Philosophically oriented overview of open theism

Draft version: not for citation or quotation. Published version: “Open Theism.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, (April, 2015).

  1. Basic Tenets

Open theism affirms that the key attribute of God is love, that God lovingly enters into dynamic give-and-take relations with creatures, and makes some divine decisions contingent upon what creatures do.  The word “open” is used in at least two senses: God is “open” to the input of creatures and the future is “open” in that there are multiple possible scenarios rather than just one possible future (Rhoda 2011). God does not operate according to a blueprint or detailed plan. Instead, God has general strategies which are flexible enough to allow God to respond to contingencies in appropriate ways when necessary.

Open theists reject the view of meticulous providence in which God tightly controls each and every event such that every detail turns out exactly as God foreordained it would. Instead, they hold that God exercises general sovereignty over the world by establishing a created order in which creatures are granted significant autonomy. Though God has occasionally unilaterally acted to bring about specific events, God typically works through and depends upon creaturely actions. Given that God works this way and has granted humans libertarian (indeterministic) freedom, God takes some risks that creatures will act in opposition to what God would prefer.

Due to their view that prayer and other human actions may influence what God decides to do open theists reject both strong immutability (God cannot change in any respect) and strong impassibility (God cannot be affected by anything external to God). Instead, they affirm that though the divine nature does not change, God does have changing mental and emotional states. God is passible in a qualified sense in that whereas God can suffer God cannot be forced to suffer and God is not overwhelmed by emotions.

Historically, many theists have affirmed these theses. Open theists believe that these theses entail two others. First, in order for God to enter into responsive give-and-take relations with creatures God must be temporal (everlasting) rather than atemporal (timelessly eternal). The second, and more controversial, claim is that God has “dynamic omniscience” in which God knows the past and present with exhaustive certainty but God does not know the so-called “future” in the same way. Open theists do not believe “the” future is a reality, even for God. Rather, what we label the future is what persons anticipate could occur and can be pictured as a singular line branching into multiple lines. God knows all that could possibly occur along with the probabilities of events so God anticipates what will happen and is not caught off-guard. Divine omniscience is conceived as dynamic because God constantly acquires knowledge of which possible actions creatures select to actualize in the present. Also, dynamic omniscience includes knowledge of those events that are determined to occur (either by natural forces or divine decree).

Though open theists affirm the free will defense to the problem of moral evil, the concept of dynamic omniscience adds an additional component. God created a “world type” in which God granted creatures certain freedoms which made it possible for them to love or to harm to one another. However, God did not specifically intend moral evil to come about. Also, because God possesses dynamic omniscience God did not know prior to creation that specific evils would obtain. God knew them as possibilities and prepared for them but they are not part of a divine blueprint. This is in sharp contrast to theological determinism in which God exercises meticulous providence such that each and every instance of moral evil fulfills a purpose in the divine plan. In this model all evils fit together to produce a better world so that in no single respect would God want the world to be any different than it actually is. For open theists, God does not intend moral evils but takes the risk that creatures will misuse the good gifts God has given them. God experiences grief due to our moral evil and God works with creatures to overcome evil with good.

Due to the affirmation of divine temporality and dynamic omniscience, open theists are committed to the dynamic view (A theory) of time rather than the stasis view (B theory). For the dynamic view there is an ever-changing moment which is “now”. In this moment new events come into being which never before existed at all. This is counter to the stasis view which holds that all events of all times eternally co-exist such that there is no privileged “now” (presentness is an indexical property which depends upon the temporal location of the speaker). According to the stasis view both the past and future are fully determinate sets of events which exclude alteration (no other possibilities). Open theists generally believe that the stasis theory entails determinism because the future is completely determinate and is thus just as unalterable as the past—the future is closed rather than open to multiple possibilities.

A significant issue for open theism is the content of divine omniscience and the nature of truth claims about future events (Tuggy 2007). Proponents of dynamic omniscience affirm a range of views on the matter. Some hold that God knows all that is logically possible to know at any moment. Though there may be true propositions about future states of affairs such truths are not knowable even for God (Hasker 2004). Many open theists reject this first approach because they want to affirm that God knows all truths. For the majority of open theists there is no ontological basis upon which to make truth claims about the future. In this vein some open theists affirm bivalence but limit it to propositions about what might or might not happen and deny that propositions about what will and will not occur in the future can be true or false (Boyd, Rhoda, Belt 2006). Others simply deny the principle of bivalence (Lucas 1989).

  1. History

The basic tenets of open theism are commonplace among a family of theologies known as freewill theism. However, the terms “open theism” and the “openness of God” were first used by a group of Christian philosophers and theologians in the 1990’s to designate the position. In the decades prior to this analytic philosophers of religion had examined divine attributes such as immutability, impassibility, and eternality to determine which understandings of these ideas were compatible with God having reciprocal relations with creatures. A model of God known as “classical theism,” which affirms divine atemporality and strong versions of immutability and impassibility was seriously questioned by significant numbers of philosophers. At the same time prominent biblical scholars argued that the understanding of God in classical theism was incompatible with the portrayal of God in the Bible. Theologians in the freewill tradition integrated this philosophical and biblical work in defense of the openness model of God.

Even the most controversial aspect of the openness model, dynamic omniscience, has had proponents throughout history. Cicero, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and the Medieval Jewish theologians Ibn Ezra and Gersonides affirmed it. In the nineteenth century Lorenzo D. McCabe and Joel Hayes were some of those who produced lengthy volumes defending the position. In the twentieth century dynamic omniscience gained many adherents including theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and John Polkinghorne, biblical scholars such as Terence Fretheim, philosophers such as Richard Swinburne and William Hasker, and the school of thought known as process theology.

  1. Support

Warrant for open theism interweaves religious experience, biblical studies, and philosophical reflection. Philosopher Vincent Brümmer argues that some forms of piety practiced by religious believers make better sense provided God can be affected by creatures. For example, he says many believers affirm “impetratory” prayer in which God sometimes performs an act because God was requested to act. The emphasis in open theism on reciprocal relations between God and creatures along with the affirmation of divine passibility coheres well with particular forms of religious practice.

Divine receptivity and responsiveness seem precluded either if God is atemporal or if God exercises meticulous providence. The problem for an atemporal deity is that it cannot experience a before or after and so it seems problematic to say it responded. Also, divine atemporality has often been associated with strong impassibility which excludes God’s being affected by or responding to creatures. If God exercises meticulous providence it makes no sense to say that God responds to creatures since creatures do only that which God explicitly ordains they do. Some theological determinists argue that God “responds” in the sense that God determines that Susan will ask God for X after which God has determined to bring X about. However, this is not what is normally meant by respond since God is “responding” to the prior divine decree which guaranteed the creaturely action. For those models of God that value divine responsiveness it appears that both divine atemporality and theological determinism are excluded.

Four problems with standard views of divine foreknowledge also motivate open theism. The first problem is that divine foreknowledge appears incompatible with free human actions. The claim is that if God knows the future exhaustively, whether by simple foreknowledge or by timeless knowledge, then human actions are determined and thus not free in the requisite sense.

Second, open theists argue that neither simple foreknowledge nor timeless knowledge offer God providential advantages over dynamic omniscience. God cannot use foreknowledge to act providentially by bringing about or preventing a foreknown event because what God foreknows is the event itself, not possibilities. For example, if God timelessly knows that king David will commit adultery God cannot bring it about that David not do this since divine foreknowledge is factual and unable to be changed. If God cannot change what God knows will happen then foreknowledge is useless for providential interaction.

Third, standard views of divine foreknowledge appear to preclude God’s having reciprocal relations with creatures. If God knows in minute detail every event that will transpire (not merely what might happen) how can God be said to respond or grieve?

Fourth, if God foreknows all that will occur then presumably God previsions God’s own historical actions. If so, how can it be said that God decided upon these actions? Is the future some sort of script that God previsions to learn what God will do? If not, how can standard views of foreknowledge incorporate divine decision-making and actions in history? Just as God cannot use foreknowledge to change foreknown actions of creatures, so God cannot use foreknowledge as the basis for divine actions if foreknowledge already includes those actions. The dynamic omniscience view avoids these problems.

Certain biblical texts also support open theism. In the Bible God is depicted in various ways which imply reciprocal give-and-take relations. For example, God is portrayed as responding to the prayers of people and bringing about some events because people requested them. Additionally, God is represented as: (1) grieving over the evil humans do, (2) expecting a specific event to happen but it does not, (3) using terms such as “perhaps,” “if,” and “maybe,” (4) testing individuals and Israel “to find out what they will do,” (5) reconsidering what God had previously promised, and (6) changing the divine mind (nearly three dozen times). Sometimes biblical texts portray God as predicting an event that later obtained (e. g. the Jewish exile to Babylon) but other texts depict God predicting an event that failed to happen. For example, Ezekiel 26 is a very detailed prediction about how king Nebuchadnezzar will capture the city of Tyre and utterly devastate it. However, Ezekiel 28 says that Nebuchadnezzar, in fact, failed to capture the city which means that the divine prediction failed to obtain.  Open theists claim that those who take these biblical depictions of God as revelatory ought to affirm divine temporality and dynamic omniscience. Simple foreknowledge, timeless knowledge, middle knowledge, and theological determinism have a very difficult task explaining how God can be said to grieve, change the divine mind, make conditional pronouncements, and make predictions that do not obtain. Open theists acknowledge that biblical depictions of God involve anthropomorphism but they claim that the biblical portrayal of God properly discloses the way God interacts with creatures.


  1. Criticisms

Some critics charge that the openness understanding of God undermines absolute divine perfection. Proponents of openness believe that perfection involves the ability to enter into reciprocal relations, to receive, and to change in some respects. They reject Plato’s claim that any change in a perfect being could only be a change for the worse. Also, open theists argue that the biblical depiction of God, if taken as revelatory, is closer to the openness model than other views. They claim that the overall biblical portrayal of God is not a reduction of divine perfection but the way God actually is.

A related criticism is that a temporal God is “in time” and thus is a limited or finite being. However, the statement “God is in time” assumes a metaphysical position which open theists reject. The statement “in time” conceptualizes time as a container into which entities are placed. This notion construes time in ways rejected by the openness model. For open theists the divine nature inherently has the potential for changing mental states so time, in this sense, is inherent in the divine life and is not a “container” in which God is trapped. On the other hand metric or clock time, the measurement of physical processes such as the rotation of the earth, comes into existence with the creation.  God has dynamic and responsive relationships with creatures which involve change and thus time.

Another typical criticism is that openness departs too much from the traditional view of God and divine providence. Open theists have responded that speaking of “the” tradition is misleading since multiple understandings of divine attributes and providence have always existed. Jewish and Christian theologies, for example, reflect debates about how divine immutability, omniscience, and grace should be understood. Also, in Christianity there has been profound debate between the views of providence propounded by early Christian writers such as Justin and Clement of Alexandria, on the one hand, who argued for freewill theism and later thinkers such as Augustine who developed theological determinism. The watershed divide between these two models of providence is whether or not any of God’s decisions are dependent upon what creatures do. The early Christian writers generally affirmed weak divine immutability and weak impassibility in order to hold, for example, that divine election to salvation was contingent upon human acceptance of divine grace. Freewill theists represent the more prevalent tradition and have always maintained that some of God’s decisions are contingent upon and responses to creaturely action. This is why the freewill theistic tradition developed the free will defense to the problem of evil: by granting humans free will God took the risk that humans might commit evils. Classical theism, which developed after Augustine, affirmed strong forms of divine immutability and impassibility: none of God’s decisions is contingent upon creatures. Thus, open theism is in harmony with the core beliefs of the freewill theistic tradition which is the dominant tradition in both Jewish theology and in Christianity (e. g. the Eastern Orthodox, and in many forms of both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology).

Furthermore, though dynamic omniscience had relatively few known adherents until the nineteenth century it should be noted that the mode of divine knowing in this view is the same as in the more traditional simple foreknowledge and timeless knowledge views. Open theists agree with these views that the knowledge God has of what transpires in history is dependent upon God’s perceiving what the creatures actually do. God’s knowledge, for instance, that humans would create airplanes is due to the fact that humans brought this about. If humans did not invent airplanes then the content of God’s knowledge would be different than it is. The freewill theist affirmation of contingent knowledge in God is in stark contrast to the mode of divine knowing in theological determinism. In this view God knows that humans will create airplanes because God determines that this will happen. God knows the future because God writes the script of the future, not because God “sees” the future. Open theists, as part of the freewill theological tradition, affirm the same mode of divine knowing against theological determinism. This explains why open theists agree with freewill theists on all significant issues separating freewill theism from theological determinism such as election to salvation, prayers of petition, and the free will defense. Open theism, though it modifies traditional freewill theism on divine temporality and dynamic omniscience, is in essential agreement with freewill theism on most other doctrines.

Theological determinists criticize the God of open theism for the inability to guarantee that all events will turn out as God desires they should. However, this criticism applies not merely to open theism but to freewill theism in general because it holds that God grants freedom to creatures and as a direct consequence God cannot guarantee what they do. Open theists, in contrast to process theists, believe that God could have created a world over which God guaranteed the outcomes. The cost for that guarantee would be determinism and a lack of reciprocal relationships between God and creatures. For open theists, God valued loving and responsive relations with creatures and so forsook a guaranteed outcome.

A final criticism is that the dynamic omniscience position cannot explain biblical predictions. The openness model conceives of divine predictions as multifaceted and places them into three categories. The vast majority of biblical predictions are conditional in nature (e. g. if Israel worships other gods the people will go into exile). Most predictions are understood to be conditional even when the conditional is not explicitly stated, as in the story of Jonah. Another type of prediction is what is likely to happen (probable) unless something in the situation changes (e. g. Nebuchadnezzar’s failure to destroy the city of Tyre). The third category is when God intends to bring about a specific event regardless of what creatures do and so predicts a future event. For open theists God can guarantee the event not because God “foreknows” the event but because God has the requisite power to bring the event about.

Bibliography for article:

Basinger, David. (1996) The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. (A short work on some philosophical issues involved with open theism.)

Boyd, Gregory. (2000) God of the Possible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. (A helpful introduction for non specialists.)

Boyd, Gregory, Alan Rhoda, and Thomas Belt (2006) “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future” Faith and Philosophy, 23(4), 432-459, October. (Addresses the issue of the truth value of propositions about the future.)

Brümmer, Vincent. (2008) What Are We Doing When We Pray? A Philosophical Investigation.  Revised edition, Ashgate, (Analyzes forms of prayer in connection to divine attributes).

Cobb, John B. Jr., and Clark H. Pinnock, (eds.) (2000), Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue Between Process and Free Will Theists. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans. (Discusses agreements and disagreements between open and process theists.)

Fretheim, Terence. (1984) The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress. (Presents support from the Hebrew Bible for dynamic omniscience and divine responsiveness.)

Hasker, William. (2004) Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God, London: Routledge. (A careful comparison of open theism and its chief competitors along with replies to several criticisms.)

_________. (1989) God, Time, and Knowledge, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion. Cornell University Press. (Makes a case for divine temporality and dynamic omniscience.)

__________. (2008) The Triumph of God Over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. (A thorough philosophical discussion of the problem of evil from the openness of God perspective.)

Hasker, William, Oord, Thomas J., and Zimmerman, Dean, (eds.) (2011) God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics and Open Theism. Eugene Oregon: Wipf and Stock. (A collection of philosophical essays by open theists.)

Lucas, J. R. (1989) The Future: An Essay on God, Temporality, and Truth. Blackwell. (An important work defending divine temporality and dynamic omniscience.)

Oord, Thomas J. (ed.) (2009) Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science, Eugene Oregon: Wipf and Stock. (Theological essays by open theists.)

Pinnock, Clark. (2001) Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness. Grand Rapids: Baker            Academic. (An impotant theological defense of open theism and response to criticisms.)

Pinnock, Clark and David Basinger, William Hasker, Richard Rice, and John Sanders. (1994) The Openness of God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. (A helpful introduction to the topic and the book that put the model on the map.)

Rhoda, Alan. (2011) “The Fivefold Openness of the Future.” In Hasker, Oord, and Zimmerman (eds.) (2011) God in an Open Universe. (Argues that open theism entails that the future is causally, ontically, alethically, epistemically, and providentially open.)

Rice, Richard. (1980) The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. Nashville: Review and Herald Publishing. (The first work to use the moniker.)

Sanders, John. (2007) The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Revised edition. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. (The most thorough introduction to the openness model using biblical, philosophical, and theological materials to defend the position.)

Tuggy, Dale. (2007) “Three Roads to Open Theism.” Faith and Philosophy 24.1: 28-51. (Examines various open theistic understandings of the nature of the future and truth claims about it).

Woodruff, David.  (2008) “Examining Problems and Assumptions: An Update on Criticisms of Open Theism.” Dialog 47.1: 53-63. (A survey of responses to criticisms of the model.)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (2001) “Unqualified Divine Temporality,” in Gregory Ganssle (ed.) God and Time: Four Views, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. (Defends divine temporality from philosophical and biblical materials.)

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.

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