Open Theist Critic Asks that We Reimagine Freedom

From James K.A. Smith:

A second key theme here is human freedom. Open theism is the logical consequence of an Arminian understanding of human nature, free will and the effects of sin. Indeed, open theism assumes human freedom and seeks to extend the implications of this to our understanding of God.

But what exactly does it mean to be free? Open theism, reflecting a contemporary consensus, assumes a libertarian notion of human freedom. This is what Isaiah Berlin famously described as a “negative” understanding of freedom: one is free insofar as one is free from external constraints. To be free is to be autonomous and self-determining, free to do otherwise. Freedom is freedom of choice. It is this understanding of freedom that is enshrined in liberal democracy. This construal of freedom is so deeply ingrained in our culture, and even in contemporary theology and Christian philosophy, that it’s almost impossible to think of freedom in any other way.

Open theism, assuming that humans are free in this way, constructs an account of God’s foreknowledge that attempts to reconcile claims about God’s omniscience with human freedom — the sense that human choice creates the future as it goes. In this sense, open theism sees God as “making room” for human choice by granting space for human autonomy, even if that means that God takes the risk that we will choose badly, as we so often do.

However, there is another trajectory of thinking about freedom in the Christian tradition. Augustine emphasized a “positive” understanding of freedom as empowerment: I am free insofar as I am able to achieve the good. On this score, freedom isn’t just the ability to choose, but the ability to choose well, to choose rightly. What is valued is not autonomy, but a sense of dependence upon God — even a participation in God as that which properly orients us to the telos that constitutes human flourishing. In this telling of the story, sin and evil result from the very desire to be autonomous, to secure one’s independence from God.

Given the complexities of this problem and the inadequacy of language, we ought to be humble about which approach we take. And we might do well to hold both models in some kind of dialectical tension.


  1. As an open theist I do hold those models of freedom in dialectic tension. Very recently I argued this same point on Facebook concerning rights and how Americans view freedom. We are free when we realize freedom is “free to do what we ought, not what we want.” So freedom from sin.
    I think the confusion comes from the fact that the biblical term for freedom is the latter (I can’t believe I agree with Augustine). But notice at the end, Smith still admits that sin is a result of man’s choice to assert autonomy. It’s true the Bible (as far as I’m aware) never labels the ability to make that choice “freedom” or “free-will” or anything else for that matter. But regardless how you term it the definition remains. The Bible always presents a fact of choice.
    So with that, I’m not really sure what this guy is arguing. He seems to be affirming free-will but merely wants to call it something different.

    On a side note, I do wish we could change the perception that, admittedly, we promulgate. This notion that on one side is God’s sovereignty and on the other is man’s autonomy or free-will. Personally, I’ve long felt that to be an unbalanced and unfair juxtaposition. Really we affirm God’s Holiness. So their claim is we impugn God’s sovereignty (btw that’s a word misdefined), while we claim they impugn God’s Holiness (i.e. Double predestination and the problem of evil). If man were on the scale, then choice and no-choice are really what is being weighed—total depravity and original sin versus…well…free-will. And on that note, perhaps we should have a fancy name for our doctrine that doesn’t confuse the issue with the word freedom. I would suggest the doctrine of faith. We affirm the view that salvation come by faith and that all mankind has the inherent ability to accept or reject the truth of God and the gospel.

    1. //It’s true the Bible (as far as I’m aware) never labels the ability to make that choice “freedom” or “free-will” or anything else for that matter.

      Absolutely. What I seem to find in the Bible is that these categories are not Hebrew categories of thought. The Greeks cared about freedom/fatalism. The Hebrews cared more about relational terms.

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