What 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.
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.