A Primer on Open Theism and a Brief Critique

Recently, I was asked by a college student to explain what open theism is, so I might as well make my answer into a blog post.

Open theism does not alarm me nearly as much other Christians who react like it’s some crazy heresy, but I do think it’s in error and I’ll explain why.  As always, I’ll aim to give a charitable portrayal of the view, though my explanation and critique will naturally have to be short if I don’t want this post to get too long.

Open Theism: What it is and Who Believes it

In a nutshell, open theism is the belief that the future is at least partly “open” even for God, such that he does not know with 100% detail what is going to happen.  This comes from the alleged incompatibility between these two ideas:

  1. Human beings have libertarian free will.
  2. God universally knows exactly what every free creature will do.

Libertarianism is the view that we have free will and that it’s ultimately incompatible with determinism.  Since open theists hold strongly to libertarianism, they think #2 should be dropped or amended.  The reason is that if an omniscient God, who cannot be wrong, knows ahead of time what people will do, then those facts about the future are “settled” and cannot be changed, thereby jeopardizing freedom.  Interestingly enough, most Calvinists, seemingly their mortal enemies, agree with them about this incompatibility but instead opt to drop #1, advocating for a theory of free will called compatibilism (free will and determinism are compatible).   In any case, examples of Christians who are open theists are pastor/philosopher Greg Boyd, philosopher William Hasker, and the late theologian Clark Pinnock.

Many Christians’ initial reaction to open theism is one of surprise.  How can open theists believe this?  Aren’t they outright denying God’s omniscience?  The short answer to the second question is, no, they’re not trying to, though it they may end up doing so unintentionally.  That all depends on the reasons they believe that God does not universally know what every free creature will do, and they have both biblical and philosophical arguments for that.

Bible Passages in Favor of Open Theism

Open theists often point to passages where God expresses regret or even surprise at people’s decisions and also those that depict God changing his mind.  Here are a few examples:

  • Genesis 6:5-6 states that God regretted making man due to how evil man had become.  Open theists argue that it makes no sense for God to regret anything if he knew exactly how things would turn out.
  • In the story of Jonah, God sends Jonah to preach judgment to Nineveh, but the Ninevites humble themselves so God “repents” or changes his mind about destroying the city.  Clearly, open theists argue, God did not know for sure if this would happen and responded to their decision.
  • In Isaiah 38, God adds fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life after Hezekiah cries out to God when being told he was about to die.  Open theists contend that it makes no sense to say that God “added” fifteen years when he always knew what was going to happen.  It also may make God a bit dishonest to tell Hezekiah he was about to die when God actually knew that wasn’t the case.
  • In Jeremiah 19:5, where God says that Israel’s sacrifices of their own sons was something he never commanded or even entered his mind.  The disappointment and even shock in God’s statement implies that God did not know for sure this was going to happen, according to open theists.

The typical criticism of these prooftexts is that open theists are being naively literal.  Such passages are just using anthropomorphic language to accommodate God to our understanding, but they aren’t saying anything completely true about God himself.  Critics will then snidely say that open theists might as well conclude that God has hands, arms, eyes, and ears because Scripture uses that language too.

However, open theists shoot back that this is a cop-out because nothing in these passages hints that they should be taken nonliterally, unlike passages that depict God with body parts.  There is a clear meaning when the Bible refers to the eyes or arm of God; the former speaks to his knowledge and awareness of everything going on, and the latter often refers to his power.  What exactly, open theist ask, is the passage saying when it says that God regretted how things turned out when it actually doesn’t mean this?  Such interpretive moves seem to have certain commitments in mind that do not allow the text to speak for itself.  To be honest, open theists have a point here, at least when it comes to people who try to brush these passages off as mere metaphors that apparently don’t mean anything.

Thus, if such passages are taken seriously, we get a different picture of God than what is traditionally conceived.  There are some things not even God knows for certain about the future, but that doesn’t negate his omniscience.  To see how, some philosophical arguments are brought to the fore.

Philosophical Reasons for Open Theism

In addition to the above incompatibility argument, open theists will talk about the nature of the future, or more specifically, future contingent propositions.  A future contingent proposition is simply a future statement like, “Bob will choose to eat a sandwich next Tuesday.”  Open theists will either say that such propositions do not have truth value at all (they are neither true nor false) or that they’re always false.  In other words, the proposition “Bob will choose to eat a sandwich next Tuesday” either lacks truth value until Bob actually acts or it’s false until then.  Either way, if omniscience is defined as “knowing all true propositions,” then not even God knows these things because such propositions don’t have truth for God to know.

A simplistic illustration may help.  Let’s say someone believes there’s an invisible elephant in the room, but you don’t think so.  That person adamantly argues that God knows the elephant is there, but you say God does not know that.  It would be odd for that person to then accuse you of not believing that God is omniscient.  The debate is not whether or not God is omniscient but about the content of God’s knowledge.  If you don’t think it’s true that there’s an invisible elephant, you don’t think God knows that it’s there.  Likewise, since open theists do not believe that future contingents (or at least not all of them) have any truth for God to know, he doesn’t know them and that’s no knock on his omniscience.  If the future is partly comprised of genuine possibilities, God knows the future perfectly as partly open.

A common criticism is that if this is the case, God could not guarantee his promises and ensure his victory over sin, death, and the devil.  Open theists, however, argue that God will win because he is all-wise and resourceful.  One analogy Greg Boyd likes to use is of a master chess player.  A master chess player is guaranteed victory against a much lesser player but not because he knows exactly what the other player will do; in fact, if this were the case, we would not consider him skillful at all.  It would be even worse if he determined what the other player would do because then the whole game is nonsensical and rigged.  He will be victorious because he knows all the possible moves the other player will make and is the more skilled and knowledgeable player.  Thus, God is even more praiseworthy in open theism because he is ensured victory due to his infinite knowledge of all possibilities and his amazing wisdom and resourcefulness in guiding creation.

A Brief Critique

There is not space for a full-blown critique of open theism, but I want to make a couple of points.

First, I actually grant that the passages they bring up are often brushed away too quickly and that if they’re taken at face value and in isolation, they are consistent with open theism (though they do not necessitate it).  Nevertheless, I think their treatments of other passages are less plausible.  For example, in Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved and oppressed in a foreign land, referring to the future enslavement by Egypt.  That’s something pretty specific that is far in the future that is difficult to square with open theism.  Also, another big problem text is Peter’s denials of Christ that Jesus predicted.  Open theists are not unaware of these passages and have responses, but they strike me as stretched interpretations.  Boyd argues, for example, that Jesus knew Peter’s character so well that he could predict what would happen, but what Jesus said was pretty specific about the timing and circumstances of Peter’s denial, and it seems like a much simpler explanation that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen.  Therefore, I think open theists bring up interesting passages but ultimately do not include the entire breadth of Scripture adequately.  Furthermore, there are ways to interpret the passages above without resorting to simplistic appeals to anthropomorphism while also conceiving of God regretting or responding despite knowing what was going to happen.

Second, I am not convinced that A) God knowing what someone will do somehow determines that choice, compromising libertarian free will and B) That future contingents do not have truth value or are always false.  I do understand that this is a more complex philosophical topic than most people know and one that is pretty old (going back to at least Aristotle), which is why I am not freaked out by open theism.  Still, I think the burden of proof is on open theists here, and I don’t think they’ve been successful.  It seems more intuitive to believe that a statement like “The Warriors will win the NBA Finals” can be true or false, even if humans normally can’t know this.  The principle of bivalence should not be discarded so easily.

Conclusion

Open theism made a big splash in the early and mid 2000’s and has died down since then, though it brought up interesting new ideas and re-emphasized some important critiques of Calvinism.  While I do understand that open theists try to be more scriptural than their critics give them credit for and that the philosophical issues are difficult, I think their departure from a traditional understanding of God’s knowledge of the future is unnecessary.  The biblical case is pretty suspect, and they haven’t shown enough philosophically to really motivate their position.

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