Are You Open to Open Theism?

By Marvin Padgett. This article addresses an issue that will hopefully sound familiar to the readers of Equip for Ministry. Equip has presented other articles and book reviews on the topic of “open theism.” There is definitely confusion caused by this issue, which though it has old roots, has surfaced in new ways. I was originally asked to speak last summer on this topic at a weekend L’Abri conference in Rochester, MN. The article refers to a teaching about God that strikes at the heart of who God is and what He does or does not do. It is a teaching that causes much confusion in many of our “evangelical” churches in America. While the average church member may not be familiar with the technical designation of open theism, they have no doubt been exposed to its teaching.

The Openness of God, written by Clark Pinnock, et al, is one of the clearest presentations of open theism. Pinnock and others have caused significant controversy and brought attention to the doctrine of God and the accompanying doctrine of providence. (See the book review section, particularly When Worlds Collide.) Christians need to be careful to understand these writings and the errors involved.

Pinnock asserts that much (if not all) of the future is open, i.e., it is not set, definite, or pre-determined. It is open because the future is not objectively determined. The future, according to the open theists, is shaped greatly by the as yet unmade choices of free moral agents- human beings created in the image of God.

These writers are concerned with the meaning of “choice.” Do human beings make real choices unfettered by God or man; or are those choices predetermined by the ancient decrees of God? This idea, often called “libertarian freedom,” is the bedrock issue at stake here. It appears to drive all the other issues. How can human beings be held accountable for their choices if another being, in this case, God, predetermines all those choices? It follows, then, that if the future is real and human beings make unfettered, real choices, as free moral agents, the future has not yet been determined. So, while this gets much press, it is all tied back to the issue of libertarian freedom.

Open theism also appears to be driven by an attempt to get at the age-old nemesis of theology, the problem of evil. Both John Sanders and Greg Boyd, advocates of open theism, bring this up early in their basic works, The God Who Risks and The God of the Possible. John Sanders tragically lost a brother, which seems to have contributed to his thinking. Greg Boyd tells the tragic story of betrayal and divorce in the life of a young woman he calls Suzanne. Obviously, our circumstance colors our thinking far more than we realize.

The real lightning rod issue is divine foreknowledge. This gets all of the press, heat, anger, and disputation. To paraphrase Senator Howard Baker in the Watergate Hearings of the 1970s, how much does God know and when does He learn it? Open theists assert that while God is omniscient(all-knowing), His knowledge is necessarily limited by the degree or extent of knowledge that is intrinsically “knowable”-hence the title of Greg Boyd’s book, The God of the Possible. God does have exhaustive knowledge of the past, the present and the future, but only to the extent that knowledge of the future is obtainable. Whether God cannot know the future or whether He has chosen to limit himself is an “open question.” Some of these ideas come from the normal limitations seen upon other attributes of God. To be omnipotent does not mean that God can do absolutely everything. God cannot make a round square, etc.

Open theism is sometimes referred to as presentism, relational theism, the risk model, and the fellowship model. You may either hear those terms or come across them in your reading on the subject. Presentism emphasizes God’s exhaustive knowledge of the present. Relational and fellowship models emphasize His desire to have genuine, give-and-take relations with human beings. The latter goals are raised to a high level in open theism.

This give-and-take issue is quite important. Open theists share this concern with another group called “process theists.” While they have some things in common, the differences between them are real. Both camps emphasize the vital importance of real give-and-take relations between God and humanity. Process theologians generally see God only working in and through the workings of the universe. For them, God exercises no coercive control over the universe, but works through it exclusively by means of persuasion. Open theists, on the other hand, assert belief that God created the heavens and the earth and will, in some way, shape outcomes, especially the eschaton or the end of times, though its day and hour remain indefinite, even to God. Process theists believe, by and large, that open theists are really like the “classical theists.” An open theist thinks that God can, and does, enter decisively into the affairs of the world. Both camps, process and open, reject almost all forms of classical theology or theism. But what is classical theology, you may ask?

Classical theism is rooted, according to the open theists, both in the Greeks and the church of the Middle Ages. They stressed several things about God: God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), immutable (unchanging), omnipresent (all present) and God is simple (unity). These may be taken as the primary theistic set, or the primary theistic attributes of God according to classical theism.

Open theists routinely charge their more traditional opponents with being classical theists, in the sense of the above. In this classical system God knows all, controls all, can neither feel no emotions, nor suffer. He has no parts, and He is one essence. Actually, we learn that this description better fits the god of Islam and of philosophical theology but it does not accurately represent the God of the Bible.

There are many passages in the Bible where God holds human beings accountable for their actions. Open theists ask, “If we are responsible, how can God have determined the future?” How can God even know the future, because if God knows the future, the future must be the way God knows it to be, hence man is not responsible. But, even open theists claim that God holds no false beliefs about the future. What they dispute is whether the future is “knowable,” not that God holds false beliefs.

How is it, then, that God can retain the immense power that open theists admit that he holds? How is it that while God does not know the future, He does have exhaustive knowledge of all the possibilities? While you and I can only make good guesses about multiple outcomes, like a good baseball manager does in preparing his team for the possible eventualities for a single pitch, God, like a super-competent universe manager is always ready with the right play, no matter what happens. To illustrate something of the open theists position, God is a bit like Andy Taylor on the television series The Andy Griffith Show. We are a bit like Barney, his sidekick, always messing things up. God, like Andy, is always lurking around with superior plans, ready to take care of us. He, no more than Andy, controls what is about to happen but is always waiting in the wings or behind the scenes to come the rescue and fix things when Barney acts. It always ends in the right way because Andy sees that it does. So it is with God, according to the open theists.

To further build their case, open theists readily and quickly point to many passages in Scripture where God is grieved, regrets, and “repents” over his people’s actions when things do not seem to go God’s way. Actually, there appears to be confusion caused by some Bible translations which use the term “repent” in the place of “relent,” which some believe is a more accurate translation and interpretation. As a result people are confused over those different Hebrew words. The underlying Hebrew word for repent, according to some outstanding scholars, is never used of God. Human beings are said to repent, but never God.

For example:1 Samuel 15:35

“And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

There are other passages where God appears to regret what has come to pass, and where He seems to express surprise as the Jeremiah passage brings forth.

It is extremely difficult to recognize the God of the Bible in any of these models mentioned, open, classical or process. The God we find in the Bible is at once more interesting and mysterious than the open theists appear are willing to admit. Michael Horton, a Reformed Theologian and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, California, said recently in the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society: “Among the ironic similarities between the methodological approach of open theism and hyper-Calvinists is the fact that both are apparently impatient with the face of mystery.”

Basically, the open theists attempt to present us with a God that we can understand. Oh yes, He’s bigger and far more intelligent, but at heart He is sort of like us, therefore, we can understand him. The reason Calvinists hold to what we would call a “baby talk” view of revelation is because they see revelation as dealing with a being that is beyond us. Though He is a personal God, He is also sovereign and mysterious. While we, being made in God’s image, are personal, He is an infinite person who deals in realms in which we can only grope. We are not infinite; hence we have only limited understanding of Him and His ways.

Is God in total control over His creation? Can He know the future? Does He have a pre-determined plan of all things that come to pass or is He as the open theists suggests, waiting to see what happens and then come to the rescue. The Bible gives a clear response. For example: Isaiah 40-48 asserts that the reason Israel may safely believe in God is because He not only knows the future exhaustively, but controls the future exhaustively. (Also see Ephesians. 1:11 and Proverbs 16: 23.)

Isaiah 41:21-24

“Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. 22Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. 23Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. 24Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.”

Jesus taught his disciples that the heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask (Matt. 6:8.) If that is true then there seems to be a contradiction between what Jesus says about God and what the open theists teach. According to Jesus, God does both know and control the future. He is not taken by surprise when something happens because Jesus is not referring to a limited uncertain knowledge but a knowing of all things completely and exhaustively, past, present, and future.

None of the above touches on another part of God’s knowledge that is a wonderful thing for Christians, that God even knows whose names are written in the book of life from the before the foundation of the world. Our God is a great and wonderful God. There is nothing outside His control. Although we do not understand or need to understand all there is to know about God, we must not add to nor subtract from what God tells us about himself in the Bible.Our Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes what the Bible teaches on this subject like this:

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet, so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. Although God knows whatsoever may or may not come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed any thing because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such condition,” WCF 3:1,2.

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