I was asked recently to comment on the following “Pastoral Letter on Open Theism” drafted by the General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The denomination is Calvinist-Reformed in doctrine. I have copied the entire letter below (in bold print) and interspersed my comments throughout. Note “open theism” is a conviction about the nature of the future and God’s knowledge thereof. It holds that the future is partially settled and partially unsettled and that God knows it as such.
It has often been said that what one believes about God is perhaps the most important thing about his or her theology. Consequently, when a group of Evangelical scholars propose a radical redefinition of God, it is a serious matter, especially when that view makes significant departures from classical, Reformed and, ultimately, biblical theology.
Three comments in response to this paragraph:
First, characterizing so-called “open theism” as constituting a “radical redefinition of God” assumes there is an already-agreed upon definition of God that excludes the conception of open theism. But this is not the case. God has been defined in a wide variety of ways by different peoples in different places and times. There is a basic definition of God that almost all theists agree on, but that definition does not exclude the openness conception. The basic theistic definition of God is of an eternal, independent, necessary, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being who is the creator and sustainer of all other beings. Or as Webster’s has it: God is “the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” Open theism agrees with this definition entirely.
Second, it is not only Evangelical scholars who have advocated for the openness view of God and the future (” . . . when a group of Evangelical scholars propose . . . “). On the contrary, the voices that have been and continue to be raised in support of an open view cut across the Christian spectrum. Moreover, proponents come from all major areas of the world and are very significant in number. And among these voices are some of the most respected in the world. For example, probably the most important philosophical theologian of our time, Richard Swinburne of Oxford, is an open theist. Thus, he writes in his book Is There A God (pp. 8-9),
Just as God cannot be required to do what is logically impossible to do, so God cannot be required to know what is logically impossible to know. It seems to me that it is logically impossible to know . . . what someone will do freely tomorrow. If I am really free to choose tomorrow whether I will go to London or stay at home, then if anyone today has some belief about what I will do (e.g. that I will go to London), I have it in my power tomorrow to make that belief false (e.g. by staying at home). So no one (not even God) can know today . . . what I will choose to do tomorrow. So I suggest that we understand God being omniscient as God knowing at any time all that is logically possible to know at that time.
For a list of some of the many other contemporary thinkers throughout the world and across the Christian spectrum who are proponents of open theism, see As the list indicates, open theism is not a “fringe” belief being advocated only by a small group of people within Evangelical Christianity. Rather, it is a movement being pushed forward by theologians, philosophers, biblical scholars, and others from across the Christian spectrum and from all major areas of the world.
Third, while open theism makes significant departures from so-called “classical theism” (God is absolutely immutable, impassible, timeless, simple, etc.) and even more so from Calvinism (God is all-determining of both good and evil), it does not depart from biblical theology. Rather, it is a recovery, a restoration of biblical theology that is contradicted by classical theism and especially Calvinism.
During the past few years, a view of God has been set forth which has come to be known as “open theism.” Informed by the philosophical movement of process theology, open theists emphasize God’s self-limitation in dealing with humans and an open future. His knowledge is not eternally settled, his foreknowledge is not exhaustive, his providential dealing with the world is not meticulous, and the future is not wholly secure. Some things are fixed, others are not. As evidence of this, open theists point to Scriptural language in which God repents, expresses regret and speaks in conditional terms to people. This, they say, is not simply phenomenological or anthropomorphic language, but literal. Sometimes in dealing with people, God makes mistakes and has to repent of his actions.
Four comments in response to this paragraph:
First, it is not true that open theists believe God’s “foreknowledge is not exhaustive.” Open theists believe it is exhaustive; they just do not believe it is exhaustively definite. They believe the future consists of some things definite and other things indefinite, and God knows the definite things as definite and the indefinite things as indefinite. So the issue is not the extent of the divine foreknowledge, it is the content. The authors assume God possesses exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Open theists demur. God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive, covering all of the future, but not exhaustively definite since the future is not exhaustively definite, but only partially so.
Second, it is irresponsible to represent open theism as maintaining that God has made mistakes. No open theist publication to my knowledge has ever said God makes mistakes or can make mistakes. Likewise, it is misleading and irresponsible of the authors to say without further ado that open theists believe God “repents of his actions,” since the term “repent” in modern parlance carries the connotation of showing contrition for wrongdoing. Open theists do not believe God “repents of his actions” in this sense. Open theists believe God “repents” only in the sense that the scriptures apply that term to God, namely, in the sense that God regrets certain decisions regarding human beings after human beings let him down. Thus, the KJV of Gen 6.5-6 reads, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” According to Webster’s, “repent” may carry simply the sense of feeling regret or causing to feel regret. In this sense, the KJV accurately captures the Hebrew nacham. The meaning of the text is that God “regretted” (NASB) or “was sorry” (NIV) that he had created human beings in light of what wicked creatures humans had become by their own choices. So it is only in this sense that open theists believe God “repents of his actions,” and they believe this because the scriptures explicitly indicate it (besides Gen 6:5-7, see for example 1 Sam 15:10, 35). The authors have constructed a straw man to attack, which unfortunately is typical of Calvinist responses to open theism (one thinks of publications like Bruce Ware’s book God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism, which makes an art of this).
Third, the authors phrase things as though it is self-evident that the numerous scriptures that depict God’s foreknowledge as largely a foreknowledge of possibilities, not certainties—thus, God has regrets (e.g., Gen 6:6; 7; 1 Sam 15:10, 35), experiences disappointment at the unexpected (e.g., Isa 5:2, 4; Jer 3:6-7, 19-20) asks questions about the future (e.g., Num 14:11; Hos 8:5), gets frustrated (e.g., Exod 4:10-15; Ezek 22:30-31), tests people to see what they will do (e.g., Gen 22:12; Exod 16:4; Deut 8:2; 13:1-3; Judg 2:22; 3:4; 2 Chron 32:31), speaks in terms of what “perhaps” will be (e.g., Exod 4:8-9; Isa 47:12; Jer 26:2-3; 36:3, 7; 51:8; Ezek 12:1-3; cf. Exod 13:17), consults with others before finalizing decisions (e.g., Exod 32:7-14; Num 14:11-20; Amos 7:1-9), and so on—should be understood as “phenomenological or anthropomorphic” rather than as “literal.” But clearly it is just the opposite: these texts should only be interpreted in a non-literal fashion if there is a very good reason to do so. Open theists say there is no good reason to do so; therefore, they believe such interpretation is only an explaining away of what the texts say, a setting aside of the scripture’s theology.
Fourth, a “wholly secure future” according to Calvinism is one wholly ordained, or determined, by God—both the good as well as the evil. Thus every act of sodomy, rape, and murder is wholly secure of occurrence in Calvinism as God has been pleased from eternity past to ordain all these horrendous evils down to their details. Open theists in concert with the great majority of theists throughout history and today believe this “wholly secure future” of Calvinism compromises the goodness of God, as well as human dignity and morality. And to the Calvinist who retorts that a future of eternal bliss is wholly secure at least for her as elect, it behooves me to point out that according to her Calvinism it may be the case that God has ordained that she believe herself to be elect when she really is not. Calvin acknowledges this in his Institutes, writing, “Experience shows that the reprobate [those whom God destined and created for eternal torment in Calvinism] are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.” And consistent with his determinism, Calvin acknowledges too that this is from God, writing in blood-curdling words that God gives this delusion to some of the “reprobate” so as “the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:2:11). This is the inexorable logic of consistent Calvinism.
A central assumption of open theism is that were God to be fully sovereign, or even (merely) to possess exhaustive foreknowledge, this would eliminate human freedom and the authenticity of our choices. Thus, in the open theist scheme, securing (libertarian) human freedom becomes ultimate in importance, so that both God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future and his sovereign control must be denied.
A couple of points in response to this paragraph:
First, according to the authors, God is apparently only “fully sovereign” if all-determining. This is an example of taking over a term “sovereign” and giving to it a meaning it possesses nowhere except in Calvinism. If ever any human king or ruler were so in control of his kingdom that absolutely nothing could transpire in all his realm that he did not either directly cause or else permit, no one would hesitate to apply the term “fully sovereign” to the ruler. Such a sovereignty open theists (and other non-determinists) ascribe to God, and yet it is said they deny the full sovereignty of God. Thus, by redefining the term “sovereignty,” open theists (and all other non-Calvinists) are made to look as if they deny something they do not deny. They do not deny that God is sovereign—fully sovereign—over his creation. They deny that God has ordained, even from eternity past, all that transpires, both the good as well as the bad.
Second, I cannot speak for all open theists, but I know that for myself and many other open theists, securing human freedom is not ultimate in importance, contrary to the authors’ charge (which is a typical charge of Calvinists in their opposition of open theism). Rather, securing God’s good character is what is ultimate in importance. So the authors misrepresent open theism once again. (actually, it is not about securing anything but the truth of the matter). However, having said this, it should frankly go without saying that any doctrine that entails the denial of genuine human freedom (and Calvinism like all species of determinism does so since necessitated freedom is a plain contradiction in terms) should be rejected, for it is self-evident that human beings possess genuine freedom of will. Careful reasoning moves from what is more evident to what is less evident. Denying genuine human freedom denies something self-evident and entails the denial of other self-evident truths, for example, that a good God could not have ordained all the evil that occurs in the world and God cannot hold human beings (and angels and devils) responsible for their actions if ordained and necessitated by him.
Open theists also contend that the Christian church has adopted a doctrine of God that is misleading and inconsistent with the Bible. It presents God as a kind of static, un-relational, non-interactive, unmoved mover. The classical view, they say, is deeply rooted in Greek philosophy, and hopelessly irrelevant to contemporary life.
I don’t have any issues with anything said here.
This pastoral letter not only aims to identify the movement of open theism, but also to provide some brief, contemporary comments from both a biblical and confessional standpoint. It is written because of the extent to which this view has been making headway in Evangelical circles. We believe the debate cannot be ignored or go unanswered. While this letter is far from exhaustive, we want to suggest ways to respond and, in the process, to deepen our own understanding of God in a way that is faithful to Scripture and spiritually beneficial to the church.
Nothing to say here.
On a positive note, open theists challenge Christians to think about theology and to ask questions about who is God and what is he like. They prompt Christians to search their Bibles and reflect on the nature of prayer, suffering and human freedom-which is good. Their concern for a God who is near, who relates to us, who feels, suffers, interacts with us, and honors human choices is also good. The problem with open theism lies in the inadequate solutions it offers.
Nothing to say here except, of course, that I believe the last sentence is false.
Classical theism and Reformed theology state that God’s knowledge of the future is exhaustive, his providential guidance is complete and the triumph of his eternal purposes is assured. Open theists misrepresent the classical and Reformed view of God. In Reformed theology God is not the unmoved mover of Aristotle who is unaffected by our relationships. Rather he is the covenant- making God who graciously enters into relationships with us. Belief in a living, active God has always been at the very heart of Reformed theology. Open theists allege that a God who is immutable cannot be touched by our feelings or prayers. We affirm that immutability means God, in his essence, character and purposes, does not change. Yet this immutability of his nature allows for God feeling, responding, answering and being touched by our infirmities.
Three comments in response to this paragraph:
First, open theists believe God’s eternal purposes are assured; they just mean something very different by this than Calvinism does. According to Calvinism, God’s eternal purpose is to glorify himself by creating a world in which he causes all things whatsoever, including all human actions and the actions of angels and devils, in accordance with his eternal decree. In order to glorify his wrath and “justice”, God will punish with eternal torment people whose sins he caused and necessitated before they were born. And in order to glorify his “grace” and “mercy”, God will give eternal bliss to the fortunate few whose sins he caused and necessitated but whom he also caused to “turn” to God and “love” God according to his eternal decree. Of course, all of this is impossible, for if God necessitates and causes our sins, then he cannot justly punish us for them and so cannot glorify his justice and wrath. Likewise, it is not mercy and grace for God to save someone from his wrath, if God necessitated and caused their sins. To maintain otherwise is to contradict self-evident moral axioms (more on this below). So open theists believe God’s eternal purposes are assured, they just do not think these impossible things are God’s eternal purposes. They believe that God’s eternal purpose for humanity is to give them the opportunity to freely realize in themselves the greatest value in the universe, namely the character of God, and to eternally commune with God in a relationship of mutual love. And it is for this reason that God has given to human beings genuine freedom, as this is requisite for the possibility of realizing these goals. God gives human beings the dignity to choose whether to become like God and love him, or not.
Second, according to the classic Reformed doctrine of God (as set forth for example in the Second Chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith), God is wholly immutable, or unchanging. Not only can he never change in essence, character, and purposes; he cannot change in any respect whatsoever. He does not have changing thoughts. He does not have changing emotions or feelings-he is “impassible.” He does not even experience sequence in his thoughts, emotions, or life generally. He is wholly “timeless,” with no before or after, with no sequence in any respect whatsoever. His existence is somehow a timeless “now” in which he experiences no change in thoughts, emotions, plans, or actions. In fact, according to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which forms part of the classic Reformed doctrine of God (the meaning of “without parts” in Chapter 2:1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith), God just is his eternal thought. God just is his eternal bliss. Even his plans and actions are somehow one and somehow identical to his very being. There is no real distinction between God and his thoughts, emotions, plans, and activities. They seem distinct to us but they are not really so. We make mental distinctions (logical or conceptual distinctions) between them, but in reality they are one and the same thing. So truly speaking, God does not have thoughts, plans, or experiences. He has just one thought, one plan, one experience (bliss). But even this is not yet stating it literally enough, for all these are the same thing and are all identical to God. The thought is the plan, the plan is the bliss, etc.; and there is no distinction even between God’s being and the thought=plan=bliss. Now given all this, what sense does it make to say God is a “living, active God” who is “affected by our relationships”, etc.? What sense does it make to say God is without passions, or feelings (impassible) (Westminster Confession of Faith 2:1), but then maintain God is “affected by our relationships”? And what sense does it make to say God is absolutely immutable and simple, but then speak of God initiating new actions (“graciously entering into relationships with us”)? One can say these things but only in the way one can say a circle is a square. In other words, one can say these things only with contradiction, but contradictions have no meaning.
Third, even if one rejects these points of classical Reformed theism (absolute immutability, impassibility, simplicity, timelessness), as it appears the authors might in seemingly limiting God’s immutability to his essence, character, and purposes (which is correct but inconsistent with classical Reformed theism as codified, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith), then there is still the problem of God being all-determining. For what sense does it make to say that God necessitated and causes all that transpires but nevertheless is “touched by our infirmities”? How can God be sad about what he freely ordained and causes? Furthermore, how can he become sad about it when he causes it. If these things make him sad, then he would have already experienced the sadness when he ordained and necessitated them, which just returns us to the previous problem of why God would ordain and necessitate something that makes him sad. It is not as though anyone is forcing him to do it. One Calvinist response to this is to say that God is pleased with the whole of what he ordained but not with all the parts (Francis Turretin argues this way in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology and so does the Dutch Calvinist Hermann Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics). In other words, God is only pleased with the evil things he ordains insofar as uses them to glorify himself, which is the ultimate purpose of God, the ultimate aim and end of his decree. So on this understanding God may be “touched by our infirmities” when he contemplates them in isolation from the end which they serve to glorify him but he is pleased with them—pleased that he has decreed and causes them—when he contemplates them in connection with the purpose he has in ordaining them, namely to glorify himself. In short, God grieves over the evil he causes us to do and the evil he causes to have done to us, but he causes it (and ordained it) anyway in order to glorify himself through it, which pleases him. How does he glorify himself through it? Well, according to historic Calvinism, he does so by eternally torturing most people for the evil he causes them to do, calling this “justice,” and causing the “elect” to call it justice to (he also causes the tortured reprobate to call it justice, or at least think it is justice-after all, their voices are occupied with the screams and shrieks of their torments). If all of this is not strictly contradictory, still it is, frankly, abhorrent. Suffice it to say, none but Calvinists are moved by the tears of this God “touched by our infirmities” which he ordains for his own glory and in most cases not even for our good, seeing that most of us (according to Calvinism), including the Calvinist for all she knows (see the honest logic of Calvin cited above), have been predestined by God for punishment of eternal torment for “sins” God caused us to do, not to mention for Adam’s sin that God caused him to do and imputed to all of us (Calvinism’s doctrine of “original sin”).
This view of divine immutability is not driven by Greek philosophy. While the early church fathers sometimes employed Hellenic terms for theological discussion, directed by the Holy Spirit they routinely poured Christian meaning into them that was profoundly different from Greek philosophy.
To this I can only say that anyone who knows Greek philosophy and the history of Christian theology knows this is not true. Every theologian, philosopher, and classical historian knows that the doctrine of absolute immutability so integral to the classical conception of God is derived from Greek philosophy (in the trajectory set by Parmenides). Much more than simply “Hellenic terms” were taken over from the Greeks. This is freely admitted by classical theologians. Moreover, it is not only the early church fathers but especially later medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas who heavily imbibed Greek philosophical speculation in formulating what became the classical conception of God, of a being utterly immutable, impassible, timeless, simple, etc. So Pascal was not tilting at windmills when he sewed into the liner of his coat: “‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.” For crying out loud, the Wikipedia article on “Classical theism” states at the outset of the article, “Classical theism is, historically, the mainstream view in philosophy and is associated with the tradition of writers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, St. Anselm, Maimonides, Averroes and Thomas Aquinas.” In other words, classical theism is the theism of the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) adapted by Christians (Augustine, St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas), Jews (Maimonides), and Muslims (Averroes) (Plotinus was Greek Egyptian).
Furthermore, open theists insist that divine sovereignty nullifies human freedom. However, in saying this, they ignore massive amounts of Scripture that affirms God’s absolute sovereignty over history and human lives (e.g. Gen. 50.20, Isa. 10:5ff, Acts 2:23). Scripture presents the covenant God as One who reigns. He knows the end from the beginning. He declares in advance what will happen. He assures his plans will come to pass. “I am God, and there is none like me,” says Isaiah 46.8-10, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.”
Two comments in response to this paragraph:
First, open theists do not “insist that divine sovereignty nullifies human freedom.” Open theists, along with the majority of the Christian tradition, insist against Calvinism that an all-determining God nullifies human freedom. Once again we see how the authors take over the term “sovereignty” and give to it a meaning it has nowhere else except in Calvinism. And it is self-evident that an omni-determining God nullifies human freedom (and angelic freedom). If all our actions are ordained, necessitated, and ultimately caused by God, then obviously we are not free. Necessitated freedom is a contradiction. If Calvinists wish to insist otherwise, then they are no longer speaking of freedom in the normal, accepted sense of the word. In fact, they have defined it as the very contrary of freedom.
Second, none of the proof-texts from scripture that the authors appeal to in this paragraph present God as all-determining. Gen 50.20 presents God as, for a specific greater good, permitting, perhaps even orchestrating, the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers. Likewise in the case of Isa 10.5ff: God is presented as permitting, perhaps even orchestrating, the invasion of Israel by Assyria as a means of judging Israel according to the covenant stipulations God established with the nation. In Acts 2:23, Peter explains that Jesus was handed over by the hands of lawless men according to the plan and foreknowledge of God. Again, this only means that God permitted, perhaps even orchestrated, the crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews and Romans in Judea. God foreknew it because he foreknew his own intention to thus permit or even orchestrate it. As for Isa 46.8-10, the point is simply that God can declare beforehand his plans because being omnipotent he can ensure their fulfillment (this makes the bare citation of the first half of verse v. 10, “I make known . . . from ancient times what is to come,” positively misleading; one must finish the verse: “Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure'”).
Unfortunately, open theists seek to minimize the mysteries Scripture holds forth on this subject. The Bible pictures a God who is absolutely sovereign, yet who calls human beings to make real choices with real consequences. It affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility in a tension that we cannot fully resolve this side of heaven. Rather than affirm one strand of truth (e.g. human responsibility) while ignoring others (e.g. divine sovereignty, omniscience, etc.) Scripture affirms both, while acknowledging the limits of what our finite human minds can grasp and affirming the incomprehensibility of God (we cannot know all of him with our finite minds).
Three comments in response to this paragraph:
First, open theists do not “seek to minimize the mysteries Scripture holds forth on this subject.” They simply reject that scripture presents God as possessing exhaustive definite foreknowledge and as all-determining. It presents quite the opposite picture they say.
Second, the authors continue to conflate “sovereignty” and “omni-determinism.” As I have made clear, open theists believe God is sovereign—fully sovereign. They reject (with most theists) that God is all-determining. “Sovereign” does not mean “all-determining.”
Third, to maintain that God can ordain and necessitate all human actions and still justly hold human beings accountable for those actions is to maintain not a “mystery” or a “tension” but an impossibility. It is a self-evident axiom of morality that ability determines responsibility. This axiom we all live by every day. It is a bedrock moral intuition upon which all moral reasoning and law is based. If God necessitates all our actions, then he cannot justly hold us accountable for them. He could only unjustly hold us accountable. But as Abraham said, “The judge of all the earth must do right.” So if the God of Calvinism does not do what is right, this can only mean one thing: the God of Calvinism is not the real God. (And by the way, Abraham’s dialogue with God in Gen 18, in which he declares to God that he must do right, demonstrates it is good and right to reason about God this way, for God welcomes and responds favorably to Abraham’s statement. I point this out because Calvinists are fond of shaming any who reason like this as arrogant rationalists).
When open theism talks about God’s will, it considers his will only in the causative sense. On this showing it misrepresents Reformed theology as teaching that God efficiently caused Adam to sin, Judas to betray Jesus, etc. Reformed theology insists that there is both a decretive will of God and a permissive will of God. While his will is unified, it includes conditional and unconditional elements.
The distinctions drawn here between a decretive will and a permissive will, conditional elements and unconditional elements, etc. are distinctions without a difference. If by these distinctions Calvinists meant that God does not ordain and necessitate all things, the distinctions would make a difference; but they do not intend to say this by making these distinctions. In fact, for this reason these distinctions are positively misleading. Take the distinction between “decretive will” and “permissive will.” One would think the distinction means that many things, namely, evil things, God does not ordain and necessitate but only permits. This is what all but Calvinists mean by speaking of God’s “permissive will.” But this is not what it means in Calvinism. In Calvinism it means some things that God ordains and necessitates he carries out via a chain of means he ordains, rather than directly. So for example, human sins, though ordained and necessitated by God, are not directly caused by him; rather, God causes us to sin by giving to us desires for sins and a will that must follow these desires in certain conditions that God places us in (and this includes the first sins of our parents Adam and Eve). How misleading to term this the “permissive will” of God. This is like a robot designer building a robot to kill someone by programming it with a desire to do so in circumstances the designer places it in, and then treating the robot as the murderer. Clearly, the robot designer, not the robot, would be the murderer. The bottom line is that if God is all-determining, he is responsible for all that transpires, the good as well as the evil. And if God is all-determining, then there is no human (or angelic) freedom. Distinctions like “decretive will” versus “permissive will” etc. are distinctions without a difference, so long as God is all-determining.
While affirming authentic human choices and real responsibility, Reformed theology has long acknowledged the limits of our human freedoms. Sin curtails the range of our choices. Sinners have the capacity to choose freely at the psychological level but, since the Fall, have lost the freedom to glorify God and choose Christ. We need grace and the true freedom that Christ brings.
Four comments in response to this paragraph:
First, no choice is authentic if necessitated by God. Necessitated freedom, or necessitated choice, is a contradiction in terms.
Second, there can be no real responsibility for anyone other than God if he ordains, determines, necessitates, and causes all things.
Third, human beings in Reformed anthropology (doctrine of man) can only choose and must choose whatever their strongest desire dictates in the circumstances God ordains and puts them in. So there is no genuine freedom at the psychological level for human beings, whether before or after “the Fall.” Adam could not do other than he did given the desires God gave him and the circumstances God placed him in. Likewise with every human being since Adam in every choice they make. We only have the deceptive illusion of real freedom (making God a deceiver), just like the programmed robot in the example above might be programmed to have as well.
Fourth, the last sentence implies open theists deny “we need grace and the true freedom that Christ brings.” But open theists do not deny this. With all Christians they affirm that only by the supernatural conviction and illumination of God can those at enmity with God turn back to him and thereby experience the liberating power of a life lived with and for God. It is only by commandeering the terms “grace” and “freedom” that Calvinists can maintain that only they affirm the need for God’s grace and the liberation experienced through Christ. “Grace” does not mean God unilaterally determines all things, including irresistibly causing people to convert to him. Nor does the “true freedom of Christ” mean God controls our actions in a new direction by giving us new desires and putting us in circumstances in which we will necessarily choose according to those desires. This is not grace, nor is it freedom, true or otherwise. In fact, if Calvinism is true, then it means human beings are not even persons, as the robot analogy shows. If Calvinism is true, God’s relationship with human beings is (in Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s terms) an “I-It” relationship with things that only appear to be real persons rather than an “I-Thou” relationship with real persons.
Reformed theology affirms that the sovereign God of the Bible calls people to be responsible-to do good, to trust God, and to pray. God answers our earnest prayers. One of God’s purposes in prayer is to change us who pray; another is to facilitate the realization of God’s foreordained ends.
A few comments in response to this paragraph:
First, an omni-determining God can call people to be responsible to do good all he wishes, but as a matter of fact they are not responsible. Only God is responsible for their behavior, since he is the one who has ordained the behavior and causes it.
Second, why would an all-determining God call or command people to do anything? This would only amount to a charade, seeing that he has already ordained all their actions. This is why the fact that God does call or command people to do things has always been regarded (by all but determinists) as indubitable evidence that God is not all-determining, that is, as indubitable evidence that Calvinism is false. The brilliant early church father Origen (184 - 253), for example, in his famous work On First Principles, leads with this argument from the scriptures as decisive against the determinists of his day (Gnostics). He writes,
“. . . that it is our own doing whether we live rightly or not — we adduce the testimony of the prophet Micah, in these words: If it has been announced to you, O man, what is good, or what the Lord requires of you, except that you should do justice, and love mercy, and be ready to walk with the Lord your God. Moses also speaks as follows: I have placed before your face the way of life and the way of death: choose what is good, and walk in it. Isaiah, moreover, makes this declaration: If you are willing, and hear me, you shall eat the good of the land. But if you be unwilling, and will not hear me, the sword shall consume you; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken this. In the Psalm, too, it is written: If my people had heard me, if Israel had walked in my ways, I would have humbled her enemies to nothing; by which he shows that it was in the power of the people to hear, and to walk in the ways of God. The Saviour also saying, I say unto you, Resist not evil; and, Whoever shall be angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment; and, Whosoever shall look upon a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart; and in issuing certain other commands—conveys no other meaning than this, that it is in our own power to observe what is commanded. And therefore we are rightly rendered liable to condemnation if we transgress those commandments which we are able to keep. And hence he himself also declares: Every one who hears my words, and does them, I will show to whom he is like: he is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock, etc. So also the declaration: Whoever hears these things, and does them not, is like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand, etc. Even the words addressed to those who are on his right hand, Come unto me, all you blessed of my Father, etc.; for I was an hungered, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, manifestly show that it depended upon themselves, that either these should be deserving of praise for doing what was commanded and receiving what was promised, or those deserving of censure who either heard or received the contrary, and to whom it was said, Depart, you cursed, into everlasting fire. Let us observe also, that the Apostle Paul addresses us as having power over our own will, and as possessing in ourselves the causes either of our salvation or of our ruin: Do you despise the riches of his goodness, and of his patience, and of his long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But, according to your hardness and impenitent heart, you are treasuring up for yourself wrath on the day of judgment and of the revelation of the just judgment of God, who will render to every one according to his work: to those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and immortality, eternal life; while to those who are contentious, and believe not the truth, but who believe iniquity, anger, indignation, tribulation, and distress, on every soul of man that works evil, on the Jew first, and (afterwards) on the Greek; but glory, and honour, and peace to every one that does good, to the Jew first, and (afterwards) to the Greek. You will find also innumerable other passages in holy Scripture, which manifestly show that we possess freedom of will. Otherwise there would be a contrariety in commandments being given us, by observing which we may be saved, or by transgressing which we may be condemned, if the power of keeping them were not implanted in us.” (On First Principles, III:6)
Third, as the authors’ comments on prayer show, Calvinism (divine determinism) makes prayer a charade as well. God ordains that we ask him for things that he has already ordained he will do, only he has ordained that he will do them by us asking him to do them, which again he has ordained we ask him to do. Oh yes, and God has ordained that he will change us by the prayers that he has ordained we will pray. Why all this trouble? Why does God not just create us or make us the way he wants us to be instead of doing so through this charade? And why does he not just cause things to happen without making us pray for them to happen? Furthermore, if Calvinism is true, then what sense does it make to say one does not have because they do not ask, as the Epistle of James states (4.3)? If Calvinism is true then, yes, one does not have because one does not ask, BUT one does not ask because God causes one not to ask!
What about Scripture texts that say God repents? The Hebrew word for repent has a range of meaning, one of which means to grieve (Genesis 6:6). While from a human perspective it appears as if God is changing his mind, we believe that God sees all eventualities and incorporates them into his overarching plan. We see the parts; he sees the whole. Thus, God’s sovereign plan ultimately does not change.
Two comments in response to this paragraph:
First, the Hebrew term (nacham) as used in texts like Gen 6:6 does not merely mean “to grieve” as the authors allege. This is evident by the fact that even a strongly Calvinist-slanted translation like the NIV renders Gen 6:6, “The Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and he was grieved in his heart.” This is the meaning of the text: God regretted his decision to create mankind.
Second, as I have already explained above, even the notion that God “grieved” that he had made man on the earth is unbelievable if all has unfolded just as God has determined and caused.
We believe that raising these issues is not an instance of theological hair-splitting or wallowing in theological minutia. There are many pastoral concerns that arise from open theism.
If open theism is right and God neither knows nor controls the future, then we cannot take comfort in God’s providential direction in our lives. Moreover, human suffering is pointless. The foundation of prayer collapses, for the God of open theism may not be able to help us. Divine guidance is problematic. Predictive prophecy is unreliable. If God does not know the future, how can he predict accurately the course of world history or salvation history? At best we are left with only a vague, uncertain hope that God will somehow win out in the future.
Several comments in response to this paragraph:
First, open theism does not hold that “God neither knows nor controls the future.” As explained already, open theism holds that God knows the future exhaustively but that the future is partially settled and partially not settled, or partially definite and partially indefinite. And God controls the future to whatever extent he wishes, but open theists believe God has been pleased to leave much up to his creatures, especially human beings, in order to give us the greatest possible gift God can give, namely, the opportunity to freely become like God in character and to freely enter into a mutual relationship of genuine love with him (and others).
Second, there is no reason “we cannot take comfort in God’s providential direction in our lives” if open theism is true. There is no reason that “divine guidance is problematic” on this understanding of God. As one open theist explains,
“. . . in the face of a scary world, the open view offers the same comfort scripture offers. The open view affirms that God’s character is unambiguously loving and thus he doesn’t ordain evil. The open view affirms that, regardless of what happens to you, your eternal relationship with the Lord is secure (Rom. 8:31–39). . . . And, precisely because the open view holds that the future is in part not settled, it can affirm that God can foresee future possibilities that are evil and do something about them. By contrast, if the future is eternally pre-settled, there’s nothing God or humans can do.”
Third, human suffering is not “pointless” if open theism is true. It would take us too far afield to fully explain suffering and God’s purposes for permitting it, but suffice it to say that the starting point in addressing the problem of suffering in terms of theodicy has always been recognizing and affirming that human beings have genuine freedom. In fact, the young Augustine (before he unfortunately turned determinist) penned a seminal work setting forth the basic free-will defense to the problem of suffering. But Calvinism rejects genuine freedom of will. In Calvinism all suffering is the handiwork of God. All suffering has been ordained by God from eternity. Indeed, according to traditional Calvinism, many, even most, people God has created to suffer endlessly in torments that exceed the greatest torments of this life. God planned and necessitated all this prior to creation. He planned and necessitated that the people would be born, would be born guilty of another’s sin (Adam’s), would commit innumerable specific sins themselves, and then would be held “responsible” for their sins, as well as Adam’s, by being tormented forever by God. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a theology were suffering is more pointless than this. But it is more than just pointless. It is monstrous. Perhaps Calvinists take comfort in thinking their suffering was planned and ordained by God. If so, then they are not thinking their Calvinism through. They are overlooking the fact that God could easily bring about whatever “good” things their suffering produces without the suffering. He could just cause the good things to be. Moreover, they are overlooking that, according to their theology, God has ordained for many of their fellow human beings, even the great majority of them, suffering in this life and endless torment in the next life that serves no “point” for them but only serves the “point” of “glorifying” God’s “justice” (of course this would not be “justice” and God would be “glorified” only in his own sadistic eyes). Finally, they are overlooking that they do not know that God has a good purpose for them in causing their suffering. For, as explained above, they may be “reprobate” but just do not know it yet. It may be that God has ordained they believe they are elect and under God’s favor when in fact they actually are not. To quote Calvin again, “Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. . . . [God gives this delusion to some of the “reprobate” so as] “the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse.”
Fourth, it is a misrepresentation of open theism to say that if open theism is true then “the foundation of prayer collapses, for the God of open theism may not be able to help us.” Once again, open theism is simply the belief that the future is partially definite, or settled, and partly indefinite, or unsettled. How does it follow from this that God may not be able to help us? It does not. This is a non sequitur. Open theists affirm the full sovereignty and omnipotence of God. Thus they believe God can provide whatever help he wishes to provide. Of course, God may not provide help we ask for, but not because he cannot but because he wills not to for good reasons he has. It is for this reason that, like their Lord, Christians ask for things with the caveat, “. . . however, not my will, Father, but your will be done.” (Greg Boyd’s warfare theodicy holds God cannot always help because God has given irrevocable freedom to his creatures. But this theodicy is separate from open theism, and as far as I am aware, Boyd has not been followed in his theodicy by any other major theologian or philosopher, open theist or otherwise. This is one point among several where I disagree with Boyd as well).
Fifth, the authors ask, “If God does not know the future, how can he predict accurately the course of world history or salvation history?” Simple. He can predict his own intentions or plans, and he can predict whatever present conditions make certain of realization in the future. These are the two ways the scriptures themselves explain predictions, the only two ways, which is precisely what we would expect if open theism is true, for neither of these two ways of knowing and thus predicting something in the future requires exhaustive definite foreknowledge. So predictive prophecy is not “unreliable” if open theism is true, as the authors claim. It is perfectly reliable, as reliable as God’s perfect knowledge of his own intentions (see Isa 46:8-11) and perfect knowledge of what present conditions make sure of realization in the future (see Deut 31:21). Furthermore, it should also be pointed out that the incidence of unconditional predictive prophecy is more limited than might appear in scripture when one recognizes that many, if not most, predictions are conditional predictions, though they are often stated as unconditional. Jonah’s predictions, “In 40 days Ninevah will be destroyed,” are a case in point. Moreover, the scope of genuine predictive prophecy is (much) more limited than most suppose. In fact, in my studied opinion, there is hardly a genuine long-range, unconditional prediction in scripture. All of this too—the low incidence and the limited scope of genuine predictive prophecy—is just what we would expect if open theism is true.
We believe that open theism profoundly reduces the view of God. Its net effect is to enlarge man and diminish God. The God it ends up with is a weakened deity who is finite in power and knowledge, makes mistakes for which he may even have to apologize, is often frustrated and disappointed, and cannot assure us of a triumphant outcome to history. Put simply, the God of open theism clearly does not have the whole world in his hands! Consequently, we believe that open theism, which is a radical form of Arminianism, is seriously flawed and incompatible with Scripture and our Confession.
Several comments in response to this paragraph:
First, Calvinism diminishes both man and God by making the former a puppet and the latter a monstrous puppet master.
Second, the authors misrepresent open theism in claiming its conception of God is of a God finite in power and knowledge. As already stated, open theism affirms the omnipotence, or infinite power, of God, as well as the omniscience, or infinite knowledge, of God.
Third, the authors again misrepresent open theism as holding that God “makes mistakes.” But not content with this, the authors claim that open theism maintains God makes mistakes “for which he may even have to apologize.” This is an even grosser misrepresentation. Open theism does not hold God makes mistakes, much less that God must apologize for anything.
Fourth, the Old Testament is nothing if not the story of a God who “is often frustrated and disappointed.” So true is this that the fact that people who regard the scriptures as their theological norm could even suggest God is not “often frustrated and disappointed” demonstrates just how much their theology, usually unawares, is being controlled by Greek metaphysics or natural theology rather than the scriptures. It demonstrates the truth that, as one theologian explains, “the ‘biblical-classical synthesis’ has become so commonplace that . . . most conservative theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God. . . . The classical view is so taken for granted that it functions as a preunderstanding that rules out certain interpretations of Scripture that do not ‘fit’ with the conception of what is ‘appropriate’ for God to be like, as derived from Greek metaphysics.”
Fifth, regarding the authors’ claim that God according to open theism “cannot assure us of a triumphant outcome in history,” I have already explained that this begs the question as to what is a “triumphant outcome in history.” According to Calvinism, a triumphant outcome is God causing humans (the elect) to give him glory for causing them to believe in him and others not to—others whom God will torment forever for the sins he caused them to commit. And God will cause his elect whom he caused to believe in him to praise God as just and righteous in his eternal torment of the “reprobate” whom God caused to sin but did not cause to believe in him. Open theists with the great majority of all theists, past and present, regard this as a monstrosity, not a glorious outcome in history. According to open theism (and non-deterministic theism, generally), God has endeavored to give to human beings the greatest gift he possibly can give, namely the opportunity to freely become like God in character and live in a relationship of genuine, freely-chosen love with God. To this end God works in history. Just how glorious the outcome will be depends upon how many human beings choose to embrace God’s purpose for themselves and help others to do so as well. God “wants none to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3.9). He “wants all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2.4). However, the nature of the gift he is aiming to give to us requires that we must freely choose to embrace God’s will for us. God wanted to save the Pharisees and the experts in the law in the first century of our era, but as Luke explains: “The Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Acts 7.30).
Sixth, open theism is not a “radical form of Arminianism”; rather, it is a slight modification of historic Arminianism (mainstream theism) that renders Arminianism more consistent. Moreover, the slight modification is about the nature of the future, not the nature of God.
Seventh, the authors are right that open theism is inconsistent with the Westminster Confession, but the authors are wrong that open theism is inconsistent with scripture. Rather it is the Westminster Confession, that is, Calvinism, that is inconsistent with scripture.
In contrast, the God of the Bible, of classical orthodoxy, and of Reformed theology, is a God who is immanent, compassionate and interactive. He shows his love to a thousand generations because he is the covenant keeping God. Yet this God is the almighty sovereign Lord who reigns over all! He is sovereign even in our salvation, and yet he calls us to believe the gospel and to take it to the ends of the earth that the world may know.
Four comments in response to this paragraph:
First, the God of the Bible is indeed “immanent, compassionate, and interactive.” However, the God of Reformed theology can only with contradiction (or at best incongruity on modified Calvinism) be said to be any of these things—as I have already explained above.
Second, the God of Calvinism may show love to covenant keepers, but only because he ordains and causes people to keep covenant with him, while ordaining and causing others to not keep covenant with him-and then torturing them forever for it.
Third, the God of open theism is “almighty,” “sovereign” (even in salvation), and “reigns over all.” The authors can only imply this is not so by redefining these things to mean something they only mean in Calvinism, namely, that God is all-determining.
Finally, if Calvinism is true, how can the gospel possibly be sincerely offered to all people (“taken to the ends of the earth”), seeing that God has created many, even most, people for the purpose of torturing them forever to the praise of his “glory” for “sins” he ordained and caused them to commit? How can we possibly offer God’s salvation to these people when God has ordained all their “sins” and ordained that they never turn to him? This is further evidence Calvinism is false. It is one more way that Calvinism makes God a monster and saps the motive and power of good works—in this case, the good work of bringing God’s free offer of salvation to the ends of the earth. Fortunately, most Calvinists do not work out the logic of their system but live as if Calvinism is not true and open theism is true, which is just one more evidence for open thesim.