On Heffalumps and Heresies: Address at the ETS

Draft version: not for citation or quotation. Published version: “On Heffalumps and Heresies: Responses to Accusations Against Open Theism” Journal of Biblical Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 1-44.

Originally given as a plenary address at the Evangelical Theological Society when members were debating whether to vote Pinnock and me out.


Presently North American evangelicalism is witnessing a heated debate on the view known as open theism. A great many accusations have been leveled at the view by a certain group of critics. It has been criticized for being unbiblical, untraditional, heretical and outside the boundaries of evangelicalism. This paper will attempt to answer these charges. To do this I will first summarize openness theology and lay out what is and is not the crucial issue. Next, the major accusations against openness will be discussed to see whether it complies with scripture, tradition, orthodoxy, and evangelicalism.

Summary of Open Theism

According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. God loves us and desires for us to enter into reciprocal relations of love with God as well as our fellow creatures. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals. We believe love is the primary characteristic of God because the triune Godhead has eternally loved without any creation. Divine holiness and justice are aspects of the divine love towards creatures, expressions of God’s loving concern for us. Love takes many forms—it can even be experienced as wrath when the lover sees the beloved destroying herself and others.

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us.

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how his goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. Moses’ refusal to return to Egypt prompted God to resort to plan B, allowing Aaron to do the public speaking instead of Moses. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does–God does not fake the story of human history. An implication of this is that God experiences temporal succession. That is, God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation.

Finally, the omniscient God knows all that can be known or all that he wants to know. The debate over divine omniscience in the Christian tradition, between Thomism and Molinism for example, has always been about the content of precisely what can be known. In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? Even if the future is fully knowable does God choose not to know it? According to open theism God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of what God has decided to bring about unilaterally (that which is definite or settled), knowledge of possibilities (that which is indefinite) and those events that are determined to occur (e. g. an asteroid hitting a planet). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite. It is not the case that just anything may happen, for God has acted in history to bring about events in order to achieve his unchanging purpose. Graciously, however, God invites us to collaborate with him to bring the open part of the future into being.

This last point is the lightning rod issue—the one that gets everyone riled up. To claim that God does not know with absolute certainty what beings with libertarian freedom will do in the future appears ridiculous to many. Personally, I do not relish putting forth a view of divine omniscience that seems absurd to many folks. Someday, perhaps someone will convince me that my arguments are faulty and that there is a better explanation that can handle my objections. Until then, however, I will continue to affirm this view in the face of virulent opposition.

Several accusations have surfaced regarding why proponents of openness came up with this model of God. Let me tell you my story. When I was a new Christian I was taught that our prayers of petition could influence what God decided to do. Not that God has to do what we ask, but that God graciously decides to take our concerns into account in formulating his responses (just as he did with Moses and others). However, while in Bible College I read some standard evangelical theology books that described the nature of God as “impassible” (could not be affected by creatures in any way) and “immutable” (could not change in any respect). These authors acknowledged that there were biblical texts that seemed to say that God was affected by the prayers of humans, but, they claimed, these texts do not really mean this.  My spiritual life was thrown into a quandary: either I had been incorrectly taught that my prayers could affect God or the theology books were wrong on these points and so were in need of revision.

At this point I began a prolonged study of scripture and prayer. During this time I tried out several answers put forth by orthodox thinkers and though none of them proved satisfactory I did begin to put together the rudiments of openness theology. Another significant part of the puzzle came into place one day when I was discussing this problem with the President of the Bible college and he asked, “Have you ever considered the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology?” I said that I had not. “Perhaps you should,” was his terse reply. Now I moved into a study of historical theology and the philosophical forces that helped shape early Christian thought. Please note, up to this time none of my professors or textbooks ever mentioned process theology. In fact, it was not until I studied under Norman Geisler at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School that I heard of this school of thought. My initial reaction to it was that I agreed with some of their critiques of classical theism as well as their understanding of foreknowledge but they had little interest in scripture—relying as they do on natural theology—and their understanding of the person and work of Jesus left me cold. Hence, I did not arrive at openness via process thought. I already had the main elements of open theism in hand before I ever heard of process theology. The two crucial factors leading me to open theism were my study of scripture and the evangelical view of prayer I had been taught.

After twenty-five years of digging into scripture, researching theology and philosophy, and reflecting on our spiritual lives, especially prayer, I’ve concluded that we can actually affect God. Hence, what most evangelicals live out in piety is correct and our textbooks need modification on this issue. My writings are an attempt to make the needed corrections in Arminian theology in order to develop a more biblically faithful, logically consistent, and spiritually helpful view of who God is and the nature of God’s relationship with us. I believe the evangelical touchstone, “a “personal relationship with God,” is in need of a theology that can consistently account for this.

The Main Issue

In order for God to be truly affected or influenced by us several truths must be the case. God has to be personal and able to relate. God has to experience what others do and thus God must be able to receive something, not merely give (God cannot be pure actuality, strongly immutable or impassible). God cannot exercise meticulous providence, controlling every detail that happens. Consequently, God has given humans libertarian freedom such that divine determinism of all things and human freedom are incompatible. For God to experience (not simply know) what creatures do, God must experience some form temporal succession.

If we are going to claim that God grieves or is joyful over what we do, that our prayers or lack of them may genuinely influence what God decides to do, that God responds to what we do, and that God enters into reciprocal give-and-take relations with us, then something like the above must be the case. Certainly, as will be discussed below, some of these claims are contested. For purposes of this paper I want to point out what is and is not the watershed issue in this debate. Clearly, what gets all the headlines is the openness understanding of divine foreknowledge. Presentism is the view that God has exhaustive knowledge of all the past, present and that part of the future that is definite. God has exhaustive foreknowledge but the future is not exhaustively definite. Open theists disagree as to precisely why God does not know with absolute certainty what beings with libertarian freedom will do in the future. Greg Boyd and William Hasker, for instance, argue that such future actions are intrinsically unknowable—even for God—and so divine omniscience is not limited because God knows all that can be known. Dallas Willard, however, argues that God has dispositional omnipotence and omniscience. That is, just as God has all power but does not always use it, so God could know future human actions but decides not to know them. He believes that for God to have personal relationships with us God cannot know what creatures with libertarian freedom will do.[1] For Willard, God voluntarily limits or restrains his omniscience because God could know more, whereas for other open theists God’s omniscience is unlimited because God knows all that is knowable.  So, proponents of presentism disagree as to why God’s omniscience is the way it is: either because the future actions of free beings are intrinsically unknowable or because God simply chooses not to know them. However, open theists agree that God does not know with certainty what we will do in the future and this is the lightning rod issue in the debate.

However, presentism is often caricatured as God simply guesses about the future or God is simply at a loss regarding what will happen. One might as well say that marketing firms that work for Wall Street simply guess at what certain groups of consumers will buy. Even more to the point is Greg Boyd’s “Infinite Intelligence Argument” according to which God knows all that could possibly happen and has eternally prepared for anything that we might do.[2] Though God does not know precisely which possibility we will enact God is not caught off-guard because of his infinite intelligence. Once we enact a possibility, God has already been prepared for this to happen as if it were the only possibility. God’s infinite intelligence is ready for anything that transpires. Consequently, there is no need to diminish God’s glory by claiming that God has to know precisely which choice will be made by us in order for God to be prepared. The open view can ascribe to God the same providential confidence any other Arminian view does! However, in our view God is so majestically intelligent that he did not need to reduce all possibilities down to one in order to be supremely confident that God can cope with whatever we do.

Some people strongly object to putting any limits on what an omniscient being can know. If, however, you take the time to read the luminaries of classical theism, whether ancient or contemporary, you would see that everyone places limits on omniscience. Classical theists such as Aquinas, for instance, say that it is not possible for God to know what pain feels like in the divine nature. Keith Ward observes: “God can only have propositional, not affective, knowledge….Omniscience, even for the classical theologian, must be interpreted to mean knowledge of everything that it is logically possible for a being with the divine nature to know. There is no such thing as logically unqualified omniscience. We all place restrictions on divine possibilities at some point…”[3]

No, exhaustive definite foreknowledge is not the watershed issue in the debate between proponents of openness and proponents of certain forms of Calvinism (I say Calvinism not Reformed because several leading Reformed thinkers either affirm openness or come very close to it). Neither is our claim that God experiences temporal succession since even John Frame admits this in his recent book critiquing openness. Although presentism and God as everlasting distinguish traditional Arminianism from neo-Arminianism (open theism), they are not the key lines of division between open theists and scholastic Calvinists. The Calvinist Paul Helm correctly identifies the shibboleth between openness and Calvinism. He observes that it involves the same points that separate all forms of freewill theism, including traditional Arminianism, from Calvinism. These are the interrelated issues: (1) whether God has chosen to be, for some things, affected or conditioned by creatures; (2) whether God takes the risk that humans may do things that God does not want done; (3) whether God exercises meticulous or general providential control; and (4) whether God has granted human beings libertarian or compatibilistic freedom.[4] This constellation of issues is the great divide in this debate.

On the surface Bruce Ware seems to disagree with this assessment. In his book, God’s Lesser Glory, he says, “Open theism’s denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge provides the basis for the major lines of difference between the openness view and all versions of classical theism, including any other version of Arminiansim.”[5]  Though Ware here suggests that the neo-Arminianism of openness is radically different from what he calls “classical Arminianism,” elsewhere he correctly observes that these two forms of Arminianism differ only in degree. He writes: “To a great degree, the openness proponents are saying only what their Arminian colleagues have long argued” (p. 143).  Part of the reason why this is so is because Arminianism is not a form of Classical Theism. According to classical theism God does not take risks of any kind. However, Arminianism entails that God takes risks since God does not tightly control the world. “Here is your choice,” he says, “Do you want the God who Risks?” or, “Do you want the God who controls all that is?” Throughout the book Ware makes clear that the shibboleth is really libertarian verses compatibilistic freedom. In the final chapter Ware claims that, “In my view, every other understanding of divine providence to some extent diminishes the sovereignty and glory of God. It brings God’s wisdom and power down to the level of finite human thinking” (p. 220). Moreover, “The conclusion that God’s glory is diminished by libertarian human freedom is impossible to avoid” (p. 226). Here, Ware lays his cards on the table and indicts every form of Arminianism for diminishing the divine glory. Again, this is why the watershed issues dividing this debate are divine conditionality and human freedom—not the issue of exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Ware repeatedly admits that his real complaint is against all forms of freewill theism and not merely against openness (pp. 42, 48, 143, 153, 208, 214, 223, and 226). Though Ware spends most of his time addressing presentism, he seems to understand that this is not the crucial issue (though highlighting it will certainly help sell books).

Moreover, that presentism is not the key issue is made clear by the openness argument that the traditional Arminian understanding of how God uses foreknowledge for providence is simply incoherent. This extremely important point has been discussed in great detail in our writings. However, our critics have either failed to grasp the point or underestimate its significance for this debate. In the philosophical literature the Arminian view is called simple foreknowledge or timeless knowledge. In this scenario God timelessly “previsions” all that will actually happen. Note, this is not what might happen, but what will actually occur in the future. Contrary to the two recent articles by Dr. Picirilli in JETS, proponents of openness know full well that according to simple foreknowledge God’s knowledge of what will happen does not cause the future to be.[6] Rather, what will be is the cause of what God knows will happen. We have not argued that if God foreknows that I will have cheesecake for my birthday then God causes me to have the cheesecake.

Rather, what we have argued is that it is logically incoherent to claim that God foresees what will actually happen (not what might happen) and then also claim that God intervenes so that the event in question does not occur. According to simple foreknowledge, what God previsions is not under God’s control. God cannot know that something will occur and then make it not occur. For instance, if God knows that Susan is actually—not maybe—going to be sexually abused by her father, then God knows that is what is going to happen and God is powerless to prevent it from happening. God’s foreknowledge cannot be incorrect! We are not talking about Molinism where God knows what would happen if some circumstance was changed. If classical Arminians want God to be providential in the ways they normally think, then they must either overcome the apparent uselessness of their view or switch to another view. If simple foreknowledge offers no providential advantage over presentism and a God with simple foreknowledge takes the same sort of risks that a God with present knowledge does, then exhaustive definite foreknowledge cannot be the watershed issue.

Again, the watershed issue in this debate is whether God is, for anything, conditioned by creatures and whether God exercises general or meticulous providence so that God grants humans either libertarian or compatibilistic freedom. On one side God takes no risks while on the other God does take risks. Generalizing, it may be said that this great divide places Classical Theism (Thomism and Calvinism) on one side and all forms of freewill theism on the other. Freewill theism includes Eastern Orthodoxy, much of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Wesleyanism and the vast majority of contemporary Christian philosophers. Within freewill theism we have different views on many issues. Clearly, the one getting the most attention these days is the openness affirmation of presentism. It is interesting that all of the books and most of the articles published criticizing presentism are written from the no-risk perspective of classical theism. In fact, the remaining four issues discussed in this paper all involve criticisms from the no-risk side of the mountain. The carpet bombing of the openness model is carried on by the proponents of meticulous providence, mainly scholastic Calvinists. Though traditional Arminians disagree with openness on two points, they have not gotten very exercised over the debate. Despite the fact that I have argued that exhaustive definite foreknowledge is not the central issue, it is one of the primary targets for the shots taken by the no-risk forces. As a result, the final four issues to be covered all center around presentism.

Is the Open View Biblical?

According to presentism, God does not know with absolute certainty what humans with libertarian freedom will do in the future. God, having exhaustive knowledge of our past and present, forms beliefs about what we will do. Such beliefs are far superior to any of those held by our social scientists and pollsters. Though presentism has had a few articulate spokesmen in the past and we are currently producing books that address many scriptural texts, there remains much biblical work for us to do. Please remember that, just like Rome, Calvinism was not built in a day. It took Calvinists decades and even centuries to decide how best to interpret certain “problem” passages of scripture. Some excellent exegetical work has been done by biblical scholars and theologians in support of openness, but more needs to be done.

There are two kinds of texts in scripture regarding God and the future: (1) those where the future seems definite/settled and (2) those where the future seems indefinite/ not settled. God declares future events but whether they come about or not sometimes is and sometimes is not conditional upon human response. What everyone is searching for is the best theory that explains both sorts of biblical texts. Most people are aware of examples where God declares something will happen and it does so I will not address those texts here. Rather what follows is a sampling of the types of texts that proponents of openness use to support our position.

God uses conditional language throughout scripture. God uses words such as “perhaps” (Ex. 13:17; Jer. 26:1-3), “if” (Jer. 5-7), and  “maybe” (Ezek. 12:1-3; Jer. 26:2-3). We believe that God is being genuine in such language. We do not see God as already knowing the outcome but somehow playing along for the benefit of the people. Moreover, God “expects” something to happen and it does not: “I thought Israel would return to me but she has not” (Jer. 3:7, 19-20). God says that he planted good vines but they have unexpectedly produced wild grapes (Isaiah 5:1-4).

God tests individuals and Israel to find out whether they will trust him or not (Ex .15:25; Dt 13:3). In Genesis 22 God puts Abraham to the test to see whether Abraham has matured enough in his faith in Yahweh so that God can move ahead with his plans. Abraham does what God requests and God responds by saying, “now I know that you fear God” (22:12). Proponents of openness do not believe God was surprised by Abraham’s act of faith, but Abraham’s character is being formed even through the testing process so that the outcome is not assured.

God grieves over the extent of human sin (Gen. 6:4-9) as well as over king Saul’s failure (1 Sam. 15). God’s plan was for Saul and his line to be royal line for Israel forever (1 Sam. 13:13). That is, there would have been no Davidic line. But Saul lets God down and so God grieves. But why grieve if God always knew this was going to happen? Why grieve if this is all part of God’s great plan unfolding? If God’s will is irresistible then divine wrath and grief are meaningless.

God is said to “repent” or “change his mind” (Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15; Jonah 4:2). Usually, God is said to change his mind in response to a change in Israel or an individual. However, sometimes God changes his mind without any change in the humans (Judges 10; Hosea 11). Open theists believe there are good questions regarding precisely what such metaphors mean when applied to God. At the least, we see that God is being genuinely responsive to humans. That our prayers or lack of them may affect what God does is brought out in a number of texts. In response to Moses’ felt inadequacies, God switches to “plan B,” allowing Aaron to do the public speaking (Ex. 4:14). Latter on, when Moses has grown in his trust in God, God reverts to plan A and Moses does the public speaking. God announced in unequivocal terms that king Hezekiah would die from his present illness. However, in response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God relents and allows him to remain king (2 Kings 20). God had told Eli that his descendants would be the priestly line. But after Eli’s sons abuse the priesthood, God revokes his promise and the priestly line is given to another (1 Sam 2:30). If God always knew that he was going to give the line to those other than Saul and Eli, was God deceitful in his conversations with them?

In the New Testament, Jesus heals the Canaanite woman—a healing that he apparently was not going to perform until the woman argued with him (Matt. 15). Jesus responded to her faith. In other places, however, lack of faith in the people prevented Jesus from doing some of the things he wanted to do (Mark 6:5-6). God responds to our faith or lack of it. There is a give-and-take dynamic between God and humans.

These are but a smattering of the sorts of texts proponents of openness use to support our position. For more scriptural texts I refer you to our books.[7] Do these texts prove our case beyond a shadow of doubt such that one would be less than honest to read the Bible and not become a proponent of openness? Hardly. We are quite aware that geniuses of the faith have interpreted the Bible in different ways. At my college most of my students are Arminians so when we come to the doctrine of election I spend more time explaining and defending the Calvinist position. My students seem to believe that Calvin must not have paid attention to certain passages of scripture because the “clear teaching” of scripture supports the Arminian position. At this point I put on my Calvin cap and invite them to convince me, John Calvin, with scripture that I am wrong. Typically, they are dismayed that Calvin has explanations for all their texts. Some students become frustrated and resort to calling Calvin names. This is amusing, but unfortunately even evangelical scholars commonly resort to name-calling as well. I will return to this point shortly.

Personally, I, along with the majority of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and (dare I say) evangelicalism, can hardly think of a clearer teaching in scripture that God loves and wants to redeem every single sinner that has ever lived. Yet, my Calvinist counterparts do not think this is a “clear teaching” of scripture at all. They give explanations of John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that I find strained and unconvincing. Naturally, they find my Arminian reading of Romans 9 and Ephesians 1:11 strained and unconvincing. I understand the arguments and how my Calvinist colleagues are reading scripture and though I believe they are not accepting a “clear teaching” of scripture, I do not accuse them of denying inerrancy!

Some charter members of the ETS assert that open theism violates inerrancy and so proponents of openness should be removed from membership in the ETS. The way that we supposedly violate inerrancy is stated in the following resolution: “We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all past, present and future including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.” Since open theists deny that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge, open theists reject inerrancy. One might as well claim that since Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the trinity, they reject the inerrancy of scripture. But that is clearly false since they do affirm inerrancy. What is really being argued here is: “The Bible clearly teaches” is equivalent to “our interpretation of scripture is inerrant.” This is to confuse the inerrant scripture with our fallible understandings of it. Our interpretations of scripture are human understandings and are fallible for two reasons: (1) we are finite—we never know all there is to know and (2) the noetic effects of sin—sin can distort even our reasoning processes as we interpret scripture.

This is not really news to any of us since we are quite familiar with this problem in other issues about which we disagree. For instance, there are inerrantists who claim that baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16) and inerrantists who claim that baptism is not necessary for salvation. Inerrantists disagree on a wide range of biblical topics: how the universe was created, the nature of the millennium, lordship salvation, gifts of the Spirit, women in ministry, the nature of sanctification, election, and so on. Proponents of each of these views often maintain that their view is the “clear teaching of the Bible.”

Do the biblical texts prove any of these views such that one would be sinful or just plain stupid to disagree? I think not.

Proponents of openness find traditional readings of the texts regarding God and the future unconvincing. We believe that presentism is the theory that best explains these texts as well as those surrounding predictions of future events. We have explained how we account for them, but some of our critics find our explanations strained and unconvincing. We are arriving at the same impasse on foreknowledge as we have on, for instance, women in ministry. David Basinger’s excellent article, “Can an Evangelical Christian Justifiably Deny God’s Exhaustive Knowledge of the Future?,” discusses this matter in detail.[8] Is there, he asks, a neutral set of hermeneutical criteria that all “reasonable” evangelicals agree on, open theists can, with integrity, set forth our view as a legitimate reading of all of scripture? Some critics will object that there is such a criteria. When I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for instance, my advisor, whom I greatly admired, taught hermeneutics. He proposed a detailed method based on supposedly objective criteria by which to interpret the Bible. After devouring this approach I had a bit of indigestion. One day I asked, “If I use this method will I arrive at the meaning, the whole meaning and nothing but the meaning so help my grammatical-syntactical analysis?” After some hesitation he replied, “Yes.” I then asked why two professors, in the same department at TEDS, using the same method, arrived at different interpretations of some key biblical passages. My professor, who was both smart and witty replied, “Oh, John, that’s easy—depravity!” The house came down with laughter. It was a great retort. Afterwards, however, I asked him why both professors could not be depraved and that even if only one was depraved, how he determined which one. If the noetic effects of sin render our supposedly neutral criteria useless, then we have not arrived at an absolutely certain method for exegeting the text. I maintain that there is no neutral theological method about which one would be sinful or irrational to disagree. Consequently, if our critics cannot rightfully claim that we reject the “clear teaching” of scripture or that we reject inerrancy, what are they to do? They move on to the next two accusations.

It is not Traditional!

It is claimed that we do not agree with “the” tradition. Well, what might “the” tradition refer to? Is there a single tradition in church history regarding creation, anthropology, harmartiology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and bibliology? Clearly, there is not. However, one might say, “Hold on Sanders, you know very well what we mean—the traditional doctrine of God and providence.” But I contend that there never has been a single doctrine of God or view of providence in the church. To speak of “the traditional” view of sovereignty as meticulous providence is to ignore the actual tradition! The understanding of providence put forth by Augustine and others has always been contested by others in the church. Moreover, as Millard Erickson observes, the history of Christian thought on the doctrine of God is not uniform.[9] From early on issues such divine immutability, impassibility, the content of divine omniscience, and the nature of sovereignty were debated. There is no single old model of God. At this point I must confess that my own writings have contributed to confusion on this issue by speaking of “the traditional” and “the classical” view of God. This, despite the fact that these same works trace the historical development of the similarities and differences theologians have held on God and providence. My research has determined that Charles Hartshorne coined the neologism “classical theism” to denote a specific understanding of God developed in the writings of Philo, Augustine, Al-Ghazzali, Maimonides, Aquinas and subsequently reaffirmed by many in the Western tradition. According to classical theism God is strongly immutable, impassible and unconditioned such that none of God’s decisions ever depend upon humans—God never takes risks. Hence, classical theism is a particular model of God that has always been at odds with “traditional freewill theism.” There have always been various theisms within Christianity.

Even so, some critics hold that openness just goes too far. We do so, it is asserted, because openness theology is shaped by contemporary cultural thought-forms. For instance, it is said that open theists are captive to a non-biblical understanding of freewill.[10] Of course, this criticism applies to many more than open theists since most of the early fathers, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants affirm the same understanding of freewill.

Our critics repeatedly accuse us of capitulating to non-biblical thought forms. The implication is that our critics are free from philosophical and cultural influences. Though many evangelical works on hermeneutics and theology cautiously admit that all of us are conditioned by our social locations and traditions, this notion plays no substantive role in our theology or handling of scripture. In my writings I have emphasized the influence of Greek philosophy upon specific aspects of our thinking about God because this is either ignored or even outright denied by evangelical theologians.[11] Millard Erickson is one of the few who openly admits the significant role Greek philosophy has had in shaping our views of God and that these views, he says, may contain a large amount of Greek thought read into the biblical text.[12] Erickson, however, goes on to chastise open theists for not admitting that we am influenced by philosophical forces as well. This is fair and I do admit that this is the case. If we will all admit to philosophical and cultural influences in our theologizing, then we can proceed to productive dialog about which ones are better than others.

At this point I would like to return to Erickson’s comment that the tradition simply is not uniform, it contains significant diversity. One of the claims made against open theists is that we are “revisionist” theologians. It is true that we are attempting to revisit some commonly accepted attributes of God and correct them in light of scripture. Now, we may be incorrect in our conclusions, but the attempt to improve what has gone before us is certainly part of our Protestant heritage from the Reformation—a period of incredible revisions made in doctrines and practices. The Reformers thought that the process of reformation is never complete (semper reformanda). The history of theology is filled with people who made attempts to revise and improve what was said before them. Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin were “revisionists” in this sense. Certainly, proponents of openness may be incorrect in our specific suggestions for improvements, but the attempt to revise and improve tradition is a key part of the tradition itself.

Many of our most vociferous evangelical critics claim they are defending “the traditional view of God.” Yet, at the same time, they make significant modifications to the classical view! Many who claim the heritage of classical theism are uncomfortable with aspects of it and so revise it. James Oliver Buswell Jr. proposes major revisions in classical theism when he rejects the ideas of divine timelessness, immutability, impassibility, and pure actuality. “We should,” he says, “shake off the static ideology which has come into Christian theology from non-Biblical sources.”[13] The Calvinists, Nash, Ware, Grudem, Erickson, Tiessen and Frame all heed Buswell’s call and make important revisions in the doctrine of God. Ronald Nash says that the traditional understandings of pure actuality, divine simplicity and impassibility must be rejected, immutability must be modified so that “human beings can make a difference to God”, and he has serious doubts about divine atemporality as well.[14] Bruce Ware revises the traditional doctrine of immutability and says that God enters into reciprocal relations with us while at the same time exercising meticulous control over all we do.[15] Wayne Grudem criticizes the Westminster Confession for accepting the unbiblical notion that God is “without passions.” [16] Millard Erickson surveys recent evangelical theologians and claims that “the traditional doctrine of impassibility is not the current one” among contemporary evangelicals.[17] Few evangelicals today are genuine classical theists[18]. Erickson himself sees the problems with many of the traditional attributes and attempts to make some needed revisions without giving up meticulous providence. Terrence Tiessen sees these same problems but thinks that Erickson needs to go further in areas such as God experiencing the succession of events.[19] Tiessen believes that a tripersonal God who existed eternally in loving relationships has to experience sequential progression (time). In his recent book, No Other God, John Frame says that openness theology has made him rethink some of his views. He now concludes that there is more give-and-take between God and creatures than he had previously thought and consequently, “God enters time and interacts personally with creatures.”[20] Frame believes God is temporal and agrees with Moltmann that God suffers!

These evangelical thinkers are to be commended for the courage to rethink aspects of classical theism in light of scripture and philosophical argument. They are “revisionist” classical theists since Aquinas and Calvin definitely would not agree with these revisions. The great classical theists read their Bibles and concluded that God did not have changing emotions, or suffer, or respond to creatures. Nonetheless, it is really wonderful to see these sorts of reforms being made by conservative Calvinists. It does an Arminian heart good. Frequently in this debate open theists are made to look like they are the only ones doing the revising. Sometimes our critics posture themselves as defenders of the tradition affirming Vincent’s Monitor: “what has been believed always, everywhere, and by everyone.” They want people to think that they simply believe what everybody has always believed—and all the while they are revising the doctrine of God in ways that would be unrecognizable to the great classical theists! Moreover, they make these revisions while condemning open theists for revising tradition!

The issue is not whether we should revise conventional theism. Rather, the question is what specific revisions we should make and whether these revisions are faithful to scripture and logically coherent. Open theists argue that it is logically incoherent to affirm both that God is changeable and that God is timeless. It is logically inconsistent to say that God is timeless and also say that God responds, suffers and grieves for these are temporal terms. It is incoherent to say a God of meticulous providence is saddened by what we do. The great classical theists of yesterday and today understand these logical problems which is why they do not make the revisions that these evangelical Calvinists today are making. It is my belief that they make these revisions, in spite of logic, because they know that the majority of evangelicals believe that God responds to us, may be influenced by our prayers, and is unhappy when things go badly. One of my former pastors believed that our prayers of petition never affected what God decides to do. However, he would never clearly say that to the congregation! Small wonder since they would have cast verbal stones at him. Many of our critics know that their old views of God just won’t sell in the evangelical marketplace and so they try to infuse divine responsiveness and openness to creatures into their old views.[21] However, they are trying to put new wine into old wineskins. Eventually, too many revisions will burst the old wineskin. Though I applaud these theologians for making these needed revisions, I believe they will either have to return to a more robust classical theism or make even more revisions in it in the direction of open theism if they wish to be logically consistent. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who is writing a very careful critique of classical theism, observes that the great classical theists had very strong arguments for their views and that they understood the interconnectedness between simplicity, immutability, impassibility, absolute unconditionedness, and meticulous providence. The great theologians of the past understood that these doctrines are a package deal and you cannot, without being logically inconsistent, pick and choose among them as many evangelicals do today. Wolterstorff says that classical theism is like a knit sweater, if you pull on any of the threads (immutability, impassibility, timelessness), the sweater unravels on you.[22] A change in one attribute affects all the others.

At this juncture critics of openness may fess up and admit that they are revisionist theologians themselves. However, some of them say, “At least we are not heretical.” Some Calvinist critics are fond of repeating Tom Oden’s statement that presentism is a heresy. When asked if that means other Christians should not fellowship with open theists, Oden replied that he did not mean heresy in that sense because there is far too much divisiveness in the church.[23] Oden does not mean by heresy what those in the evangelical subculture mean: a teaching for which a person is damnable for affirming.

Ok, but on what basis is openness classified as heresy at all? Here things get quite murky. Just as Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet are terrified of Heffalumps but have not got a clue as to what a Heffalump is like in order to identify one if they saw it, so evangelicals are frightened by heresies but have an extremely difficult time agreeing on a criteria for identifying contemporary ones. Pooh and Piglet, afraid to admit their ignorance on the matter, both confidently put forth attributes of Heffalumps and set a trap for one based on their imaginary criteria. However, in the end they only catch themselves in their own trap—Piglet catches Pooh in their Heffalump trap.[24] It seems to me that this is exactly the case for those hunting for heresies in open theism, in the end they catch themselves in their own trap.

Some claim that only heretics such as Socinus have affirmed presentism. However, though presentism has certainly been a minority view in history, it has had some orthodox proponents. Calcidius, a late fourth century Christian writer wrote an influential commentary on Plato’s Timaeus and a lengthy treatment against fatalism in which he develops the theory of presentism. He writes: “It is true that God knows all things, but that He knows everything according to its own nature.”[25] God knows conditionals as conditional and possibilities as possibilities. Moreover, we have documented a number of respected theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, who affirmed presentism.[26] Today, it is especially prominent among British thinkers (e. g. John Polkinghorne and Richard Swinburne as well as the Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann.[27]  Within evangelicalism respected writers such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster affirm presentism. From this brief list it is clear that presentism is affirmed by a wide array of thinkers considered orthodox.

Another possible ground for labeling openness heretical is to claim that it conflicts with the teachings of some of the seven ecumenical councils. For instance, the very definition of the first Council of Nicea says that “the holy catholic and apostolic church anathematizes those who say: ‘There was when he was not’…and those who assert that…he is mutable or liable to change.” The Son of God cannot experience change because he is fully God. The definition of the Council of Chalcedon reads: [The Synod] “…expels from the priesthood those who dare to say that the Godhead of the Only-Begotten is passible/capable of suffering.” Anyone who says the divine son can suffer or who mixes the two natures is heretical. Openness asserts that the divinity of the Son is capable of suffering so openness seems to conflict with the Council of Chalcedon. We need to tread carefully here. There are questions as to precisely what these writers meant by “mutable” and “passible.” Did they mean change in any respect or only change in the being of God? Did they mean that God could not experience changing emotions and could not be affected by creatures? If they meant that the being of God does not change, then open theists are not anathematized and are not heretics. If, however they meant God does not change in any respect and thus can have no emotions and is incapable of suffering, then open theists are indeed heretics. But then, so are Wayne Grudem, Ronald Nash, and Bruce Ware among others. They have caught themselves in their own Heffalump trap.

The definition of the seventh ecumenical council, called Second Nicea reads: “Following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our holy fathers [emphasis mine] and the traditions of the Catholic Church, we define with all certitude and accuracy that…the venerable and holy images are to be set up in the holy churches of God….in houses and by the roadside….images of…Jesus Christ, our undefiled Lady, the theotokos, of the honorable angels and of all saints and holy men….In accordance with ancient pious custom, incense and lights may be offered to images, as they are to the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, to the book of the Gospels and to other holy objects.” There is so much for Baptists to choke on here as to warrant a pneumatalogical heimlich maneuver (Ha!). The Council declares that we are to perform these practices but it is clear that most of us do not. On what grounds do we reject the authority of this Council? It claims that the holy fathers were “divinely inspired!” Were they divinely inspired about divine immutability, impassibility and icons? If so, evangelicals are rejecting divine inspiration.

If one questions the creeds or councils is that person a heretic? Luther declared: “My soul abhors the homoousios.” Is Luther therefore damned? Evangelical theologian David Wells asserts that the Creeds are often wrong. He says, for instance, that the Nicene Creed contains Origenist concepts and that Chalcedon conferred on Mary the title “Mother of God.”[28] Wells is rejecting the inviolable teaching of several of the ecumenical councils. Is Wells a heretic? Must we follow the canons of the seven councils? If so, then the following also apply to us: we are to stand, not kneel when praying on the Lord’s day; a woman under the age of forty cannot become a deaconess and if, after becoming one, she “despises the grace of God” and marries, she shall be anathematized; if you do not salute the icons you are anathematized; if you do not accept the gospels and the holy relics of the martyrs you are anathematized; Jews who convert must put away all Jewish customs including the Sabbath or they will not be allowed to take communion. How many among us follow all the teachings of these seven councils? Are we then heretics? If open theists are heretics for conflicting with certain elements in the seven ecumenical Councils—and it is not certain that we are in conflict—then so are David Wells, Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem and many others of our most vociferous critics.

In the history of the church, the word heresy has been used for a very large number of views. For instance, the Eastern Orthodox consider the Western addition of the filioque heretical and the Pope a heretic. Of course, the Western church returned the favor and said the East was heretical. What Protestant belief was not labeled heretical when it was first proposed? John Eck, the theologian selected to champion the Catholic cause against Luther repeatedly calls Luther and other Protestants “heretics” in his Enchiridion of Commonplaces: Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church. Each chapter has a section called “objections of the heretics.” Eck asserts that the “Church as the pillar of truth, with Christ as leader and the Holy Spirit as teacher, does not err.”[29] Eck drips with sarcasm when he says how fortunate the Church is to have Luther to correctly interpret the scriptures to us since the Church has been in error for more than a thousand years. In response to open theism Gerald Bray reproduces the exact arguments of John Eck: “it is hard to believe that in the late twentieth century a few radicals have arrived at a truth which has escaped generations of sincere searchers.”[30] I find it discomfiting that evangelicals would utilize such anti-Protestant arguments to label other evangelicals heretics. Remember, people died for “heresies” such as believer baptism, separation of church and state, refusal to take oaths, and the priesthood of all believers.

Though not all branches of evangelicalism like to use the H-bomb on those with whom they disagree, that branch of evangelicalism that gave rise to neo-evangelicalism frequently used H-bombs on one another to cover a large assortment of views and people.[31] B. B. Warfield called the holiness and pietistic understanding of providence heretical because it led to faith-healing movements. He also denigrated Pentecostalism and dispensationalism. Despite J. Oliver Buswell’s pleas to Machen to make room for premillennialism in his movement, Machen firmly refused, calling premillennialism “a very serious heresy.” Van Til called Gordon Clark a heretic and Clark was tried for heresy at Wheaton College. E. J. Carnell called Fundamentalists “cultic,” “sectarian,” and “heretics.”[32] Evangelicals have demonized other evangelicals over evolution, charismata, mega churches, worship styles, women in ministry, inerrancy, different views of the millennium and, dialoging with Catholics to name but a few.

Leaders of evangelicalism in the twentieth century announced one theological “crisis” after another. The titles of books displayed a militaristic mindset with a “battle” for this and a “battle” for that. Seldom do we enter into peace talks and genuinely listen to the concerns of the other side. Instead, we rush to H-bomb our theological enemies. Today’s enemy that must be destroyed is open theism. It is as though some believe that if you confess with your mouth the lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of all future events then you will be saved. Must we also believe divine timelessness, immutability, and impassibility as well? To make this move is to confuse biblical Christianity with our developed theories about specific aspects of the faith. A theory of omniscience has never been the touchstone of orthodoxy. It does not appear in any of the ecumenical councils. We are saved by the grace of God manifested in the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by theories about divine foreknowledge or eternality.[33]

Presently, there is a strong call by evangelicals to “return to the tradition.” Personally, I believe this is needed. Evangelicals are far too ignorant of the Christian heritage. There is much we can retrieve from the traditions that will enrich our worship and our theology. However, this “return” to “the” tradition must not assume that there is a single tradition. The Christian theological heritage is and has been multiform. The twelfth century theologian, Abelard, recognized the variety of traditions in his book Sic et non (yes and no) in which he stated various topics and then listed the divergent answers given on these topics by the fathers and theologians of the first millennium. Moreover, we should be careful of any naïve return that fails to scrutinize the traditions. As I demonstrated above, evangelicals simply cannot accept what some consider essential aspects of the tradition. Finally, use of the traditions to label people heretics does not settle this issue because all evangelicals are heretics by that criterion. Nobody likes to be called a heretic for it places you with some unsavory company. But as was seen above, being labeled a heretic also places you with some excellent company as well! However, if we cannot in good faith call open theists heretics there are still other ways of marginalizing them.

Dialogical Virtues

When all of the above mentioned tactics fail, conservative evangelicals commonly resort to name-calling and using guilt by association. This leads me to raise ethical issues in the way we go about our scholarly work. Openness theology has been labeled Socinianism and Pelagianism by some of evangelicalism’s most esteemed scholars. Perhaps this is not so bad since the very same accusations were made against Arminius himself by proponents of the same brand of Calvinism. A letter written in Arminius’ day says that with incredible zeal “some persons accuse this man of schism and others of heresy some charge him with the crime of Pelagianism and others brand him with the black mark of Socinianism.”[34] Socinus denied the Calvinistic understanding of predestination, the resurrection of the body, the Trinity, the full deity of Jesus, and the atonement of Jesus. Hence, it is easy to see why Arminius was Socinian—both rejected Calvinistic predestination! It seems that if you have one point in common with another view, then your view can be labeled as the other view. Socinus rejected exhaustive definite foreknowledge so it is fair to label openness Socinianism. This same guilt by association move is made when openness is claimed to be process theology because both views share a couple of points in common. A former professor of mine quotes a remark in one of our books that openness and process agree on a particular point. He then says this remark proves that open theism derives from process theism![35] Of course, having a point in common does not prove dependency so I wrote my former professor about this error in logic. He responded that he was right and that was that! Those who claim openness is simply process theology need to read what process theologians are saying about openness.[36] David Ray Griffin, a prominent process theologian, says that he cannot stomach open theism any more than he can classical theism because openness is just too similar to the classical view and thus not worthy of God. Open theism is a hot potato being tossed back and forth between classical and process theists. Nobody wants us. The sons of openness have nowhere to lay our heads.

Those who play with these rhetorical weapons typically do not notice that they can be turned back upon themselves. What if we were to say that both Islam and Calvinism affirmed meticulous providence so Calvinism is really Islam? Astrologers and classical theists believe the future is exhaustively definite so classical theism is dependent upon astrology! Of course, Calvinists would rightfully cry “foul.” Open theists have been accused of worshiping a “finite god,” and a “user-friendly God.” The Calvinists making these claims believe that their view does not have a user-friendly God but Paul Tillich and Gordon Kaufman claim that any evangelical view of God as personal is user-friendly. Others claim that humans have more power than God in openness theology because we can oppose God in some respects. Of course, this claim applies just as much to traditional Arminianism. It is said that we are “making God in our own image.” We could turn this around, however, and claim that the God of meticulous providence is really in our image since that God typifies the ideal Western male—in control and not relying on anyone else. This God exemplifies the Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic understandings of human perfection.  It has even been suggested that the reason I became an open theist is due to a psychological imbalance–I did not deal properly with personal tragedy.  Again, I can just as easily turn this attempted psychoanalysis back on the head of my critic by suggesting that a deep-seated insecurity leads him to fashion an all-controlling God. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Finally, one last example of ad hominem is the otherwise fine scholar, Gerald Bray, claiming that openness authors simply do not understand the debate about the hellenization of Christianity because we studied at “conservative institutions.”[37] Even if it were true that we received our doctorates from conservative schools (this is patently false), what does this have to do with the truth of our claim?

Bernard Ramm called these tactics “bad-mouthing” and said that, unfortunately, evangelicals practice them all too often instead of doing solid scholarly work.[38] It is the old practice as accusing someone of “witchcraft.” Once you cast suspicion upon the other whatever they said was then suspect—you had successfully disqualified them from discourse in the community. Their voices were effectively silenced for who believes what a witch says? World magazine demonized open theism and claimed that it was responsible for a long list of evils including homosexuality! Huh? At least they did not hold us responsible for state supported terrorism! Colleagues, you do not like being treated like this in the secular press when, for instance, they call homophobic anyone who questions homosexuality. If you cry foul when it is done to you, why do you do it to others?

At this point I want to highlight some contrasts I see between the work of members of two academic societies: the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) and the Evangelical Theological Society. In the openness debate I find it common that our critics select portions from our writings that are unnecessary for our view or not held by the majority of open theists. Instead of focusing on the core doctrines of our view they highlight some statements of ours that are tangential to the position. They also grab onto a particular interpretation of a scriptural text put forth by one open theist making it seem that all of us affirm that interpretation. Moreover, I’m amazed that some of the major works published against us fail to tackle some of our most important arguments. In contrast, members of the SCP typically build up their opponents’ position until they arrive at what they consider to be the strongest case for the other view before they criticize it.

Another problem is a serious lack of imagination in our critics in that they fail to think of ways in which we might answer their criticisms. My Arminian students are unimaginative when they fail to see how Calvinists might answer the objection: “Why bother to evangelize if it is already determined who will be saved?” The job of the professor is make them aware of possible answers. Critics of open theism make it seem like we are just plain stupid. In contrast, members of the SCP commonly try to come up with helpful suggestions for how their opponents could handle their objections.

Another point of concern is when our critics state as fact what is clearly a falsehood. For example, it is distressing when critics state that we say the being of God changes.[39] No texts of ours are cited to support this and no argument is given that we really believe this. It is simply stated as fact. In our book, The Openness of God, we twice specifically said that the being of God does not change (118, 133). We hold that God can change in will, emotions and thoughts, but not his essential nature. I notified both publishers of this error, supplying them with the relevant page numbers, but have received no reply. I am not suggesting that members of the SCP are perfect, but these tendencies are one of the reasons their journal is held in incredibly high regard. If you attend a SCP conference you will hear spirited debate, but you will see that they care about their opponent and the integrity with which they pursue their debates. Unfortunately, I believe evangelical theological debate falls seriously short here. A couple of years ago a friend of Tom Oden’s attended the ETS for the first time and after several sessions asked, “Why is there so much anger among the members of this society? They don’t just disagree with one another, they hate each other” (by the way, the issue was not openness).

Bruce Ware and Thomas Schreiner warn: “Our hearts are in danger of being captivated by a negative spirit if we find ourselves drawn toward attacking the views of others.”[40] We need to learn how to carry on debate without knee-jerk reactions that demonize the other. Terrance Teissen’s work demonstrates that a Reformed theologian can state the open view without caricature and criticize it without using caustic rhetoric. Moreover, he sees some of the problems in traditional Calvinism that openness raises and he attempts to address those shortcomings. Recently, Gerry Breshears and I had a two-hour discussion about openness on a Portland radio station. I found his comments stimulating and causing me to rethink some of my points. Tiessen and Breshears are models of theological engagement worth emulating. Stating the opposing viewpoint correctly is not easy. When I slip up and misstate Calvinism, boy do my critics let me know! I have seen two places in our writings where our critics claim we caricature their position. I am not perfect and I apologize for my failures in this regard. I hope that those who blast us for caricature will be open to admit it when they do it.[41]

If we are to improve we need to practice the intellectual virtues. A very helpful study of them is found in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous by Jay Wood of Wheaton College[42] In our research, study of texts and analysis of other perspectives there are virtues we can cultivate in the pursuit of truth. Honesty, integrity, empathy, teachableness, persistence, precision, articulateness, organization and foresight are some of the virtues discussed by Wood. The following questions highlight some of these virtues. Do I, as a theological educator talk too much and listen too little? Do I reflect before I speak or am I more interested in making my next point? Am I on a power trip—do I simply want to control what others are allowed to think? When we discuss issues around the table is it the most aggressive person who “wins?”  What are we modeling to our students and the church? Are we really equipping people for the process of theological reflection or only teaching them how to eviscerate fellow Christians?

One goal should be to be able to state the other person’s view in a way that the other person would say, “that is my position.”[43] Nicholas Wolterstorff recites the following to his students once a week:

Thou must not take cheap shots. Thou must not sit in judgment until thou has done thy best to understand. Thou must earn thy right to disagree. Thou must conduct thyself as if Plato or Augustine, Clement or Tertullian, were sitting across the table—the point being that it is much more difficult (I don’t say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.[44]

Terry Tiessen and Chris Hall have argued with me about divine providence in respectful ways. Moreover, we have prayed for one another’s family situations. It is tough to demonize someone when you are praying for their well being and that of their children. Yes, we disagree on some important theological matters, but we share a common life in Jesus Christ and a common evangelical heritage as well. These theologians engage my work in respectful ways and ask questions that make me rethink some of my ideas. They want to teach me, not burn me at the stake. How different are voices such as. R. C. Sproul Jr. who recently said this about openness theologians: “we can pray that He would destroy the idolatrous works of iniquity and the workers thereof.”[45]  It appears that some evangelical Mullas have issued a fatwa declaring jihad against proponents of openness. Some are now praying for God to kill me quickly. Given their understanding of providence, the time of my death has been eternally foreordained and whether it is soon or not has nothing to do with their prayers because they do not influence God one bit. However, in the openness view, their prayers actually could influence what God does so I’m in big trouble! (Ha!)

Another standard is that we should see one another as believing scholars seeking to understand our salvation in Jesus. Bruce Ware says, “Calvinists and Arminians have more points of agreement than disagreement in their respective soteriologies.”[46] I agree, someone looking on the openness debate from outside evangelicalism would see a lot more agreement between the respective positions than disagreement. Another criterion is that none of us has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This side of the eschaton we only “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). Calvin said that no theologian is more than seventy percent correct. That may be generous. All of us are finite and we must never forget the noetic effects of sin on our research, reasoning, and theological formulations. We need epistemic humility and we need one another for the wisdom of God is shared in the body of Christ. I admit that open theism may turn out to be a footnote in historical theology. We may be wrong, but it takes time to investigate and debate theological proposals. Look how long it took the early church to work through issues surrounding the deity of Jesus. Committed Christians held various positions. Some wanted to short-circuit the debate and simply exile their opponents. Debate was allowed to work its slow way forward over decades and even centuries before the church came to official positions and the church was stronger, not weaker, for the debate.

At the SCP I have observed spirited debate on important matters and then watched the debaters go have coffee together. They recognize that their common heritage in Jesus Christ is greater than our differences. The other option is to politicize the discussion and claim that our particular version of evangelical Christianity is the only way to protect the gospel. Remember the book, The Gospel Under Siege? So far as I can tell neither side won that debate and the gospel is still here. Mark Noll and Alister McGrath call on evangelical theologians to explore new areas and to develop responses to the many issues raised today.  However, at least a part of the scandal of the evangelical mind is the fear many evangelical theologians have of investigating certain topics because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Many evangelical institutions only allow professors to teach doctrine, not practice theology. George Marsden says that most of the brightest evangelical minds of the past thirty years have gone into philosophy instead of theology because they see what the gatekeepers of evangelical orthodoxy do to those who question the status quo. We need to overcome the scandal of the evangelical mind by practicing the intellectual virtues and allowing what Erickson calls “open scholarism.”

Is Openness Evangelical?

In his book on evangelicalism, Gary Dorrien observes: “The irony of evangelicalism is that while it contains an essentially contested family of theologies, it has been poorly suited to affirm pluralism of any kind.”[47] Though there is no agreement as to how to define the term, helpful guidelines arise from studies that pay attention to the diversity of historical roots from which contemporary evangelicalism has grown. Alister McGrath, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre, and Stanley Grenz provide nuanced definitions of the movement. These writers show that no simple list of doctrines alone can define the movement because the movement is comprised of multiple groups forming ever-evolving coalitions.[48] A characteristic of the evangelical movement over the centuries has been its ever-changing constituency as new alliances are formed and some old ones dissolved.[49] The boundaries of evangelicalism are a moving target.

In light of this it is not surprising that one branch of evangelicalism would arise and claim that only it deserved the title “evangelical.” Grenz explains: “The perceived ‘ghettoizing’ of fundamentalism in the aftermath of the infamous Scopes ‘monkey’ trial in 1925 led to the formation of a new coalition in the 1940’s known as the neo-evangelical movement….By reviving this designation, the movement claimed for itself the mantle of the entire evangelical tradition.”[50] Certain members of the segment of evangelicalism that went through a fundamentalist phase decided to form a new brand of evangelicalism and now they claim to be the only true evangelicals. It seems to me that groups such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) take a conservative slice of the neo-evangelical pie and claim to represent the only legitimate form of evangelicalism. At least one council member of ACE doubts that Arminians are evangelicals. Such people seem to believe that if you are not a descendent of scholastic Calvinism, you are not an evangelical.

Listen to what Millard Erickson said about fundamentalism: “A harsh and uncharitable spirit came to predominate….Within its own ranks, internal suspicion and bickering over minor points of doctrine increased. From a movement of genuine scholarship, positive statement, and a certain latitude of evangelical position, fundamentalism came to be increasingly a negative, defensive, and reactionary movement with a narrowing of its theological options.”[51] I think this describes the present situation quite accurately. Do contemporary scholastic Calvinist neo-evangelicals want to become an evangelical Taliban tightly regulating all Christian beliefs and practices?

It seems to me that other brands of evangelicalism are tolerated but not really welcome in the ETS. Arminians, for instance, are thought to have a severely deficient understanding of soteriology and providence. If Arminians are tolerated in the ETS, then why not openness theologians? Several reasons are given. Some claim that the open view of sovereignty is so much worse than the Arminian view. This simply ignores the detailed work I did on this question in The God Who Risks. Moreover, no serious case has been made that the traditional Arminian understanding of foreknowledge and providence is superior to the neo-Arminian view. If the traditional Arminian understanding of providence offers no more divine control or less risk that the open view, then what is so bad about openness? Well, some claim that it will harm churches and ruin worship. From the letters, e-mails and calls I receive, I think it is quite the opposite—people are finding openness to be a great stimulus to their spiritual lives. The church at which Greg Boyd is pastor started nine years ago and now has over five thousand in weekly attendence. This congregation is known around the community for its passionate worship, social action, outreach and its central emphasis on the urgency of prayer. In fact, I know of no other view that gives more importance to petitionary prayer than openness. Some critics go so far as to claim that openness will destroy Christianity. Such a remark exhibits an incredible lack of faith in the Holy Spirit. Christianity, however, is not that fragile. It will still be around five hundred years from now; in changed ways perhaps, but it will be there.


Let me reiterate my main points.

  1. The watershed issue in the debate between openness theologians and scholastic Calvinists (not the Reformed) is not presentism but whether God is ever influenced by what we do and whether God has granted humans libertarian freedom.
  2. Both sides are reading scripture in great earnestness. Both sides see the scripture as inerrant and the final authority for faith and practice. Both groups are trying to develop the best theory to explain the two types of biblical texts concerning God and the future—where it is definite and where it at least seems to be indefinite. However, there is no neutral set of criteria by which to arrive at an inerrant interpretation of scripture. We are all finite and sinful interpreters of scripture and none of us fully comprehends God.
  3. The tradition on the nature of God and divine providence is not uniform. Moreover, when it comes to classical theism, few evangelical Calvinists accept it in its classic form. Instead, these conservative evangelicals are revising classical theism. We are all attempting to improve the tradition. The question is which changes we should make. Regarding heresy, one should be careful about throwing it at others for who among us is not a heretic by someone’s standards? Calling open theism heresy is either unjustified or the word is being used in such a broad sense that pretty much everyone is included.
  4. We need to practice the intellectual virtues in our debates. We need honesty and humility. We need to state the other position correctly without caustic rhetoric. We need to emulate those who do their scholarly homework and do not simply resort to name-calling. If you believe your views are better than somebody else’s then demonstrate it and improve our theology. We need to learn from one another.
  5.  We must not allow a small band of evangelicals to hijack the evangelical movement and establish a rule that excludes all other forms. If someone who affirms the urgency of prayer, the need to convert the world, the importance of the new birth, the majesty of Jesus Christ as incarnate God and savior of sinful humanity, the primacy of scripture, and the importance of worshipping God daily in all we do, is not an evangelical, then, ok, openness theologians are not evangelical.
  6. Finally, in order to get promotion and tenure at our colleges we need to present papers at conferences and publish articles and books. Hence, I appeal to your self-interest, given all the papers and books on open theism you produce, keeping us around will keep you employed!

[1] Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 244-253 and a personal letter.

[2] See Boyd’s contribution to Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. Paul Eddy and James Bielbe (Downers Grove, ILL:  InterVarsity Press,  2001) as well as his Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove, ILL:  InterVarsity Press,  2001). Though proponents of open theism are not required to agree with all of Boyd’s assertions, this view is enough to defeat the objection.

[3] Ward, “Cosmos and Kenosis,” in John Polkinghorne ed., The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2001), 157.

[4] Helm does this by explicating what is involved in unconditional election. See his “An Augustinian-Calvinist Response,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 63-4.

[5] God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000), 65.

[6] Robert E. Picirilli, “Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43/2 (June 2000): 259-271; “An Arminian Response to John Sanders’s The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence” JETS 44/3 (September 2001): 467-491. Though Picirilli has some helpful comments, his inability to see what our arguments do and do not entail render the bulk of his two articles useless because they totally miss the point! Our critique of simple foreknowledge is quite different from the one he thinks we are making. See my God Who Risks, 200-206 and William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 53-63.

[7] Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 2000). Of special relevance are the detailed studies by Hebrew Bible scholar Terence Fretheim. It is particularly disappointing that our Calvinist critics typically fail to interact with Fretheim’s work and that of the other biblical scholars we cite. See Fretheim’s, The Suffering of God, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), The Book of Genesis. The New Interpreter’s Bible. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), “Creator, Creature, and Co-Creation in Genesis 1-2.” Word and World., Supplement 1 (1992): 11-20, “Divine Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 47, no. 4 (Oct. 1985): 595-602, Exodus. Interpretation. (Louisville: John Knox, 1991) “Prayer in the Old Testament: Creating Space in the World for God.” Ed. Paul Sponheim. A Primer on Prayer. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 10, no. 1 (June 1988): 47-70, “The Repentance of God: A Study of Jeremiah 18:7-10. Hebrew Annual Review 11 (1987): 81-92, “Suffering God and Sovereign God in Exodus: A Collision of Images.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 11 no. 2 (Dec. 1989): 31-56.

[8] Basinger, Christian Scholar’s Review 25 no. 2 (Dec. 95): 133-145.

[9] Erickson, God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids, Mich. Baker Book House, 1998), 88.

[10] Pyne and Spencer chastise us for not writing detailed defenses of libertarian freedom, but they do not blast traditional Arminians for simply assuming libertarian freedom. “A Critique of Free-Will Theism,” part one, Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (July 2001): 262.

[11] See the discussion by the esteemed patristics scholar Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages Upon the Christian Church (Peabody, Mass: Hendrikson, 1995).

[12] Erickson, God the Father Almighty, 85.

[13]Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, in 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1962), 1.56.

[14] Nash, The Concept of God  (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1983), 105, 114.

[15] Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 164.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1994), 165-6.

[17] Erickson, God the Father Almighty, 155.

[18] Michael Horton believes that if God is not strongly impassible and immutable, then he is not our savior. Horton castigates open theists for rejecting impassibility and immutability, yet he is strangely silent when his fellow Calvinists make the same changes. See his “Is the New News Good News?” Modern Reformation 8/5 (September, 1999): pp. 11-19 and  “A Vulnerable God Apart From Christ? Open Theism’s Challenge to the Classical Doctrine of God.” Modern Reformation 10/3 (May, 2001): 30-38

[19] Tiessen, Providence and Prayer (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2000), 324.

[20] Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 159.

[21] See Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 2001), 75-7.

[22] Wolterstorff, “Does God Suffer?” Modern Reformation (September-October, 1999), 47.

[23] Letter of Tom Oden. For Oden, a “heresy” is something that disagrees with the “consensus” that developed in the first eight centuries of the church. Regarding Oden’s own view of God I believe that Oden is logically inconsistent when he affirms simple foreknowledge and also that God can switch to plan B and C. See his The Living God (San Francisco: HarperSanfransico, 1987), 306.

[24] A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1926), 54-69.

[25] J. Den Boeft, Calcidius on Fate: His Doctrine and Sources, Philosophia Antiqua (Leiden: E, J. Brill, 1970), 52.

[26] See my God Who Risks, 162-4 and 324 no. 125

[27] For Polkinghorne and others see Polkinghorne ed., The Work of Love (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2001).

[28] Wells, “Reflections about Catholic Renewal in Evangelicalism,” in Webber and Bloesch eds., The Orthodox Evangelicals: Who They are and What They are Saying (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 214.

[29] Eck, Enchiridion of Commonplaces: Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church, Ford Lewis Battles trans., (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1979), 10.

[30] Bray, The Personal God: Is the Classical Understanding of God Tenable? (Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 1998), 4.

[31] For the following see Gary Dorrien, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 27, 31, 41, 59, 69, and 73.

[32] See Douglas Jacobson, “The Center and Boundaries of Evangelical/Fundamentalist Faith” Christian Scholars Review 18.2 (Winter 1998), 343.

[33] The functional purpose of the doctrine of foreknowledge in Christian thought has been its ability to explain divine predictions of the future. The point of the doctrine is to explain this phenomenon. Various theories of omniscience account for predictions in different ways and any model that accounts for predictions is prima facie legitimate. Openness does account for predictive prophecy so it meets the basic requirement.

[34] John Andrews, “Address to the Reader,” The Works of James Arminius, trans., James Nichols, 3 vols., (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1991), 2.686.

[35] Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997), 107.

[36] See John Cobb and Clark Pinnock eds., Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue Between Process and Free Will Theists (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000).

[37] Bray, The Personal God, 7. Bray claims that we are unaware that Harnack developed this thesis and that it has been discredited. Actually, we have read Harnack and our thesis is not the one he espoused. Harnack claimed that the biblical writers were hellenized. We only claim that post apostolic writers were influenced by Greek thought. A claim readily acknowledged by patristic scholars (see note 11 above).

[38] Ramm, The Devil, Seven Wormwoods, and God (Waco:,Texas: Word books, 1977), 11-17.

[39] This spurious claim has been made by Gerald Bray, The Personal God, 74 and Michael Horton, “A Vulnerable God Apart From Christ?” Modern Reformation (May, 2001): 30-38. Neither of them cite any of our work to support this claim.

[40] Ware and Schreiner eds., Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, abridged edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 2000), 16.

[41] For example, Erickson, God the Father Almighty, 92.

[42] Wood, Epistemology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998) especially chapters 2-3.

[43] Pinnock makes similar points in his Most Moved Mover, 181.

[44] Cited in John Wilson, “Thou Shalt Not Take Cheap Shots,” Books & Culture (September, 1999): 3.

[45] Sproul, “Worshipping in the Beauty of Holiness,” Douglas Wilson ed., Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2001), 63.

[46] Ware, Still Sovereign, 204.

[47] Dorrien, Remaking of Evangelical Theology, 3.

[48] Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2000), 176.

[49] See Jacobsen, “The Center and Boundaries:” 342.

[50] Grenz, Renewing the Center, 85.

[51] Erickson, The New Evangelical Theology (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1968), 29.

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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