10 Things You Should Know about Open Theism

In recent years there has appeared a radical departure from traditional theism that has come to be known as the Openness of God theory or Open Theism. Although there are numerous components in this new view of God, in this article I only take note of ten of them. You should also know that what follows is not a critique of the openness theory, but simply an explanation of its basic ideas.

(1) Proponents of the openness doctrine believe that the classical view of God in which he is portrayed as knowing all future events is derived not from Scripture but from Greek philosophical concepts that corrupted Christian theology in the first few centuries of the church's existence. They also reject both the classical doctrine of divine immutability and divine timelessness, insisting that they, too, reflect more the emphasis of Greek philosophy than Scripture.

(2) Openness theologians argue that God does not know in advance everything humans will do. He knows human decisions only as they occur. He learns from what happens. God’s experience of the world is “open” in the sense that he becomes aware of developments in the world and responds to them as they unfold. He is “open” to new stimuli and new experiences. God is thus a risk-taker, for he neither knows nor controls the decisions and actions of humans (hence, the title to John Sanders’ book, The God Who Risks [IVP, 1998]).

In other words, the best that God can do with the future is guess at what might happen based on his wisdom and his vast experience of the past and what he has gleaned from his interaction with human nature and human behavior. God is like a chess grandmaster who is playing against novices. His understanding of the game and the possible moves enables him to win, but the outcome is not absolutely certain. According to their view, God is constantly having to change his plans, his mind, re-evaluate his purpose, alter his intentions, adapt to human decisions that he could not foresee or anticipate, etc.

(3) Proponents of this doctrine insist this “open” view of God is the only way that he can engage in both a meaningful and loving inter-personal relationship with his creatures. For this sort of interaction to occur, the future must be utterly contingent (non-fixed, uncertain) both for God and mankind. They contend that if God knows the future in exhaustive detail, the future is certain. And if the future is certain, there can be no genuine, loving, caring involvement of God with us in a give-and-take relationship in which we respond to God, God responds to us, and so on.

(4) Although all proponents of the openness theory are Arminians when it comes to the doctrine of election and salvation, they deviate significantly from the classical Arminian concept of God. Arminius himself, as well as John Wesley and others who stand in that tradition, have always affirmed divine foreknowledge of the future. Observe the following explanation of election given by Arminius:

“To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere” (Works, I:248).

(5) While explicitly denying divine foreknowledge, the openness theorists continue to affirm divine omniscience. Their argument goes like this: To say that God is omniscient is to say he knows all “things.” That is to say, God knows whatever can be known. But since the future has not yet happened, nothing in it is a “thing” that might be a proper object of knowledge. Therefore, the fact that God does not know the future does not mean he isn't omniscient, because the future is, by definition, unknowable (because uncertain). Or again, “the reason God does not know the future is because it is not yet there to be known. . . . It is less like a rug that is unrolled as time goes by than it is like a rug that is being woven” (M. Erickson, 73; be it noted that Erickson himself is not an open theist). This is how they affirm divine omniscience (and thus retain the appearance of orthodoxy) while denying that God has foreknowledge. Clark Pinnock put it this way:

“The future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated, even by God. Future decisions cannot in every way be foreknown, because they have not yet been made. God knows everything that can be known [and hence is “omniscient,” so he says], --- but God’s foreknowledge does not include the undecided” (The Openness of God, 123).

Greg Boyd agrees:

“In the Christian view God knows all of reality – everything there is to know. But to assume He 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. If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don’t exist. Thus, in my view at least, there simply isn’t anything to know until we make it there to know. 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” (Letters from a Skeptic [Scripture Press]).

(6) The reason open theists deny that the future (or events/decisions in it) is a “thing” that can be known is traceable to two arguments. First, openness theorists deny that God is timeless, that he in some way transcends the events and processes of temporal reality and thus is able to see all events in one eternal “now”. They argue, on the other hand, that God is both present in and a part of time and that he therefore sees and knows events only as they occur. [Be it noted, however, that one may reject the doctrine of timelessness and still affirm the doctrine of foreknowledge.] Secondly, they deny foreknowledge because it requires foreordination. That is to say, God knows the future precisely because he has foreordained what will occur in it. But this they deny, for if future events are foreordained they are certain to occur, and if they are certain to occur man has lost his freedom. For man to be truly free, the future must be truly “open”.

(7) Among the evidence they cite in defense of their view is the appeal to biblical statements that appear to affirm in one way or another that God is responsive to what happens in the world, that such events evoke emotions in him such as grief, sorrow, regret, anger, surprise, and even a change in his attitude, intentions, or plans (see, e.g., Gen. 6:5-7; 22:12; Ezek. 12:1-3; Jer. 26:2-3).

(8) Open theists also appeal to statements that assert human freedom. If God knows what I am going to do, it is certain that I will do it and not something else. If I were to do otherwise, then God’s knowledge would be in error. Thus, if God has infallible knowledge of all my future decisions, I am not truly free for all my future actions must already be certain to occur. But if I am truly free, nothing about my future is certain, for there is always the possibility that I will choose to do other than what I planned or what one might expect. Therefore, God cannot know what my future choices will be, since I don’t know what they will be. Even though I might “intend” or “plan” to do something, the possibility always exists that I will change my mind and choose another option. Thus God does not, indeed cannot, know the future.

(9) There may yet be another reason for the emergence of this view of God, something which openness proponents would no doubt deny. The majority of those who advocate open theism are professional philosophers. Why is this significant? Because, as Donald Bloesch has pointed out, “the predilection of philosophy is to overcome the polarities and ambiguities of life by arriving at a synthesis that perfects and crowns human reasoning. It cannot tolerate anything that defies rational comprehension, for this is to acknowledge a surd in human existence” (A Theology of Word and Spirit, 80). The mystery of compatibilism, according to which exhaustive divine foreknowledge (and therefore certainty) of the future and genuine human freedom coexist, is simply unacceptable to many philosophers.

(10) Others have suggested that the theory is driven in some measure by a desire to maintain human autonomy in the presence of a sovereign God. Their solution: eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, God's sovereignty so that it no longer poses a threat to unfettered human liberty. Open theists simply cannot conceive how God can know the future and exercise providential control over it and yet humans retain moral responsibility for their actions (the doctrine known as compatibilism).

[In conclusion, there is a solid, Scriptural answer to every one of the arguments posed by open theists. If you are interested in pursuing this further, I highly recommend these excellent books:

Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Crossway).
Steven C. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (IVP).
John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Crossway).
John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Presbyterian & Reformed).]

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About Sam Storms

Sam Storms is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Visit http://www.samstorms.com