Open theism

Open theism

Open theism is a recent theological movement that has developed within evangelical and post-evangelical Protestant Christianity as a response to certain ideas that are related to the synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Several of these ideas within classical theism (a designation which is not to be taken as inclusive of all of orthodox theism) state that God is immutable, impassible, and timeless. For several versions of classical theism, God fully determines the future; thus, humanity does not have libertarian free will, or, if free, that its freedom must necessarily be compatible with God's determining actions.[1] Open theists argue that these attributes do not belong to the God of the Bible and are at odds with personhood.

Openness is based on God as the Living God. The five most fundamental attributes of God are that God is Living, Personal, Relational, Good, and Loving. These faithfully represent God the way that Scripture presents Him, and starkly contrast with the Greek and Roman philosophical construction of God.[2]

Practically, open theism makes the case for a personal God who is open to influence through the prayers, decisions, and actions of people. Although many specific outcomes of the future are unknowable, God's foreknowledge of the future includes that which is determined as time progresses often in light of free decisions that have been made and what has been sociologically determined. So God knows everything that has been determined as well as what has not yet been determined but remains open. As such, God is able to anticipate the future, yet remains fluid to respond and react to prayer and decisions made either contrary or advantageous to God's plan or presuppositions.

Gregory A. Boyd claims that "open theism" is an inappropriate term since the position posits more about the nature of time and reality than it does about God itself. This is to say that open theists do not believe that God does not know the future, but rather that the future does not exist to be known by anyone. For the open theist the future simply has not happened yet, not for anyone, and thus is unknowable in the common sense. Thus, to say that God does not know the future is akin to saying that God does not know about square circles. In this understanding, it could be technically wiser to refer to the view as "open futurism".[3]


Historical development

The first known post-biblical writings by a Christian advocating concepts similar to open theism with regard to the issue of foreknowledge is found in the writings of Calcidius, a 5th-century interpreter of Plato. It was affirmed in the 16th century by Socinus, in the early 18th century by Samuel Fancourt and Andrew Ramsay (an important figure in Methodism). In the 19th century several theologians wrote in defense of this idea, including Isaak 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, John E. Sanders, Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Rice, Gregory Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, C. Peter Wagner, Roger T. Forster, John Polkinghorne, Hendrikus Berkhof, Adrio Konig, Harry Boer, 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 number of philosophers of religion affirm it: William Hasker, David Basinger, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Dean Zimmerman, Richard Swinburne, Peter Van Inwagen, J. R. Lucas, Vincent Brümmer, Peter Geach, Richard Purtill, A. N. Prior, and Keith Ward. Biblical scholars Terence E. Fretheim and John Goldingay (Fuller) affirm it. Others include writers Madelline L’Engle and Paul Borgman, mathematician D. J. Barholomew and biochemist Arthur Peacocke.[4]

The dynamic omniscience view has been affirmed by a number of non Christians as well: Cicero (1st century BCE) Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) 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 (12'th century) and Gersonides (14'th century).

Philosophical arguments

Open theists maintain that some of the classical attributes of God are contradictory and unintelligible. The five main classical attributes are as follows:

  • Immutability: God cannot change in any way. This does not mean that God cannot speak in time, but as Augustine says in Confessions, that when He does so, the Word is He Himself.[5]
  • Impassibility: God is not the object of actions, but the subject.[6] ("Impassable" is from the Latin patior: suffer, undergo, endure.) Thus we cannot reach up to God without Him first coming down to us (cf. Romans 10:6), and any real interaction we have with God must be the result of God's condescension to us through the Incarnation and Pentecost. Neither impassibility nor immutability should be taken to imply we cannot actually interact with God. Classical Theist Blaise Pascal even says God has established prayer "To communicate to His creatures the dignity of causality."[7] The Definition of Chalcedon established the orthodox doctrine that Mary is the mother of God. The Passion is called the "passion" to underscore the fact that here, the impassible One suffers [Latin: passus] on the Cross. And Alexander bishop of Alexandria says of the Crucifixion "the impassable suffers and does not avenge its own injury."[8] (in Greek, the same root is used for "suffer" and "impassible" so perhaps a more accurate (though more wordy) translation would be "the one who does not suffer suffers and does not avenge his own injury.").
  • Omnipotence: God has all power, which includes complete sovereignty over all things. Thus God's sovereign will that we be free and that our will be effective is necessarily realized; and we are free and our will is effective.
  • Omnipresence: God is present everywhere, or more precisely, all things find their location in God;[9] or alternatively God transcends space and time.
  • Omniscience: God has all knowledge, including of all past, present, and future events.

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] Likewise, if God is omnipresent, God cannot be omnipotent because God could not limit his own location. Open theists would again use the same argument here that changing his location would conflict with his immutability. A classical theist would respond to such an argument by pointing out that their position is 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."

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 know 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, 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 claim made by open theists is that the traditional definition of omniscience 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 with absolute certainty, 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 a 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 many open theists believe that God's infinite intelligence affords him an infinite understanding of all probabilities in the universe. Thus, to an unknown degree, God is able to "know the future" with certainty due to his understanding of the probabilities at hand. However, other open theists reply that this perspective simply reinforces the intellectual image of God which open theism is working to revise. God's knowledge that "exceeds human wisdom" should not be thought of in terms of Greek philosophical categories. Biblically speaking, this inscrutability is a confession: either of human limitation and incompleteness or else of God's care that goes beyond our horizon of comprehension.

Biblical arguments

In order to defend open theism, open theists also tend to focus on verses that tell of failed or subverted prophecies and instances where God changes his mind through interaction with people. The following is a quick overview of where the Bible expounds ideas that seem to contradict the classical attributes of God:

• Genesis 6:6-7 (KJV) And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

• Exodus 13:17 (KJV) And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:

• Exodus 32:7-14 (RSV) And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation." But Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.

• Exodus 33:4-6 (KJV) And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments. For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people; I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb.

• Isaiah 5:4, 7 (KJV) What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

• Isaiah 38:1-5 At that time Hezekiah became very sick; he was almost dead. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to see him and told him, "This is what the Lord says: Make arrangements, because you are not going to live, but die." Hezekiah turned toward the wall and prayed to the Lord, "Lord, please remember that I have always obeyed you. I have given myself completely to you and have done what you said was right." Then Hezekiah cried loudly. Then the Lord spoke his word to Isaiah: "Go to Hezekiah and tell him: 'This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. So I will add fifteen years to your life.

Varieties of open theists

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

  • 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.
  • Involuntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because truths about future contingents are in principle unknowable. William Hasker espouses 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 espouses 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 espouses this position."[13]


Open theism has been strongly criticized by some Protestant, especially Calvinist, theologians and ministers. Some of these opponents include Bruce A. Ware, Thomas R. 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 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. He 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[14]

Opponents of open theism, such as Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper,[15] 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:

  • Mal 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
  • Num 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
  • 1Sa 15:29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
  • Isa 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

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, 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


  1. ^ Viney, Donald (2008-10-06). "Process Theism". In Edward N. Zalta. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2008-12-01. 
  2. ^ Openness Theology - Does God Know Your Entire Future?, Bob Enyart v. Samuel Lamerson
  3. ^ Boyd, Gregory A. (2001). Satan and the problem of evil: constructing a trinitarian warfare theodicy. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0-8308-1550-3. OCLC 46866232. [page needed]
  4. ^ See documentation on most of the people in this list see John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, revised edition (InterVarsity press, 2007) 166-169.
  5. ^ Augustine, Confessions 9.7.9
  6. ^ David Bentley Hart "No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility", Pro Ecclesia (Spring 2002): 184-206.
  7. ^ Pascal, Thoughts VII.185.
  8. ^ Alexander of Alexandria , Addition in the Codex
  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. ^ Alanyzer: Four Versions of Open Theism
  14. ^ Geisler, Norman L.. Creating God in the Image of Man. Minneapolis: Bethany House. p. 96. ISBN 1-556-61935-9. OCLC 35886058. 
  15. ^ "The Sovereignty of God and Prayer". Retrieved 2010-10-07. 


  • Trinity and Process, G.Boyd, 1986
  • "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 9780827208285
  • 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 13:978-1-60608-488-5
  • 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 0830827595
  • 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 13:978-1-55635-217-1
  • 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

  • The Nature of Love: A Theology, Thomas Jay Oord (2010) ISBN 9780827208285
  • God, Foreknowledge, and Freedom, John Martin Fischer (editor), 1989, Stanford, ISBN 0-8047-1580-7
  • The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge & Human, William Lane Craig, 2000, Wipf & Stock Publishers, ISBN 1-57910-316-2
  • The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge, Linda Zagzebski, 1996, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-510763-2
  • Eternal God : A Study of God without Time, Paul Helm, 1997, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-823725-1
  • Time and Eternity: Exploring God's Relationship to Time, William Lane Craig, 2001, Crossway Books, ISBN 1-58134-241-1
  • Time and Eternity, Brian Leftow, 1991, Cornell, ISBN 0-8014-2459-3
  • Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time, Robin LePoidevin, 2003, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-875255-5 * The Ontology of Time, L Nathan Oaklander, 2004, Prometheus Books, ISBN 1-59102-197-9
  • Four-Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time, Theodore Sider, 2003, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-926352-3 * Real Time II, Hugh Mellor, 1998, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-09781-9
  • The Suffering of God: An Old Testament PerspectiveThe Suffering of God, Terence E. Fretheim, 1984, Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-1538-7

External links

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