What is Open Theism?

God_is_open02.pngWhat is Open Theism?

Open Theism has been called many things by many people. A leading critical webpage defines Open Theism as: “the teaching that God has granted to humanity free will and that in order for the free will to be truly free, the future free will choices of individuals cannot be known ahead of time by God.” Although this describes some philosophical conclusions of some Open Theists, it does not serve as a very good defining characteristic.

Another critical website claims Open Theism is: “the belief that God does not exercise meticulous control of the universe but leaves it “open” for humans to make significant choices (free will) that impact their relationships with God and others.” Although this definition is better, it still just breaks the surface of what the Open Theist movement entails.

The same site also lists the definition by a leading Open Theist, Pastor Bob Enyart of Denver Bible Church. Enyart states: “The future is open because God is free and God is creative. The settled view of God denies God’s own freedom and the ability to create, do something new, etc. God was, is and always will be free. God was, is and always will be a creative God.” This is really the heart of the matter. God is free to do as God pleases. God can write new songs, create new relationships, and even change the future. This is the God that the Bible depicts; a God eternally interacting with His creation, reacting and moving, living and creating, planning and accomplishing all His goals.

Open Theism is the Christian doctrine that the future is not closed but open because God is alive, eternally free, and inexhaustibly creative.

Furthermore, the Biblical Open Theism belief is that the Bible depicts God as God truly is. The God of the Bible is truly loving, powerful, righteous, faithful, vengeful, relational, and desperately beautiful. God raises up nations and destroys them (Isaiah 40:23). God is heartbroken by rebellion and exacts retribution (Genesis 6:6-7). God pleads with His people to return to Him and attempts everything He possibly can to make them love Him (Isaiah 5:4). God is nauseated by heinous sin (Jeremiah 19:5). God forgets His people’s sin for God’s own sake (Isaiah 43:25). God feels scorned and rejected when we abandon Him (Hosea 1:2).

But most of all, God is love (1 John 4:8). God so loved mankind that God made us in His image (Genesis 1:26). Imagine the God of the universe making lowly man into God’s own image! The picture is beautifully breathtaking. God created man for a love relationship! All God’s actions point to God’s love, even His vengeance. God desperately wants man to love Him and will go through extreme lengths to make it happen.

God describes Himself as relational and powerful. God can do everything; God can test people and learn that people love Him (Genesis 22:12), God can listen to new songs (songs WE(!) write for Him) (Psalms 33:3), and God can perform new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). God even explains His relationship to mankind in the most loving way; God states that He will stop judgment against a nation if they repent (a judgment God “thought to bring upon” the nation)( Jeremiah 18:8). Amazing and righteous! God thinks He is going to destroy a nation, but repents based on human repentance. We see this wonderfully illustrated in Jonah, where the most wicked people on Earth repent and then God does not bring upon them “what He said He would bring upon them” (Jonah 3:10).

God so loved sinners that time and time again He laments about our unbelief. In fact God states that He tried so hard to save us that He expected(!) us to turn to God, but we did not (Jeremiah 3:7). In God’s infinite love, God has given us the ability to interact with Him, and the freedom to reject Him despite His best efforts! The God of the Bible responds to His creation.

Because God is righteous, God answers criticism. God answers the pagan king Abimelech when the king questions God (Genesis 20:4). God responds to critics. He does not ignore them as if their reasoning did not matter.

This is the God of the Bible. Open Theism claims that the Bible should not be ignored when it speaks about who God is and what God is like. The God of the Bible is truly loving, powerful, dangerous, faithful, vengeful, relational, and desperately beautiful. God is a complex, free, and wonderful person. God is hopelessly personal. That is the position of Open Theism.

Spectrum of Open Theism

It is important to distinguish between Christian open theists and non-Christian open theists. While open theism can refer to Muslims and other religions, it is primarily associated with Christianity. The most straightforward written method of distinguishing between the two is by capitalizing Open Theism when referring to the Christian subset. I am proposing that this standard is adopted as a norm.

Open Theism, then, would be the subgroup of all open theists that adhere to Christianity. This would not include Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic or even Process open theists.

Open Theism can be rightly understood as a spectrum of beliefs ranging from Philosophical Open Theism (Open Theism as derived from metaphysics) to Biblical Open Theism (Open Theism derived from Biblical descriptions of God’s acts and nature). Between these two poles range a wide variety of belief. To the extent that people use metaphysics (such as Perfect Being or Dignum Deo theology) as their metric to understanding the Bible, they move down the spectrum towards the Philosophical pole. To the extent that people use authorial intent (figuring out the concepts that the author was trying to communicate to his audience) as their metric, they move down the spectrum towards the Biblical pole.

Each pole has characteristic (but not absolute) attributes. Understanding the spectrum of thought will help Open Theists interact and critics to build accurate depictions of Open Theism.

open theism spectrum

A few items of note: Not all Open Theists embrace Omniscience and Perfect Being theology. Also, not all Open Theists embrace Biblical Inerrancy. Not all traditions of Open Theism flow from the same influences, and some influences for Open Theism are not compatible with certain Open Theists views. When critics cite Whitehead and Hartshorne as influences on Christianity, the entire Biblical side of the chart is more likely to have never heard these names before. It is a mistake to view Open Theism as a monolithic and strictly defined movement. Instead, it is better seen as a loose confederacy of divergent traditions and beliefs. Understanding this will allow Open Theists to better communicate and collaborate at common goals, the primary of which is to accurately describe the nature and character of God.

15 comments

  1. A Jewish rabbi whose name I cant recall made the case for a version of Oprn Theism by citing the Creation story in which God lets Adam choose which being satisfies his need for companionship. So it could hsve been Adam and Steve after all! Not only this but God can change God’s mind so Abraham succession persuading GOd to spare Lot and his family. The Chosen People are not slaves but friends and lesser partners of God who collaborate with God in repairing the world. John Wesley reported said of the God of his Calvinistic critics, “Your God is my devil.” That I believe is an apt descripton of the omnipotent autocrat that has replaced the living Father of Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. Word games? God is limited by His desires. He can’t do that which He does not desire. Is it freedom? Yes, He is able to fulfill Himself, His purposes and nature. Is He limited to such desires? Yes.
    The Calvinists use bound/free to relate to the limiting of desires. When we have desires that are tainted with sin, it is noted as belonging to a ‘bound will’. The reason being, we can’t fulfill our desires, or our purposes to live perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect (referring to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48). In fact, the carnal man, finds such desires foreign! (co-ref with: 1 Corinthians 2:14, Romans 8:6)
    It is only by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit we are able to experience a ‘free will’.

  3. OP is defined as “the Christian doctrine that the future is not closed but open because God is alive, eternally free, and inexhaustibly creative.”

    I’m still not sure UI understand exactly what is Open Theism.

    As one who believes in absolute meticulous and exhaustive divine foreknowledge (which I understand to be the traditional belief of the early church fathers), I can agree that:
    √ “loving, powerful, righteous, faithful, vengeful, relational, and desperately beautiful.”
    √ “God is love” and loves all men as sinners (my position is Arminian).
    √ God “laments about our unbelief” and is ever seeking for us to turn to Him.
    √ “God responds to critics” as well as to love.

    Therefore, all these things do not seem to be in contention as far as I’m concerned. My concern is what do you mean by “the future is not closed”?

    I cannot buy the idea that “the future free will choices of individuals cannot be known ahead of time by God.” From my reading of the Bible, that seems wholly untenable.

    I hold that God does “exercise meticulous control of the universe” while, at the same time, leaving “it ‘open’ for humans to make significant choices (free will) that impact their relationships with God and others.”

    And, God does, in my opinion, “new things” as the Scriptures affirm, and that constantly (Isaiah 42:9; 48:6; 2 Cor 5:17).

    However, Pastor Bob Enyart’s only affirms what he believes is fact about God, that is, that because “God is free and…creative,” the future is open. However, that doesn’t explain what it is for the future to be open. It’s vague and, perhaps, that is why there are diverse ideas as to what is Open Theism. To say the future is “open” to God, really says nothing. I can affirm the same things, even with my view of divine foreknowledge.

    I would like to know *exactly* how the Open View works out in practical terms.

    For example, here is how I would think a tenable working out of open theism might work: Although God may not know the future actions actualized by each person with respect to the choice he will make, God absolutely foreknows every possible response or action in every possible circumstance each person makes and, therefore, has already ordained His response to men before that choice is actualized.

    There might be a simpler way to say it, but lacking of a scholarly mind, that’s the best I can do right now. Anyway, that is the only tenable option I see if it is to be affirmed that God does does not know the future actual decisions and actions a free will creatures until it is actualized.

    Hope I’m making sense here.

    In any case, if you could provide a more clear explanation of what it means for the future to be “open” to God, what it entails and how it works, it would be much appreciated. Thanks!

    1. On Knowledge:

      “the future free will choices of individuals cannot be known ahead of time by God.”

      This was from a critical webpage. I can know future free actions of human beings quite easy. If tell my children to come clean their rooms, they will. If I go to Walmart right now and buy socks, there will be people there who take my money in exchange for those socks. If I go out driving on the road, I will pass other drivers. I know these things, not because I have exhaustive knowledge of the future, but because I know how the world works to some extent. If humans did not have countless knowledge of other human’s future free choices, this world would cease to operate. This is a normal use of the word knowledge. I know I will wake up tomorrow. I know the sun will rise tomorrow.

      But this is not the knowledge that Classical Theology wants to assign to God. Instead they want to exclude this type of knowledge, and the entire class of knowledge known as experiential knowledge (does God having “all knowledge” mean He knows what it is like to be a child rapist or to be lost and without hope?). Classical Theology wants a 100% knowledge that is active, not passive or experiential. God knows inherently every fact. No knowledge flows to God, because God is unchanging and forever holds all immutable facts in the forefront of His mind eternally. This knowledge of the future never fails because they represent real objects. God cannot think something will happen that does not (this is in contrast to how the Bible describes both God’s accumulation of knowledge and God’s failed expectations).

      I would say God can know the future free actions of people. If you and I use our own knowledge of future free actions of human beings to function in the real world, how much more so can God who has much more knowledge and power than us. This is the Bible’s story. God even engages in all sorts of tests to “see what the people will do” in order to know how they will react in future events. God learns patterns of behaviors in individuals to predict their future actions.

    2. On God’s character:

      “As one who believes in absolute meticulous and exhaustive divine foreknowledge (which I understand to be the traditional belief of the early church fathers), I can agree that:
      √ “loving, powerful, righteous, faithful, vengeful, relational, and desperately beautiful.”
      √ “God is love” and loves all men as sinners (my position is Arminian).
      √ God “laments about our unbelief” and is ever seeking for us to turn to Him.
      √ “God responds to critics” as well as to love.”

      If you believe what the Church Fathers believed, you cannot rightly claim any of these things. They believed God was perfectly simple, immutable, impassible, timeless, and without parts. Their conception of God was wholly “other”. Plotinus’ Neo-Platonistic conception of “pure actuality”. Augustine rejected the Bible as absurd until Ambrose told him to read the Bible in light of Plotinus. Only then could Augustine accept the Bible. He took Platonism and added “charity” in the form of Jesus, who he conceived as a representation of God in the spiritual hypostasis. This replaced Plotinus’ divine spark, and added “charity/love” to the Platonic model. These are clearly contradictory ideas, that God is without parts yet have have persons in lesser hypostasises, which led to rational people rejecting the Trinity such as the Aryans and Servetus. Justin Martyr and Origin preceded Augustine in Platonistic readings of the Bible.

      The Bible describes God as personal and relational. God is not immutable or wholly other. God interacts with man in a give and take relationship throughout the Bible. God changes His mind based on the petitions of people. God often does not do what He thought He would do. God reacts in surprise and in spurned rejection when Israel does not stay faithful. Israel’s sin wounds God. This is not the impassible God of Classical Theism.

    3. On God’s freedom:

      “However, Pastor Bob Enyart’s only affirms what he believes is fact about God, that is, that because “God is free and…creative,” the future is open. However, that doesn’t explain what it is for the future to be open. It’s vague and, perhaps, that is why there are diverse ideas as to what is Open Theism. To say the future is “open” to God, really says nothing. I can affirm the same things, even with my view of divine foreknowledge.”

      Can you? If God knows the entire future exhaustively, can He do something else other than what is known that He will do? With exhaustive divine knowledge, God becomes a slave to fate. God cannot act or do anything. He cannot create something other than what He foreknew He would create. God becomes just another impersonal force in the universe, pre-programmed to act in certain ways.

      Call back to the Classical understanding of knowledge, a knowledge that 100% is true and cannot be false. If God can change the future, this nullifies any foreknowledge of the future He might have. This also nullifies Classical attributes such as timelessness, immutability, simplicity, pure actuality, impassibility, etc.

      Do you reject these attributes? Good on you if you do.

    4. On practical Open Theism:

      “I would like to know *exactly* how the Open View works out in practical terms.

      For example, here is how I would think a tenable working out of open theism might work: Although God may not know the future actions actualized by each person with respect to the choice he will make, God absolutely foreknows every possible response or action in every possible circumstance each person makes and, therefore, has already ordained His response to men before that choice is actualized.”

      What you describe seems more like a philosophic model of divine omniscience. When I think of practical Open Theism, I see “how do we live with Open Theism in our daily lives.” For that, the Psalms are a good roadmap. When God is not responsive, call out, plead, and even accuse God of lack of justice (as many of the Psalms do). Like Moses in Exodus 32, build a case of cascading reasons for God to act. God is reasonable. God responds. These accounts never fall back into “God has an ultimate good for this evil” or “God has omniscience of all future events”. The Psalmists were not Classical Theists, and the devoidness of Psalms of a fixed future tell us this fact.

      This philosophic model you detail is affirmed by some Open Theists. Boyd, for example, believes God knows everything that can be known and all possible futures. This model is not necessary for affirming “Omniscience”, and not all Open Theists embrace this model. Historically, in all cultures around the world, Omniscience was the act of observing all events unfold in real time. Ancient gods in ancient religion “knew everything” if they just had access to watch it happen, although not all had power to respond or cleverness to know how to use the information. God’s knowledge is different than His cleverness/wisdom, and thus the Bible details these separately. Modern Christians, in the Platonic mindset, tend to conflate having knowledge with knowing what to do with that knowledge. Not so to the ancient Israelite mind.

      Enyart posits that God does not have to know what He does not want to know. We see an interesting event in Genesis 18. God has to go down to Sodom to see if the outcry against them is true. The text describes Yahweh sending two angels to confirm the rumors. This would be an example of lack of present knowledge. Bruce Ware, a Calvinist, uses this event to say (I paraphrase) “See, the Bible even has God not knowing present knowledge, so Open Theists reject this face value reading and I just expand this rejection of face value readings to their other prooftexts”.

      God’s quality of “knowing everything” does not have to fit a fixed Platonic definition. It could easily mean, as it is described in the Bible, as God watching all events as they unfold.

      You can see my podcast on Omniscience throughout ancient religion in this podcast: https://soundcloud.com/chris-fisher-35/ep167-omniscience-in-the-ancient-world

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