by Bruce A. Ware –
Open theism, as it is of ten called, derives its name from the idea central to its entire model: the future is “open” and not “closed.” By this, open theists wish to avoid the notion that God actually knows in advance the future decisions and actions of his moral creatures, lest his knowledge of those future choices render them definite, certain, and unavoidable. They argue that, for real freedom (which they understand as “freedom of contrary choice”) to be true and have integrity, the future must be largely undecided with respect to human action.
While there have been openness writings available for the past 25 years, it was with the publication in 1994 of The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, co-authored by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger, that the openness proposal found its place under the spotlight. Since then, many journal articles and some important books have appeared, most notably Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible and Is God to Blame?, John Sanders’ The God Who Risks, and Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover. In The Openness of God, Pinnock offers a succinct summary of the key notions, doctrinal commitments, and values of open theism:
In this book we are advancing…the open view of God. Our understanding of the Scriptures leads us to depict God, the sovereign Creator, as voluntarily bringing into existence a world with significantly free personal agent s in it, agents who can respond positively to God or reject his plans for them. In line with the decision to make this kind of world, God rules in such a way as to uphold the created structures and, because he gives liberty to his creatures, is happy to accept the future as open, not closed, and a relationship with the world that is dynamic, not static…God’s openness means that God is open to the changing realities of history, that God cares about us and lets what we do impact him. Our lives make a difference to God – they are truly significant.3
Proponents of open theism are, in one sense, committed Armenian’s. That is, they affirm such cardinal Arminian doctrines as (1) the universal and impartial love of God for all humanity and his true desire that all be saved, (2) God’s creation of humans with genuine freedom of will (i.e., libertarian freedom), and (3) the necessity of such genuine freedom for true worship of God, love for God, and human moral account ability. While embracing wholly these Arminian commitments, open theist s are also disturbed by other aspects of the Arminian theological tradition. In particular, they argue that the doctrine of omniscience (i.e., the doctrine that God knows all that can be known or is knowable) must be defined as God’s comprehensive knowledge of the past and present only. Since future free choices and actions have not yet happened and so are not real, they cannot be known, even by God.4This redefinition of omniscience departs from Christian orthodoxy (including classic Arminianism) which has always been committed to God’s comprehensive knowledge of the future, and it has elicited strong reaction. Arminian/Wesleyan theologian Thomas Oden called this denial of God’s exhaustive definite foreknowledge nothing short of “heresy.”5
While there are many reasons for weighty concern about the openness proposal,6I will focus here on one element: the claim that Christians can have confident faith and hope in God because we are assured he will successfully bring his creation project to completion. I begin with some observations concerning the nature of God and the success of his purposes in this life, and then turn to a consideration of God’s ultimate and eschatological success, all in the light of open theisms denial of God’s definite foreknowledge. Following this, a brief comparison will be made between the basis for Christian faith and hope in both the openness and classical views.
Open Theism and Gods Purposes in this Life
Open theists affirm, on the one hand, the great risk undertaken by God in creating a world containing free creatures. After all, none of their future choices and actions is known to God in advance. But on the other hand, openness advocates assure us that God will win in the end that he will succeed in fulfilling his purposes for creation. Consider this quotation from John Sanders:
Though the Spirit may not get everything he desires, we have reason to hope because we have a God with a proven track record of successfully navigating the vicissitudes of human history and redeeming it. We have confidence that God will bring his project to the fruition he desires because God has proven himself faithful time and again.7
But can open theism ground its assurances that God is successfully working out his purposes in this life? Consider three elements of open theism that call such assurances into question.
A Future Full of Surprises, Even for God.
Consider first the suggestion made by Sanders that God not only learns moment by moment as humans freely choose and act, but at times he may even be genuinely surprised and taken aback by what occurs. Future free actions may not be only unknown; they may also be unanticipated. Sanders suggests, for example, that the first sin of the woman and man in the Garden of Eden constitutes such a case. He writes:
God, in freedom, establishes the context in which a loving and trusting relationship between himself and the humans can develop. God expect s that it will, and there is no reason to suspect, at this point in the narrative, that any other possibility will come about. A break in the relationship does not seem plausible considering all the good that God has done.8
Yet, says Sanders, “the implausible,” and “the totally unexpected” happens.9That is, not only does God learn that the man and woman sin, God is taken aback by this occurrence. Although God always knew sin was possible, it was not at all probable, plausible, or expected that his human creatures would turn their backs on him. It is impossible to know how often this may be the case in the unfolding of human history, but here we have one concrete example where God’s beliefs about the future – what he thought most likely to occur – were strikingly wrong. The totally unexpected happens, God is taken aback, and so God corrects his mistaken beliefs as he learns this surprising truth that the man and woman have sinned.
An important question here is this: If sin was unexpected in a perfect, loving and sinless environment, should obedience be thought likely now as humans are pulled down by sins domineering presence and afflicted by Satan’s power?
Perhaps appeal could be made here to the doctrine of prevenient grace as the means God will use to assist sin-infested humans in their choice whether or not to obey. But just a moment’s reflection shows that prevenient grace cannot carry the weight needed to rescue the openness model from collapse on this point. No matter what grace God gives to encourage or even enable sinners to obey him, they still live in a sin-saturated world and endure const ant temptations from the evil one and their own sinful flesh. No amount of prevenient grace could come close to bringing them to the condition the first pair of humans experienced prior to sin. Far more implausible, then, than the first sin is the future obedience of his sinful creatures. Because now God knows something he did not know before, namely, that even when perfect, his human creatures choose to sin. Now as imperfect, will they choose to obey? Should one not expect, instead, pervasive, even run-away, sin?
The openness model appears to be on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, one may question the wisdom of a God who viewed sin in the garden as “totally unexpected.” Given the reality of libertarian freedom, would it not be a more reasonable expectation that at some point, in some situation, they would sin?10And after all, we have the advantage of hindsight. They did sin. Do we not often call into question the judgment of people in positions of responsibility for failing to anticipate realistic possible catastrophes once those catastrophes have occurred? On the other hand, once sin has occurred, one might wonder what possible basis God might have for thinking that he could succeed nonetheless in accomplishing his purposes. One might have hoped that the optimism God had in the garden would have given way to sober-minded realism about whether obedience would likely, plausibly be rendered. Might it not have been the better course of wisdom simply to end this experiment with free human beings? Surely to allow Adam and Eve to live out their lives childless would be a painless but effective way to remedy the mistake as well as one could under the circumstances.
But God did not follow that path. He chose instead to perpetuate the human experiment, as it were, with the hopes he would reclaim what was lost and win in the end. Openness proponents reassure us that due to Gods resourcefulness, we may be confident that God will fulfill his purposes.11As Sanders says, “We have confidence that God will bring his project to the fruition he desires because God has proven himself faithful time and again.”12I must admit that these assurances ring hollow. Given the nature of libertarian freedom and the fact that the first humans sinned while in a perfect environment, I see no ground for optimism that Gods project will succeed.
The central openness response at this point is to look at redemptive history and see how God has succeeded in bringing good out of evil and gaining victories through great struggle. Yet I question how the openness model it self can rightly be used to make sense of this history. Yes, the triumph of God is reflected throughout the entire Bible. God will win the victory, to be sure. But just how does the openness model account for this? Wasn’t God resourceful when devising his plans for the first human p air? And how successful was he then? It appears that openness proponents use capital borrowed from classical theisms doctrine of providence to under-gird hope when the basis for such optimism is lacking in their own.
The God of Second-Guesses and Regrets
Open theists not only hold that God can be surprised by what occurs, but also that Gods beliefs about the future may be quite mistaken, and that God is capable of choosing wrongly when he act s. In fact, since God does not know any aspect of the future that relates in the slightest to free creaturely choices and actions,13every belief about that future is potentially wrong. That is, whatever belief God may have about some future free creaturely decision may prove to have been mistaken.
Openness proponents point to Jeremiah 3:7 and 32:35 for biblical support for the notion that God can have mistaken beliefs. Added to this is the fact that God may also reassess what he himself has done and judge that it was not best. For example, Sanders suggests that God reassessed his decision to bring a flood upon the whole world, sensing the pain from that destruction greater than the pain from the sin it self.14I see no other way to take this than as a suggestion that God in hindsight judged he had made an enormous mistake. Sanders does make clear that he believes that God was righteous in this judgment. Fine, but was he wise? Consider the magnitude of this mistake, if in fact God thought it so to be. The whole world, save a few people and animals, was deliberately killed by God in this action. Issues in human affairs could hardly get weightier than this. To think that God looked back and thought to himself, “This was too severe and I am not entirely sure I should have done it; in fact, Ill never do it again” is nothing short of staggering! What confidence can we have in a God who must second-guess his own actions? What does this tell us about the wisdom of Gods own plans? If God is not sure that what he does is best, can we be sure that he really knows what he is doing? A God who can only speculate regarding what much of the future holds, at times second-guesses his own plans, can get things wrong, can falsely anticipate what may happen next, and may even repent of his own past conduct is a God unworthy of devotion, trust, adoration and praise. What open theists have gained by their insistence on God as a risk-taker in an open future has been won at the expense of God’s full wisdom, knowledge, trustworthiness, majesty, sovereignty, and glory, and it leads inevitably to doubt, worry, and fear regarding the fulfillment of God’s plans. This surely is a case of trading in the family inheritance to build a new home on attractively advertised but worthless swampland.
All this results in a view of God in which we have reason to doubt whether Gods perspective is best and whether his will should be followed. After all, what if God is wrong about things that matter much to our future lives? No doubt he means well and wants what is best, but the doubt lingers: what if God is wrong? Lest you think that this is unfair to the openness position, consider the strikingly honest words of David Basinger:
[S]ince God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated result s in the long run.15
Prayers founded on the presupposition, “Your will be done,” begin to falter. Perhaps when things work out badly, we might wonder if God got it wrong again here as he has in other cases. And in the midst of agonizing disappointment, an earnest but troubled believer might even contemplate praying, “Father I forgive You for You know not what You do.”16 Is this too harsh an assessment of where the openness position leads? No, rather it exposes just how contrary to fundamental biblical truths and how demeaning to God’s infinite wisdom and glory this position is.
Difficulties with Divine Guidance in Open Theism
Every committed Christian wants to believe that God’s will is best. If we cannot have confidence in Gods will, where can we turn? And yet, in open theism, believers do have reason to wonder whether God is right in his leading and whether his will ought to be followed.
Openness advocates suggest that the problem here is that we have thought about knowing the will of God wrongly through much of church history. We should not think of Gods will as some single purpose in each and every situation such that if we miss that purpose we are outside of his will.17Rather, we need to see God s will as evolving, not fixed. As God learns more about what occurs through time, so his will becomes more informed. We must be open to changes in the will of God, mid-course corrections, you might say. The hope that God actually knows now what is best for us in light of what will occur far ahead in the future is unfounded and hence unfair for us to expect of him. The most we can hope for is that God s will offers us the best plan, as God fallibly foresees it, for the present. David Basinger writes:
[W]e must acknowledge that divine guidance, from our perspective, cannot be considered a means of discovering exactly what will be best in the long run as a means of discovering the very best long-term option. Divine guidance, rather, must be viewed primarily as a means of determining what is best for us now.18
If God cannot be trusted for guidance in the long run, what commends this model of divine guidance to thoughtful, prayerful Christians? Essentially, the attraction of this model is its emphasis on God as lover, counselor, and friend. The openness God works with us in forming his will for us. This model is repelled by the notion of divine authoritarianism. Since the will of God is shaped and reshaped moment by moment, we can be confident that our input is given full attention. Regarding the nature of divine guidance, Sanders writes:
It is God’s desire that we enter into a give-and-take relationship of love, and this is not accomplished by God’s forcing his blueprint on us. Rather, God wants us to go through life together with him, making decisions together. Together we decide the actual course of my life. God’s will for my life does not reside in a list of specific activities but in a personal relationship. As lover and friend, God works with us wherever we go and whatever we do. To a large extent our future is open and we are to determine what it will be in dialogue with God.19
One gets the feeling when reading this that if one has “gained” God-as-friend-through-life, one has simultaneously lost God-as-Lord-over-life. It is nice to know you have a friend when facing rough waters on the open sea. But as the waters get ever rougher and the ship begins to veer, it is even nicer if your friend knows how to navigate the ship in order to get you safely and surely to your distant, far-away, out-of-sight destination.
Over the centuries, innumerable Christians have been deeply comforted by the realization that whatever difficulties they face, they can know that God is fulfilling good and wise, though of ten distant, purposes. Furthermore, they can be confident that those purposes, both near and far, are only best accomplished as God providentially takes them through the thorny paths they now walk. But open theists tell us to give up this assurance. Do not expect God to know with certainty whether his will for you is good in the long run or, for that matter quite honestly, in the short run. How could God know that? Settle for the realization instead that God, along with your capable assistance, is doing his best to guide you; be comforted by the fact that he will be your friend through all you face in life. Of course, just what it is you will face in life, no one knows, not even God. And no one even knows whether you will live another day much less what difficulties lay ahead, not even God. And no one knows the long-range goals your particular life should seek to fulfill, not even God. And no one can plan what is best for you now in light of that future, not even God. And when you discern God’s will and decide to follow it, realize that even God might have gotten things a bit wrong. But no matter what, put all your trust in God!
The satire is biting, I know. But there is much at stake. The openness proposal offers a vision of a warm, relational, loving God, and certainly it is right, even necessary, to incorporate these qualities in ones conception of God. But shall we not think of God also as infinitely perfect and gloriously supreme? Christians have sung “What a Friend we Have in Jesus” along with “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” with no conflict and, in fact, with mutual reinforcement. No loss of the friendship and nearness of God is necessary when affirming his sovereign rulership over creation, since the God of the Bible is both.
Eschatological Hope in Open Theism
If open theism convinces us that God’s guidance cannot rightly be sought for dist ant matters in this life, can assurances of eschatological hope fare any better. If God’s present purposes may be frustrated by unforeseen free actions of his creatures, what basis is there for believing that God s ultimate purposes and promises will be fulfilled in the echelon?
Openness thinkers affirm that this world is a very risky place, even for God. They uphold, even celebrate,20the genuineness and extensiveness of the risks God takes in creating a world of free creatures. And just how large is this risk? Simply put, all morally significant human choices and actions are free and hence uncontrolled by God, and none of those free choices and actions may be known in advance by God. It appears, then, that the level of risk is very, very high. However, a regular refrain in openness literature tells us not to worry because God is omnicompetent and supremely resourceful and “will bring his project to the fruition he desires.”21
One wonders, though, how it can be both ways. To emphasize the significance of risk is to diminish our confidence that God will get what he desires. Yet to emphasize the certainty of God’s victory is to diminish the notion that God has really taken any significant risk at all. High risk and high confidence cannot coexist. Openness thinkers need to come clean on this point, end the double talk, and declare clearly which it will be. It appears from analysis that openness proponents account well for risk while they merely declare without foundation confidence in God’s victory. What will we say of God’s “creation project” if, having taken a big risk, God convinces very few to choose to obey him and enter into his kingdom? Is there truly a basis for genuine and certain hope in open theism? Is it possible that indeed the risk for God has been unimaginably enormous and that he will lose?22
Another very different kind of response to this problem is possible within open theism, yet it too has difficulties. David Basinger makes an honest admission that works against the optimism often portrayed by open theists. He suggests that without middle knowledge, God cannot know what good acts might be done and whether good, on balance, will outweigh evil. So in creating creatures with libertarian freedom, God must decide “that the good inherent in significant freedom it self outweighs any amount of evil that the use of this freedom might generate in our world.”23This appears an altogether reasonable proposal. Since God grants libertarian freedom, and since he cannot by definition control or know how free creatures will use it, the only value he can rightly uphold with full assurance is the value of libertarian freedom it self.
Will this work to salvage openness assurances of the fulfillment of God’s purposes? Yes, if one means that this very narrow purpose alone can be accomplished. After all, since his purpose is only that free creatures exercise their libertarian freedom (irrespective of how they use it), he wins whether they obey or not. However, the answer is “No” if one doubts whether this narrow goal of granting libertarian freedom is sufficiently good to warrant making a world in which evil may vastly outweigh good. If God creates free creatures solely for “the good inherent in the significant freedom itself,” we have grounds for questioning his wisdom. At least it would seem that the value attached to the good or evil done with free will exceeds the value of that freedom in and of itself. In the world of the open theist, not even God can guarantee that his good purposes will triumph.
Faith and Hope in Historical Theism
Both historical Arminian and Reformed theologies have affirmed with the orthodox heritage that there are no surprises awaiting God in the future. God does not gain knowledge over time, he does not second-guess his actions, he never wonders what might or might not occur, and he is never troubled by the question of the ultimate success of his purposes. He knows the end from the beginning, and he has told us in no uncertain terms what that future will be. While various theological traditions within orthodoxy find God’s assurances of victory differently, all of these traditions affirm, without qualification, that Gods final triumph and Satan’s condemnation, with the redeemed from every tribe, tongue and nation standing before the throne, is fixed, absolute, and certain. These are not guesses, projections, probabilities, or speculations. No, they are God’s inviolable and certain word. Upon this, we can fix our sure and certain hope.
Historical theism’s various theological models share the uniform conviction that the future, as revealed, is certain and secure. Open theism stands against all these traditions in its proposal that the future is open. With its open future necessarily comes doubt, worry, mistrust, fear, and ultimately, loss of faith. The two visions of God and of Christian faith and hope are vastly different, and there is indeed much at stake in the choice between them. May God be merciful. May he humble all of us, may we return afresh to his inerrant and inscripturated self-revelation, and may we behold, as never so clearly before, the matchless supremacy of his infinite knowledge, impeccable wisdom, and inviolable sovereignty – to the glory of God alone.
Bruce A. Ware is Senior Associate Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Gods Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Crossway, 2000).
1Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994).
2Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids:Baker, 2000); and Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,2003); John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 1998); Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of Gods Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).
3Pinnock, et al, Openness of God, 103-104.
4John Sanders (The God Who Risks, 198) writes, “Though Gods knowledge is coextensive with reality in that God knows all that can be known, the future actions of free creatures are not yet reality, and so there is nothing to be known.” Cf. David Basinger, Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,1996) 39-40; W. Norris Clarke, God, Knowable and Unknowable (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973) 65; William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) 64-74; and Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 181-183.
5Thomas Oden (“The Real Reformers are Traditionalists,” Christianity Today, vol. 42, no. 2 [February 9, 1998], 46) writes, “The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a
heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds (‘I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come’; Isa. 46:10a; cf. Job 28; Ps.
90; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1), as it has been in the history of exegesis of relevant passages.”
6A number of helpful critiques of open theism are available, including: John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001); John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul K Helseth, eds., Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003); Bruce A. Ware, Gods Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000); and Bruce A. Ware, Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God (Wheaton: Crossway,2003).
7Sanders, God Who Risks, 129.
8Sanders, God Who Risks, 45-46 (italics in original).
9Sanders, God Who Risks, 46.
10A version of this question, germane to all theological positions upholding the necessity of libertarian freedom for human moral accountability and genuine human love
and worship, is how believers will live sinlessly for eternity (i.e., in heaven) when retaining libertarian freedom. Either they can and may sin, in which case eternal life
cannot be promised with certainty, or they do not have libertarian freedom and so cannot sin, but neither then, presumably, can they love and worship God.
11 See, for example, Sanders, God Who Risks, 42,127- 128, 129, 133, 138-139, 168, 171-172, 181-182, 187, 264-265.
12Sanders, God Who Risks, 129. But see the honest admission by David Basinger (“Human Freedom and Divine Providence: Some New Thoughts on an Old Problem,” Religious Studies, vol.15 491), that “the Christian God can only ensure that his ends will be accomplished in a very general sense.”
13Basinger, “Practical Implications,” 163 writes (presumably for the five authors of The Openess of God volume) saying that “since we believe that God can know only what can be known beforehand, we believe that God can never know with certainty what will happen in any context involving freedom of choice.”
14 Sanders, God Who Risks, 50.
15 Basinger, “Practical Implications.” 165.
16 This telling rephrasing of Jesus’ prayer was suggested to me by a seminary student.
17 Sanders, God Who Risks, 275.
18 Basinger, “Practical Implications”, 163.
19 Sanders, God Who Risks, 277.
20 That Sanders would take “The God Who Risks” as the title of his book would seem to indicate some celebration of this central concept to the openness proposal.
21 Sanders, God Who Risks, 277.
22 Many open theists are also inclusivists on the issue of whether people must hear the gospel of Jesus Christ to be saved. I detect a theological connection between these two aspects of their overall theology. Given that risk is upheld, one would expect attempts theologically that would ensure the possibility of greater positive responses to God. They want to uphold risk but also declare that God’s project succeeds. So, the more people who have opportunity ti be saved (hence the move to inclusivism and perhaps also to post-mortem evangelism) the less likely it is that someone would conclude that God has risked much and has lost. The drive toward inclusivism is strong in order to salvage the creation project within a paradigm of significant divine risk in a creation gone awry.
23 Basinger, Case for Freewill Theism, 92.
Want to Read More About Open Theism?
No Other God: A Response to Open Theism by John M. Frame (P&R)
Creating God in the Image of Man? by Norman L. Geisler (Bethany House)
God Under Fire:Modern Scholarship Reinvents God eds. Douglas S. Huffman and Eric L. Johnson (Zondervan)
The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, et al (IVP)
Gods Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism by Bruce A. Ware (Crossway)
No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism by R.K. McGregor Wright (IVP)