The Open Theism Debate


By Daniel L. Sonnenberg

Open theism, as propounded by Sanders, Rice, Pinnock and others seems to be a hearty attempt to make God more palatable for the modern mind and to solve some long standing theological mysteries. However, Frame, Piper, Ware and others show that this system of thought is, in the end, untenable according to Scripture and potentially dangerous to the church. An evaluation of these two systems will demonstrate the present author’s agreement with the latter view.

At the outset, Open theists must be given credit for causing Traditional Theists to rethink their arguments on a number of issues and to consider how these arguments might be strengthened. It seems historically that some of our best theology results from challenges such as these. A concise summary of the views of the Traditional Theists and Open Theists as characterized by Rice is found in Frame.[1] These lists do not include every aspect of the theology of each group, but rather the issues in dispute between the two groups. Frame summarizes what Rice calls the Traditional view and, in contrast, the main contentions of Open Theism. I will begin by arranging them contrasting pairs. However, in some cases, there will be an overlap of ideas. Again, these are some of the principle issues Open Theists raise against the Traditional model.

There seem to be six major points of contrast.

First, TT (Traditional Theism) emphasizes the sovereignty of God while OT (Open Theism) emphasizes the love of God. A further distinction arises in regard to God’s love between what they call “care and commitment” (found in TT) in contrast to the added dimensions of “sensitivity and responsiveness” found in OT.

Second, in TT, God’s decretive will is the ultimate explanation of everything, while in OT God’s will does not determine everything that takes place in the world. Rather, what takes place is a combination of what God and his creatures choose to do.

Third, in TT God’s will is irresistible, while in OT creatures can influence God. Man is free in the libertarian sense.

Fourth, in TT God is above or outside of time, knowing the past, present and future equally well, while in OT, God dwells in time and knows the past and the present, but learns about the future as it occurs.

Fifth, in TT God is “essentially unaffected” by events in the world that impinge on human beings and their feelings about those events, while in OT God is in some ways dependent on the world. That is, he is contingent or dependent in some ways on the decisions of man.

Sixth, in TT God is equally glorified by his benevolence toward the world and his destruction of the wicked, while in OT God is not held culpable for evil since it is attributed solely to man’s sinfulness.[2] As you can see, there is some overlap in these pairings. But hopefully, they present these two views in summary fashion as antitheses.

Now, let’s look at some of these arguments individually from both sides. It seems best at this point to group some of these arguments together since they are somewhat interdependent. Open Theists reject the Reformed view of the sovereignty of God. This view entails, in Pinnock’s words,  “meticulous providence, compatibilist freedom and exhaustive foreknowledge (a truly frozen project).” In contrast, he and others prefer what they call a more “open” view that entails “general providence, libertarian freedom, and a partly unsettled future (a truly dynamic world order).” [3] Notice the emotionally loaded language he uses, eg., “frozen” vs “dynamic.” Another common term these writers employ for specific sovereignty is “static.” Open Theists prefer such metaphors for God as “Risk-taker” or “Gambler” even though they do not appear in Scripture. In the Traditional view, God is sovereign over his creation. Frame affirms Scripture’s thousand-fold attestation that God is both King and Lord over the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. As Lord, God controls everything that happens in the natural world (Ps. 65: 9), in history (Acts 17.26), including human decisions (Gen. 45:5-7), even sins (Ps. 105:24), faith and salvation (Rom. 8.29), and all things both good and evil (Lam. 3:37).[4] So in this view, God is the ultimate cause of everything in detail, though some (such as the WCF) prefer to say that in the case of evil he is not its “author.” In contrast, within the “open” view, some things fall outside of God’s plan. He has a general providential plan that will prevail because he is omnipotent, but because he allows libertarian freedom, he gives over a measure of control to human agents.

In libertarian freedom, according to William Hasker, “an agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action.”[5] Libertarian freedom is said by Open Theists to provide a more satisfactory motivation for prayer since man can actually influence God who is said to be “receptive” and engaged in a “give-and-take” with man in creating the future. Ascol argues, however, that this view actually undermines prayer. He says that if God does not know the future, then he cannot be trusted to accomplish what he has promised on our behalf. Why should we ask him for guidance or to do anything for us if he lacks knowledge of the future?[6] Another arena of Christian life is affected by the Open Theist view: salvation. They propose a “relational model” of salvation in which sin represents a “broken relationship” with God that must be restored as opposed to sin as a “state of corruption” that must be changed in what they call the “no-risk” model of Traditional Theism. In the relational model, God is contingent on man. That is, he makes certain decisions and actions contingent on our actions because of libertarian freedom.[7] However, Frame points out that though faith and salvation entail an aspect of man’s choice to repent and believe (Jn. 1:12), that God chose us first even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5). Moreover, if salvation is based on a work of man (choosing), then we have reason to boast. However, since Eph. 2:8-9 tells us that it is a gift of God, not from ourselves, this cannot be true.[8]

For Open Theists, this tenet is fundamental. If true, libertarian freedom would be beneficial in solving some of the mysteries to be mentioned shortly. However, it is unfounded in Scripture according to Traditional Theists. According to Frame, the biblical data noted above refute it; Scripture does not explicitly teach it; Scripture grounds human responsibility in God’s creation of man, not in this or any other type of freedom; Scripture does not indicate that God places any positive value on it; Scripture teaches that in heaven we will not be free to sin, so man’s highest state of existence will be a state without libertarian freedom; Scripture never judges anyone’s conduct with regard to it; Scripture contradicts the concept that only uncaused decisions are morally responsible (Gen. 50:20); and, Scripture denies we have any such independence (Luke 6:43).[9] In contrast, Traditional Theists embrace compatibilist freedom, that is, freedom within the boundaries outlined by God’s decretive will. Man is not free to choose contrary to God’s foreordained plan. However, he is morally responsible for the choices he makes that they be in conformity to God’s Word. Here they make a distinction between God’s decretive and his preceptive will that Open Theists will not accept. This is one of the mysteries the Open Theists claim to answer: how man can be morally responsible when God decrees sin. Traditional Theists have learned to be content to live in the tension prescribed by Scripture. Another of these mysteries is the problem of evil, which attempts to explain how God can be both good and allow evil in the world at the same time. In contrast to the view of Sanders that there is “pointless evil” and Boyd who says one cannot find the “purpose of God in evil,” Piper points out that Scripture instructs us regarding the purpose of inflicting pain: the salvation of God’s people through the suffering of Jesus, and their sanctification through our own suffering.[10]

A third tenet of Open Theists is used to assist in their attempt to explain this. They deny that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future. He knows the past and the present because he has participated in them, but because the future has not yet occurred it does not exist. God can therefore still be considered omniscient since he knows everything there is to know about that which exists.  In so doing, they claim that since God does not know for certain what will happen in the future, he is not responsible for any evil that may occur in it. Further, because men are free to choose contrary to God’s general providence via libertarian freedom, all sin and evil can be attributed to man. This is very tidy. However, once again, Scripture amply attests to the validity of Traditional Theists’ claim to God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Many instances in the prophets can be given. Also, in Acts 2:23 God’s knowledge of the future is attested explicitly: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” This is similar to Ephesians 1:11, “ In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” (italics added). Moreover, in John 13:19 Christ predicted his own death when he said, “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He.” In doing so, he attested to his own divinity by stating that he knew the outcome of future events.[11] By denying exhaustive foreknowledge Open Theists hope to reduce the “crisis of faith” in times of catastrophe, for example, by telling a mother whose child is killed accidentally that God did not foresee its occurrence. However, as Piper says, better counsel comes from the testimony of the saints of the past: believing that God knew from all eternity that it would occur, and therefore foresees our pain, “strengthens us for it, joins us in it, and designs good by it is comforting – and biblical.”[12]

Another means Open Theists use to deny exhaustive foreknowledge is the so-called “straight-forward” reading of texts such as Gen. 22:12 that might appear to attribute “growth-in-knowledge” to God: “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (italics added).[13] Another type of text that Open Theists use to deny exhaustive foreknowledge is the “straight-forward” reading of divine repentance texts such as Ex. 32:14: “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened”(italics added). They use this and other texts to show that when God met a situation he was previously unaware of, he changed his plans about what we was going to do.[14] However, Ascol points out that in doing so, the Open Theists ignore a long standing principle of hermeneutics declaring that “passages which clearly assert a doctrine or principle are to be used to shed light on narrative passages.”[15] By this principle, Traditional Theists can show that these are instances of anthropomorphism. Ware defines anthropomorphism: “A given ascription to God may rightly be understood as anthropomorphic when Scripture clearly presents God as transcending the very human or finite features it elsewhere attributes to him.”[16] In contrast, if we used the “straight-forward” method prescribed by Open Theists to interpret these texts we could show that God has neither exhaustive knowledge of the past or the present and is not omnipresent. Obviously, this method does not produce the intended or correct meaning in such cases.[17]

Space does not permit further discussion regarding other unconstructive aspects of the OT view including its view of the primacy of God’s attribute of love[18], its dependence on modern culture,[19] Greek thought and Socianianism.[20] Suffice it to say that Open Theism, for all its well-articulated and thought-provoking definition is not a viable option, let alone an improvement over the Traditional view. What it demonstrates in creativity, it lacks in conformity to Scripture. In fact, because it undermines confidence in Scripture, confidence in God, faith in Christ, prayer, and confident living,[21] it should be considered anathema by the evangelical church because of its potential for harm among the flock. Pastors should warn their people to steer clear of these teachings.

Bibliography

Ascol, Thomas K. “Pastoral Implications of Open Theism.” In Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, edited by Douglas Wilson. Moscow, Ida.: Canon. 2001.

Frame, John M. No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001.

Pinnock, Clark et al. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994.

Rice, Richard. The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. Nashville: Review and Herald, 1980.

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

 


[1] John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 22.

[2] Ibid., 22-23.

[3] Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 180.

[4] Frame, 58-83.

[5] Hasker in Frame, 23.

[6] Thomas Ascol, “Pastoral Implications of Open Theism” in Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, ed. Douglas Wilson (Moscow, Ida.: Canon, 2001), 180.

[7] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 243-244.

[8] Frame, 74-77.

[9] Ibid,, 123-127.

[10] John Piper, “Grounds for Dismay: The Error and Injury of Open Theism” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity,  382-383.

[11] Ascol, 180.

[12] Piper, 376-377.

[13] Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism, 65.

[14] Ware, 86.

[15] Ascol, 174.

[16] Ware, 86.

[17] Ware, 98.

[18] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective” in The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God by Pinnock et al (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994), 15.

[19] Pinnock in Frame, 25-26.

[20] Frame, 29-31.

[21] Ascol, 174-187.

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