Open Theism from Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion

Open Theism article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2020. Penultimate draft, not for citation. John Sanders, Hendrix College



Open theism is a model of the divine nature and providence which highlights God’s love for and responsiveness to creatures while affirming omnipotence and creation out of nothing. God is open to creatures, is affected by them, and enters into reciprocal relations with them. The future is open as well in that there are multiple possible futures. This means that God has dynamic omniscience, is everlasting, and that God solicits our cooperation to bring about divine initiatives rather than micromanaging history.


Main text

Open theism is a model of the divine nature and providence which highlights God’s love for and responsiveness to creatures. The notion of “openness” is used in two main senses. First, God is open to creatures in that God enjoys reciprocal relations with creatures. God not only gives to creatures but receives from them as well. Second, the future is open in the sense that there are multiple possible scenarios that may occur. The future is a set of possibilities rather than a list of specific events which will happen. What we call “the” future is not a reality like the past and present, not even for God. Most open theists affirm presentism: only the present exits as an ontological reality.


That God is open and the future is open lead to two important ideas. The first is that God has “dynamic omniscience” in that God possesses total knowledge of past and present events while God’s knowledge of the future is of possibilities that might occur God knows reality as it is such that as creatures actualize possibilities in the present moment God then knows them as actual events instead of as possible events. Divine omniscience is thus dynamic and ongoing. This does not mean that God “does not know the future” because the future is not an actuality but, rather, possibilities which God knows as such. Related to this, open theists hold to the dynamic (A-theory) of time according to which there is an always changing present moment or now. They reject the stasis (B-theory) of time according to which all past, present, and future events eternally co-exist. The second key idea is that if God is affected by creatures and the future is made up of possibilities, then God experiences change. Hence, God is everlasting through time (temporal) instead of timelessly eternal (atemporal). This does not mean that God is “in” time as though time is a container. Rather, time is understood as an aspect of the divine life which experiences other entities in reciprocal relations.


Because God is affected by what creatures do, prayer and human actions may influence some of God’s decisions. Some of God’s decisions are contingent upon what creatures do and the actions of creatures can affect emotional experiences in God. Though the divine nature does not change and God is not disabled by emotions as we sometimes are, God does experience changing mental states. This means that open theists reject strong forms of divine immutability and impassibility which entail that God never changes in any way and is never affected by creatures.


Open theists also affirm that God created ex nihilo and continues to act in human history, sometimes in miraculous ways. Though omnipotent, divine love does not control what humans do. God exercises general sovereignty by granting creatures significant autonomy and eliciting our cooperation in fulfilling divine goals. God adjusts divine plans when necessary to take into account human aspirations and actions. God operates with flexible strategies instead of a blueprint.


Humans have libertarian freedom and so God cannot meticulously control each and every event as theological determinism holds. This means that God takes risks because it is possible for us to act in ways contrary to God’s desires. God voluntarily limits the divine omnipotence to grant creatures autonomy. This is different from process theology which holds that God is necessarily limited by external realities. According to the openness model God created a “world type” in which humans have significant freedom to love and care for others but with this comes the possibility that we harm one another. Open theism makes use of the freewill defense regarding moral evil and adds that prior to creation God knew that moral evil was a possibility and so God was prepared for it but God did not know which specific evils would come about. God is grieved by our evil actions and works with us to transform us into loving agents but God cannot guarantee what specific individuals will do given our libertarian freedom.


Philosophical and theological arguments are used to support open theism. Proponents of divine openness argue that exhaustive foreknowledge of contingent events is incompatible with libertarian freedom. A closed future in which all events are definite results in determinism. In addition, open theists claim that foreknowledge is useless for God because, by definition, what God foreknows is the actual (not possible) future. If God eternally knows that, for example, Peter will steal Rajesh’s car, God cannot use this foreknowledge to change the situation so that it does not occur as this would render God’s foreknowledge false. Theologically, many religious believers think that prayers affect God and that God has changing mental states. The openness model makes sense of such forms of piety. Appeal is also made to biblical texts that depict God as, for instance, grieving over human sin, changing the divine mind from a previously announced action, testing individuals to find out what they will do, and predicting specific events that did not come about.


Historically, the term openness of God was coined in the 1990’s by a group of theologians and philosophers to designate the position but the view itself is thousands of years old. Variations of it exist in Jewish (e. g., Gersonides), Muslim (e. g., Abd al-Jabbar), and Christian (e. g., Jürgen Moltmann) traditions. In recent decades many philosophers of religion have affirmed it including luminaries such as Richard Swinburne, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Hasker.



Further reading

Boyd, Gregory 2000. God of the Possible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Hasker, William 2004. Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God. London: Routledge.

Hasker, William, Thomas Oord, and Dean Zimmerman, eds. 2011, God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics, and Open Theism Eugene: Wipf and Stock.

Pinnock, Clark 2001. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Pinnock, Clark, et. al. 1994. The Openness of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Sanders, John 2007. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Revised edition. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.


Key terms for google search: divine risk; divine passibility; dynamic omniscience; foreknowledge; freewill; omniscience, openness of God; William Hasker; Clark Pinnock; John E Sanders

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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