“Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow.”
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
What is Open Theism?
The belief that God knows the future has traditionally been a foundational belief in Christian theology, but a new perspective is challenging orthodox understandings and creating a new debate. The belief is called Open Theism. Advocates of Open Theism include Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and John Sanders among others. John Piper has been a chief opponent of the doctrine.
Although no denomination has formally adopted the doctrine, proponents are present in Christian circles.
The Open Theism debate
Open Theism contends that God does not know the future. It reasons that since human beings are free creatures, God cannot know the future until people decide it. Open Theism further argues that biblical passages that speak of God’s omniscience have been misunderstood.
Open Theism suggests that Christian theology has a preference for speaking about God in Greek philosophical terms. About orthodox Christian theology and God's foreknowledge, John Sanders writes, “The church has followed this path for so long that we now take this way of thinking for granted.”
Open Theism and Interpreting Scripture
An example of how Open Theism interprets the Bible differently than classic Christian theology is the topic of God changing his mind. The difference can be seen in the passage in 2 Kings 20, which records King Hezekiah’s illness. The prophet Isaiah went to Hezekiah while he was ill and told him that God has said that he is going to die: “In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live”’” (2 Kings 20:3a, NAU).
As Isaiah was leaving Hezekiah's side, God used him to answer the king's prayer,
“Return and say to Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go to the house of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life”’” (2 Kings 20:5-6a, NAU).
Open Theism posits that this story is an example of God changing his mind. They emphasize that Hezekiah believed that God could change his mind, which explains why he prayed. Sanders writes,
But now God has changed his mind because of Hezekiah’s prayer (20:5). God declares that Hezekiah will recover from this illness and will live another fifteen years. The words, “thus says the Lord” announce the first message and the second message, which reverses the first. Yahweh is free to change his mind in response to human beings. Not even the authoritative “thus says the Lord” can prevent Yahweh from repenting if he so decides.
Whereas orthodox Christian theology regard such statements such as “God can change his mind” as figurative language, Open Theism understands it to be literal. Sanders argues that if God knew all along Hezekiah would not die, the passage would not make sense. “Was God lying?” he asks. Sanders continues,
Claiming that biblical texts asserting that God “changed his mind” are merely anthropomorphisms does not tell us what they mean. If, in fact, it is impossible for God to change his mind, then the biblical text is quite misleading. Asserting that it is a non-literal expression does not solve the problem because it has to mean something. Just what is the anthropomorphic expression an expression of? Thus classical theists are left with the problem of misleading biblical texts, or, at best, meaning less metaphors regarding the nature of God.
If God changing his mind is figurative language, Open Theism suggests people do not truly have knowledge of God or access to him. What orthodox Christian theology take figuratively, Open Theism takes literally.
Open Theism and God’s Foreknowledge
Open Theism teaches that God’s will is not the ultimate explanation for everything that happens. Human decisions contribute to a significant degree. Thus, the history of the world is the combined result of what God and his creatures choose. Open Theist Richard Rice writes, "Instead of perceiving the entire course of human existence in one timeless moment, God comes to know events as they take place." He continues,
He learns something from what transpires. We call this position the “open view of God” because it regards God as receptive to new experiences and as flexible in the way he works toward his objectives in the world. Since it sees God as dependent on the world in certain respects, the open view of God differs from much conventional theology. Yet we believe that this dependence does not detract from God’s greatness, it only enhances it.
Open Theism reasons that God’s foreknowledge and the freedom of human beings are incompatible. If God knew the future then all events would happen according to that foreknowledge. If this is true then people are not truly free. All things are ordained. Metaphysically, existence is fatalistic.
In Greg Boyd’s explanation of Open Theism he emphasizes the role of people,
In the Christian view God knows all reality - everything there is to know. But to assume he knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act assumes that each person’s free activity is already there to know – even before he freely does it! But it’s not. If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don’t exist. Thus, in my view at least, there simply isn’t anything to know until we make it there to know. So God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.
According to Boyd, God’s foreknowledge pertains to himself. This means that God knows what he would like to do with his freedom but he does not know what people will do with theirs.
Clark Pinnock states that God knows everything about the future except that which has not been decided. He does affirm that God’s knowledge extends to everything that has been decided. Clark Pinnock writes, “The future is not fixed like the past, which can be known completely.” The future is a blank slate. “The future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated, even by God.”
In Open Theism God learns. There is knowledge he does not have. He acquires knowledge as people make decisions. “This implies that God learns things and (I would add) enjoys learning them,” writes Clark Pinnock. “God is the best learner of all because he is completely open to all the input of an unfolding world.” In Open Theism, God enjoys spontaneity and surprises. Clark Pinnock summarizes, “Thus, God does not foreknow every future choice or the outcome of every human decision. God is all-knowing in the sense that he knows all that is possible to know an powerful enough to do whatever is needed.”
Prophecies in Open Theism are called God’s “intentions” for the future. God may at times “be able to predict people’s decisions.” The decrees of God are called his “goals.” God has “intuition” about the future. According to Sanders, God “takes risks and jeopardizes his own sovereignty” to make people free creatures.
Open Theism and The End Times
Writing about God’s eternal plan for people, Sanders writes “Just as there is no way to deduce what God must do in carrying out his purpose so there is no infallible way of predicting what God will do in the future.” Yet Sanders also maintains that God can intercede when he wishes. “Whatever ability we have to thwart God’s individual purposes is given us by God. Moreover, there are some things that the almighty God retains the right to enact unilaterally in the future.” Later, Sanders states that the content of the eternal state is not knowable. “Are there any guarantees that God will achieve the sort of future, in all details, that God desires?”
Sanders states that some proponents of Open Theism contend that contrary to their views of God’s foreknowledge, he will override human freedom for eschatological prophecies to come to pass. Others however see a contradiction in this teaching. Sanders agrees with the later. About the proponent of Open Theism who wrote that God would overcome people’s resistances Sanders writes, “In my opinion this betrays a rationalism that overlooks the irrationality of sin: the mystery of iniquity.”
Rather, Sanders agrees with Paul S. Fiddes who writes,
“Decisions and experiences in this life matter: they are building what we are. Since God’s aim is the making of persons, he has the certain hope that we will be ‘glorified,’ but the content of that depends upon human responses, for the content of the end is persons.”
According to Fiddes individual eschatology is conditional. God can only do so much to assure an individual will be in the eternal state. People must do the rest. Fiddes concludes with a suggestion that the conditions of the eternal state cannot be known. “Thus the risk upon which God is embarked is real and serious, though not a total one. He has a certain hope of the fact of the end, but there is genuine openness about the route and therefore the content of the end.” In his conclusion Sanders states “God provides ‘space’ for us to operate and in so doing makes it possible that some of the specific goals he would like to see fulfilled may not come about.”
Sanders does not conclude absolutely that natural evil will exist in the eternal state. He does strongly hint that it is problematic if one held that natural evil does not exist there. Sanders writes “The nature of ‘heaven’ and the question whether both moral and natural evil will, by divine fiat, immediately cease to exist in such a state raises a number of significant problems.” Sanders offers one example of a problem. He asks, “Why God does not now or did not originally create such a state?”
In Sanders concluding comments he writes a question that appears rhetorical. At the least the question guides one toward Sander’s belief system. “Will all natural evil and suffering be automatically removed, or will our ability to cope with it and our acceptance of God’s help be such that its negative effects are greatly lessened?” He finally concludes, “I am not exactly sure what heaven will be like.”
John Sanders. The God Who Risks.
Paul Fiddes. The Creative Suffering of God.
Greg Boyd. Letters to a Skeptic.
C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity.