What is Open Theism?

 

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Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction

by John M. Frame

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Last year I had a final research project for my Theology I class. I decided to write on the subject of open theism. For those of you who don’t know what open theism is and why it is important, you should definitely get some introductory exposure to the topic. I didn’t even know what open theism was until fall of 2012. I decided to attach my research paper so you can see the difference between the orthodox Christian view of classical theism in contrast to the heretical view of open theism taught by some misguided people in the liberal evangelical camp. This assignment got an A, so it is of high quality:

 

INTRODUCTION

Foreknowledge is one of the main attributes of God. It has always served as the foundation of a Christian’s trust and hope in the Lord, especially in times of suffering, turmoil, and confusion. In essence, foreknowledge is a core tenet of Christianity. God’s knowledge and planning of future events is what guided the people of the Old and New Testament to a glorious, intentional, and meaningful outcome, and it is what guides people, humanity, and civilization today.

However biblical and well-cherished this doctrine has been throughout church history, foreknowledge is not universally held, and has come under attack especially during the last two decades. There are professing Christians within the evangelical Protestant camp who are not sure of or do not believe firmly in the idea that God has foreknowledge. This consequently results in a new image of God, a god who is not fully the God of the Bible, but a crippled god who has shortcomings in knowledge and, to much degree, power. This aberrant view comprises the movement known as openness theology (open theism), and it is currently catching much popularity in the evangelical world.

Is there any truth to openness theology? Do these adherents have rational or biblical reasons to believe that God cannot predict or control the future? What are the motives or consequences of this belief? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this paper, which will explore the differences between the traditional and the open view of God, the errors of open theology, and the biblically defined strength of classical theism – the historical view of God’s foreknowledge. Despite the arguments of the openness party, there is ultimately stronger evidence for God’s foreknowledge, and such evidence gives us reason to belief that God is guiding people and history today as actively as he did with the people and history of the past. This paper will seek to demonstrate that God’s foreknowledge is indeed factual, existent, and biblical, and that Christians can continue to place their future in God’s hands with utmost confidence and hope despite the unpredictable unfolding of life.

 

PART I. THE DYNAMICS OF FOREKNOWLEDGE

Foundation and Historicity

Before we analyze the openness view of God and what effects it has on the Christian faith, we must first understand the original view of God’s omniscient capability, which is His foreknowledge (classical theism). By establishing this, we have a model to analyze the points of agreement or disagreement between classical theism and open theism, and what implications it has for the world. This section will explore the historicity and definition of foreknowledge, as well as its relationship to God’s other attributes.

Classical theism is an essential doctrine of Christianity. It is not considered a minor issue, but a significant tenet that has been ingrained in the life, theology, and confession of the universal Christian church. In other words, the foreknowledge of God has always been affirmed as orthodox, historical, and essential. Here is a brief excerpt from the Westminister Confession of Faith, summarizing the fundamental biblical teachings about God:

“There is but one living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise…In his sight all things are open and manifest; his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain…”[1]

            The Confession states that God’s knowledge is infinite and infallible. His ways may be incomprehensible and mysterious at times, but that only testifies to His transcendence, and people’s finite ability to understand God, especially as it regards His ability to wield future events. God is portrayed in this historical document as most wise and immutable. Immutability is defined as God being unchangeable in His essence, character, and will.[2] Because God’s knowledge and understanding is not subject to ever change, He does not grow or learn progressively in the outworking of His plan for redemptive history, otherwise He would not eternal.[3] He would change in the sense that He would grow in knowledge that He did not previously have, making His character incomplete and static. God’s knowledge is forever informed, which means He knows the future as much as He knows the present and the past.[4] Foreknowledge is at the core of God’s many attributes, including His omnipotence, immutability, and omniscience.

Where foreknowledge certainly has the most impact is God’s sovereignty, which is defined as His creation, kingship, and providential control over the universe.[5] Without foreknowledge, God is not truly sovereign, and if God cannot truly exercise His rule over His creation in all aspects as He desires, then His omnipotence, which is God’s ability to do all in His holy will,[6] is curtailed and non-existent.

 

Defining Foreknowledge

What exactly is the theological definition of foreknowledge? One Christian dictionary defines the term as God simply knowing something before it occurs, which can be equated with His pretemporal knowledge of those He would save, which is why the term is used interchangeably with predestination and election.[7] God not only sees the future, but He controls it. That is why foreknowledge is most always related, if not synonymous, to the doctrine of election, which is an act of God before creation in which He chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of His sovereign good pleasure,[8] and predestination, which is the belief that God, in conjunction with His foreknowledge, decrees the eternal destiny of human beings in salvation and sanctification.[9]

Though God controls the course of the future as He sovereignly pleases, this fact does not negate human responsibility and action, as sinners are still held accountable for responding to the offer of salvation and obedience, either in faith or rejection. The mysterious cooperation of God’s role and human’s role in the course of events and happenings is popularly portrayed in the Reformed tradition as compatibilism, which means that human choice is compatible with divine sovereignty and determinism.[10] This idea may be one of the demonstrable characteristics of God’s incomprehensibility, but the cooperation of God’s sovereignty and human response should not be dismissed as irrational just because the two entities seem mutually exclusive. God’s sovereign plans amid human free choices and actions are clearly demonstrated in Scripture, and should thus be accepted with humble faith and trust.

In summation, God’s foreknowledge is imperative because it is at the core of God’s interaction with humanity, the world, and progressive history. Foreknowledge is even at the beginning of election, predestination, and human existence. This doctrine is worth exploring, ascertaining, and defending in modern evangelicalism.

 

PART II. THE OPENNESS VIEW OF GOD

The Rise of Open Theism

            As historically defined as is the traditional view of God’s sovereignty, there are those who do not believe that God elects and predestines individual sinners, no less knows or controls the future. These people are known as open theists. The following section will outline the meaning of open theism, its points of contrast with classical theism, and its effects on the Christian faith.

Open theism is a branch of Arminianism in that it holds to certain cardinal Arminian doctrines as 1) the universal love and impartial love of God for all humanity and His true desire that all be saved; 2) God creating human beings 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 accountability.[11] However, open theism differs from Arminianism in that open theists do not affirm God’s omniscience, whereas typical Arminianists do. The future is open, and God only knows what is in the present, since the future actions of free creatures are not yet reality, and so there is nothing of the future that can be known.[12] Since God is confined to co-reality along with humanity, God is as helpless as humans when it comes to what will happen, whether good or bad.

            Some of the popular teachers of open theism in the evangelical world are Richard Rice, John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, and David Basinger. Pinnock expresses a clear statement about God’s openness of the future and His dependence on human decisions:

“We believe that the Bible presents an open view of God as living and active, involved in history, relating to us and changing in relation to us. We see the universe as a context in which there are real choices, alternatives, and surprises. 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…”[13]

In contrast to classical theism, open theism perceives God’s will as not the ultimate standard for all that happens. Open theism affirms that human decisions and actions make an important contribution, and thus history is the combined result of what God and His creatures do.[14]

 

The Logic and Benefits of Open Theism

Open theism has a few prominent reasons for coming to its conclusion about God’s capabilities, but the main one has to do with the notion of God’s universal and impartial love. It is similar to Armininism’s commitment to this tenet, however, openness theology takes it a step further by claiming that free human decisions can only be possible if God does not know the future. God’s knowledge of the future is a form of determinism, even if He does not directly move upon humans to make a decision, and can never be an expression of God’s commitment to impartial and unbiased love.[15] Open theology perceives God as taking more of a relational approach to humanity, in which God learn and changes based on human petition and the progression of history. Pinnock describes open theism as “a theology in which God enters into mutual and reciprocal relations of love and in which God makes a difference to creatures and they to him.”[16]

Open theism comes to its conclusions by a hermeneutical practice of reading certain passages at face value. A good example would be 1 Samuel 15:11, which examines the nature of God’s repentance. Open theists claim that the statement by the Lord, “I regret that I made Saul king,” is an indication that God did not anticipate the dire outcome and that He must be open to changing His mind in the event that problems arise. Gregory Boyd supports this interpretation, stating that the only logical sense of the 1 Samuel 15:11 passage is that God can only regret a decision that He made if He did not expect or know of the outcome.[17]

Regardless of how open theists arrive at their doctrines or what their motives are, there are at least three undeniable benefits to the openness theology: 1) There seems to be a real relationship between God and His people. With no foreknowledge, God does not control His people like actors in a script, but truly honors their freedom and decisions to love or reject His offer of salvation;[18] 2) God has nothing to do with evil and suffering. If God had foreknowledge and control of the future, then He is directly responsible for evil if He allows it to come to pass. God is essentially a risktaker, and evil and suffering is an uncontrollable risk;[19] 3) God is flexible, and can learn and respond to people’s prayers of suffering. A God of foreknowledge is equated with a God of determinism, which destroys free will and creates inescapable suffering for Christians. Pinnock sums it up in this statement: “God reserves the right to alter his plans in response to human initiative.”[20]

In summation, this section reveals a fairly compelling case for God’s relational approach to humanity, His inability to control the future, and His respect of human freedom. It is comforting in some ways, especially the idea that God does not send evil or suffering our way because He loves us too much to hurt us. But does this belief align with what the Bible teaches about God in terms of His attributes and capabilities? The next section’s discussion will reveal the flaws of open theism, as well as the strong biblical support for the original and classical view of God’s omniscience.

 

PART III. DEFENSE OF CLASSICAL THEISM

Visible Knowledge of the Future

In defending classical theism, this section will present the truth of God’s foreknowledge from Scripture and answer interpretive challenges to passages that seem to support the openness theology. The last portion of this section briefly discusses biblical prophecy and its significance in defining the extent of God’s knowledge and capability.

Establishing the truth of classical theism must first begin with Scripture interpretation. The question is: Do open theists have a valid argument in reading passages like 1 Sam 15:11 at “face-value”? It cannot be denied that reading Scripture in a literal fashion is appropriate because it testifies to the power of the historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics, as well as the doctrine of clarity. But to come to a conclusion about God’s capabilities from a surface reading of passages like 1 Samuel 15:11 while not considering the scope of information found in other parts of the Bible is essentially a deficient and ill-informed practice of understanding both Scripture and the nature of God. There is compelling reason to believe that God has a real knowledge of future events. This is not just knowledge in a vaguely predictive sense, but a well-defined plan that will surely come to pass in God’s timetable.

Both the Old and New Testament contain many verses and passages that comment on God’s foreknowledge. Psalm 139:4 declares, “Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all.” Acts 2:23 speaks directly about God’s foreknowledge as the Apostle Peter writes, “…this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God…” The Apostle Paul also affirms this eternal attribute of God in Romans 8:29, along with God’s predestination: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” In many passages of the New Testament, foreknowledge and predestination prove synonymous, in which God does not merely know, but chooses beforehand to bring about a planned outcome.[21] Pastor John MacArthur affirms foreknowledge as not simply God knowing something beforehand but determining that it will come to pass, and that God’s foreknowing those who will be saved is the same as His predestinating…[22]

This observation not only demonstrates that God knows about a certain future, but shows that He brings it about through His direct, infallible influence in people’s lives, which calls the Arminianism idea of libertine human freedom into question. An example of this can be observed in Ezra 1:1, which reads, “…in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom…” The verse shows that King Cyrus issued the proclamation because God moved his heart, which clearly goes against the openness view of God’s impartiality in influencing people’s free will. Theologian Jerry Bridges comments on the overriding reality of God’s sovereignty as it relates to human power and autonomy:

“The destiny of God’s people was, humanly speaking, in the hands of the most powerful monarch [King Cyrus] of that day. In reality, though, their destiny was completely in God’s hand because He had the ability to sovereignly control the decisions of that monarch.”[23]

God’s ability to understand the future is clearly testified in many passages of both the Old and New Testament. God not only knows the future, but He authors the course of events and history, which is displayed in passages such as Ezra 1:1.

 

Proper Interpretation of Anthropomorphic Passages

With multiple passages about God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty in mind, one can reader sections like 1 Samuel 15:11 with fuller insight about God and His seemingly existential responses. Of course, if 1 Samuel 15:11 is read from a literal and superficial perspective, it may seem that God had truly regretted a decision that He did not have foreknowledge to see or change, otherwise He would have chosen a different king. Yet knowing the truth of God’s foreknowledge from other passages and books of the Bible, as well as texts like 1 Samuel 15:29 which states that God does not change His mind or repent, it is imperative to read repentance texts like 1 Samuel 15:11 in a different manner. It is not to say that one is to allegorize the text or read unrelated meaning into it, but one should consider understanding it from an anthropomorphic and transcendent point of view[24], with full consideration of God’s comprehensive attributes.

John Piper offers an insightful interpretation of 1 Samuel 15:11:

“These effects are genuinely grievous to God as he sees them in themselves. Yet he does not regard his choices as mistakes that he would do differently if only he foreknew what was coming. Rather, he wills to do some things which he then genuinely grieves over in part when the grievous effect comes to play…He experiences it [repentance] his way – the way one experiences “repentance’ when one is all-wise and foreknows the entire future perfectly. The experience is real, but it is not like finite man experiences it.”[25]

God cannot repent in the sense that He wished He had changed His mind. This contradicts God’s immutability. However, the traditional view holds that God does experience grief as the event transpires, though He exists outside of time.[26] God beholds all that is placed before Him, and in the process displays His feelings toward the sin and seeks to elicit a proper response from the hearer. God’s repentance and human repentance must logically be understood as being different, and this in no way should minimize the truth of God’s foreknowledge, since 1 Samuel 15:29 states that God does not change.

 

Divine Plans and Infallible Results

When prophetic books are also taken into consideration, such as the books of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel, it is baffling to deny the active working of God’s foreknowledge. If God did not have at least an understanding of the future events outlined in these prophetic books, then how can God confidently declare such plans in Scripture? It is possible that such future prophecies are predictive in nature and are dependent on human obedience, but if they turn out to be wrong or ultimately unfulfilled, then God’s character, omnipotence, and trustworthiness are called into question. The Scriptural prophecies would prove to be futile. This defeats the ultimate purpose of eschatological prophecy. Theologian and prophecy expert Paul Benware comments on the role of prophecy as inspiring hope and trust for the Christian:

“The prophetic Word proclaims the power and sovereignty of God and reminds us that His sure purposes for the future will indeed come to pass. Neither people nor demons can thwart the plans of God Almighty…Whereas the unbeliever may engage in wishful thinking about the future, the believer can look ahead with a confident expectation that God will accomplish everything that He has promised to do.”[27]

Although much of the prophetic material in the apocalyptic literature awaits its fulfillment, God’s foreknowledge is established because of the already fulfilled prophecies seen in passages such as Jeremiah 29:10 (Babylonian Captivity length), Matthew 16:18 (Peter’s future ministry), and Isaiah 53 (The Suffering Christ). In describing God’s foreknowledge and control of history in Isaiah 53, John MacArthur comments that the passage’s prophecy details are “so minute that no human could have predicted them by accident and no imposter fulfilled them by cunning.”[28] God accomplishes a unique task in Isaiah 53 in that he does not merely author a present event, but a future reality that finds its fulfillment to the last detail in Jesus Christ! This shows that God not only knows the future, but plans it and executes it to perfect precision.

This discussion of God’s knowledge of the future, the truth of His anthropomorphic expressions in 1 Sam 15:11, and the efficaciousness of God’s future plans give strong support for God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability. Through God’s work in people and history, the power and glory of God is on display for all humanity to observe, and one of those attributes is His foreknowledge.

 

CONCLUSION

Although the openness theology poses noteworthy and sometimes convincing proposals about Scripture and God’s overall nature, it is ultimately an unbiblical and incomplete view of God. The many Bible books and passages depict God as knowing and controlling future happenings, which testifies to the fact that this is the true representation of God. Understanding the traditional, yet accurate, view of God’s foreknowledge is important and practical to Christian living. It instills confidence and hope in God, especially in the acts of prayer. It teaches Christians to trust in God for their future and for the future of the world. Finally, it brings glory to God, which Christians should cherish with humility, reverential fear, and praise. God’s sovereignty is fully magnified, and man’s merits and ability are kept in proper perspective so as not to be exalted.

In closing, R. Kent Hughes’ words marvelously capture the beauty of God’s foreknowledge and providence:

“The sweet doctrine of God’s providence is this: God sovereignly works in and through the everyday, non-miraculous events of life to effect his will…He is far greater than our imaginings because he arranges all of life to suit and effect his providence. This makes all of life a miracle. God provides and controls in three grand arenas – history, nature, and the lives of individual people.”[29]

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Basinger, David. The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment.Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

Benware, Paul N. Understanding End Times Prophecy.Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006.

Boyd, Gregory A. God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction of the Open View of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2000.

Bridges, Jerry. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, 2nd ed.Colorado Springs: NavPress,  2008.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. John Allen, 7th ed,:Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), 2:175-176.

Clark Pinnock, in Clark 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.

___________. “Constrained by Love: Divine Self-Restraint according to Open Theism.” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 34 no. 2 (Summer 2007), 149-160.

___________.“From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology.” in Clark H. Pinnock, ed., The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism.                Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.

DeMoss, Matthew S., and J. Edward Miller. Zondervan Dictionary of Bible and Theology Words.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Feinberg, John S. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God.Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Hughes, KentR. Genesis: Beginning and Blessing.Wheaton,IL: Crossway, 2004.

MacArthur, John. ed. The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition.Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

___________. The New Testament Commentary: Romans 9-16.Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1994.

Peters, Eugene H. “Divine Foreknowledge.” Encounter, 40 no. 1 (Winter 1979), 31-34.

Piper, John. “Why the Glory of God Is at Stake in the ‘Foreknowledge’ Debate.” Modern Reformation 8, no. 5 (September/October 1999), 43.

Rice, Richard. “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in Clark Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God. Downers Grove,Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994.

Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence.Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.

Schreider, Thomas R. New Testament Theology.Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Snider, Andy. “TH 605 Theology I” (Unpublished class notes, Fall 2012).

Ware, Bruce A. “An Evangelical Reformulation of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 29, no. 4 (1986), 442.

___________.God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism.Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000.

Westminister Confession of Faith, 2:2.