There are people who identify as Christians who believe there are things God does not know – future things – things contingent on what humans decide to do. They are known as Open Theists.
Is what they believe true? Are there things God does not know until they happen and then everybody (including God) knows at the same time? If so, we might ask this question – “What did God know and when did He know it?” We might also ask ourselves if God really is who He says He is. Is He God or god? Is He limited or limitless? Is He sovereign or weak? Is He certain or uncertain? Is He supreme or subordinate?
Open Theism comes from Openness Theology, also known as “free will theism.” It has its historical background in Neo-Platonism and was brought into the thinking of some Christian leaders in the third century AD. Some historians point to Calcidus’ translation of Plato’s Timaeus with commentary for Bishop Hosius of Corduba as a beginning point of this theology emerging within the Church. You can also look at the writings of Fausto Paolo Sozzini (Socinianism) from the 16th century along with many other theologians from a variety of Christian schools and denominations in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. There are many well-known theologians today who believe there are things God does not know and cannot know until they happen in real time. Is that true?
Some of these theologians believe God voluntarily chose not to know some future events. Some believe God doesn’t know because the future is unknowable. Some believe God knows all future possibilities but doesn’t “exhaustively know” the choices people may make for themselves. Are any of those true?
Open Theism as a name was first used by Richard Rice in his 1980 book The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. Rice joined with other theologians (Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger) in 1994 to publish The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. The authors call their view of how humans relate to God as “Biblical personalism.” They give prayer as an example:
When we address God in prayer we commonly believe that we are entering into a genuine dialogue and that the future is not settled. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, IVP Academic, Preface, p 7, 1994
The publisher, IVP Academic, wrote this:
The authors insist that our understanding of God will be more consistently biblical and more true to the actual devotional lives of Christians if we profess that “God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom” and enters into relationship with a genuine ‘give-and-take dynamic’ … Evangelical and other orthodox Christian philosophers have promoted the ‘relational’ or ‘personalist’ perspective on God in recent decades. Now here is the first major attempt to bring the discussion into the evangelical theological arena.
The titles of both books tell us much about how Open Theists view Open Theism:
- The tension between God’s knowledge and human free will
- The challenge to the traditional understanding of God
I found this statement insightful from the five-author book:
Contemporary Christian thought is witnessing something of a renaissance on the doctrine of God. A new wave of critical reappraisal and competent reconstruction of God is sweeping over the intellectual landscape. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, IVP Academic, Preface, p 8
My antenna goes up when I hear or read theologians who believe Christianity needs rethinking. That’s how many cults have come into the world through the centuries. Is Open Theism a cult or are these theologians pointing out some important errors Christians have been making for two-thousand years about their understanding of the nature of God? That’s what we want to see in this special series.
Stirring The Pot
The co-authored book about Open Theism caused quite a stir among evangelicals after its publication in 1994. Bruce Ware responded with God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000) and Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003). Another book written to address the issue about the same time was Reconstructing Theology: A Critical Assessment of the Theology of Clark Pinnock edited by Gray and Sinkinson (Paternoster, 2000).
It’s interesting to note that members of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) voted to allow Open Theists Pinnock and Sanders to remain in the scholarly organization. However, the vote to oust Sanders was much closer than the vote for Pinnock.
The Open Theists stirred the evangelical pot to a point that came close to boiling over. The pot continues to be stirred today.
I remember Clark Pinnock’s writings from 50 years ago. Christian friends recommended several of his writings to me after I became a Christian, such as A Defense of Biblical Infallibility (1967), Set Forth Your Case: studies in Christian apologetics (1968), and Biblical Revelation: The Foundation of Christian Theology (1971). However, Pinnock began to change his theological views later in the 1970s by questioning the doctrine of inerrancy. He also became more open to the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. His writings in the 1980s and 90s moved away from doctrines he had once heralded as vital to Christianity. In the 1986 book Predestination & Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom (IVP), Pinnock wrote the section titled God Limits His Knowledge. Interestingly, the opposing view in the book titled God Knows All Things was written by Norman Geisler who I met many years ago at a conference on apologetics. Geisler was a strong proponent of voting Pinnock and Sanders out of the ETS in the early 2000s. Pinnock continued to promote his view of Open Theism through books like The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (1994) and Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (2000). Pinnock passed away in 2010.
The reason I mention Pinnock is because he is an example of what’s happened in Christianity during the past 40-50 years. Leaders who were once strong in their positions on the sovereignty of God, how God saves and Christian apologetics changed their views to beliefs like Open Theism and a humanized version of salvation. We should be wary of theologians who change their views in essential areas of Christianity. Jesus and His apostles gave the Lord’s Church the essential doctrines of faith and practice and we shouldn’t try to change them. To change an essential doctrine of Scripture is to flirt with a false gospel and false teaching.
This changing of position on essential doctrines often happens over a period of time. That’s what I have found in studying many church leaders like Pinnock. They started off strong and made a name for themselves within evangelical circles. However, over time, they began to drift away from what they once believed passionately to something different – often in direct opposition to their former beliefs. What happens to the people they taught and influenced? Do those people have the discernment to know something has gone wrong or do they ‘drift’ away with the teachers? We already know from the Bible that many are carried away to strange doctrines by their teachers.
We often think of people who are obviously outside of evangelical Christianity as being the worst ‘pot stirrers’ in churches. There is some truth to that as Paul told the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:29), but another truth is that it is often those inside evangelical Christianity who do the most damage (Acts 20:30; Jude 1:4, 12-13; 2 Peter 2:1). That’s because they are often trusted and their move away from essential beliefs can be overlooked or misunderstood, especially when their move occurs over a period of years.
It’s like the old frog in the kettle example. When the frog in the kettle realizes the water has gone from cool to boiling hot, it’s too late. The apostles warned us often in their letters to beware of leaders on the inside of churches who go astray and take disciples with them. Once the disciples follow the false or misleading teacher, it’s often too late.
Many other theologians were stirring the Open Theism pot around the same time as Pinnock. Some of them, in addition to Rice, Hasker, Basinger and Sanders, included Terence Fretheim, Thomas Oord, Richard Swinburne and Greg Boyd.
We might ask what’s happened since the theological battles of the 1990s and early 2000s and Clark Pinnock’s death in 2010. Is Open Theism still stirring the pot? The answer is ‘yes.’
IVP published a new book on Open Theism by Richard Rice last year (2020) titled The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities. The publisher wrote in the description of the book: “Open theism has reached its adolescence. How did it get here? And where does it go from here?” The use of the word adolescence would indicate that Open Theism is established and growing in popularity and influence.
Rice included two large sections in his book about The Origins and Development of Open Theism and Themes of Open Theism. Rice pointed to the 16th century theologian Jacobus Arminius (Arminianism) as an essential figure in the history of Open Theism (aka Free Will Theism). Rice and Arminius admitted to the impact “free will” theism (Open Theism) has on the role of God in saving people. Rice also pointed to the role Methodist theologian Adam Clarke played in the precedents for Open Theism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rice summarized Clarke’s view this way:
God ordains that certain creatures have freedom, their free actions are therefore contingent, and God’s knowledge of these contingencies is also contingent. The Future of Open Theism, IVP, 2020
Rice went on to write concerning Clarke’s view that “Without contingency, there would be no free agency, and that would leave God as the sole actor, making him ‘the author of all the evil and sin that are in the world.'”
Rice also pointed to the influence of 19th century Methodist theologian Lorenzo McCabe, French theologian Jules Lequyer, and 20th century authors Gordon Olson and Howard Roy Elseth.
Another current leader in Open Theism is Greg Boyd. He is an author, pastor and former professor (Bethel College). Boyd wrote an influential book about Open Theism titled God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction To The Open View Of God (Baker Books, 2000). Some of Boyd’s other books are Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God in 2004 (Baker Books), Is God to Blame?: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering in 2009 (IVP), Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions about Christianity in 2010 (David C. Cook) and God at War: The Bible Spiritual Conflict in 2014 (IVP).
Boyd’s first book was Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Baker Books, 1992) where he wrote about his experience in a Oneness church. His latest book is Inspired Imperfection: How the Bible’s Problems Enhance Its Divine Authority (Fortress Press, 2020). Here is the publisher’s description:
In Inspired Imperfection, Gregory A. Boyd adds another counterintuitive and provocative thesis to his corpus. While conservative scholars and pastors have struggled for years to show that the Bible is without errors, Boyd considers this a fool’s errand. Instead, he says, we should embrace the mistakes and contradictions in Scripture, for they show that God chose to use fallible humans to communicate timeless truths. Just as God ultimately came to save humanity in the form of a human, God chose to impart truth through the imperfect medium of human writing. Instead of the Bible’s imperfections being a reason to attack its veracity, these “problems” actually support the trustworthiness of Christian Scripture. Inspired Imperfection is required reading for anyone who’s questioned the Bible because of its contradictions
Boyd also has an Open Theism website and Podcast at ReKnew.org. He recently (May 12, 2021) answered the question “Has Your Confidence in Open Theism Changed?” In the podcast Boyd shared about the evolution of his Open Theism.
Whenever you live in a belief a lot longer, the longer you live in it, the more obvious it becomes to you, so that may be what’s happening here. I can’t conceive now of ever being anything other than an Open Theist. It’s not an open issue for me anymore.
You can read what Boyd and other Open Theists have said and written through the years to better understand their position on what God knows and when He knows it. I always believe in the importance of knowing what other people believe from their own speeches and writings rather than having it filtered through someone with an opposing view. That’s basic journalism: fairness, objectivity and accuracy.
I take a different view of God than Open Theism and will share some of the reasons why in the next part of our special series, Open Theism: God In A Box.
Faith and Self Defense © 2021