Open theism, also known as openness theology and free will theism, is a theological movement that has developed within evangelical and post-evangelical Protestant Christianity as a response to 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.
Noted Open Theist theologian Thomas J. Oord identifies four paths to open and relational theology:
- following the biblical witness,
- following themes in some Christian theological traditions,
- following the philosophy of free will, and
- following the path of reconciling faith and science.
Roger E. Olson said that open theism triggered the “most significant controversy about the doctrine of God in evangelical thought” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Exposition of open theism
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 picture God’s knowledge of the future as a singular, fixed trajectory, open theism sees it as a plurality of branching possibilities, with some possibilities becoming settled as time moves forward. 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 do not agree with:
- the biblical concept of God
- the biblical understanding of divine and creaturely freedom
and/or 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 is of a God deeply moved by creation, experiencing a variety of feelings in response to it.
Comparison of open and Reformed theism
The following chart compares beliefs about key doctrines as stated by open theists and Calvinists after “the period of controversy” between adherents of the two theisms began in 1994. During this period the “theology of open theism… rocked the evangelical world”.
|Scripture (the Bible). “In the Christian tradition, the Old and the New Testaments are considered Holy Scripture in that they are, or convey, the self-revelation of God.”||“Committed to affirming the infallibility of Scripture”||Scripture is “the infallible Word of God”.|
|God’s Power. “God’s power is limited only by God’s own nature and not by any external force.”||“God is all-powerful.”||“God is all-powerful.”|
|God’s Sovereignty. “God’s ultimate Lordship and rule over the universe”.||Portraying God as ordaining whatever happens reduces “humans to robots”.||“Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed.”|
|God’s Perfection. “God as lacking nothing and free of all moral imperfection”.||Believes in “(because Scripture teaches) the absolute perfection of God.”||Believes that, because “Scripture says” it, God “will always do what is right”.|
|God’s Foreknowledge. “God’s knowing things and events before they happen in history”.||“God is omniscient” about “settled” reality, but the future that God “leaves open” can be known only as open “possibility” without specific foreknowledge.||Classically Augustinian-Calvinist view: “God knows the future because he preordains it.”|
|The Fall. “The disobedience and sin of Adam and Eve that caused them to lose the state of innocence in which they had been created. This event plunged them and all mankind into a state of sin and corruption.”||God “does not unilaterally and irrevocably decide what to do”. God’s decisions are influenced by “human attitudes and responses”.||“Ultimate reason” for the Fall was “God’s ordaining will”.|
|Free Will. “The term seeks to describe the free choice of the will which all persons possess. Theological debates have arisen over the ways and to the extent to which sin has affected the power to choose good over evil, and hence one’s ‘free will’.”||Promotes incompatibilism, the doctrine that “the agent’s power to do otherwise” is “a necessary condition for acting freely”.||Promotes compatibilism, the doctrine that “freedom” of the will requires only “the power or ability to do what one will (desire or choose) to do” without constraint or impediment, even if what one wills is determined.|
|Free Will and God’s Sovereignty. A “caustic debate” began about 1990 over “God’s sovereignty and human free will”.||Saying that God governs human choices reduces “angels or humans to robots in order to attain his objectives.”||God governs “the choices of human beings”, but without “cancelling [their] freedom and responsibility”.|
|Theodicy issue. “The justification of a deity’s justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil”.||To meet the “conditions of love”, God exercises “general rather than specific sovereignty, which explains why God does not prevent all evil”. Also, God “does not completely control or in any sense will evil” because the world is “held hostage to a cosmic evil force”.||Because “Scripture says” it, God “will always do what is right”.|
Open theists have named open theism precursors to document their assertion that “the open view of the future is not a recent concept,” but has a long history.
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.
Sergei Bulgakov, an early-20th-century Russian Orthodox priest and theologian advocated the use of the term panentheism, which articulated a necessary link between God and creation as consequence of God’s free love and not as a natural necessity. His sophiology has sometimes been seen as a precursor to ‘open theism’.
Millard Erickson belittles such precursors to open theism as “virtually unknown or unnoticed.”
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. Recent theologians of note espousing this view include: Clark Pinnock (deceased as of 2010), Greg Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, John E. Sanders, Dallas Willard, Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Rice, C. Peter Wagner, John Polkinghorne, Hendrikus Berkhof, Adrio Konig, Harry Boer, Bethany Sollereder, 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: Peter Van Inwagen, Richard Swinburne (Orthodox), William Hasker, David Basinger, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Dean Zimmerman, Timothy O’Connor, James D. Rissler, Keith DeRose, Richard E. Creel, Robin Collins (philosopher/theologian/physicist), J. R. Lucas, Vincent Brümmer, (Roman Catholic), Richard Purtill, 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’Engleand Paul C. Borgman, mathematician D.J. Bartholomew and biochemist/theologian Arthur Peacocke.
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).
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:
- 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.
- Omnipresence: God is present everywhere, or more precisely, all things find their location in God.
- Omniscience: God knows absolutely everything: believes all truths and disbelieves all falsehoods. God’s knowledge is perfect.
- Omnipotence: God can do anything because he is all-powerful and not limited by external forces.
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”. 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. 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, 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
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. It is thought Dallas Willard held 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, 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 holds this position.”
Open theism has been strongly criticized by some Protestant, especially Calvinist, theologians and ministers. 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, Impassibility, 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. Geisler also addresses the claims that the Classical attributes were derived from the Greeks with three observations:
- The quest for something unchanging is not bad;
- The Greeks did not have the same concept of God;
- Philosophical influences are not wrong in themselves.
An open theist might respond that all such criticisms are misplaced. As to No. 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. As to No. 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 they imported only some unbiblical assumptions from the Greeks. They also point to theologians of the Christian tradition who, throughout history, did not succumb so strongly to Hellenistic influences. As to No. 3, open theists do not argue that philosophical influences are bad in themselves. Rather, they argue that some philosophical influences on Christian theology are unbiblical and theologically groundless. Consider John Sanders’ statement in The Openness of God: “Christian theology, I am arguing, needs to reevaluate classical theism in light of a more relational metaphysic (not all philosophy is bad!) so that the living, personal, responsive and loving God of the Bible may be spoken of more consistently in our theological reflection…”
Opponents of open theism, both Arminians, and Calvinists, such as John Piper, 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.
Malachi 3:6: For I, the Lord, have not changed; and you, the sons of Jacob, have not reached the end.
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?
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 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. In other words, God’s love and character is unchanging; this, however, demands that His approach to people (especially in the context of personal relationship) be flexible.
In the early 18th century, an extended public correspondence flourished around the topic of open theism. The debate was incited by Samuel Fancourt’s 1727 publication, The Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated. Over the next decade, four other English writers published polemical works in response. This led Fancourt to defend his views in six other publications. In his 1747 autobiography, in response to some who thought that this controversy had affected his career, Fancourt wrote, “Should it be suggested, that my religious principles were a prejudice unto me—I answer: so are those of every Dissenting Protestant in the [United] Kingdom with some, if he dares to think and to speak what he thinks.” Fancourt also names other writers who had supported his views.
In 2005, a “raging debate” among evangelicals about “open or free-will theism” was in place. This period of controversy began in 1994 with the publication of The Openness of God. The debate between open and classical theists is illustrated by their books as in the following chart.
|Year||Open theism books and comments||Classical theism books and comments|
|1980||Rice, Richard (1980). The Openness of God: The relationship of divine foreknowledge and human free will. Nashville, Tennessee: Review & Herald. – Rice was the “pioneer of contemporary evangelical open theism.”||Critical acclaim, but public mostly unaware of open theism; the controversy had not yet begun.|
|1989||Hasker, William (1989). God, Time, and Knowledge. Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.|
|1994||Pinnock, Clark; Rice, Richard; Sanders, John; Hasker, William; Bassinger, David (1994). The Openness of God. InterVarsity. – “ignited a firestorm of controversy”.||“Provoked numerous hostile articles in academic and popular publications.”The “conservative backlash” was “quick and fierce”.|
|1996||Basinger, David (1996). The Case for Freewill Theism: A philosophical assessment. InterVarsity. – Considers divine omniscience, theodicy, and petitionary prayer in freewill perspective.||McGregor Wright, R. K. (1996). No Place for Sovereignty: What’s wrong with freewill theism. InterVarsity. – Sees open theism as wrong biblically, theologically, and philosophically.|
|1997||Boyd, Gregory (1997). God at War: The Bible & spiritual conflict. InterVarsity. – Made open theism the centerpiece of a theodicy.||Geisler, Norman (1997). Creating God in the Image of Man?. Bethany. – Asserts that open theism should be called new theism or neotheism because it is so different from classical theism.|
|1998||Sanders, John (1998). The God who Risks: A theology of providence. InterVarsity. – “The most thorough standard presentation and defense of the openness view of God.”||Erickson, Millard (1998). God the Father Almighty: A contemporary exploration of the Divine attributes. Baker. – Accuses open theists of selective use of Scripture and caricaturing classical theism.|
|2000||Pinnock, Clark (2000). Most Moved Mover: A theology of God’s openness. Baker and Paternoster. – “The most passionate and articulate defense of openness theology to date.”
Boyd, Gregory (2000). God of the Possible: A Biblical introduction to the open view of God. Baker. – “A genuinely evangelical portrayal of the biblical God.”
|Ware, Bruce (2000). God’s Lesser Glory: The diminished God of open theism. Crossway. – “The most influential critique of open theism.”|
|2001||Boyd, Gregory A. (2001). Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a trinitarian warfare theodicy. InterVarsity. – “A renewed defense of open theism” and a theodicy grounded in it.||Frame, John (2001). No Other God: A response to open theism. P & R.
Geisler, Norman; House, Wayne; Herrera, Max (2001). The Battle for God: Responding to the challenge of neotheism. Kregel. – “Debate seemed to turn somewhat in favor of classical theism.”
|2002–2003||Boyd, Gregory A. (2003). Is God to Blame? Beyond pat answers to the problem of evil. InterVarsity. – Attacked classical theists as “blueprint theologians” espousing a “blueprint world view”.||Huffman, Douglas; Johnson, Eric, eds. (2002). God under Fire: Modern scholarship reinvents God. Zondervan.
Erickson, Millard (2003). What does God Know and When does He know it?: The current controversy over divine foreknowledge. Zondervan. – Attacked “open theism as theologically ruinous, dishonoring to God, belittling to Christ, and pastorally hurtful”.
Piper, John; Taylor, Justin; Helseth, Paul, eds. (2003). Beyond the Bounds: Open theism and the undermining of Biblical Christianity. Crossway.
|2004–2012||Hasker, William (2004). Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God. Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion. Routledge. – Contains appendix titled “Replies to my critics”.||Branch, Craig, ed. (2012). “Open Theism: Making God like us”. The Areopagus Journal. The Apologetics Resource Center. 4 (1). – Book’s stated purpose is to “demonstrate the errors of open theism”.|
|2013–2014||Ham, Garrett (2014). The Evangelical and the Open Theist: Can open theism find its place within the evangelical community?. Kindle. – Argues that proponents of open theism have a right to be called “evangelical”.||Scott, Luis (2013). Frustrating God: How open theism gets God all wrong. Westbow. – Declares that “open theists get God all wrong”.|
|present||The Internet brought open theists and their debate with classical theists into public view. – An internet site supporting open theism is “Open theism – a basic introduction”. reknew.org. May 2014.||The Internet brought classical theists and their debate with open theists into public view. Two internet sites supporting classical theism (from the Calvinist perspective) are: “The foreknowledge of God”. desiringgod.org. and
“Open theism and divine-foreknowledge”. frame-poythress.org.
- 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
- 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
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia