Open Theism: Progress and Prospects

Open Theism: Progress and Prospects

William Hasker and John Sanders

A brief historical introduction places the view in its historical context. This is followed by a section discussing some philosophical assumptions and implications of open theism, and the essay concludes with various theological topics. We discuss both the differences between open theism and other theological positions, and some matters of disagreement among open theists.

 This essay provides an overview of the theological movement known as open theism or the openness of God. Open theism emphasizes God’s love for creatures and that God enters into dynamic give-and-take relations with them. Creatures have genuine freedom and God does not tightly control what they do. God is “open” to being affected by creatures and some of Gods decisions are contingent upon creatures. The future is also “open” in that there are multiple possible futures, not just one possible future. This means that God has dynamic omniscience: God knows the past and present as definite and knows the “future” as possible events and as events God has determined to happen.

 

  This is a draft version not for quotation or citation. The published version is “Open Theism: Progress and Prospects.” Theologische Literaturzeitung 142/9 (2017)” 859-872.

History

 

The term “Openness of God” became well known after the 1994 publication of a book with that title. However, the position is much older and there are non-Christian forms of it as well. In particular, the dynamic omniscience view was affirmed by Cicero and Porphyry in antiquity and by medieval Jewish and Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Ezra, Gersonides, and Abd al-Jabbar. The earliest known Christian proponent was Calcidius (fourth century). There were a few proponents during the Reformation but it is not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the view became widely discussed. Around 1730 Samuel Fancourt wrote two books promoting the view and Andrew Ramsay, an important associate of John Wesley, affirmed a variant of it. Dozens of books and articles were written for and against the position in the nineteenth century. The famous German theologian, Isaak Dorner, affirmed dynamic omniscience arguing that a consistent view of God working with us in history requires that God knows future free acts of creatures as possibilities, not actualities. Many Methodists debated it in print including American theologian Lorenzo McCabe, who wrote two lengthy books supporting the view in which he cites Dorner.

 

In the twentieth century a number of significant theologians affirmed the view including Jürgen Moltmann, Paul Fiddes, John Polkinghorne, and Hendrikus Berkhof. Among philosophers of religion the position is quite widespread including luminaries such as Richard Swinburne, Keith Ward, Vincent Brümmer,Peter Van Inwagen, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. The important Hebrew Bible scholar, Terence Fretheim, has numerous publications supporting the view.

 

None of these authors, to our knowledge, used the term “open theism” or any other distinct label to identify the view. In the nineteenth century the debate took place under the heading “divine nescience which fails to denote a distinct position.It was not until the publication of two different books with the same title, The Openness of God, in 1980 and 1994, that the position was named. The 1994 book was authored by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice (who wrote the 1980 book), John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. The book helped spawn a significant body of literature on the topic of open theism including64 books, 253 journal articles and book chapters, 23 doctoral dissertations, and 15 master’s theses.

 

In January of 1995, Christianity Today, the flagship periodical of American evangelicalism, published four reviews of The Openness of God. The lead review was favorable but the other three were highly critical and dismissive. Despite this the book placed eighth in the Christianity Today book of the year awards. Three authors of The Openness of God subsequently published monographs on the topic: Basinger wrote The Case for Freewill Theism (1996), Sanders published The God Who Risks, the most thorough case to date of the biblical and theological support for open theism (1998), and Pinnock wrote Most Moved Mover (2001). In addition, Gregory Boyd published God of the Possible (2000).

 

The primary opposition to the view was from Calvinist (not to be confused with Reformed thought) evangelicals who affirm theological determinism. According to this position God meticulously controls every event in the world in minute detail to ensure that only what God specifically ordains to occur is what happens. The titles of the publications indicate their disdain: Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: the Diminished God of Open Theism (2000), Norman Geisler and Wayne House, The Battle for God (2001), Douglas Huffman and Johnson, eds., God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God (2002), and John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Helseth, eds,. Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (2003). Gross inaccuracies and the inability to understand the openness model on its own terms are common problems in many of these works. More evenhanded are Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer (2000), Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? (2006), and Steven Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? (2006). During this same time period evangelical Calvinists attempted to revoke the membership of Pinnock and Sanders in the Evangelical Theological Society and to terminate Boyd and Sanders from their teaching positions at evangelical colleges. Of these attempts, only the one to force Sanders out of his college was successful. In addition, a few denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Evangelical Free Church modified their statements of faith in order to exclude open theism.

Despite the strong opposition, works supporting open theism continued to be published. InterVarsity Press, a leading evangelical publisher, asked Sanders to revise The God Who Risks (2007) by updating its arguments and responding to criticisms. The Openness of God continues to sell well and is in its nineteenth printing. Process theists and open theists engaged each other in John Cobb and Clark Pinnock, eds., Searching for an Adequate God (2000). Open theists were invited to dialogue with multiple perspectives in: James Beilby and Paul Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledege: Four Views (2001),Gregory Ganssle, ed., God and Time: Four Views (2001), Chris Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have a Future? (2003), Bruce Ware, ed., Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views (2008), Stephen Long and George Kalantzis, eds., The Sovereignty of God Debate (2009) and God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views (forthcoming).

Open theists have applied the view to a number of topics. On evil and suffering see William Hasker, Providence, Evil and the Openness of God (2004) and The Triumph of God Over Evil (2008), Gregory Boyd, Is God to Blame? (2003), Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (2010), and Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning (2014). Two edited collections of proponents using open theism to engage various issues in science have appeared: Thomas Oord, ed., Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (2009) and William Hasker, Thomas Oord, and Dean Zimmerman, eds., God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics, and Open Theism (2011). Other topics include Vaughn Baker, Evangelism and the Openness of God (2013), Sharron Harvey, Open Theism and Environmental Responsibilities: A Promotion of Environmental Ethics (2012), Robert Ellis, Answering God: Towards A Theology of Intercession (2005), and Roberto Sirvent, Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (2014). In addition to the works already mentioned there are 116 articles and book chapters by open theists addressing various topics since 1994. A couple of works in German supporting open theism have appeared: Johannes Grössl,Die Freiheit des Menschen als Risiko Gottes:Der Offene Theismus als Konzeption der Vereinbarkeit von göttlicher Allwissenheit und menschlicher Freiheit (2015) and Denis Schmelter, Gottes Handeln und die Risikologik der Liebe: Zur rationalen Vertretbarkeit des Glaubens an Bittgebetserhörungen (2012).

 

A Philosophical Perspective   

 

There are multiple routes to open theism, multiple ways in which various thinkers have been moved to take up this position. There is no doubt, however, that for many philosophers the impulse to adopt the position has come by way of the conviction that there is a logical incompatibility between comprehensive and infallible divine foreknowledge and free will for human beings. The awareness of this problem goes far back in history, but it came to the fore in recent discussion as a result of two seminal articles by A. N. Prior and Nelson Pike. Since then, the basic argument has been reformulated in many different ways, and there have been numerous attempted answers. Open theists, however, find all of the answers unsatisfactory, and conclude that the incompatibility is real. We shall consider here two versions of the incompatibility argument, as well as some attempted responses to it.

 

First, however, it is necessary to say something about the conception of free will that is foundational to the argument, and to open theism itself. This is a libertarian conception of free will, not a compatibilist conception. According to compatibilism, a person has free will with regard to a given decision if it is the case that the person could have acted differently if he or she had so desired. A person who remains in a particular room lacks free will in this sense if the room is locked from the outside (like in a prison). If, however, there is no such obstacle to the person’s leaving the room, that person has free will with respect to that decision. What is noteworthy is that free will in this sense is perfectly compatible with there being elements in the situation that make it absolutely inevitable that the person will choose to remain in the room – for example, if there is someone else in the room he very much desires to meet and to converse with. In general, this conception of free will is consistent with there being factors that causally determine that the agent will act in a certain way, so long as those factors do not physically prevent a certain action from being taken (as in the case of the locked room). Thus the name, “compatibilism.” A compatibilist view of free will is congenial to varieties of theology that feature absolute divine predestination of all that occurs, a belief that is categorically rejected by open theists.

For libertarians, compatibilism does not provide a sufficient account of genuine free will. For a person to be free in making a decision, it must be completely within that person’s power either to make the decision in question as is actually done or to make some other decision, under exactly the same circumstances. There cannot, then, be prior determining causes of any kind either internal or external to the agent. This does not mean that actions are taken randomly or without reasons. There are reasons for our actions, but the reasons do not determine that the actions are taken in one particular way, for there are often countervailing reasons for taking a different course of action. A definition that captures this idea of free will is the following:

(FW)    N is free at time t with respect to performing A =def It is in N’s power at t to perform A, and it is in N’s power at t to refrain from performing A.

The key idea behind this definition is that, if it is not in my power to refrain from acting in a certain way, I am not free in so acting. This seems hard to deny.

With this notion of freedom in hand, we proceed to the incompatibility argument. Like many arguments on this topic, it begins with a simple, mundane example; since there is nothing special about the example in question, the result can easily be generalized to actions in general.

  • It is now true that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (Premise)
  • It is impossible that God should at any time believe what is false, or fail to believe anything that is true. (Premise: divine omniscience)
  • Therefore, God has always believed that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (From 1,2)
  • If God has always believed a certain thing, it is not in anyone’s power to bring it about that God has not always believed that thing. (Premise)
  • Therefore, it is not in Clarence’s power to bring it about that God has not always believed that he would have a cheese omelet for breakfast. (From 3,4)
  • It is not possible for it to be true both that God has always believed that Clarence would have a cheese omelet for breakfast, and that he does not in fact have one. (From 2)
  • Therefore, it is not in Clarence’s power to refrain from having a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (From 5,6) So Clarence’s eating the omelet tomorrow is not an act of free will.

Call this Argument A. Further elaboration is possible, but the argument as stated can serve as a basis for our discussion. That discussion will take the form of statements of, and brief replies to, two of the main objections that have been raised against the incompatibility argument. These objections, it should be noted, accept the libertarian conception of free will on which the argument is based. For compatibilists, the argument presents no problem since they already reject this sort of free will. The objections noted here, on the other hand, accept that conception of free will and seek to show that it is not after all inconsistent with comprehensive divine knowledge of the future.

The oldest, and most popular, objection to the incompatibility argument is that divine foreknowledge of an action cannot cause the action to be performed, and because of this it is not relevant to whether or not the action is done freely. Strictly speaking, this objection is irrelevant to Argument A, since that argument makes no claim about the causation of actions. Still, there is some plausibility to the idea that, if the action cannot fail to occur as it does, there must be something that causes its occurrence. Here Jonathan Edwards makes a crucial obser­vation: foreknowledge can very well show an action to be necessary even if it is not what makes it necessary. (Edwards was a compatibilist, and a theological determinist, who used the incompatibility argument against his Arminian opponents who affirmed comprehensive foreknowledge but wished to retain libertarian free will.) If we wish to know the cause of a foreknown action, there are plenty of possible candidates, beginning with Edwards’ own favorite, an efficacious divine decree.

Another classical objection to the incompatibility argument appeals to the doctrine of divine timelessness. God does not, according to this objection, know or have beliefs in the past about actions that lie in our future. Rather, God knows these actions timelessly, in the eternal present. And just as the fact that someone knows, right now, what you are doing now does not detract from your freedom in performing the action, so also God’s knowing in an eternal present what you do has no effect on the freedom of that action.

Since Argument A is formulated with a temporal view of God, it does not directly apply to the envisaged situation. However, a few changes will result in an argument against divine timeless knowledge that is equally effective. First, the premise affirming divine omniscience needs to be modified:

(2*)    It is impossible that God should believe what is false, or fail to believe eternally anything that is true. (Premise: divine omniscience)

It follows that

(3*)   Therefore, God eternally believes that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow.

And now the crucial premise is

(4*)   If God eternally believes a certain thing, it is not now in anyone’s power to bring it about that God does not eternally believe that thing. (Premise)

One would be bold indeed to maintain that each of us has the power such that, given that God’s eternal beliefs are a certain way, we should now be able to bring it about that those beliefs are different than in fact they are. That just does not seem to make sense. But given (4*), the rest of the argument follows as before and we again reach the conclusion that Clarence’s eating the omelet is not a free action on his part. (Call this Argument B.)

What has been presented here is a mere sampling of the extensive discussions that have occurred surrounding the incompatibility argument. There exists a large literature on this subject but open theists are persuaded that none of the answers to the argument that have been proposed are successful.

The incompatibility of foreknowledge and free will is the most distinctive philosophical view characteristic of open theism, but it is not the only one. Another important question concerns the nature of time, in particular the distinction between past, present, and future. The two most prominent alternatives on this topic are presentism and eternalism or four-dimensionalism. According to presentism, which is arguably the view of common sense, what really exists at any given moment is what exists now, at that moment: the past is the realm of what did exist, but exists no longer, and the future the realm of what does not yet exist, though it may come to exist. According to eternalism, in contrast, past, present, and future all exist together: there is, in fact, no such thing as an absolute present moment; rather, which moment is “now” is relative to the observer who so designates the particular moment he happens to occupy. In order to grasp the difference between these views, it helps to think of time-travel stories. It is obvious, if one thinks about it, that these stories presuppose that past, present, and future all exist together; otherwise, there would be nowhere for the would-be time traveler to go. It is claimed that eternalism receives scientific support from the theory of relativity, but this is controversial, and the debate about the alternative views in the philosophy of time remains active and intense.

It seems clear that open theism, and in general libertarian views of free will, presuppose presentism or some similar view, and are incompatible with eternalism. This is so because libertarianism requires a metaphysical asymmetry between past and future that eternalism denies. The future, for libertarianism, contains genuine alternative possibilities, different ways the future could be, as a result of free decisions that have yet to be made. The past, in contrast, contains no such alternatives: the alternatives may have been there once, but the opportunity for “the road not taken” is gone, never to return. For eternalism, in contrast, the future is fixed just as much as the past, although our cognitive limitations often preclude our seeing at a given time what may transpire at a later time. Eternalism is incompatible with free will – at least, with libertarian free will.

Closely related to the open theist affirmation of presentism is the conviction that God is not timelessly eternal, but rather undergoes a succession of states and thus is temporal. Argument B has shown that timeless divine omniscience is just as incompatible with free will as is temporal foreknowledge. And there is a further, decisive incompatibility between divine timelessness and a presentist view of time. If God is timeless, God cannot know tensed propositions. For presentism, there is an objective fact of the matter as to what is happening right now, and correspondingly about what has already happened and about what has not yet occurred. A timeless God, however, is completely unable to know truths of this sort. A timeless God can know, for example, that Jesus is born in 4 B.C. (or whichever the correct date actually is), but such a God cannot know that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have already occurred. In order to know those things, God would have to have changed: prior to 4 B.C. God would have known that these events have not yet happened, whereas after about 30 A.D. God would have known that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are now in the world’s past. But of course, change of this sort is impossible for a timeless God. Now it is unthinkable that God should be unaware of facts such as these; it follows that God is not, cannot be, timeless.

Divine timelessness is only one of the ways in which open theism differs from the “classical theism” exemplified by Aquinas. Open theists of course reject the theological determinism which many consider to be an implication of Aquinas’s view. They also reject the doctrine that God is “wholly actual,” that there is no distinction in God between actuality and potentiality. A straightforward implication of this view is that it is impossible for God to have acted in any way differently from the way God does in fact act. (If God could have acted differently, this would mean that God would have the unactualized potentiality so to act.) This would mean, for instance, that it was impossible for God to refrain from creating a world, or indeed to have created a world that differs in any respect from the world God actually created. This, however, implies a denial of divine freedom as well as a pretty severe limitation of divine power.

Another important respect in which open theism differs from classical theism is the strong doctrine of divine impassibility. Impassibility in the tradition means at least two different things. On the one hand, it means that God is never passive with regard to creatures, which is to say God is never affected by creatures in any way. Even God’s knowledge of creatures is derived solely from God’s internal awareness of his own intentions; no effect of the creatures on God is required. On the other hand, it means that God suffers no “passions,” no changing emotions, but is in a permanent and unvarying state of bliss. Open theism rejects both of these implications. God does indeed interact with the creation, which is to say God both affects and is affected by created beings. Creatures cannot, of course, harm God in the sense of endangering God’s being; it is God that keeps them in being from moment to moment, and this relation can never be reversed. But God does take account of what the creatures are doing; this is dramatized by the Old Testament depiction of God as changing plans because of what human beings have done. Furthermore, God can be pleased or displeased, can rejoice and suffer, because of what God learns in this way. Clearly, there are issues here concerning anthropo­morphism, but open theists will say that the classical theist doctrine of impassibility leans too far in the opposite direction in order to avoid this.

This last point, as well as others that have been made, underscores the fact that open theism views God in more human-like terms than we find in the more severe classical accounts of God’s nature. God is a being of infinite wisdom and power, yet God does not control events in such a way that everything that occurs necessarily corresponds to God’s wishes. Having gifted some creatures with genuine freedom, God interacts with them as free persons, respecting their free choices and self-determination even as God shapes human destiny towards ultimate divine purposes. God takes genuine risks in this process; not indeed the risk that God’s own existence will be imperiled, but the risk that God’s objectives for human persons, persons God loves deeply, will in some cases not be fulfilled. And when humans turn away from God, God is deeply grieved.

Isn’t all this excessively anthropomorphic? There is indeed a danger of a theology that goes too far in portraying God as human-like. But there is also an opposite danger, a danger which ought to be evident when we consider that Christian faith proclaims that human beings are created in God’s image. A conception of God that distances God too far from human concerns may be even more harmful than one that imports a few too many human-like characteristics into its portrayal of God. Eleonore Stump, who is no open theist, remarks that the God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible is “very human.” She also says, “Anthropomorphism is wrong-headed only if it is stupid. Philosophically literate anthropomorphism is exactly what one would expect of any worldview which affirms that human beings are made in the image of God.”

A corollary of the above is the fact that open theism embraces a robust metaphysical realism in its view of God and language about God. That is, it assumes that we can say about God what is genuinely true, though certainly not everything that is true about God. Traditional Christianity holds that God is a personal agent who loves creatures. This implies a limited degree of univocal predication in our speech about God in that there must be a being, God, who has personal relationships with creatures. The importance of analogy and metaphor is recognized, but these assume that God is an actual agent who has relations with creatures. It is important to realize that metaphors have entailments that speak truly of God, and that metaphors often hold a richness of meaning that is lost in an attempted literal translation. Open theism affirms a metaphysical realism helpful for the religious life, which is endangered by extreme apophatic views that place too great a distance between God and human beings.

One philosophical topic about which there is significant disagreement among open theists is the status of “future contingent” propositions – propositions making assertions about what will or will not happen in the future, when this depends on free choices (and possibly other undetermined events) which may or may not occur. The simplest and most obvious approach is to treat them like any other proposition, so that (for example), “John will come to dinner next Sunday” is true if John does come to dinner on Sunday, false otherwise. This has the merit of leaving the logical relations unchanged: bivalence still applies to future contin­gents, and where ‘p’ is a future contingent proposition ‘p’ and ‘not-p’ are contradictories, just like any other proposition and its negation. The metaphysics of the situation seem problematic, however. It is not merely that, when the statement is made, the event of John’s coming (or of his not coming) does not exist This after all is true also for statements about the past, but while some account must be given of the truth-makers for such statements, no one denies that they are in fact true or false. The problem, rather, is that the proposition is either true or false when it is uttered in spite of the fact that at that time it remains objectively undecided whether the proposition will be true or false. The truth-maker lies in a future which is not only non-existent, but indeterminate. And by now this is beginning to look like a rather peculiar sort of “truth.” J. R. Lucas refers to this as “valedictory truth,” meaning that it can be recognized as truth only in retrospect, once the event in question has occurred. This seems a strange situation, though not perhaps incoherent.

A second option is to treat all future contingent propositions as false, so that both “John will come to dinner next Sunday” and “John will not come to dinner next Sunday” are false until the decision has been made with regard to his coming. This retains bivalence for future contingents, but it means that ‘p’ and ‘not-p’ are not contradictories but contraries; both can be false, but both cannot be true. The contradictory of “John will come to dinner next Sunday” is not “John will not come to dinner next Sunday,” but rather “John might not come to dinner next Sunday.” An oddity of this approach is that even propositions with extremely high objective probability are treated as false. For instance “John [an average amateur golfer with a handicap of 15] will not shoot a round under par at Augusta National.” This proposition is false until that point when an under-par round is no longer possible (even a hole-in-one on each of the remaining holes will result in a score over par); at that point, it instantly changes from being false to being true. To say the least, this does not match very well with the way we treat such propositions in practice. This proposal in effect treats both ‘p’ and ‘not-p’ as having modal force, so that, for instance, “John will not come to dinner next Sunday” really amounts to, “It cannot be the case that John will come to dinner next Sunday.” But persons who assert future contingent propositions may deny that they intend their assertions to have such modal force; if we accept their assertion to this effect, what they say is not taken account of by the approach in question.

A third approach is simply to say that future contingent propositions are neither true nor false, until the contingency is resolved by events. This of course requires a revision of truth-functional logic: either there must be one or more additional truth-values in addition to “true” and “false,” or we must adopt a system in which “truth-value gaps” are acceptable. While it creates logical complications, the metaphysics of the situation is clear and perhaps more plausible than either of the main alternatives.

These alternatives raise important issues in logic and the philosophy of time, but it is not clear that they will have a major theological impact on open theism. The option in which future contingents are straightforwardly true or false requires us to qualify the definition of omniscience by saying that God knows all true propositions that it is possible for a perfect being to know. This parallels a qualification standardly made in the definition of omnipotence: God is able to do, not anything whatsoever (for instance, God cannot create a square circle), but anything that does not involve a contradiction and is not in conflict with God’s perfect nature. Such a qualification concerning omniscience may be required in any case: arguably, there are “first-person propositions” known to each of us which cannot be known by another person, or even by God. (When someone has a toothache, that person knows the proposition, “I have a toothache,” but God does not know the proposition “I have a toothache,” since God does not have a toothache. God will, of course, know of the person in question that he or she has a toothache.) Theologically, it does not seem that any of the options concerning future contingent propositions either solves theological problems for open theism or creates new problems that did not already exist.

Theological Considerations

 

The discussions surrounding open theism have clarified a number of issues. One such issue is that classical theism and process theology are not the only two options. It is not simply a choice between divine power and divine relationality because open theism affirms both. Openness retrieves from the biblical texts, early church fathers, and the freewill tradition that some of God’s knowledge and actions are dependent upon creatures—God is receptive and not merely giving. The freewill tradition, for example, claimed to escape theological determinism by using views such as simple foreknowledge or timeless knowledge. They explained that the basis of God’s electing individuals for salvation was due to God’s (so-to-speak) “seeing” which people would trust in Christ and so God’s decision to elect them was logically dependent upon God’s knowledge of the human choices to confess Christ. The notion that any of God’s decisions are dependent upon creatures or that God receives any knowledge from creatures was rejected by classical theism. Instead, it considered God strongly immutable (cannot change in any respect) and strongly impassible (cannot be affected by anything a creature does). Proponents of openness noted that classical theism was not the only view in Christian theological tradition since the freewill tradition existed prior to the appearance of classical theism. Openness tapped into the freewill tradition which allowed for reciprocal relations between God and creatures. Proponents of openness argue that, to be consistent, the freewill tradition needs to hold that God is weakly immutable in that the divine nature cannot change but God’s knowledge and decisions can change. Also, it must affirm weak impassibility meaning that God can be affected by creatures such that God experiences changing emotional states but God is not incapacitated by such emotions.

 

In addition, proponents of openness argued that in order for freewill theism to genuinely escape theological determinism it must reject exhaustive infallible foreknowledge as well as divine timelessness. In order to consistently affirm a genuinely relational deity who interacts with creatures, openness affirms dynamic omniscience and divine temporality. However, in contrast to process thought, proponents of openness did not arrive at these conclusions via a metaphysical system. Instead, they affirmed biblical teachings and the divine incarnation in Jesus to argue for a relational deity. Unlike process theology and Thomism openness has not hitched its theological wagon to a particular metaphysical horse. Of course, open theism has metaphysical commitments but proponents are free to draw from a wide array of perspectives, which we think is advantageous.

 

The emphasis on divine relationality leads many open theists to affirm the social trinity (e. g., William Hasker, Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God, (2013)). There is no logical necessity to make this move since there are non-Christian and non-trinitarian forms of open theism. Yet, many Christian proponents find that it helps explicate how the economic trinity resonates with the immanent trinity. Furthermore, if one values relationality as an attribute of God, as open theists do, this will tend to make one receptive to the idea of personal relationships within the Trinity, as is affirmed by social trinitarianism.

 

Another area that openness emphasizes is that what we do matters to God. Proponents of openness declare that God has decided not to control everything that happens and so relies upon us to cooperate with God in order to bring God’s intentions to fulfillment. How individuals and countries interact and what humans do to the planet matters greatly because God has granted us tremendous freedom and so depends upon us to carry out God’s purposes. Unlike some theologies that say it all depends upon God, even if we act irresponsibly, open theism holds that God has delegated tremendous responsibility to humans to care for one another and our environment. It is neither all up to us nor is it all up to God. The God who raised Jesus from the dead continues to work with us to bring about the divine goals. Openness affirms both human responsibility as well as hope in God.

 

Related to this is the language of an “open future.” Open theists hold that what is called “the” future is not something that exits. Rather, the so-called future refers to possible events that might occur as well as some events that God has determined to happen. An open future is not a blueprint or script of the details of what will occur. Instead, it is multiple possibilities that depend upon both what God and creatures do. It is helpful to think of the future as a branching tree or “create your own story” book in which the participants contribute to determining what happens. God operates with general purposes and has open routes with flexible strategies, allowing God to respond to contingencies. The eschaton which God seeks to bring about is not a fixed reality with all the particulars set. Rather, the exact nature of the eschaton depends upon what God and creatures do.

 

The freewill theistic tradition holds that some of God’s knowledge and decisions are dependent upon creatures. This approach produced the freewill defense to moral evil that was rejected by theological determinists. According to theological determinism, favored by many evangelicals, God micromanages each detail of every event to ensure that what occurs is specifically what God wanted to happen. This means that God never wants the world to be different than it is at any moment. Every act of genocide, rape, and economic cheating, is precisely what God wants to occur because it is part of the divine plan. Open theists have strongly criticized this approach. Open theists hold that God does not intend such evils but that they result from the divine risk God took in granting freedom to us. Open theists affirm the traditional freewill defense and note that instead of creating a world in which everything would turn out exactly as God foreknew it would, God created a “world type” for which God knew the possibilities but not the actualities of what would occur. God’s dynamic omniscience means that God did not know prior to creation that specific evils such as the Rwanda genocide would occur. This does not, however, get God completely off the hook for responsibility since open theists affirm divine omnipotence to act in earthly affairs. Many open theists hold that God never overrides the freedom of creatures even when great atrocities occur because God made a decision at creation to grant freedom and does not renege on it. Open theism makes some additions to the freewill defense regarding evil that help remove God from responsibility but proponents are aware that any position which affirms doctrines such as creation ex nihilo and raising Jesus from the dead leaves room to ask why God did not prevent a specific act of evil.

 

Since God has not predetermined the exact events that will occur, open theists are not obliged to hold that each and every event, including even the worst apparent evils, are “all to the good” in God’s plan. Holding that even apparently evil occurrences are “all for the best” can provide comfort to some, but many times believers wear themselves out looking for the good that will supposedly result from even the worst of happenings. Rather, open theists focus on the general strategies God seems to follow in governing the world; strategies which result in enormous amounts of good even while they also sometimes allow serious evils to take place.

 

A common criticism of open theism is that it departs too much from the traditional view of God and providence. How could Christians have been wrong for so long about providence or exhaustive foreknowledge? In response, proponents of openness make several points. To begin, it is simplistic to speak of “the” tradition as if it was singular. Consider that Christian communities developed multiple views regarding baptism and the Eucharist. Centuries ago Abelard wrote Sic et Non to show that there were multiple views on many theological topics. There is no single Christian view of providence. The early fathers affirmed freewill theism whereas Augustine developed theological determinism. These debates entailed different understandings of divine immutability and impassibility. Regarding exhaustive foreknowledge, the vast majority of thinkers have affirmed that God knows as definite all that will occur. However, open theists point out that many renowned biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, today hold that the biblical texts affirm dynamic omniscience and not exhaustive foreknowledge. Gregory Boyd argues that for many centuries there were philosophical assumptions in play that required exhaustive foreknowledge but those assumptions are now widely questioned. Also, it is important to note that though exhaustive knowledge of the future has been the commonplace view, theological determinists and freewill theists use very different means to get to it. For theological determinists, God knows the future in total detail because God determines what everyone will do. God, so-to-speak, writes the script and so knows how everything unfolds. Freewill theologians reject this and affirm that God somehow “observes” all that creatures will freely do in the future. According to the freewill tradition, God acquires knowledge of what creatures do by means of a noetic big bang prior to creation, but this does not, they maintain, mean that God determines what the creatures do. Unlike theological determinism, this means that God’s knowledge of what creatures will do is dependent upon the creatures. Open theism agrees with this theological tradition that God’s knowledge of what creatures do is dependent on creatures.

 

Also, it is obvious that theological traditions can change. Just think of the view, common since the time of Augustine, that children who died unbaptized were damned to hell. Later, this was softened to claim that they went to Limbo, a part of hell without suffering. Today, one seldom finds support for this view. Proponents of dynamic omniscience acknowledge its minority status which is why they have sought to produce substantial biblical and philosophical arguments for it. In sum, theological traditions are more varied than some claim and open theists find harmony with some specific theological traditions. In this regard, openness is part of the ongoing tradition.

 

Another criticism is that a temporal God is “in time” which makes God a finite being. However, to say something is “in” time construes time as a container into which entities are placed. Open theists do not accept the block theory of time or four-dimensionalism. Instead, we say that God has the potential for changing mental states so time, construed as changing events, is simply part of the divine experience rather than a “container” in which God is trapped. Open theists distinguish this sense of time from metric or clock time, the measurement of physical processes such as the rotation of the earth, which began with the creation.

 

Along with this, open theists do not say “God does not know the future” because this suggests there is an ontological reality of which God is ignorant. Instead, we speak of events that are “indefinite” or possible to occur and events that are “definite” to occur because they are determined. Definite and indefinite future events are mental anticipations rather than an ontological reality. Hence, God knows the future as it actually is—as partly definite and partly indefinite. Originally, open theists called this “present knowledge” before Sanders coined the term “dynamic omniscience” as a more appropriate way to understand that God is always fully omniscient but God’s knowledge is dynamic in that what God knew as possible actions of creatures becomes knowledge of actual actions.

 

A related issue is how predictions of future events in the Bible should be understood. Many evangelicals believe God gave biblical writers exact details of future events. These are used to prove the divine authorship of the Bible. Open theists point out a number of biblical predictions that did not come to pass as predicted (e. g., Ezekiel 26). Such texts are problematic for proponents of exhaustive foreknowledge. Openness holds that biblical predictions are usually statements about what God believes is likely to happen and sometimes about what God has determined to occur. A particular episode often cited as a problem for open theism is the prediction of Peter’s denial. Open theists have various explanations for this event. McCabe and Boyd say that God removed Peter’s freewill and so he was not morally responsible in this situation. Sanders takes a different approach saying that such predictions were conditional in the sense that it was possible for Peter to heed Jesus’ warning and not deny him. These explanations show that some open theists hold that God occasionally overrides human freedom in order to bring about some specific event while others maintain that God never does this.

Historically, it has been claimed that simple foreknowledge and timeless knowledge provide God with providential advantages. For instance, it is thought that God’s knowledge of all future events enables God to answer prayers and prevent specific evils. Open theists, however, argue that God cannot use knowledge of a future event to change what God knows will happen. What God knows, according to these views, is the event itself, not possible events. For example, if God timelessly knows that king David will commit adultery God cannot bring it about that David not do this. If what God knows is all future events then God cannot make changes to these events because that would mean that God did not know the actual future. In a series of journal articles between David Hunt and William Hasker, Hunt has sought to show that a modified version of simple foreknowledge has a few possible providential advantages while Hasker has rebutted these claims. What proponents of simple foreknowledge and timeless knowledge have failed to show is how God can use knowledge of the actual future to bring about changes to that same future.

Another topic raised in the debate is how God should be understood. Some believe that Anselm’s notion of perfection as whatever it is better to be settles the issue in favor of strong immutability and timelessness. Open theists observe that theologians have different intuitions of perfection and so it can be argued that a being who does not change in some respects lacks perfection. This relates to how language about God in the Bible should be understood. There are passages of scripture where God has emotional reactions, does something in response to prayer, and tests people to learn whether they will obey. It is common for theologians to classify such ideas as anthropomorphisms and less than perfect. Open theists agree they are anthropomorphic but argue that such texts help us understand the reality of God and are not “baby talk” compared to the “adult-talk” of theology. All of our language about God is anthropogenic (from human cognitive structures) whether we think of God as an agent with intentions or as being itself. All our understandings of the divine nature and God’s relation to creatures presume some sort of shared context with creatures so the real debate is which of these ideas we deem appropriate for understanding God (see John Sanders, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think About Truth, Morality, and God, (2016)).

To conclude this section some differences among open theists are mentioned. There is disagreement about whether God would ever refrain from intervening beneficially in a person’s life simply because someone else failed to request that God do so. Some believe that in order to create communities that care for one another God might refrain from acting until prayer occurs. Another debate is whether God makes decisions as events occur or whether God has taken all the possible events into account and decided ahead of time that if event 1 happens then God will do A but if 2 occurs then God will do B. Boyd uses the “infinite intelligence argument” to say God has “predecided” all divine acts. Swinburne and Sanders hold that God decides as events occur.

Another difference concerns how natural evil should be explained. Among open theists two overall responses are discernable. Hasker and Polkinghorne use a natural law theodicy in which natural evil is understood to be part of the structures of an overall good creation. Boyd, however, believes this is insufficient and so holds that evils such as birth defects and diseases are often the result of demonic beings seeking to destroy God’s creation. Thomas Oord rejects both of these approaches and says that the God of open theism who voluntarily restrains the use of divine power is morally culpable for some evils. Oord seeks to develop a position in between open and process views in his The Uncontrolling Love of God (2015).

 

Conclusion

Open theists have constructed a cumulative case from the Bible, theology, philosophy, and Christian living in order to support the position. They present a view that is consonant with specific theological traditions and is faithful to biblical portrayals of God. They seek coherence with philosophical reasoning such as the incompatibility argument. The view addresses important theological issues such as the problem of evil and takes the stance that believers need not think that the evils which befall us are intended by God. It furnishes a scholarly model that accounts for the prayer and piety of millions of Christians around the world. The view is now affirmed by a significant number of theologians, philosophers, and biblical scholars and continues to foster scholarly work and new applications.

 

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

William Hasker

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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