Does Open Theism Reduce or Limit God?

Draft version: not for citation or quotation. Published version: “Reducing God to Human Proportions” in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark Pinnock, eds. Anthony Cross and Stanley Porter (Paternoster, U.K. and Eerdmans, U.S. 2003), pp. 111-125.


Norman Geisler claims that open theists, such as Clark Pinnock, are ‘creating God in the image of man’, Bruce Ware argues that open theists seriously ‘diminish God’ and Ronald Nash claims that open theists worship a ‘finite God’.[1] Basically, these all boil down to the claim that open theists bring God down to the level of creatures—reducing God to an exalted human being.

In order to see whether this criticism is appropriate I will first survey some of the intellectual history, both Eastern and Western, regarding what people have thought it means to reduce God. Then I will focus on the issues surrounding the interpretation of biblical texts regarding immutability and omniscience detailing the criticisms of reducing God. It will be shown that in order for the accusations of reducing God to stick, a certain vantage point must be assumed, and if one does not affirm this vantage point, then the charge falls like water off a duck’s back.

What does it mean to ‘reduce’ God?

Generally, to reduce God has been defined as one of the following: (1) the absolute cannot be relativised, (2) the finite cannot contain the infinite, (3) the infinite cannot be described by finite terms, or (4) God is completely unlike anything in creation. Though there is disagreement regarding the details, there is an amazing similarity between a variety Eastern and Western thinkers on these points.

The Denial of Predication

The great Hindu theologian, Shankara, wrestled with applying human language to Brahman (ultimate reality). ‘Brahman is eternal, all-knowing, absolutely self-sufficient, ever pure, intelligent and free, pure knowledge, absolute bliss.’[2] However, a being that has bliss and intelligence seems to have characteristics in common with humans—that is, finite characteristics. Shankara realized the problem and so made his famous distinction between saguna Brahman (God with characteristics) and nirguna Brahman (God without characteristics). The common interpretation of Shankara is that he believed that saguna Brahman was for purely propaedutic reasons to help us towards enlightenment while nirguna Brahman corresponds to reality.[3] Consequently, Brahman is not related to the world, cannot receive anything, and is beyond all finite characteristics. The categories of time and change do not apply to Brahman.[4] To think of Brahman as possessing qualities is to place Brahman under limiting conditions—to reduce God to human proportions. Though some Hindu theologians (e.g. Ramanuja) rejected Shankara’s nirguna-saguna distinction, the notion that Brahman is simple and therefore beyond characteristics has become a central tenet of advaita (non dualism).

A similar claim is made by many Buddhists. According to Asvaghosa all of our present thought and interpretation of our experience is conditioned by the realm of impermanence. Everything fades away—our health, our friendships—nothing lasts. Time and change mark our existence. There is, however, another realm that is absolutely unconditioned, unaffected by change, beyond the limitations of our existence. This unconditioned realm is ineffable for we cannot use human language to speak of it or rationality to understand it because all language and rationality occur within the realm of the conditioned—the limited. That which is truly unlimited cannot be spoken.[5] The ultimate reality is wholly beyond our words and concepts—we must not reduce it to human proportions.[6] If we do speak of it then the doctrine of the ‘double truth’ must be kept in mind. According to this doctrine (which functions like the saguna-nirguna distinction), lower truth is conveyed in language but higher truth surpasses predication.

Western thinkers have faced the same issue.[7] For instance, in Plato’s system a personal God is not the highest form of reality. Rather, his ultimate reality is the forms. Though he does not work out his views in a fully consistent manner, Plato places the Good beyond all finite categories such as time, space, change, personhood, intelligence, and will. That is, his ultimate metaphysical principle is timeless, immutable, incorporeal, and impersonal. It is not aware of anything and cannot be affected by anything (impassible). To believe otherwise is to reduce ultimate reality to human proportions. Below the Good is the demiurge (God). God is timeless, completely immutable, impassible and incapable of love. He argues that God is perfect and that a perfect being would never change as any change could only be a change for the worse. God ‘cannot be supposed to have either joy or sorrow. Certainly not! There would be great impropriety in the assumption of either alternative.’[8] God cannot love because love implies a deficiency—a need or lack of some kind. The only reason one loves is because one wants something that you do not have. Since God is self-sufficient, God does not love. Plato’s God is highly exalted but does have the finite characteristics of omniscience and omnipotence. Yet, overall, he tries very hard not to reduce God to human proportions since that involves ‘great impropriety’.

Aristotle’s ultimate deity is his unmoved-mover. God is a timeless, self-sufficient, immutable, impassible, and simple (no differentiation) being of pure consciousness. God has no potentiality and so never changes in any respect. God has no relations with any being external to himself. If God had relations with others then God would be dependent upon the others in order to have the relationship. God cannot have any friends. In fact, God is not even aware that we exist as that would make him less than perfect and would mean that God was conditioned by finite beings thus reducing the magnificence of God. To think of God in relationship with us is to render God finite!

The Greek skeptic, Carneades, argued that if one attributes to God properties such as life, intelligence and bliss, then one has rendered the infinite, finite. ‘It is impossible to ascribe the characteristics of personal existence to deity without limiting its infinity.’[9]

According to the influential writer, Plotinus, the best name for the ultimate reality is the ‘One’. However, even this name does not really apply since the One is so utterly transcendent as to be beyond being, essence and life. The One is not a soul or mind for if one ascribed personal characteristics to it then it would be limited. Truly, nothing can be predicated of it—it is wholly ineffable—completely beyond all finite categories. If we were to assert that the One has life, intelligence, or will or any attribute, then we would be placing limits on the divine.

Skipping ahead to the contemporary scene, the same sentiments continue to be expressed. Paul Tillich, following in this distinguished tradition, argued that the only non-symbolic statement we could make about God is that God is ‘Being-Itself’. God is not a being existing alongside other beings as that would make God finite. All existing beings are a mix of being and nonbeing but God is infinite containing no potentiality or mutability.  God, as Being-Itself, does not even exist, since to exist is to possess nonbeing which is obviously inapplicable to God. Also, to think of creatures having interpersonal relations with God is impossible since to have a relationship is to posit two beings existing alongside each other.  ‘It is an insult to the divine holiness to treat God as a partner with whom one collaborates or as a superior power whom one influences by rites and prayers.’[10] Why is it an insult? Because to think of God as personal and relating to us reduces God to a great being existing alongside lesser beings—clearly reducing God to human proportions.

According to Harvard theologian, Gordon Kaufman, the word ‘God’ is the symbol for the ultimate mystery behind human existence.[11] He speaks of the ‘real God’ (God-in-himself) which is completely ineffable and the ‘available God’ (God in relation to us) which is a human construct of our theological imagination.  Although we are cut off from knowing anything about this mystery we are forced to construct models of God in order to give meaning to our lives. Kaufman believes God is totally infinite and so all human language is inappropriate for speaking of God. Consequently, he heaps ridicule on any anthropomorphic conception of God—especially the personalistic conceptions of ordinary Christians (he calls such a God a ‘spook’).

According to John Hick, ‘God’, or what he prefers to call the ‘Real’, is outside all human experience and language so we cannot make predications about the Real for to do so implies that the Real is an object within human experience.[12] The finite cannot contain the infinite so no human thought or words are able to grasp the being of God. There is simply no way of knowing what God really is, whether personal or impersonal, good or bad, intelligent or ignorant.

A common thread running through all these thinkers is the belief that there is an infinite qualitative difference separating divinity from humanity. We must not reduce the infinite deity to our finite human understandings. The appeal to God’s absolute infinity argues that thinking of God as personal in a straightforward (reality depicting) way overlooks the fact that the concept ‘personal’ when used for God is actually a finite category. Depicting God in personal symbols, as biblical writers do, limits God. J. N. Findlay charges that it is ‘wholly anomalous to worship anything limited in any thinkable manner.’[13] Consequently, to speak of God utilizing any human concepts is to affirm a ‘finite’ God and thus commit idolatry.[14]

The Reduced God of Scripture

In light of these remarks consider how grossly anthropomorphic the following biblical descriptions are because they apply finite characteristics to God. ‘Yahweh your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality, nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing’ (Deut. 10:17-18).[15] God is ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness, and relenting of evil’ (Joel 2:13). A God who cares about orphans, widows and aliens? A God who is slow to anger? How anthropomorphic can you get? According to the authors cited above, the biblical writers are guilty of reducing God to human proportions.

Classical Theism

There is a long tradition in Jewish and Christian theology, known as Classical Theism, that also shies away from these biblical descriptions. The problem is that the scriptures are simply too anthropomorphic. A deity who gets angry is a deity that experiences change. A deity that experiences change, experiences time. Such a being cannot be immutable, impassible, simple or timeless. Consequently, asserting that God can get angry or change his mind is to reduce God to human proportions. However, these theologians, unlike those above, are willing to attribute some finite characteristics to God. For instance, in the Judeo-Christian tradition it has commonly been non negotiable that God is a personal being.

According to the Jewish theologian, Philo of Alexandria, we cannot know what God is like (God’s essence), we can only know that he exists. The Septuagint rendered the divine name in Exodus 3:14 as ‘He who is’. Philo took this to mean ‘My nature is to be, not to be described by name.’[16] God is anonymous or nameless, for to name is to define and to define is to apply finite categories and so to limit.[17] Philo’s God is absolutely transcendent and so is ineffable. God is so transcendent that he has no contact with human reason let alone with matter.

God is perfect, timeless, omnipotent, omniscient (including foreknowledge), simple, incorporeal, alone, self-sufficient, immutable, and impassible. Philo claims that though God’s self-sufficiency cannot allow reciprocal relations, God’s activities produce effects upon the world that are not true relations but ‘quasi-relations’. Regarding God’s immutability and impassibility, he holds that God cannot be acted upon and that ‘God is not susceptible to any passion at all.’[18] Philo is well aware of the many biblical texts that say God repents (changes his mind) or feels anger. In Philo’s mind such texts do not tell us what God is really like. Rather, they are anthropomorphisms for the benefit of the ‘duller folk’ who cannot understand the true nature of God. ‘For what can be a greater act of wickedness than to think that the unchangeable God can be changed?’[19] That would certainly be reducing God to human proportions.

The Western church is heavily indebted to Philo for he furnished Christian thinkers with the basic methodology concerning the ‘correct’ way of reading the scriptures so as not to diminish the divine glory. However, Christians did not agree with Philo on everything due to their understanding that God had come to us in Jesus.

For this survey, Augustine is the most important Western theologian due to his unparalleled influence. Augustine sees God as self-sufficient, impassible, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, timeless, ineffable, and simple.[20] For him immutability is a key attribute. He writes: ‘Whatever is changeable is not the most high God.’[21] He claims that God cannot even be capable of change in any respect or he would suffer a loss of being. ‘Only what does not only not change but also cannot change at all falls most truly…under the category of being.’[22] Like Philo, Augustine is well aware of the numerous biblical texts which speak of God being angry or joyful but such texts are written for ‘babes’ and do not properly refer to God.[23] The Bible, when speaking of divine wrath, anger, love and mercy does not describe God as he is. All change is to be explained as a change in us and not God. To believe otherwise on these matters is to turn God into a finite God.

In the Middle Ages the Jewish theologian Maimonides affirmed the God of classical theism when he asserted that God is simple, perfect and ‘has nothing in common with creatures’ for God is free from all limitation.[24] He writes: ‘The negative attributes of God are the true attributes.’[25] We are not to even come close to taking the biblical portrayals of God as reality depicting. They do not represent God as he is. If we took them to affirm that God is a person in some fairly recognizable sense, we would be reducing God to human proportions.

Similarly, the Medieval Muslim theologian Al-Ghazzali, asserted that no confusion of human and divine is allowed. Following Aristotle, he writes: ‘To bear relationship to what is imperfect carries with it imperfection.’[26] He acknowledges that we ‘worship a deity that hears, sees, and has knowledge, power, will, (and) life’ but he relegates these attributes to a lower level of understanding much like the saguna Brahman of Shankara. If we are not to reduce the glory of God then we should ‘avoid denoting him by attributers altogether.[27] As with Philo, Al-Ghazzali says we can know that God exists but not what God is like (God’s essence). All care must be taken not to reduce the magnificence of God by attribution of limiting qualities.

Moral to the Story

We could continue this survey but enough has been said to highlight that one of the central facets of classical theism, whether in its Jewish, Christian or Muslim forms, is that God cannot change in any respect. There can be no changing relations or emotions for God has no potentiality for any such changes. For Augustine, anyone who says that God is even capable of change is reducing God. What then are we to make of those contemporary evangelical Calvinists such as Bruce Ware and Ronald Nash who claim to be classical theists but assert that God is capable of changing in some respects?[28] If  Ware and Nash were brought before Augustine’s tribunal with the charge of reducing God to human proportions, Saint Augustine would render a guilty verdict.

There is moral to this story: one should be extremely careful when casting stones about reducing God for the windows in your theological house may be smashed, in turn, by those who believe you have reduced God. That is, ‘reducing God’ is a relative concept depending upon your vantage point. Some evangelical critics of open theism believe it reduces God to human proportions while the classical theists just cited would claim that all evangelicals (including the critics of open theism) are guilty of reducing God to human proportions. Finally, many Hindu, Buddhist and Western thinkers would assert that even the classical theists are guilty of reducing God. Consequently, those going around accusing open theism of diminishing God’s glory had better beware for they are also guilty of this according to the great classical theists and others.

How are we to move forward from this impasse? I suggest two points. First, that we make a distinction between saying God is not completely like anything in creation and saying God is completely unlike anything in creation. Certainly, a great many of the theologians and philosophers from various religions have affirmed the latter (God’s total difference). But this ends up in agnosticism. If we hold that God is not completely like anything in creation then we can allow that some attributes can justifiably be predicated of God. Moreover, if humans are created in the image of God then there is some sort of correspondence between God and humanity and hence it is legitimate to apply human language and conceptions to God. The issue will be which ones.[29]

My second suggestion is that the God who comes to us in Jesus is the real God. Not that Jesus discloses everything about God but that what he reveals is the way God is. This is similar to Rhaner’s rule: the economic trinity is the immanent trinity. The God with us (quoad nos) is who God is (in se). God is always more than we can understand, but if we are to accept Immanuel (John 1, Heb 1:3, Col 2:9), then we must take the divine disclosure in Jesus as the way God is unless we have good reasons for doing otherwise. What would be such reasons? Typically, they have been the arguments given above involving perfections, immutability and infinity. The question will be whether those arguments are substantial enough to legitimize challenging the scriptural portrayals of God. Natural theology is permissible but we will have to debate the role of hermeneutical and theological presuppositions as criteriological for the interpretation of scripture.[30] At a minimum this approach means that at least in some respects it is legitimate to speak of God using finite/creaturely categories. The dispute will be over which ones are best in light of scripture, tradition, reason and the Christian life.

  1. Does Open Theism Reduce God?

Having observed the range of views in history among various traditions on what it means to reduce God, I now want to focus on the charge against open theism. In this section I will concentrate on the work of Reformed philosopher Paul Helm for he believes open theism reduces God in two areas in particular: immutability and omniscience.


There are passages in scripture that say that God does not change. ‘I the LORD do not change therefore you [Israel] are not destroyed’ (Mal. 3:6). God is ‘not human that he should change his mind’ (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29). We will call these set 1. On the other hand, set 2 contains passages that say that God does change. The Lord was grieved that he made humans because they continually sinned (Gen. 6:6). God changed his mind about what he said he would do (Exod. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11, 35).

What are we to do with these seemingly contrary teachings? In his book, The Providence of God, Paul Helm says that scripture does not contradict itself so we must do something with these apparent contradictions.[31] According to Helm we have two options. (1) We can hold that the texts that say that God changes are the clear, strong and correct texts and subordinate the passages about God not changing to them. Or, (2) we can reverse this and claim that the passages about God not changing are the clear, strong and correct texts and subordinate the changing God texts to them. That is, we must resolve the problem by establishing one set of texts as the clear passages and interpret the other set of texts (the unclear) by them. One set gives us the proper teaching about the divine nature while the other set is comprised of ‘anthropomorphisms’. But how are we to decide which set is the ‘clear’ teaching?

If we subordinate the “God cannot change in any respect” to the “God can change in some respects,” then, according to Helm, we can say that God can change his mind, that he can be affected by our prayers, and that some of his intentions can be thwarted. Moreover, he says we could attribute a ‘rich, ever-changing emotional life’ to God. Many will find this appealing, but not Helm. The choice, he says, ‘seems obvious’. We must subordinate set 2 to set 1. The texts about God not changing are the clear and correct teachings about God. If we did not say this, then we will allow the ‘weaker’ statements in scripture to control the stronger resulting in ‘theological reductionism in which God is distilled to human proportions’ as it is in open theism according to Helm. That is, we must use the clear, strong texts of scripture that teach complete immutability and meticulous providence to interpret the unclear, weak texts that seem to teach that God changes and that some of God’s intentions can be resisted.[32] Otherwise, we make God into a very large human—creating God in the image of humans. Who wants to do that?

Helm’s method for handling the problem follows in the line of Philo, Augustine, Calvin and other classical theists. But there are a number of problems with it. First, we should notice that Helm has used a philosophical criterion to determine the correct interpretation of these biblical texts. This is legitimate but we should be up front about what is going on—subordinating biblical texts to philosophical argument. Helm claims it is improper to think of God having human characteristics such as changes of mind and emotions. Why so? Because we don’t want to reduce God! Reduce God from what? From an exalted conception of divine transcendence and sovereignty. After all, any God worth his salt is strongly immutable, impassible, timeless, exercises total control over creation and never, ever, takes any risks that humans would do things God does not want done. But wait just a dog-gone minute! If we are going to use such philosophical arguments to tell us which texts of scripture teach the truth about God and which texts do not, then we need to put those arguments on the table for debate. Simply asserting that open theists are ‘reducing God’ or that they are being impious may be effective rhetorical devices, but they are not arguments.

A second problem is that Helm begs the question. He says we must take the clear/strong texts and read the weaker ones in light of them. But hold on. That is precisely what is being debated. On what grounds does he decide which texts are the strong ones? Those texts that agree with his view of God! The passages about God not changing and exercising meticulous providence are the clear teaching of scripture because they agree with his understanding of the divine nature. Otherwise, we don’t really have a God at all. In other words, for Helm, only the strong Calvinist view affirms a ‘real’ God. However, this begs the question by assuming that his view of God is the correct one. Moreover, it can be argued that Helm’s understanding of God is a reduction of God to human proportions. After all, for many the image of the ideal Western male is a go it alone individual, not relying on anyone’s cooperation, who is never affected by what others do and whose will is always done.[33] Such characters are the mainstay of American movies and fiction.

Helm’s methodology here is replicated by most of the critics of open theism to characterize the open view as a diminished deity. For Helm and others, any deity that does not exercise total control is deficient and diminished. Any God that takes risks is a lesser God than one that takes no risks. What many fail to notice is that this claim means that Arminians worship a lesser God, not the real God. This attack on open theists is also an attack on all Arminian theology as well as that of many of the early church fathers.[34]

I want to propose a different solution. Helm claims that it is obvious that we must subordinate the scriptural texts about God responding to humans to the texts about God not changing. But do we have to subordinate either set to the other? We need to ask whether the two sets of texts actually conflict. In order to have a conflict between these different texts we have to interpret, as Helm does, Malachi 3:6 to mean God cannot change in any respect. If God cannot change in any way then clearly God does not grieve over human sin or respond to our prayers. But do the verses about God not changing say that God does not change in any way? No, they do not. What Malachi says is that God is faithful to his covenant people and he refuses to sever his relationship with them. Malachi is not stating an abstract philosophical principle about divine immutability! He is speaking of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. The same is true of Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29 (which is a quote of Num 23:19). God refuses in these two situations to change his mind. These texts do not say that it is impossible for God to change, only that in these specific situations God will not change his mind no matter what the human response is.

In my view, we can affirm both sets of biblical texts rather than subordinating one to the other. Whereas Helm holds that only one type of text speaks the truth about God, open theists maintain that both types of texts speak the truth about God. There is no conflict between the texts if we hold that God’s nature does not change but God can change in some respects.  For open theists, God is not wishy-washy but neither is God a stone. God is steadfast to his covenant but the exact way in which he carries out its fulfillment is not set in concrete. God’s unconditional promises are unwavering but God can and does change in his thoughts, decisions and emotions. Moreover, God can be affected by the prayers of his people.[35] Christianity does not require an absolutely immutable God—one who cannot change in any respect—it only requires a faithful God. Because open theism can coherently hold both types of texts regarding divine mutability and immutability together rather than subordinating one to the other, it provides a superior theological model than does Helm’s.


Now I want to apply this same line of reasoning to the issue of divine omniscience and the status of the future. There seem to be two types of texts in scripture important for a discussion of divine omniscience. Set A contains those where God is portrayed as learning by testing people (Gen. 22:12), changing his mind (Exod. 32:14) and switching to alternative courses of action in response to human actions (Exod. 4:14-16). Set B contains texts where God is portrayed as declaring that a specific event will occur (Isa. 42:9, 44:28). If God knows all that will happen in our future, then God does not actually test people to learn how they will respond and certainly cannot change his mind. However, things are not so simple. There are biblical texts in which God says something specific will happen and it does come to pass but there are other texts where God says something specific will happen and it does not come about (Ezek. 26:17ff; 29:12-20; Jonah 3:4). In order to resolve the tension between such texts Helm and others say that we must subordinate one set of scriptures to the other. To say that God changes his mind, switches to Plan B or comes to know something that God did not know previously, is to diminish God. Consequently, the ‘clear’ teaching of scripture is that God knows every detail of what will happen in the future—the future is completely definite for God.

There are significant arguments to support this view of God. For instance, it is claimed that if God’s knowledge of what creatures will do in the future is dependent upon the creatures, then God is dependent and no longer self-sufficient. If some of the content of divine omniscience depends upon anything other than the divine being, then God is reduced. This is one reason why, for instance, traditional Thomists and Calvinists have rejected both Molinism and simple foreknowledge. In Molinism the counterfactuals of human freedom are not under God’s control for what the creatures do in any possible world is determined by them, not God. In simple foreknowledge, (the traditional Arminian view), God’s knowledge of what the creatures will do is dependent upon the creatures. Both Molinism and Arminianism render some of the content of divine omniscience, not to mention the divine will, dependent upon humans—a clear reduction of God to human proportions.[36]

However, Open theists find these arguments problematic. Is God not freely sovereign to decide what type of freedom (libertarian or compatibilist) God shall grant humans? Cannot God decide to create humans with libertarian freedom and thus sovereignly decide that some of his knowledge and will are to be dependent upon creatures? That is, cannot God decide to restrain the use of his power (be self-limiting)? I will return to this issue shortly but first I want to address the issue of the biblical texts.

Proponents of openness think there is a better way of handling the types of scriptural texts mentioned above. They claim that we do not have to place either set of texts, A or B, ‘over’ the other.[37] Set ‘A’ may be called the ‘motif of the open future’ while set ‘B’ is the ‘motif of closed future’. That is, some aspects of the future are definite or settled while others are indefinite or not determined. Helm and others believe that the motif of the closed future is the way God really is (in se) while the motif of the open future is the way God only ‘seems’ to be in relation to us (quoad nos). Hence, one set of scriptures is true while the other set represents God’s ‘accommodation’ to us (i.e. they do not depict God as he truly is).

But what if both sets of texts are true? Helm and Ware believe that set B teaches that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge such that the future is completely definite or determined. Consequently, they believe that only one set of scriptures teaches the real truth. Proponents of openness reject this. For them, set B is about that part of the future that is definite or determined.[38] Some aspects of the future are definite and God knows them as such and so God can utter predictions about what will happen. Set A then is about that part of the future that is indefinite or open—yet to be determined—and God knows it as such. Hence, both sets of texts teach the real truth about God and neither has to be subordinated to the other for they are not contradictory. God can declare the future regarding those events that are definite and be grieved, change his mind, or opt for Plan B about those future events that are indefinite. God knows reality as it is so divine omniscience contains both definite and indefinite beliefs because reality is both definite and indefinite. The future is partly open and partly closed because God decided reality would be that way. If God had wanted a completely closed future so that God would possess exhaustive definite foreknowledge, God could have made that sort of world. However, open theists believe God decided not to create that sort of world. Hence, open theists are not reducing God because it is what God freely decided to bring about.[39]

The openness approach allows us to maintain that God is open to our prayers—allows himself to sometimes be persuaded by them—that God has a rich emotional life, that God enters into reciprocal relations of love with us, and responds to us. It also allows us to maintain that God is faithful, steadfast and that the divine nature does not change. This model provides a more coherent account of the biblical portrayal of divine omniscience and the status of the future as partly definite and partly indefinite. This model better handles the scriptural data that Helm wants to explain and it does not sacrifice notions of God that many of us find important such as divine relationality and divine faithfulness. Also, it does not subordinate one set of texts to the other but allows both to speak to us since there is no contradiction at all. Hence, in terms of theory formation, openness is a more coherent and comprehensive theological model of divine omniscience.


As we have seen, the history of thought is filled with examples of people seeking to define what it means to reduce God to human proportions. This has resulted in a range of views on the subject. The evangelicals accusing open theists of reducing God are themselves accused of reducing God by genuine classical theists. What we have is Bob claiming that Susan reduces God while Anthony claims that both Bob and Susan reduce God. Finally, Reba claims that only her view does full justice to God’s transcendence for all the other views end up reducing God. In my opinion, only those who say that we can know nothing of the nature of God are innocent of reducing God to human proportions in the strictest sense. However, if we are in the divine image then perhaps we are not reducing God. Rather, God has created beings that have some degree of correspondence to himself. Also, given the incarnation, God himself has come to us. So, instead of reducing God to anthropomorphism perhaps God has made it possible for us to have theomorphism. Following Abraham Joshua Heschel we could say that the concern for love and justice attributed to God in Deuteronomy 10:17-18 is not an anthropomorphism. Instead, the human concern for love and justice is a theomorphism.

We all negotiate various doctrines utilizing axiological criteria and this is certainly the case when it comes to the divine attributes.[40] What is most important to one group of believers may not be as important to another group. Hence, one faith community may be willing to give up something that another faith community is unwilling to sacrifice. The result is that one group may consider that the other group has reduced God while the other group believes it has not. It is doubtful that from this side of the eschaton we will be able to definitively settle this issue. What then are we to do? One option is to wage war against those we believe are diminishing God and establish a hegemonic rule to ensure that our side is the only voice that gets heard. We can ‘battle for God’ and seek to destroy the other.[41]  Another option is to admit our finitude and learn to dialogue about our differences in love (Eph. 4:15).[42]

[1] N.H.Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1997). B.A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: the Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000). R.H.Nash Life’s Ultimate Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1999).

[2] A Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy, eds. S. Radhakrishnan and C.A. Moore (Prrinceton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 512.

[3] Recent interpreters of Shankara make a good case that he believed that Brahman really is personal and, hence,  not beyond limiting categories. See B.J Malkovsky, ‘The Personhood of Samkara’s Para Brahman,’ The Journal of Religion 77 (1997): 541-562; Malkosky, ‘Samkara on Divine Grace,’ B.J. Malkovsky (ed.), New Perspectives on Advaita Vedanta (Leiden: Brill, 2000): 70-83; Richard DeSmet, ‘Forward Steps in Sankara Research,’ Darshana International 26 (1987): 33-46. Even if the standard reading of Shankara is overturned, the view that predicating attributes of Brahman reduces Brahman, remains true of post-Shankara advaita.

[4] Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy, pp. 515, 522, 529-31.

[5] C. Hartshorne and W.L. Reese (eds.) Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 168.

[6] Not all Buddhists agree with this way of thinking;. On the debates between Buddhists see K. Ward Concepts of God in Five Religious Traditions (Oxford, England: One World, 1987), pp. 59-80.

[7] For further discussion on these and other Western thinkers see my ‘Historical Considerations’ Clark Pinnock et. al. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional View of God  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). For comparisons of Eastern and Western theologians on the nature of God see J.B. Carman, Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[8] Plato, Philebus 33 in The Dialogues of Plato, B. Jowett trans. (2 vols; New York: Random House, 1937), 2 p. 366.

[9] Philosophers Speak of God, p. 416.

[10] P. Tillich, Systematic Theology in 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 1 pp. 271-72.

[11] See his In the Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) and God the Problem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).

[12] J. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1989). Curiously, for Hick the various deities of the religions (Yahweh, Allah, heavenly Father, etc.) are ‘finite’ manifestations of the infinite Real. If so, then those who actually participate in worship to these deities are worshipping finite beings. That is, the only beings ‘available’ for worship are finite beings, according to Hick.

[13]Cited in F.G. Kirkpatrick, Together Bound: God, History , and the Religious Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 46.

[14]Paul Knitter accuses anyone who worships Jesus as the unsurpassable revelation of God of being an idolater since Jesus is ‘finite’. Given his definition of idolatry I concede that I commit idolatry. See my ‘Idolater Indeed!’ L. Swidler and P. Mojzes (eds.), The Uniqueness of Jesus: A Dialogue with Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).

[15] Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1960).

 [16] Philo, On the Change of Names, 11. The Works of Philo, C.D. Yonge trans. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), p. 342.

 [17] In ascribing anonymity to God, Philo was following the Septuagint which never uses a name for God: Yahweh is always translated kyrios. See T.E. Pollard, ‘The Impassibility of God’ Scottish Journal of Theology 8 (1955): 355-6 and A. Konig, Here Am I (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 67.

[18] Philo, On the Immutability of God 52. Works, p. 162.

[19] Philo, On the Immutability of God 22. Works, p. 160.

 [20] See his Confessions, 7.11; 11.18; 12.15; 13.16; The Trinity, 1.1.3; 5.2.3; 4.5f.; 7.5.10; and City of God, 8.6; 11.10; 22.2. See also J.K. Mozley, The Impassibility of God (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1926),  pp. 104-9, J. Hallman, The Descent of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), pp. 105-123, B.W. Farley, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), pp. 101-6, and C.B. Kaiser, The Doctrine of God (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1982), pp. 75-81.

 [21] City of God, 8.6. See also, Confessions. 7.11.

[22] The Trinity 5.2.3.

 [23] Trinity, 1.1.2.

[24] Ward, Concepts of God, p. 103.

[25] Ward, Concepts of God, p. 102.

[26] Ward, Concepts of God, p. 122.

[27] Ward, Concepts of God, p. 123.

[28] Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, p. 164 and R. Nash, The Concept of God  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 105, 114.

[29] See my The God Who Risks: A Theology of Provicence (Downders Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p.  29.

[30] See Amos Yong, ‘Divine Omniscience and Future Contingents: Weighing the Presuppositional Issues in the Contemporary Debate’ Evangelical Review of Theology, 26:3 (2002): 240-264.

[31] P. Helm, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), pp. 51-4.

[32] Several critics of open theism have argued that attributing libertarian freedom to humans reduces God because it implies that God’s will can, for some things, be thwarted. B. Ware makes this claim in his God’s Lesser Glory, p. 226.  R. Highfield argues that the very notions of divine self-limitation and human libertarian freedom lead to a ‘monstrous scene’, for they imply a ‘little god’ which ‘diminishes the unique deity of God’. See his ‘The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism: Great Wall or Picket Fence?’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45/2 (June 2002): 279-99. What such critics fail to realize is that anyone who affirms libertarian freedom, such as Arminians and Molinists, are guilty of a ‘monstrous scene’ and not just open theists. In fact, anyone who utilizes the freewill defense for the problem of evil would be found guilty of reducing God according to this criterion.

[33] M. Erickson accuses open theists of ‘feminizing’ God (introducing feminine characteristics into the divine attributes). Even if this charge is true, so what? Is it inherently better to affirm a deity full of testosterone? See his God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book house, 1998), p. 161.

[34] Roger Olson makes this observation in his The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 196. Ware also acknowledges that his main criticisms of open theism are also criticisms of Arminianism (see his God’s Lesser Glory, pp. 42, 208, 226).

[35] Classical theists believe it is a reduction of God to think that God may be affected by our prayers. Dallas Willard, who affirms a form of open theism, replies: to assert that ‘because of the interchange God does what he had not previously intended, or refrains from something he previously had intended to do, is nothing against God’s dignity if it is an arrangement that he himself has chosen.’ See his The Divine Conspriacy (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 253.

[36] In soteriology, Louis Berhkof argued that only supralapsarians retained the full glory of God. Infralapsairans reduced God by making God’s decision to redeem dependent upon the human decision to sin. The problem, he says, is that saying that God responded to human sin means that God is then conditioned or affected by creatures—God is reacting to them!. This flies in the face of strong impassibility and immutability—diminishing the divine glory. See his Systematic Theology, 3’rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1946(, pp. 118-25.

[37] G. Boyd’s, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), pp. 13-15 discusses this.

[38] Though some biblical predictions that might seem to be part of B are not for they are conditional pronouncements (e.g. Jonah 3:4). Predictions that are conditional (even if they came to pass) were not about a definite future.

[39] If one maintains, as Helm apparently does, that God cannot create a world over which God does not exercise meticulous control, then that is certainly a limitation for God.

[40] See Amos Yong, ‘Divine Omniscience’, pp. 255-6.

[41] As do N. Geisler and H.W. House, The Battle for God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2001).

[42] See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996).

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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