Is Open Theism a Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?

Draft version: not for citation or quotation. Published version: “Is Open Theism a Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 38.2 (Fall 2003): 69-102.

There has been a fair amount of discussion and some vociferous rhetoric about what some consider a new view of God. While some believe Open theism is the freshest breath of air since the Reformation others believe it will destroy the church. Is either of these sentiments justifiable? Is Open theism a radical departure from previous views? Is it really that distinct of a position? Some critics have labeled Openness “neo-Arminianism,” seeing it as a variety of a larger Arminian perspective. A number of years ago I argued that Openness diverged from what I call “Establishment Arminianism” in two respects: (1) God’s relationship to time and (2) whether God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events. I also argued that the Openness view of omniscience known as “present knowledge” was not all that different from the simple foreknowledge view affirmed by Establishment Arminians.[1] I now believe that divine timelessness is no longer an issue separating Establishment from the Openness form of Arminianism. In order to ascertain whether Open theism is a radical revision or miniscule modification of Arminianism I will first compare and contrast two different understandings of God and providence: Classical Theism and Freewill Theism. Next, I will compare two forms of Freewill theism (Establishment Arminianism and Open theism) on God’s relationship to time and God’s knowledge of the future as it relates to providence. Finally, I will explore some possible reasons as to why Open theism has received so much attention. I will introduce and use the following abbreviations of positions on the question of the foreknowledge of God:

EDF—exhaustive definite foreknowledge

PK—present knowledge

SF—simple foreknowledge

CSF—complete simple foreknowledge

ISF—incremental simple foreknowledge

A Comparison of Classical Theism and Freewill Theism

Though a number of different forms of theism exist, I will focus on two understandings of God and divine providence that have been dominant in Western thought. Both of these models are more highly developed views of what might be called basic theism. A standard definition of basic theism is: God is a personal being, worthy of worship, self-existent, the free creator of all that is not God, separate from the world, the sustainer of the world, perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternal.[2] Also, these theological models may be distinguished from basic or mere Christianity as defined, for instance, in the Apostle’s Creed. One may be a Christian without affirming either Classical or Freewill Theism.

Classical Theism

Classical theism affirms basic theism but adds a number of very carefully defined attributes. God is a se, simple, immaterial, immutable, impassible, timeless, necessary, personal, pure act, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.[3] The term Classical theism was coined to designate the view of God developed by certain Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers. It may be outlined as follows:

  1. God is timeless (no before or after for God, only an eternal present).
  2. Pure act. God has no potentiality for change in any respect.
  3. Simple. God is not composed of parts for then God would be dependent upon them. We must think of each of the divine attributes in an identical way.
  4.  Immutable: God does not change in any respect including thoughts, will, or emotions. The divine plan is unchanging.
  5. Impassible: God cannot be affected by creatures. God never responds or reacts to what we do. Our prayers never affect God, rather God uses our prayers to effect what he desires to bring about through our prayers. There are no reciprocal (give-and-take) relations between God and creatures for, as pure act, God cannot receive anything from creatures. God is closed to us.
  6.  Specific sovereignty: Only what God specifically ordains to occur, happens. Nothing happens unless it has been specifically ordained by God to happen as part of his meticulous plan. (Proponents of this view typically affirm compatibilistic freedom for humans in which you are free so long as you act on your desires, but your desires are determined.)
  7. God has a meticulous blueprint for everything that happens in history.
  8. God exercises meticulous providence such that the divine will cannot fail or be thwarted in any detail. God never takes risks.   In soteriology this leads to the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace.
  9. God is omniscient (knows all that is knowable).
  10. God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF). God knows the future because God actively determines what the future will be, not because God passively previsions the future.

Classical theism has been an extremely influential view that has been widely held by some of the most important thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, for many centuries it was the dominant view among Christians (e. g. Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin,). The view of the divine nature affirmed by Classical theists differs significantly from that of other Jews and Christians who affirm Freewill theism (stated below) and these differences lead to disagreements on a range of theological issues as well as to divergent readings of scriptural texts. According to Classical theism divine perfection means that God is absolutely independent of creation and cannot be dependent upon a creature in any respect. The motivation for this view arises out of a particular conception of perfection as applied to God. That is, if it is good to have qualities such as knowledge, will, power, and love, then what must a being that is perfect in these qualities be like? It is argued that God is perfect in the sense that there can be no possible improvement or potential for change since any change in God could only be a change for the worse.

From this conception of God a family of attributes arise: God is simple, immutable, impassible, timeless, necessary, pure act, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.  Together, these combine to affirm that there is no change of any kind in God nor is God dependent upon anything other than himself. Simplicity means that there is no genuine differentiation in God. God is identical with his properties such that God does not have, for instance, omnipotence and omniscience, as distinct parts. As pure act, God has no potential for change of any kind as this would mean God was less than complete. As immutable, God cannot change in any respect including thoughts, intentions, or emotions. Being impassible, nothing external to God, such as creatures, can affect God in any way. God is timeless in that there is no before or after for God, only an eternal present.[4]

It is clear then that a timeless and wholly immutable being cannot change whatsoever including changes in thoughts, will, or emotions. Augustine said: “only what does not only not change but also cannot at all change falls most truly. . . under the category of being” On the Trinity, 5.2-3). If God were passible (affected by creatures) then God would be changeable and less than self-sufficient. If God had changing emotions or could suffer then God would be less than perfect.  So God cannot be affected or influenced in any way by creatures. Our prayers of petition serve as instruments by which God brings about what he has ordained but our prayers never affect what God has eternally willed to bring about. It is impossible that our prayers have any influence on God’s decisions.[5]

Since the divine plan is unchanging, God exercises meticulous providence by specifically ordaining each and every event to occur. God tightly controls everything so that whatever happens, down to the smallest detail, is exactly what God wanted to happen. God has a meticulous blueprint for everything that happens in history, including evil and suffering. All events are ordained by God for good reasons that remain hidden from us. The divine will cannot fail or be thwarted in any detail. God never takes risks for whatever we do is precisely what God wanted us to do. We cannot act in such a way that God would fail to get exactly what he desired in every detail. In salvation this leads to the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace. God’s decision to save an individual cannot be dependent in any way upon humans, as that would deny the doctrines of immutability, impassibility and self-sufficiency. Regarding evil, this view repudiates the Freewill defense and affirms instead the soul-making theodicy.

Regarding omniscience, there can be no change in God’s knowledge from before to after. Consequently, omniscience must include exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events (human actions). The entire future is completely definite or certain for God. God knows the future as what will actually happen not as what might possibly happen. God knows the future as certain because God determines what the future will be. God’s knowledge of what we will do in the future cannot be causally dependent upon us since that would mean God was not impassible or self-sufficient.

Finally, many Classical theists affirm compatibilistic freedom for humans in that you are free so long as you act on your desires, but your desires are determined. In this conception of freedom God can perfectly guarantee that humans do exactly what God desires in every circumstance. All God has to do is ensure that our strongest desire in any instance is what God wants. Whatever we do is precisely what God wanted us to do in that instance.

As an aside, many critics of the Openness of God claim that it is incompatible with Classical Theism and so cannot be Christian because they equate Christianity with Classical Theism. It is commonly asserted that “all” orthodox Christians have affirmed this view of God. However, this is false. First, Classical Theism cannot be equated with Christianity for there is nothing distinctively Christian about it (some Jews and Muslims affirm it as well). Second, orthodox Christianity (e.g. Apostles’ Creed) is far older, historically, than Classical Theism. Since Classical Theism developed in the centuries after Christ, it cannot be the foundation of Christianity. Third Classical Theism is often depicted as “the” traditional view of God but it is not since there are other traditional views of God within each of these religions. I now turn to a major tradition that is incompatible with Classical Theism as well.

Freewill Theism

Like Classical theism Freewill theism also affirms Theism Simpliciter but goes beyond it in a different direction than does Classical theism.[6] With Theism simpliciter it holds that God is a personal being, worthy of worship, self-existent, the free creator (ex nihilo) of all that is not God, separate from the world (and is immaterial), sustains the world, continually active in it, perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternal. Moreover, it even includes some of the attributes of Classical theism. However, it modifies or rejects several key attributes of Classical theism such as immutability, pure actuality, and impassibility. Freewill theists affirm that humans have libertarian freedom (the ability to do otherwise than you did), that God can be affected by creatures, and that God enters into genuine give-and-take relations with us. It emphasizes relationality because God is understood to enter into genuinely reciprocal relations with us. Consequently, Freewill Theism cannot be equated with Classical Theism. The great watershed between Classical and Freewill theisms is whether one affirms that some of God’s decisions and actions are contingent upon or influenced by creatures. If you answer yes to this, then you are not a Classical theist. That is the most important issue.

Freewill Theism has been held by many Jewish and Christian thinkers. In Christianity, this view has been affirmed by many of the early fathers, the Eastern Orthodox church, Arminians, Wesleyans, and Pentecostals. Historically, it is older than Classical Theism. It may be outlined as follows.

  1. God is eternal (either God is atemporal or temporally everlasting).
  2. Rejects pure actuality for God does receive our prayers and worship.
  3. Rejects divine simplicity.
  4. Immutable: the character of God does not change, but God can have changing plans, thoughts and emotions.
  5. Rejects divine impassibility. God can be affected by creatures. God responds or reacts to what we do. This is especially seen in the doctrine of conditional election. Moreover, our prayers may affect God (impetratory prayer).
  6. General sovereignty. God ordains the structures of creation (our boundaries) and allows for human Freewill (libertarian freedom). Sometimes God acts to ensure that specific things happen and may override human freedom, if necessary, to carry this out.
  7. God does not have a meticulous blueprint for everything that happens.
  8. God not exercise meticulous providence. The divine will can be thwarted for some things so God takes risks.
  9. God is omniscient (knows all that is knowable).
  10. Freewill theists disagree about whether God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge. That is, they differ as to what is knowable (e.g. Are counterfactuals of freedom knowable? Does the future exist and if so, is it knowable?). Yet, even those Freewill theists who claim that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge disagree with Classical theists as to how God has such knowledge. Freewill theists reject the notion that God knows it because he determines it.

Freewill theism defines some of the key divine attributes in ways significantly different from Classical theism. According to Freewill theism, God decided not to create a world in which everything that happens is determined by him. Instead, God decided to be open to what creatures would do in response to the divine love. Most  Freewill theists emphasize that there is a give-and-take dynamic relationship between God and creatures.[7]

Though Freewill theists believe God is perfect, immutable, and omniscient, they do not define these in the same way as Classical theists. God is perfect in that the divine character (love, wisdom and holiness) is complete and incapable of improvement. But unlike Classical theists, Freewill theists believe God has the potential for change in some respects. For instance, God perfectly relates to creatures in on-going dynamic interaction. For God to fail to change in relation to us as the relationship changes would be less than perfect. Thus, though the divine nature is immutable, God can change in thoughts, will and emotions. For Freewill theism God is steadfast and faithful but is able to change in certain respects. A God who experiences our love, or lack of it, in dynamic relationships cannot be completely unchangeable.

Unlike us, God cannot be forced to react or suffer. However, God can voluntarily choose to enter into such relationships and be passible.[8] Consequently, God can be influenced and affected by what we do as well as by our prayers. Though prayer cannot force God to do what we want, God has opened himself to our prayers such that our prayers can have an impact on what God decides to do. God is receptive rather than purely actual. Our prayers really matter to God.

Freewill theists derive their name from the belief that God has given humans libertarian freedom (the ability to do otherwise than we did even in the same circumstances) and elicits our free cooperation with his plans. This means that humans can accept or reject God’s initiatives. God can sovereignly choose to make some of his decisions dependent upon the decisions of creatures. God takes the risk that his desires may be thwarted in some cases—we may not do what God desires.[9] Hence, given the type of world God decided to create, he cannot guarantee that everything will go precisely the way he would like. The Freewill defense to the problem of evil arises from these premises. Evil is allowed but not desired by God. Moreover, the doctrines of conditional election and resistible grace are developed out of this view of the divine nature and human freedom. God has sovereignly decided to make his election to salvation dependent upon human response to divine grace. This does not undermine God’s self-sufficiency since God’s existence is independent of creation and it was solely God’s decision to do things this way instead of exercising meticulous providence. Moreover, God has not chosen to be dependent upon humans for all things—God can act unilaterally.

It cannot be said that everything that happens is intended by God for God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence. God has chosen not to tightly control everything that happens and so, at times, his will for us may be thwarted. Sometimes God alone decides what shall be but most often, with regard to human action, God initiates and solicits our cooperation. Also, God is omnipotent and so could have prevented each and every act of sin had he so chosen. But God granted us libertarian freedom and so God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence. Hence, the divine will can, for some things, be thwarted and this means that God takes some risks regarding human sin.

When God created he did not have a blueprint for everything in creation. Instead, he had a destination in mind and desired to take a journey with us. Both the ultimate goal and the boundaries of the journey are set by the creator but many of the specifics of the course are set by both God and humans as we travel together in history. Freewill theists believe that God is flexible and resourceful in working with us in life.[10]

Establishment Arminianism and Open Theism on God and time.

Having explained Freewill theism in general I will now explore areas of disagreement regarding two divine attributes within the Arminian tradition of Freewill theism. The Openness controversy may be seen as a family squabble between Arminians about (a) the nature of the future and God’s relationship to time and (b) exhaustive definite foreknowledge.[11] In one sense Open theism is merely an attempt to correct some logical problems that proponents of Openness claim are present in Establishment Arminianism.[12] Open theism affirms all of Freewill theism and most of Establishment Arminianism. It has emphasized the belief that God enters into dynamic give-and-take relations with creatures and that God is affected by what we do. Two beliefs have been singled out as hallmarks of open theism: divine temporality and the denial of exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Each of these points will now be addressed.

Establishment Arminianism and Open Theism on God, Time, and the Future

The first area of disagreement concerns whether God experiences time and whether the future is a reality that already exists. Many Establishment Arminians believe God is atemporal while others believe God is temporal. Atemporality, or divine timelessness, holds that God does not experience duration or sequence (all God’s thoughts and will are one thought and one will that works out in our history). God timelessly sees all that will happen though God does not determine all things to happen. Nevertheless, the future is completely definite. Temporalists, on the other hand, believe God is everlasting in duration (always was, is and will be). Time is understood to be an aspect of God’s eternal experience between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is not captive to time as though time were an entity over God. Rather, it is simply a name for eternal consciousness.

Moreover, there is disagreement among Arminians as to the nature of the future. However, it must be noted that most Arminians have never explained their understandings of the nature of time and the status of the future! For instance, they have not been clear regarding whether or not they affirm the tensed or stasis theory of time or whether they hold to the block theory of the future. Recently, Jack Cottrell, a distinguished Establishment Arminian theologian, examined the nature of God and time and has decided that to be consistent with key Arminian beliefs (e.g. that God is involved with us in give-and-take relationships and that prayer influences God) the doctrine of divine timelessness must be rejected.[13] Timelessness implies absolute immutability and impassibility and these are clearly incompatible with the core values of Arminian theology since they lead to unconditional election, irresistible grace, and that our prayers have no affect on God. A timeless deity cannot plan, deliberate, respond, regret, grieve, or get angry. What will happen when more Arminian theologians examine these issues? What is non negotiable in Arminianism? It seems that in order for Establishment Arminianism to be logically consistent it must affirm divine temporality. This is precisely the move made by Openness Arminianism in order to follow through the logical implications of the core doctrines of Arminianism.

Some Arminian temporalists believe the future is completely definite because it already exists in some sense.[14] This seems to imply the block theory of time where past, present, and future are understood via the spatial metaphor of a block. The present would be placed somewhere on the block and all the events of the past would extend in one direction from the present while all the events of the future would extend in the other direction. All events, then, exist. God, it is claimed, has the ability to see the entire block and this furnishes God with exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF). Other Arminian temporalists deny that the future exists now. Those who believe God experiences time in some sense typically affirm the tensed theory of time in which only the present is real, the past did exist at one point but does not continue to exist and the future does not exist—it is not yet real. This position is typically called “presentism” in that only the present actually exists. We remember the past and we anticipate the future but they do not exist as ontological realities.

Hence, one of the key issues in this debate is the ontological status of the future—is it a reality or nothing at all? This is an important question for all to answer and the position of Open theism—that the future does not exist—is widely accepted (if not the dominant position) among contemporary Christian philosophers who publish on God and time.[15] For Openness, there is no reality or entity called the “future” that exists—Open theism denies the ontological reality of the future. For Openness, God knows all the facts that exist and the truths that can be known. Propositions about a non-existent reality simply have no truth value so there is actually nothing for God to know in this regard. Hence, Openness affirms God’s full omniscience because if there is a fact to know or a proposition with truth value, then God knows it.

This is similar to the issue of whether God can make a square circle or a colorless red car. Aquinas argued that these words do not describe “things” at all. They are literally nothing and it cannot be claimed that God is not omnipotent because he cannot make a nothing. In a similar way, if there is literally nothing (a non reality), it cannot be held against God’s omniscience not to know a nothing. It might be the case that propositions about the future are neither true nor false for there is no reality to which they correspond.[16] It is like the proposition: “The present king of France is bald.” This statement is not about a person since there is no king of France today. Alternately, it might be the case that propositions about the future are true or false, depending on how the future actually turns out. But if they are actually contingent events, then there is nothing about the world now that makes these propositions true or false.[17] Either way, present statements about the future do not describe any actual “entity” for there is no presently existing reality to which they correspond. Openness affirms that God knows all reality and is therefore fully omniscient. God knows all the facts: the dispute is about what facts exist.

A second key issue regards the “ability” of God—what can God do. Can God know the future? Openness claims that God could create a world in which the future of humans could be known. All God would have to do is determine all that humans do (meticulous providence) and since God would know everything God determines, God would know the “script” he has written for the future.[18]  William Hasker, a proponent of Open theism says, “God could have created a world in which he would have full foreknowledge of every detail, simply by creating a world in which everything that happens if fully controlled by his sovereign decrees.”[19] Consequently, Openness affirms that God can know the future if God wants to create a deterministic universe. If God wanted a reality in which the future was knowable, then God could have created it. Consequently, Openness affirms the full omniscience and omnipotence of God.

Dallas Willard puts forward a variation of this view (dispositional foreknowledge).[20] He says that God could know what humans will do in the future but God chooses not to know it. However, this could mean at least two different things. (1) It could mean that God could know what humans would do in the future if God did not grant them libertarian freedom and God, as in Classical theism, determined all events. (2) It could also mean that God can know what creatures with libertarian freedom will do in the future but refuses to know it. This would imply that God can somehow peek into the future and see what humans with libertarian freedom will do, but God chooses not to peek.[21] This second interpretation would mean that the “future” exists as a reality to be known.  In this case, it would agree with proponents of simple foreknowledge that the future already exists in some sense. However, this interpretation would also entail a major objection. The problem with claiming that God could know a reality but chooses not to know it is that this means that God is not omniscient in the sense that God knows all truths available to be known at any one time.[22] If omniscience is defined as God knowing all that can be known, then this view rejects omniscience for there are facts that can be known but God does not know them.[23] In other words, there are propositions that God does not know the truth value of and that entails a denial of the standard definition of omniscience.[24] The situation is quit different from the simple foreknowledge propounded by most Establishment Arminians. According to simple foreknowledge, future contingent events are facts and God knows them. Thus, God is omniscient.

Establishment and Openness Arminianisms on foreknowledge and providence.

Since proponents of Establishment Arminianism disagree amongst themselves regarding whether or not God experiences time, divine temporality cannot be a distinguishing feature of Open theism. I would now like to turn to what, so far as I can tell, is the only difference between Establishment and Openness forms of Arminianism: the debate over foreknowledge. The disagreement between Simple Foreknowledge and Present Knowledge is the only difference between Openness Arminianism and Establishment Arminianism. It is certainly the issue that gets all the headlines and causes some virulent reactions from proponents of meticulous providence. That these reactions are misplaced will be made clear by an examination of what a God with present knowledge can do providentially and what a God with simple foreknowledge can do providentially.

According to Open theism God has what may be called “present knowledge” (PK). God knows all that is logically possible to know. Thus, God knows all the past and present exhaustively but God does not have exhaustive definite foreknowledge of the future because there is no such reality to be known. A God with PK knows those events that will be future that are determined (i.e. not contingently free) either because God specifically determines the event or because God knows that present causal factors will determine the event. In other words, though the future does not exist, God knows some events will happen (certain possibilities will become actualities). That part of the future that is indefinite is known by God as possibilities and probabilities. God is not caught off-guard since God knows everything that can possibly happen and the precise probability that something will happen.[25] In dealing with the future God anticipates what we will do and plans his responses accordingly. In this view God is able to hear our prayers and respond to them, dispense guidance out of his unfathomable wisdom, and be flexible when necessary to adjust his plans as the situations change. God is involved with humans in dynamic give-and-take relationships, working with us to bring about the future.

Establishment Arminianism affirms a position known as Simple Foreknowledge (SF): God somehow simply “sees” (previsions) all that will ever happen in our history. At some point prior to creation God acquired exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) of future contingent events without, it is claimed, causing those events to happen. Though Openness Arminianism denies this, the differences between the two forms of Arminianism are not as great as might be suspected. As with God’s relationship to time, Establishment Arminians have not articulated what they mean by simple foreknowledge in any great depth. They have simply stated that God has EDF without explaining how this works for divine providence. Certain Arminian philosophers, however, have delineated the implications of this view and some of the logical tensions inherent in it.

Two different versions of how God’s foreknowledge is accessed have been developed.[26] Simple Foreknowledge is commonly explained as God “seeing the whole at once” with the result that God knows all that will happen. For example, God previsioned before the creation of the world my birth, sibling rivalries, marriage, adoption of children, etc. What God previsioned, moreover, includes all the details leading up to and surrounding all these events–right down to the number of hairs on my head at any given moment. This vision of God happens all at once and even though he knows things will occur in sequence God does not acquire the knowledge in sequence. I shall designate this version “Complete Simple Foreknowledge” (CSF) for God has immediate access to the complete future.

Unfortunately, CSF has a difficult time explaining how God can intervene in what he foresees will happen.  The problem arises because of the fact that what God previsions is what will actually occur (not what might occur). Divine foreknowledge, by definition, is always correct. If what will actually happen is, for example, the holocaust, then God knows it is going to happen and cannot prevent it from happening since his foreknowledge is never mistaken.  Furthermore, if what God has foreseen is the entire human history at once, then the difficulty is to somehow allow for God’s intervention into that history. This raises a serious problem. Does simple foreknowledge imply that God previsions his own decisions and actions? If a God with CSF possesses foreknowledge of his own actions, then the problem is to explain how the foreknowledge can be the basis for the actions when it already includes the actions. Hasker explains: “it is impossible that God should use a foreknowledge derived from the actual occurrence of future events to determine his own prior actions in the providential governance of the world.” [27] Such a deity would then know what he is going to do before deciding what to do. God would learn of his own future actions. But that seems to imply that a script has been written and even God is captive to it. A God with CSF would be unable to plan, anticipate, or decide–he would simply know. This seems to call the divine freedom into question, making God a prisoner of his own foreknowledge, lacking perfect freedom. For instance, if God sees Abraham’s birth, life and death all at once then how does God interject the test of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22) into Abraham’s life? How does God see God’s own actions in Abraham’s life which would alter Abraham’s life and consequently change God’s foreknowledge? As Swinburne points out: “what God already knows is beyond his making a difference to.”[28] Hunt is correct that a God “with total foreknowledge…is equipped to make maximally informed decisions–but there is nothing left to be decided.”[29] Now that God has knowledge of all that will happen, it is “too late” logically for God to change anything. The divine freedom is seriously curtailed. What a sorry state for God to be in!

There is, however, another explanation of how simple foreknowledge works. Cottrell, who has written three lengthy volumes on the nature of God and providence from an Arminian perspective, sees the problems with CSF. He now affirms that God accesses the future in sequence or incrementally.[30]  This position may be called “Incremental Simple Foreknowledge” (ISF). When God is foreseeing the future he sees only part of it at a time—not the complete whole at once as in CSF—and learns about what will happen in the future incrementally or step by step. Speaking metaphorically, God rolls the tape of the future up to a certain point and then stops it in order to interject his own actions into our history and then rolls the tape further to see what his creatures will do in response to his actions. Then God again pauses the tape and thinks about what he will do and then rolls the tape further.  Hence, there is a logical sequence in the way God comes to access his foreknowledge.  In this version God still learns what will happen in the future prior to creation, but he learns it incrementally (in sequence).[31] For instance, prior to creation God learns that Abraham will obey his call to leave his homeland. Yet Abraham has some questionable character traits and so God decided to put him to a test to find out whether Abraham had really changed or not. At this point in the tape God does not yet know the outcome of this test. God pushes the play button to see whether Abraham passes the test. God learns that he does (Gen. 22:12). Then God decides to make another promise to Abraham. At this point on the tape God does not yet know how Abraham’s descendents will turn out. So God continues to work his way through the tape, pausing it to interject his own actions until God comes to the end. At this point, just prior to actually creating, God now knows all that will happen in human history. Cottrell calls God’s acquisition of this knowledge the “noetic big bang.” ISF has a huge advantage over CSF since God can freely interject his own decisions. It does not undermine the divine freedom or render a deistic God.

Of what value is it for God to have foreknowledge? Doctrines are supposed to solve problems and help us live the Christian life so what is the cash value of affirming simple foreknowledge? Some have suggested that it gives God a providential advantage over a deity lacking foreknowledge. Could a God with SF have foreknown certain individuals would commit moral evils and so have decided not to allow them to be created? John Hick thinks so. He says it is “hard to clear God from ultimate responsibility for the existence of sin, in view of the fact that He chose to create a being whom He foresaw would, if He created him, freely sin.”[32]  Lorenzo McCabe, who wrote two large volumes on foreknowledge and defending Open theism in the nineteenth-century agrees saying “a being who the Creator foreknew would be disobedient should not be created….How easy for omnipotence to prevent the existence of those who, as his omniscience foresaw, would choose to be disobedient.”[33] The claim is that foreknowledge gives God the option of either permitting or preventing human choices once God knows them as actual. However, this is erroneous. Once God knows something as actual he cannot make it the case that it not be actual. Only if it is the case that God knows that something is likely to happen, though it has not yet happened, can God choose to either permit or prevent the as yet possible event.

Can a God with SF prevent sinners from being born or prevent certain evil choices? No, for the simple reason that if what God foreknows is the actual world then God foreknows the births, lives and deaths of actual sinners.  Once God has foreknowledge he cannot change what will happen for that would make his foreknowledge incorrect. God cannot make future actual events “deoccur.” If God foreknows (has knowledge of the actual occurrence) that Saul will freely choose to mistrust God, then God cannot intervene to prevent Saul from this mistrust.  Hence, God can see the evil coming before he creates the world, but is powerless to prevent it. Hasker correctly observes that:

[I]t is clear that God’s foreknowledge cannot be used either to bring about the occurrence of a foreknown event or to prevent such an event from occurring. For what God foreknows is not certain antecedents which, unless interfered with in some way, will lead to the occurrence of the event; rather, it is the event itself that is foreknown as occurring, and it is contradictory to suppose that an event is known to occur but then also is prevented from occurring. In the logical order of dependence of events, one might say, by the “time” God knows something will happen, it is “too late” either to bring about its happening or to prevent it from happening.[34]

It is a logical contradiction to affirm that God both knows something will happen and that God knows he will bring it about that it not happen. Hence, a God with CSF cannot act providentially in history and ends up being a deistic God.

Recognizing such difficulties, the proponent of SF may appeal to Incremental Simple Foreknowledge (ISF) in an attempt to rescue providential control. In this version of foreknowledge God roles the tape forward and learns (prior to creation) that Saul is succumbing to temptation–but does not role the tape far enough to see whether he actually sins or not.  At this point God may press the pause button on his remote and decide to intervene in order to buttress Saul’s flagging trust.  Will God’s efforts be successful?  To find out God rolls the tape forward to see how Saul will respond. If Saul chooses to continue to trust God then the temptation is overcome. If he fails to trust God then sin enters the world. Regardless, once God sees the actual future choice of the creature he is powerless to prevent it.  Prior to God’s foreseeing the actual choice being made God can seek to persuade Saul to trust God, but once God knows that Saul will fail to trust God then it is too late for God to prevent the sin.

It must be remembered that a God with SF (either CSF or ISF) does not have middle knowledge and so cannot “try out” alternative scenarios in order to ascertain which one will achieve his objective in preventing Saul from sinning.[35] A God with SF does not know before he decides to create this particular world which decisions and actions will actually occur in history. Consequently, a God with SF is no less a risk taker than the Openness God with present knowledge (PK). A God with SF might “luck out” in that his free creatures never, in fact, decide to sin. Even so it will not be because of any advantage afforded by SF. On the other hand, a God with SF cannot (contra Hick) be blamed for not preventing sin from coming about since this was not possible.

What of all those God foreknew would never exercise saving faith in him and thus are not part of the elect of salvation? Can God decide not to create them?  James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill thought so. “Think of a being,” he says, “who would make a hell, who would create the race with the infallible foreknowledge that the majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment.”[36] Although this objection is valid for Classical Theism (where God foreordains all things) it is not valid for either SF or PK because it misunderstands the nature of simple foreknowledge. Though God may use foreknowledge to see which individuals will freely come to faith in Christ and so decide to elect them, he cannot guarantee that only those who exercise faith in God come into existence.[37] For SF God’s election is dependent on, and logically subsequent to, the choice of the creatures even though God’s election of them is prior to creation. According to conditional election God responds to the free choices of his creatures. A God with SF takes risks in creating a world where God does not foreordain all things. But this means that God cannot be held responsible for ensuring that only those people who will love God will be born. Once he decided to create, God could have learned through his foreknowledge that no humans would ever freely come into a loving relationship with him. Thankfully, there are those who love God, but this is not due to the providential use of foreknowledge. So long as one affirms that simple foreknowledge is conditioned upon what creatures with libertarian freedom actually do then one cannot escape the conclusion that God took a risk in bringing about this type of creation. The only way to avoid divine risk is to maintain some form of divine foreordination of all things or affirm Molinism.[38] All forms of Freewill theism affirm that humans do things that God prefers they not do.

It is often assumed that a God with CSF would be in a maximally informed position to offer guidance and protection to those who petition him in prayer.  For instance, say Mandie asks God whether she should marry Matthew or Jim, believing that God knows how everything will turn out. Mandie believes, for instance, that God knows for a fact whether Jim will be loving or abusive towards her and would advise her appropriately. The problem is that if God only knows truths and God knows it as true that she actually marries Jim and that he actually will start out good but end up abusive, then God cannot change that from happening. Once God knows it as fact that she will actually marry Jim and be quite unhappy, then it is useless for God to give her the guidance to marry Matthew. It would be incoherent to claim that God, knowing the actual future and on the basis of this knowledge, changes it so that it will not be the actual future for God’s knowledge is never false. Of course, God might foreknow that Jim will be a wonderful husband for Mandie. Even so, it is not because God brought it about. A God who already knows the future cannot answer such prayers.

Fortunately, ISF does not have this problem. For ISF God only accesses his foreknowledge up to the point where Mandie invokes God for guidance as to whom she should marry–but does not yet know whom she will actually marry nor knows for sure whether Jim or Matthew will be good husbands. Consequently, God’s advice to her will be the best God can give at that moment. God is able to advise her on the basis of his exhaustive knowledge of all facts up to that point in the tape. That is, God does not yet know exactly how Jim and Matthew will turn out. What God knows at this point is their present characters, goals and the like. So, the guidance given will be based on God’s exhaustive knowledge of their pasts and their present characters.[39] God’s guidance will be based on his anticipation of how these men will develop. This explanation of divine guidance is exactly the same as would be given by an Open theist so there is no difference between an Establishment Arminian who affirms ISF and Open Arminianism on this point.

The same is true concerning prayers for protection. For instance, if God knows that Susan will actually be seriously injured in an auto accident on a trip from Chicago to Minneapolis, then no prayer for “traveling mercies” can alter this situation. God’s knowledge cannot be wrong so if God knows that she will become a paraplegic, then that is what will happen and God is powerless to prevent it. Consequently, prayers for protection would be useless and any divine interventions prohibited. Only if, at the point the prayer is offered, God does not yet know the outcome of Susan’s journey can a prayer for safe traveling be coherent for simple foreknowledge. If God decides to act in response to my prayer it cannot be based on his foreknowledge for that would involve a contradiction. A God with ISF would preview the tape of the future up to the point where he would foresee our prayers for Susan and would not yet know whether she is involved in an accident or not. At this point God can decide whether he will intervene or not should he anticipate that an accident is immanent. If God decided to protect her then as God rolls the tape further and sees an accident about to happen (it will happen unless some circumstance changes), then God can act to prevent her from being severely injured. Hence, the explanation of how a God with ISF answers prayer is no different from the explanation given by Open theists. What is different is the time when God acquires this knowledge.[40] For ISF, God receives it prior to creation as he previsions history unfolding moment by moment whereas for PK God acquires it as history now unfolds. For example, according to ISF God learned prior to creation that Abraham would pass the test and according to PK God learned that Abraham passed the test as it actually unfolded in time. But both views agree that God did not know whether Abraham would pass the test when he decided to put Abraham to the test.

The Arminian who affirms ISF and the Arminian who affirms PK will have precisely the same understandings of how God works providentially. They will explain in exactly the same way the passages about God “changing his mind” (e.g. Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15), being surprised (Jer.3:7), and why God tests people to find out what they really believe (Ex 15:25).  They will have the same explanation for God saying “now I know that you fear me” (Gen. 22:12) to Abraham for in both views, though God may have had a good idea, he did not know Abraham would in fact pass the test at the moment God put him to the test. Moreover, they will explain predictive prophecies in the same ways (as conditional statements of what will happen unless someone changes their present direction, as statements about a future event that is determined to occur either because God determines it or because God knows all the causal factors at work and their determined results). Both views will explain the way in which God responds to human prayers the same way. Both will explain God’s experience of grief (Gen. 6:6) and disappointment (1 Sam. 15:11) in the same way. Both views will explain God’s flexibility to switch to plan “B” when necessary, the same way.  In fact, all of the issues separating Classical theism from Establishment Arminianism will be identical to the issues separating Classical from Open theism. These include the use of the Freewill defense in coping with the problem of evil, the explanation of the way in which prayer affects God and how God can respond to our prayers, the understanding of how grace works in our lives in the process of salvation, the explanation of how we come to be the elect of God, the explanation of why there will not be sin in heaven, and the way in which God can guarantee a specific eschaton. All of these explanations will be identical whether one believes God has ISF or PK.[41] There simply are no practical differences between these two views of omniscience.

Are There Advantages to Affirming ISF?

If there is no meaningful difference between ISF and PK (Openness), of what value, then is ISF? Why would an Arminian affirm ISF?  Perhaps because one could then say that at this moment God knows all that will happen in the future. This may give some people a psychological assurance believing that God knows everything will work out all right. However, this ignores the explanations above that God may now foreknow that things will not work out all right because God knows that, despite all God has done, the humans involved may not obey God. Simple foreknowledge fails to provide God with any greater degree of control or providential advantage over a God with PK.

It should be noted that though Cottrell articulates a temporal version of ISF he does not accept my conclusion that ISF has no providential advantage over PK. He believes that it may be possible that even after God has “rolled the tape” to its conclusion that God may be able to go back and “touch up” the tape. That is, a God with ISF may be able to revise his providential activity once his “viewing” of the tape is complete. After the noetic big bang perhaps God can go back prior to the bang and alter the course of the bang. Consequently, Cottrell believes this would mean that he would explain predictive prophecies and certain other providential activities differently than I have claimed a proponent of ISF is entitled to. Cottrell acknowledges, however, that he does not yet know how to explain how this can be. He does not know how to articulate ISF in a way that avoids the contradictions I have explained above—in particular, how could God change an event he knows to be actual (fact) to be not actual (a non event). If proponents of ISF want to have providential advantages over PK then they need to demonstrate how it is coherent to make such claims. In other words, if the proponents of ISF believe the problems described above can be surmounted, then they need to show us in non-contradictory ways how this is so.[42] Perhaps they will. However, in the absence of any valid arguments to the contrary I will stand by my conclusion that ISF provides no providential advantages over PK and it is incoherent to claim otherwise.

A possible benefit of ISF over PK is that it allows one to affirm a common explanation of those scriptural texts that speak of God doing something “before the foundation of the world” (e.g. Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8). That is, God now knows all the elect though he does not foreordain the elect. In other words, it would enable an Arminian to affirm that God, prior to creation, foreknew all the individuals who put their faith in Christ and thus it can be said that God elected them before the foundation of the world. This is, in fact, the reason why Cottrell says he goes with ISF. Though these scriptures can be interpreted differently, Cottrell, finds this the best way of explaining them.

A temporal version of ISF allows Cottrell to uphold core Arminian doctrines. Divine temporality allows him to affirm conditional election, that prayer influences God, and that God has genuine give-and-take relations with us. ISF allow him to affirm that God now has foreknowledge of all contingent future events and that God elected individuals in Christ before creation. He believes divine temporality coupled with ISF offers the best explanation of the biblical material on divine providence and omniscience and offers a coherent way of maintaining a give-and-take relationship with God.

The main difference between ISF and PK is that the God of Openness is presently working providence out whereas a God with ISF worked it out just prior to creation. However, Cottrell acknowledges that ISF and PK are in agreement that both before God makes his decision about what sort of world to create, and immediately after he makes that decision, God does not know in full detail what the future will be.  Where the two views differ, is in how quickly God acquires the knowledge of what will be. Proponents of Openness hold that God acquires the knowledge as time goes on, whereas for proponents of ISF God “learns” this somewhat faster.  But this makes no difference whatever to God’s providential control, or to the degree of risk taken by God. That is, in terms of the cash value or usefulness of the two views, there is no difference whatsoever. Viewed in this light, how important can the difference between the two views regarding how fast God acquires the knowledge of the future be? It seems that when ISF and PK are properly understood there is no significant difference between them.

Objections to Open Theism are Just as Applicable to Establishment Arminianism

Observing the sorts of parallels just mentioned has led Establishment Arminian theologian Roger Olson to say that most of the criticisms of Open theism brought forth by proponents of meticulous providence are familiar criticisms of Establishment Arminianism (they just have not been made in a long time).[43] I would suggest that at least 90% of the criticisms against Openness are the same old objections raised against Establishment Arminianism.[44] Furthermore, if an Establishment Arminian affirms ISF then 99% of the criticisms against Open theism will also be criticisms against ISF.[45]

To see that this is so we simply have to examine a few of the criticisms leveled against Open theism. For instance, it is claimed that since the God of Open theism did not know prior to creation that humans would, in fact, sin, then the divine plan of salvation could be nothing more than a “contingency plan.”[46] Any form of Arminianism is going to have this supposed “problem.” The reason why is that in the logical order of knowing, according to simple foreknowledge, God did not know that humans would actually sin until after his decision to create a world with free creatures. God may have had a plan in mind for this contingency but since for Arminianism sin was not ordained as part of God’s plan for creation, it had to be a contingency plan.

In a similar vein, it is said that the God of Open theism could not have known at the time of Christ all those subsequent individuals who would put their faith in him so Christ could not have died for them.[47] Setting aside the dubious theological assumption behind the criticism, it should be clear by now that the proponent of ISF will face the same criticism for at the point on the tape of the future where Christ dies, those who will be born subsequently are not yet known by God.

It is also charged that, according to Open theism, God could make incorrect predictions about the future since God does not know with certainty, when the prediction is made, all that will happen. For ISF God does not know with certainty at the time of the prediction all that will occur in the future. However, neither Open theists nor proponents of ISF believe this entails that God makes mistakes for God will never definitely believe something will occur unless it is certain to occur.[48]

It is charged that God cannot guarantee the nature of the eschaton unless he foreknows it. However, omniscience is not the issue here, omnipotence is. Sam may know that he is going to buy a piano tomorrow but he is prevented from doing so because of an automobile accident. God, however, can guarantee that he will bring about an eschaton because he has the power to bring it about and no one can prevent him from doing so.[49]

It is claimed that Open theists cannot pray for the salvation of others since, if humans have libertarian freedom, God does not override their freedom in order to guarantee their salvation. Of course, this is an old criticism of Establishment Arminianism. Moreover, it is claimed that the Open theist view of petitionary prayer is “presumptuous” and “arrogant” to think we could advise God. Since Arminians believe that their prayers can affect God they are just as guilty of being “presumptuous” and “arrogant.”[50]

It is charged that a God who takes risks is an unwise God since it is foolish to create beings that God does not meticulously control. However, this is just as true for all Arminians since when God decided to create beings with libertarian freedom God chose not to meticulously control them and this implies risk-taking for God.

Finally, Norman Geisler claims that Open theism does not “fit comfortably in the theistic category” since it denies “God’s immutability, eternality, simplicity, and pure actuality.”[51] What he fails to notice is that if one must affirm these four divine attributes the way he defines them then all forms of Freewill theism are excluded from theism. All forms of Arminianism reject strong immutability, simplicity and pure actuality and many Arminians, such as Cottrell, reject divine timelessness.

Consequently, the vast majority of criticisms leveled against Open theism are also criticisms of Establishment Arminianism. Furthermore, to my knowledge only one of the criticisms of PK is not also a criticism of ISF. In other words, Open theism’s understanding of omniscience is virtually identical to this particular understanding of omniscience by Establishment Arminians.

Why Then is Open Theism Receiving So Much Attention?

If this is the case then why the hullabaloo over Open theism? Why the uproar from certain quarters? Two reasons stand out to me.[52] First, many have mistakenly believed that the denial of exhaustive definite foreknowledge is a huge divergence from simple foreknowledge. However, this is largely due to the misunderstanding of the value of simple foreknowledge to God. Simple foreknowledge is simply useless for providential activity—it affords God no more providential control than a God with present knowledge. Once Establishment Arminians understand this then they are likely to turn to ISF, PK or middle knowledge. But since I have shown that there is no significant difference between ISF and PK, if one is going to raise Cain over Open theism then one is going to have to do likewise with Arminian proponents of ISF. Again, the reason why this is so is because the watershed issue separating Open theism from Classical theism is not foreknowledge but the divine nature and the type of providence God exercises. Even Bruce Ware, at the end of his diatribe against Open theism’s view of foreknowledge, admits that the key issue is whether God has granted humans libertarian freedom.[53] The key issue is not exhaustive definite foreknowledge but whether God can be affected by creatures and whether humans have libertarian freedom. For if humans have libertarian freedom then God does not exercise meticulous providence and God takes some risks—ideas that are anathema to Ware but affirmed by all Arminians.

This leads to the second reason for the brouhaha—Open theists have presented the most acute criticism of, and alternative to, meticulous providence (theological determinism) in quite some time. Open theism has raised some extremely important points about Classical theism such as the inability of the God of Classical theism to respond to what we do or be affected by our prayers. Open theists have exposed these drawbacks and the proponents of meticulous providence know that their model simply will not sell in, for instance, many evangelical circles. It is no surprise that virtually all of the railing accusations and virulent rhetoric have come from proponents of meticulous providence. Establishment Arminians have, overall, viewed Open theism as a positive development even though they still have a number of questions.

The reaction to Open theism, however, has not been merely negative. Some people consider it the freshest breath of air since the Reformation. Why all the excitement over it if it really is not that different from Establishment Arminianism? I will hazard to put forward a number of reasons. To begin, Open theism has emphasized certain matters more than other relational theologies. Community and relationships are important components in contemporary theology and Open theism has taken a leading role in promoting these. More than other models, Open theism has emphasized a dynamic give-and-take relationship with God. God is flexible and resourceful in his dealings with us. Also, Open theists have highlighted the importance of prayer for the well being of the Christian community. Open theism resonates deeply with the piety of many Christians. It also has focused attention on biblical texts that bring out a dynamic relationship with God. This way of reading scripture strikes a chord with many people. The doctrine of the trinity has had a huge resurgence in the past few decades and Open theists have made it a focal point of their theology. Also, in Christology Open theists have affirmed that the God who comes to us in Jesus is truly what God is like—we do not worry about a “God behind the God of Jesus” who has a secret will different from that which has been disclosed.

Moreover, Open theists have made extensive use of recent Christian philosophy—particularly the voluminous literature examining the divine attributes of Classical theism. Doctrines that used to be taken for granted, such as strong immutability, impassibility and timeless, are no longer seen as essential to Christianity by a majority of Christian philosophers. Though the rejection of several of these attributes has always been required of Arminianism, this has rarely been highlighted. Also, proponents of Openness have concentrated on the problem of evil and many people find it liberating to not have to blame God for our evil and suffering. We do not have to think that God specifically ordained some horror for our supposed well being. We do not have to pretend to be thankful for the evil that comes our way. Instead, we are liberated to fight against it, taking personal responsibility to collaborate with God (2 Cor. 6:1). Open theists have received thousands of letters and phone calls from people saying that they are so glad that they no longer have to believe God wanted their baby to die or their daughter to be raped. Furthermore, Open theism provides a coherent explanation for the notion of spiritual warfare. God is actually at war with the forces of evil—they are not simply doing his bidding.[54] One cannot affirm meticulous providence and claim that God is at war with the forces of evil without contradicting yourself.

It hardly needs pointing out that none of these emphases are really new or unique to Open theism. Perhaps it is because Open theism has put them all together or perhaps because it just came along at the right time that it has captured so much attention. Perhaps it is the willingness of Open theists to follow out the logical implications of certain key doctrines of Arminianism, such as God’s relationship to time, that draw attention to it. Possibly it is because Open theists have sought to apply Arminianism in ways relevant to our contemporary context. Whatever the reasons might be for its high profile, Open theism is not putting forth a radical new model so much as it is making some important modifications to an old paradigm.


  1. All the varieties of Christian theism discussed in this paper affirm “mere” Christianity—that represented by, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed. Mere Christianity has developed historically into a number of more detailed versions of the Christian faith. Two of these more detailed traditions, Classical and Freewill, have been compared in this paper. Though both of these theisms affirm mere Christianity, they differ over some substantive matters. The watershed divide between Classical and Freewill theisms is the nature of God (especially regarding immutability and impassibility) and the type of providence God chose to exercise. All Arminians, whether temporalists or atemporalists and whether one affirms that the future is real or the future does not exist, agree that God has chosen to make some of his decisions and actions contingent upon creatures. Anyone who says that has rejected Classical theism. Openness is a member of the Arminian family.[55] Certainly Openness does not meet the criteria for being classified as Classical Theism. This is not a big deal, however, since no variety of Freewill Theism is a member of Classical Theism. In theological terms the taxonomy is:

Mere Christianity (divides into two main traditions)

  1. Classical Theism                                2.  Freewill Theism

Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin                                  Eastern Orthodoxy, Wesleyanism, Pentecostalism, Arminianism

  1. In terms of the differences between Establishment Arminianism and Openness Arminianism, they are not so different as people have thought. Both affirm the core doctrines of Arminianism (doctrines one cannot jettison and remain an Arminian such as libertarian freedom, conditional election, divine conditionality and that our prayers can affect God). Within Establishment Arminianism there are those who affirm, and those who reject, divine timelessness. Openness affirms divine temporality but so do some Establishment Arminians. Hence, there is not necessarily any difference between the two Arminianisms on this point. One can jettison divine timelessness because it is not a core doctrine of Arminianism.

Regarding foreknowledge, some Establishment Arminians seem to affirm CSF (though it remains unarticulated), while others affirm ISF. The majority of Arminians have not articulated their understanding of either the nature of time or the way in which simple foreknowledge works for providence. As more Establishment Arminians investigate the nature of time itself, the nature of the future, the nature of timelessness, and the problems with CSF then perhaps more Establishment Arminians will follow the lead of Cottrell in affirming both divine temporality and ISF. If my analysis is correct that it is contradictory to claim that a God with exhaustive definite foreknowledge can then change what he knows will be the case, then Establishment Arminians are faced with several options. They might give up simple foreknowledge altogether and affirm either PK or middle knowledge. Or, like Cottrell, they might affirm ISF and hope that the contradiction and other problems can be overcome even if, at present, they do not know how. At the least, it seems irresponsible on the part of Arminian scholars to ignore these implications and continue to make assertions about the providential usefulness of SF that are incoherent.

Regardless of which option is taken, it should be clear by now that there is absolutely no difference whatsoever between ISF and PK on any of the core beliefs of Arminianism. Also, I have argued the stronger claim that there is no practical difference between ISF and PK. Simple foreknowledge provides God no providential advantages over a God with PK. If so, then it does not seem that there is any substantive difference between these two Arminian views of omniscience. Both views are identical in the way they explain how God works providentially in answering prayer, evil, salvation, guidance, and the like. Both views agree that prior to creation there was a time when God did not know all future contingent events. For ISF God learned about these events in a “noetic big bang” prior to creation and as God rolled the tape forward he decided how he would respond in each situation. Figuratively speaking we could say that, for Openness, God is now “rolling the tape” forward and deciding how he will respond in each situation.[56] Does this difference make any meaningful difference? No. When the providential implications of ISF are correctly identified there is no significant difference between ISF and PK. Arminians who affirm ISF and Arminians who affirm PK are going to interpret scriptures about prophecy and providence in exactly the same way and will understand God’s activities in the Christian life in precisely the same ways.[57] Perhaps the hullabaloo over Openness is much ado about nothing. The only real argument between these two forms of Arminianism is the nature of the future: does the future already exist and is it knowable?

  1. Since the vast majority of objections leveled against Open theism are also objections against Establishment Arminianism, Openness is shown to be a subset of Arminianism rather than a stand-alone theological model. Open theism has emphasized some of the core values of Arminianism more than other versions of Arminians and so has taken a leading role in the Arminian resurgence in theology. Furthermore, to my knowledge only one of the criticisms of PK is not also a criticism of ISF. Therefore, in this sense Open theism is not a radical revision of Establishment Arminianism. But is it a merely a “miniscule modification?” Perhaps not if Establishment Arminians either turn to middle knowledge in large numbers or if they are able to overcome the problem of the providential uselessness of simple foreknowledge. Also, some Establishment Arminians will believe that it is important for God to have exhaustive definite foreknowledge even if it does not help him in his providential governance. So, in this sense it seems that Open theism is somewhere between a miniscule modification and a radical revision of Arminianism.[58]

[1] See my “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God,” Faith and Philosophy 14, no. 1 (Jan. 1997): 26-40.

[2] See H. P. Owen  “Theism” in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967) and A Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Thomas Mautner (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996) p. 425.

[3] This is the accepted definition. See the discussion of “Classical Theism” by the Classical theist, Brian Leftow, in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (NY: 1998): pages 98-99. This is the position developed by Philo of Alexandria, Augustine, Maimonides, Al-Ghazzali, and Aquinas.

[4] Some contemporary evangelical Calvinists who claim to be Classical theists reject divine timelessness while others hold that some of God’s decisions are conditioned by creatures (God responds to us). However, it is contradictory to affirm both meticulous providence and that God is conditioned by us. God cannot be pure actuality and also be affected by our prayers. It is not justifiable to call such modifications Classical theism.

[5] However, some evangelicals who claim to be Classical theists say that God responds to our prayers and thus are at pains to explain how a completely changeless God can respond to a temporal event.

[6] David Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism: a Philosophical Assessment (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996), distinguishes between “theological determinism” and freewill theism.  Both Basinger and I include Molinism (middle knowledge) as a form of freewill theism even though it has some peculiarities that put it at odds with some of the general characteristics of freewill theism. For instance, a God with middle knowledge takes risks only in a highly qualified way. It is more accurate to say the God of Molinism is fortunate or unfortunate rather than that he takes risks.

[7] I say “most” because I get the impression from some Roman Catholic Molinists that they do not emphasize this.

[8] This idea occurs as early as the third-century in the work Ad Theopompum by Gregory Thaumaturgus. See Joseph Hallman, The Descent of God: Divine Suffering in History and Theology (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 1991), pp. 46-49.

[9] Basinger, Case for Freewill Theism, p. 36 also claims that risk is a central element of Freewill theism. Molinism, as a form of Freewill theism, must be qualified on this issue. Molinists, such as Thomas Flint, typically deny that God takes “risks” (see his Divine Providence: The Molinist Account. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998, pp. 98-107). It is true that since Molinists affirm that God grants humans libertarian freedom, they believe that humans can act in ways that God wishes they would not (e. g. sin). However, since a God with middle knowledge knows all that would happen in any feasible world he could create. God knows how we would respond in any situation in which we might be placed and places us in situations knowing precisely what will result. God does not take a risk that we will do something he did not have complete knowledge of. It is correct to say a God with middle knowledge is either lucky or unlucky that we do what God wants us to do but God does not take risks in the normal sense of the term. Even so, Basinger, (Case for Freewill Theism, p. 48), asserts that Molinism entails divine risk-taking in this sense.

[10] Some Freewill theists believe that God has a “perfect will” for every decision we make (e.g. who to marry, what career to go into) while others reject this idea. This issue has been debated for quite some time. See Gary Friessen, Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) and John Boykin, The Gospel of Coincidence: Is God in Control? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).

[11] Actually, the debate whether God is timeless or not is occurring among Calvinists as well. The reason it is a “family” squabble is because in virtually all other areas Establishment and Openness Arminianism agree. It is like the family squabble among Calvinists over infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism.

[12] By “Establishment” Arminianism I mean the position taken by the majority of Arminians throughout history regarding divine atemporality and exhaustive definite foreknowledge.

[13] Cottrell, “Understanding God: God and Time,” Paper presented at the ETS November 19, 2002. See his earlier work, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler,  Joplin, MO: College Press, 1984.

[14] Jack Cottrell, for instance.

[15] This is the conclusion of my colleagues William Hasker and David Woodruff, both of whom have published on God and time. Woodruff had a difficult task finding defenders of divine timelessness for his volume, edited with Greg Ganssle, God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[16] The Open theist, Greg Boyd, prefers this formulation.

[17] The Open theist, William Hasker, prefers this formulation.

[18] This brings us to the old issue of whether it is the case that if the future is known are humans free to do otherwise than God knows they will act? Does foreknowledge imply determinism? Many open theists affirm that exhaustive definite foreknowledge implies determinism. In this they tend to agree with Classical theists against Freewill theists who affirm simple foreknowledge.

[19] Hasker, “Philosophical Perspective,” in Pinnock, et. al. The Openness of God (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 151.

[20] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), pp. 244-6.

[21] This would mean that God limits his knowledge in the same way God limits the use of his power. This view, with God’s self-imposed ignorance, would explain divine providence, prayer, and salvation in precisely the same ways as PK and ISF (explained below). Either of these two interpretations of Willard are compatible with Open theism so Willard does affirm a form of Open theism.

[22] Arminian theologian Jon Tal Murphy seeks to escape from this conclusion by distinguishing between God’s knowledge and God’s consciousness. He claims that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future events but can choose to have “selective consciousness” of those future events. That is, God can selectively choose not to be conscious of what he knows to be a future fact (truth).  He says that though God’s store of knowledge includes his prevision of, for instance, the fact that Abraham willingly offers Isaac, at the point where God announces the test, God blocks out of his consciousness the fact that Abraham actually passes the test. Otherwise, says Murphy, it would not be a genuine test. The claim that God can both know a fact and not be conscious of that fact is, to say the least, a radical view of omniscience. It seems to me that to claim God both knows and that he can block out of his consciousness some knowledge implies that God both knows and does not know a fact and that is a contradiction. Also, what value is it to claim that God is unconscious of a future fact it if cannot actually be changed? This would not help God provide guidance to us. Moreover, if a timeless God blocks out some knowledge at a particular time, then God is blocking out the knowledge for a specific time. Blocking implies process which entails time and that contradicts divine timelessness. Murphy claims God has a dipolar relation to time. He claims that God has a two-leveled experience of both timelessness and temporality (pp. 30-3). However, to say God experiences both successive duration and does not experience successive duration is clearly contradictory. However, I will give Murphy credit for trying to articulate an Arminian understanding of how foreknowledge works for he understands the contradiction in saying both that God knows X is a fact and that God can bring it about that X not occur.  See his, Divine Paradoxes: A Finite View of an Infinite God (Christian Publications, Camp Hill, PA 1998), pp. 49-56.

[23] This is not what proponents of Open theism have affirmed. Rather, they claim that God is fully omniscient for God knows all available facts/truths that are knowable at any time.

[24] Perhaps, however, one could argue that this only means God is not essentially omniscient.

[25] Gregory Boyd has shown this to be the case since God could, from all eternity, have prepared for each and every possible situation. He develops an “infinite intelligence” argument to the effect that God could perfectly anticipate all of our possible responses. In this respect he says that Open theism is really “neo-Molinism.” If God knows both “might counterfactuals” and “would counterfactuals” then God is eternally prepared for any situation that arises and God then perfectly anticipates all human actions in terms of their probabilities. In my view, a proponent of ISF could claim that God anticipates and prepares for our future actions in the same way as Boyd asserts. In other words, ISF and neo-Molinism could have the same explanations of how God works providentially. See Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pp. 127-132.

[26] For a much more in-depth treatment see my “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God,” Faith and Philosophy 14, no. 1 (Jan. 1997): 26-40.

     [27]Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge. Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 63.

     [28] Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 181.

     [29] David P. Hunt “Divine Providence and Simple Foreknowledge.” Faith and Philosophy. 10, 3 (July, 1993): 408.

[30] Cottrell, “Understanding God: God and Time,” Paper presented at the ETS November 19, 2002. When I developed ISF I had linked it with divine timelessness. But Cottrell is correct that ISF is compatible with divine temporality.

[31] This means that EDF is not an essential property of God for either ISF or PK since, for ISF, there was a time prior to creation when God did not have EDF.

     [32]John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, revised ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 69.

     [33]McCabe, The Foreknowledge of God,  (Cincinnati: Cranston and Stowe, 1887), p. 364.

     [34]Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge, 57-8. This same point was made in 1843 by the Methodist preacher, Billy Hibbard, Memoirs of the Life and Travels of B. Hibbard. 2’nd ed. (New York: self-published, 1843), p. 387, and is also discussed by Keith Ward, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God. (New York: Pilgrim, 1982), p. 152.

[35] According to Middle knowledge (or Molinism) God not only knows what will actually occur in the future, God knows what humans would do under any hypothetical situation. For instance, God knows exactly what you would be like and all the decisions you would make if, say, you had been raised in a different culture. It may be the case that some Establishment Arminians actually believe middle knowledge without being aware of it.

[36]Quoted in McCabe, Foreknowledge of God, 25.

[37] Though this might be possible for a God with middle knowledge. Some Molinists believe that God does not create any being he knows will ultimately be lost while other Molinists assert that God could not prevent people from being created that he knew would be damned for there were no such feasible worlds available for God to create. Consequently, Molinists either have to say God is very unlucky or that universalism may be true. See my “The Soteriological Problem of Evil and Middle Knowledge,” (forthcoming).

[38] See note 8 above.

[39] Greg Boyd explains this in God of the Possible, pp. 103-106, 151-153. Some critics object that such a deity would not be able to guide us into the best choices since not even God would know for sure the final outcome. However, the situation for a proponent of meticulous providence is not that rosy. For instance, if the God of meticulous providence guides Mandie into a marriage with Jim and he turns out to be horribly abusive, did God guide her wrong? The proponent of meticulous providence says no, for God ordained for some good reason that he wanted to her to have an abusive husband and live miserably.

[40] Of course, there would also be a difference regarding “how” God comes by this knowledge. This will involve different conceptions of the nature of time (e. g. the block theory) and the reality of the future. As of yet, proponents of ISF have not clarified their understandings on these matters.

[41] For a discussion of sin in heaven and the guarantee of the eschaton see my “The Openness of God and the Assurance of Things to Come” in Looking In to the Future: Evangelical Studies in Eschatology, ed. David Baker, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 2001), pp 281-294.

[42] David Hunt admits that the “practical problem” is the most serious and difficult problem for SF to overcome. He attempts to defend SF from the contradiction (circular loop) by claiming that God can foresee all future events yet somehow bracket out some of his foreknowledge when guiding humans. He uses the following example. Suppose Bill will grant Wycliffe a billion dollars if they can guess a number between 1 and 100 that Bill will select on June 16. God, foreseeing that Bill will select the number 47 guides people at Wycliffe headquarters to write down the number 47 in a sealed envelope on June 15. The problems with this are (1) At the time when Wycliffe had to select a number God did not yet know (according to ISF) what number Bill would select so God has nothing specific to go on to guide the Wycliffe folks. (2) If God has already foreseen the number Bill selects on June 16 then God has already foreseen all the events on June 15 including the number selected by the Wycliffe people. If they choose the number 25 and God foresees they choose that number then even if God “brackets out” his knowledge of their choosing 25 it will do no good for if God works to get them to choose 47 then God’s foreknowledge was incorrect.  By the time God foresees Bill choosing 47 it is “too late” for God to change what he foreknows happens the day before. If it is claimed that Bill selected the number 47 on June 14, then it is no problem for God to guide Wycliffe to the number 47. But then it is not a case of foreknowledge, but present knowledge! In the example above it must be remembered that this entire case presupposes that the individuals involved have libertarian freedom and God is not manipulating their decisions. So, if they selected the number 47 then they were lucky and if they selected a different number then they were unlucky. This is precisely the problem Hasker and I raised in our articles and Hunt has not succeeded in overcoming the problem. ISF has no more providential advantage over PK. See Hunt, “The Simple Foreknowledge View,” James Beilby and Paul Eddy eds. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pp. 96-101.

[43] Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, ILL, InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 196.

[44] I have examined many of these points in my “The Assurance of Things to Come;”  “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God,” and “Be Wary of Ware: A Reply to Bruce Ware” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2002): 221-231.

[45] One of the few criticisms of Open theism that is not shared by ISF is the idea that God knew about and selected specific individuals for salvation “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). Of course, Open theists do not believe this verse is about foreknown specific individuals.

[46] Bruce Ware, “Defining Evangelicalism’s Boundaries Theologically: Is Open Theism Evangelical?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 2 (June 2002): p. 204.

[47] See Ware, “Defining,” p. 205.

[48] See my “Be Wary of Ware,” pp. 224, 228-9. Ware’s use of Isaiah 40-44 where God declares the end form the beginning would be just as much a “criticism” of ISF.

[49] See especially my “Assurance of things to Come.”

[50] See my “Wary of Ware,” pp. 229-230.

[51] Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), pp. 73-4.

[52] Another possible reason is that some people do not like it that we apply human logic to God. Some people are not bothered if their theology is contradictory on issues such as a timeless God responding to us or the God of meticulous providence being grieved by what we do.

[53] Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, ILL: Crossway Books, 2000), pp. 220, 226.

[54] See Gregory Boyd, God at War (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1997) and Satan and the Problem of Evil.

[55] Proponents of Open theism will manifest the same range of views on scripture, baptism, ecclesiology, sin, eschatology, etc.  that are found within Establishment Arminianism.

[56] Actually, Openness denies that there is a “tape” of the future.

[57] Again, Cottrell disagrees with my conclusion. However, he is going to have to put forth valid arguments, and not merely claims, if his objection is to have any force.

[58] I would like to thank Jack Cottrell and my colleagues, William Hasker and David Woodruff, for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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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