literal than the other. I can, at first look, at least, accept them both in a literal manner.

      • (As an appendix, since I referred to it, I’ll just mention that when God says he’s surprised, I don’t believe that He didn’t see the possibility of the event happening – He was as fully prepared for that outcome as He was for any other outcome – but I think He can be honestly “surprised” in that the event that occurred had a smaller probability of occurring than other possible events.)

        (Sorry, had to break up the post for some reason for it to successfully post.)

  6. (Still having troubles – this is the last of it, hopefully it posts.)

    (As an appendix, since I referred to it, I’ll just mention that when God says he’s surprised, I don’t believe that He didn’t see the possibility of the event happening – He was as fully prepared for that outcome as He was for any other outcome – but I think He can be honestly “surprised” in that the event that occurred had a smaller probability of occurring than other possible events.)

  7. We should earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered unto the Saints….a classic way to determine the content of that Faith was the dictum of St. Vincent of Lerin; quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus…. one take-home lesson of this, is that whatever is ‘new’ in terms of our doctrine of God or of Christ or of salvation, is not apostolic.
    There is not a scintilla of open Theism in the historical record of the ancient and undivided church. The Scripture speaks that our election is according to God’s foreknowledge; the Scripture speaks of Christ being foreordained from the Foundations of the world. The assertion of open Theism is evidence of a heretical Christian epistemology, for, it is written, “The Church is the pillar and ground of the Truth;’ one must look with breath-taking horror at men who have such high self-esteem that they feel that they can come up with a better understanding of God than was transmitted for 2000 years in the Christian Church. Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  8. I think the problem with Open Theism is a variant of the controversy between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.

    The “C vs. NC” issues trace to “kairos” vs. “chronos.”  

    The NT reflects “kairotic” moments in which God was changing the direction of history.  In doing that, He often inspired both message and response, hence the proof texts for Calvinism.

    Trouble is those kairotic moments are not normative for “chronos,” that is,  Christianity throughout the ages and not even entirely for the NT itself, hence the proof texts for the anti-Calvinists.

    That same paradigm precisely explains the Open vs. Closed Theism issue.

    Close Theism (the traditional view) is based on the kairotic moments of the NT and Open Theism on the chronotic moments.

    For more, see
    http://historeo.com/web/?p=1084

    My guess is that much resistance to Open Theology is related to its affinities with Process Theology.

    billb

  9. James: What you describe sounds more like Molanism as opposed to Open Theism. For sure, what you have described is not what guys like Greg Boyd (perhaps the most well-known Open Theist) affirms.

    I’d also like to agree with benmarston’s historical point above. The apostles, through the apostolic fathers, through the centuries of the Church that followed, never hinted at an understanding of God and the Scriptures as anything that resembles Open Theism. It has zero link to what is approved and known historically; and unless one dismisses the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church throughout history, it’s a steep hill to climb to claim any validity. Does anybody doubt it would have been declared heretical within the first few centuries if it was ever specifically brought up? Just look at the affirmations that were made, and make an educated assumption. Thus as I stated previously, it is rather unique in prominence in the post-enlightenment, rationalistic, overly self-absorbed West, where freedom and democracy is king (instead of a King being King).

    Grace be with you –
    Jr

    • It is actually not entirely accurate to say that there is no early stream of Open Theism in the early, post-apostolic, church. From what I know, the early church fathers were not very specific on how they viewed God’s knowledge as it pertains to the future. What we know is that in general the early church fathers believed in free-will choice and that a doctrine of predestination is not articulated until Augustine (so I find it a bit ironic that you would chasten Open Theists for being a-historical yet, if I’ve understood you correctly from other blog dialogues, you want to uphold a view that has no historical precedence until the late 4th to early 5th century of Christianity). In the 5th century there was a man named Calcidius who is reported to have articulated a view of Open Theism. Though his view obviously did not gain traction among Christianity, to my knowledge it was never condemned either.

      All this is not to say the Open Theism view is a sound understanding of what the Bible teaches about God’s knowledge and the future. However, it does keep us from saying that there is *no* historical precedence for Open Theism in the church. Secondly, given the fact that other models of theism develop well after the Apostolic era of Christianity (i.e., Augustinian predestination) which are accepted in some traditions as being very biblical and apostolic, if we are going to question the validity of one model based on church history then we must question the other models too.

      Having said that, given the authority most Protestant Christians ascribe to scripture as the word of God, I don’t think the question of any model can be attested and either accepted or rejected based on appeals to Christian history. The best we can do with Christian history is ask what does our history say (or does not say) about ______ model of theism and why.

      Again, I’m not trying to advocate for Open Theism but as I think more about the question of how God is providentially at work in the world, what I accept and reject I want to be done for the right reasons.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

    • Jr – what I described comes mostly from reading Greg Boyd, and is almost the complete opposite of Molinism. I’m not sure what you are getting at. My view is not that God would know what everyone would do in any particular situation – that is Molinism and is almost completely opposite to what I said. My view is that God knows every detail of every possible situation that might occur (and in his Wisdom and Knowledge knows the best way to respond to such a situation.)

      • To clarify:

        Molinism is: “If Bob got put into this decision-making situation where he could choose any of 5 choices, I know exactly what he would choose.”

        Open Theism is: “The possibility exists that Bob will get put into this decision-making situation where he can choose any of 5 choices. I know all of the different possible outcomes that could possibly arrive from any of those 5 choices, including all the possibilities that occur from any other decision-making situations that would occur because of that choice.”

        They are 2 very different things. I’m claiming #2 is correct, and specifically saying that #1 is false.

      • Perhaps I now understand your confusion.

        I am saying that in my situation above, God would understand fully the choice that Bob does indeed eventually take, but I’m saying he sees it as it is (a possibility, not a set-in-stone fact) and also sees all the other possibilities in full clarity as well, and would also have full understanding of the probability of each possibility and what factors do and/or would affect those probabilities.

        Does that make my position clearer?

  10. think of the universe as a globe, think of God as a line that starts at one aspect point goes to the globe,in the middle of the page ends so to speak (with out getting 4 denominational,i don’t want to go there today 🙂 quantum physics) then THE LINE starts up again on the other side of the globe and continues to the other aspect point.
    So…
    inside our universe (globe) GOD EXPERIENCES HIS CREATION WHICH WAS VERY GOOD,and is now helping us the (faithful true believers) pull out the good fruit of this universe,into the new creation by his Spirit.
    which by the way interacts on a quantum particle level through faith. acting by the love expressed at the cross,because of the redemption of gods very good creation.

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