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Clear as Day: Metaphorical and Literal Readings of Scripture in the Open Theism Debate

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by John Sanders
Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas.

A few years ago the Evangelical Theological Society debated open theism and passed the following resolution: “We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all past, present and future including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.” In this paper I will focus on the claim that the Bible “clearly teaches” that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge. I will begin with a brief overview of the open theist position and the sorts of biblical texts commonly cited in its support. Then I will examine two key issues underlying the debate: the nature of metaphor and the nature of prototypes. This will show that what one takes to be “clear as day” biblical teaching depends upon the stance one takes on these issues.

Open theism is a model of the God-world relationship that views God in dynamic give-and-take relationships with creatures. The emphasis is on relationality rather than control. In this respect, it is a member of what I call the “freewill tradition” that includes: the early church fathers, Arminians, Wesleyans and others. Open theists, however, seek to modify the freewill tradition on two points: (1) God is temporal rather than atemporal and (2) God has dynamic omniscience rather than exhaustive definite foreknowledge. The term “dynamic omniscience” (which I believe I coined) means that God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God, together with creatures, creates the future as history goes along. Hence, God’s omniscience is dynamic in nature. God knows all that can possibly happen at any one time and through his foresight and wisdom God is never caught off-guard.

Proponents of dynamic omniscience find support for their view in a number of different types of biblical texts; a few of which will now be surveyed.

1. The Bible portrays God as authentically responding to His people’s petitions.

God had the prophet Isaiah announce to King Hezekiah that he would not recover from his illness. However, Hezekiah prayed and God responded by sending Isaiah back to announce that God had changed his mind, Hezekiah would recover and not die (2 kings 20).

In the New Testament, Jesus is said to heal a paralyzed man because of the faith of his friends (Mark 2:5). He responded to the faith of this small community by granting their request. People’s faith, or lack of it, deeply affected Jesus and his ministry. Mark says that Jesus could not perform many miracles in Nazareth due to the lack of faith by the people in the community (6:5-6). Oftentimes, what God decides to do is conditioned upon the faith or unbelief of people. As James says, we have not because we ask not (4:2).

2. The Bible portrays God as being affected by creatures and as sometimes being grieved by what they do.

Genesis 6:6 says that God was grieved because humans continually sinned. Why would God grieve if God always knew exactly what humans were going to do? God is portrayed as saying “perhaps” the people will listen to my prophet and “maybe” they will turn from their idols (e. g. Ezek. 12:1-3; Jer. 26:2-3). Furthermore, God makes utterances like, “if you repent then I will let you remain in the land” (Jer. 7:5). Such “if” language–the invitation to change—seems ingenuine if God already knew they would not repent.

Moreover, God says, “I thought Israel would return to me but she has not” (Jer. 3:7; cf. 32:35) and that God planted cultivated vines and did not expect that they would produce “wild grapes” (Isa. 5:1-4). In these texts God is explicitly depicted as not knowing the specific future.

3. The Bible portrays God as testing people in order to discover what they will do.

God puts Abraham to the test and says, “now I know that you fear me” (Gen. 22:12). God puts the people of Israel to the test to find out what they will do (Ex. 15:25; Deut. 13:3). Why test them if God eternally knew with certainty exactly how the people would respond? One could say the testing was only for the benefit of the people since it added nothing to God’s knowledge but that is not what the texts themselves say.

4. The Bible portrays God as changing his mind—altering his plans—as he relates to his creatures.

God announced his intention to destroy the people of Israel and start over again with Moses but Moses said that he did not want to do that and so God did not do what he had said he was going to do (Ex 32). Sometimes God made promises that were stated in unconditional terms but God changed his mind due to human rebellion. For instance, 1 Samuel 13:13 states that God’s original plan was to have Saul and his descendants as kings forever in Israel. In other words, there would have been no “Davidic” kingship. Latter, however, due to Saul’s sin, God changes his mind and rejects Saul and his line (1 Sam. 15:11, 35). Though Samuel and Saul plead with God to change his mind back to the original plan and go with Saul and his son’s God declares that he will not change his mind again on this matter (1 Sam. 15:29). If God always knew that he was never going to have Saul’s line be kings, was God deceitful?

Did the authors of the Hebrew Bible espouse dynamic omniscience? Ask Jewish scholars and they look at you with a puzzled expression and reply: “Of course, how could anyone think otherwise?” Among Hebrew Bible scholars in the Christian community, luminaries such as Terence Fretheim, Patrick Miller and Walter Brueggemann affirm that the Hebrew Bible teaches dynamic omniscience. Recently, a major work by John Goldingay, an evangelical Hebrew Bible scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary, claimed that dynamic omniscience is a major theme in the Hebrew Bible.

Naturally, others disagree. Evangelical Calvinists have taken the lead in arguing that the Bible “clearly teaches” God’s exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Steven Roy claims that there are 4,017 texts that clearly and explicitly teach exhaustive foreknowledge. For example, Psalm 139: 4, 16 where God is said to know what we will say before we utter it and that God knows all of our days before they existed. Isaiah chapters 41-8 are interpreted as Yahweh basing his claim to be a real god on his ability to declare beforehand what will happen. He takes this to mean that if Yahweh does not have foreknowledge, then he cannot be divine. In 1 Kings 13: 1-3 a prophet predicts long in advance that a king named Josiah will desecrate an idolatrous altar. Isaiah 44:28 says that Cyrus will allow the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Proponents of exhaustive definite foreknowledge ask how such predictions could be made unless God knows the future as completely definite. Hence, it seems clear as day that the Bible teaches exhaustive foreknowledge.

In part, the disagreement concerning what the Bible teaches about divine foreknowledge arises out of a debate about which texts of scripture are literal and which are metaphorical. Open theists have sometimes claimed that they read the Bible literally or in a straightforward fashion. Calvinist critics have claimed that open theists are inconsistent when they interpret the God changed his mind texts literally but do not take the texts about God’s body parts literally.

Millard Erickson and Bruce Ware put forth the following criterion: we should take all the biblical texts literally unless there are compelling reasons that the biblical author did not intend the text to be taken literally. Ware concedes that the texts used by open theists “when interpreted in a straightforward manner yield the conclusion that God lacks exhaustive knowledge of the future.” But, he adds, “the issue is whether the authorially intended meaning is the straightforward meaning.” According to Ware’s hermeneutical principle, if the individual biblical writer intended his remarks to be taken literally, then we should take them literally and if he intended them metaphorically, then we should read them metaphorically. Ware immediately proceeds to examine several texts used by open theists such as Genesis 22:12 where God is depicted as saying “now I know.” Ware concludes that such texts cannot be taken literally for two reasons. First, he says open theists are inconsistent for they maintain that God knows all the present. But if God says he now knows Abraham’s heart then God would not even have exhaustive knowledge of what is going on at present. Ware’s second reason is that if we took Genesis 22:12 literally then it would, in his opinion, conflict with other biblical texts such as 1 Chronicles 28:9 which Ware interprets to mean that God knows what is in human hearts before he tests people.

We should note here that the two reasons Ware gives for not taking Genesis 22:12 literally have nothing to do with the authorial intention of Genesis 22. In other words, Ware is not following his stated hermeneutical criterion. Instead, his reasons are: (1) if open theists took this text literally then it would conflict with another belief of open theism and (2) if we took the text literally then it would contradict, in his opinion, other biblical texts. Ware has given us no reason to believe that the author of Genesis 22:12 did not intend us to take the “now I know” in a straightforward sense. His real reason for not taking the text literally is that he thinks that other biblical texts clearly teach that God knows the human heart. Hence, Genesis 22:12 cannot mean what it says despite the fact that everything in the text itself would lead one to conclude that the biblical writer meant that God did not know Abraham’s heart until then.

Note that Ware’s first criterion does not conflict with God knowing the present. Ware assumes that Abraham’s heart is stable and consistent so God would know the present state of Abraham’s heart without the test. However, the problem God has with Abraham is that he has been inconsistent in his trust in God. That is why God put him to a test to see if he would follow God even though it meant for Abraham to give up his most cherished possession (Isaac) since “now I know” means “you have passed the test and are indeed willing to follow me even at great personal cost to you.

Other evangelical Calvinists make this same move. Paul Helm, for example, follows the lead of John Calvin when he asserts that we must take the texts that say that “God does not change” (Num. 23:19, 1 Sam. 15:29) as the clear teaching of Scripture and read the “God changed his mind” texts as anthropomorphic. He reasons that we must allow the “stronger” (the literally true) passages of Scripture to control the reading of the “weaker” passages. Elsewhere Helm distinguishes between what he calls the “all things” texts where God is said to know all things and what he calls the “dialogue” texts in which God is portrayed as interacting with his people in very humanlike ways. Helm claims that we must take the all things texts as the literal truth about God and render the dialogue texts as anthropomorphic expressions lest we reduce God to human proportions and fail to exalt the divine glory. Thomas Weinandy, a Roman Catholic theologian, arrives at the same conclusion: “Undeniably the Old Testament speaks of God as though He did undergo. . . emotional changes of state. . . . However, I believe that such passages must be understood and interpreted within the deeper and broader revelation of who God is.” Weinandy proceeds to cite what he takes to be “deeper” biblical texts which he believes teach that God is strongly immutable and impassible. Note that Weinandy never cites biblical scholars in support of his “deeper” texts. This is because biblical scholars (Jewish and Christian) do not support his handling of the texts.

Historically, this has been a common maneuver put forth by notable figures such as Philo of Alexandria and Augustine who claim that the biblical texts that say God changed are for the “duller folk” and “babes” who cannot grasp what God is really like.

However, I will argue that open theists are neither stupid nor infantile in their reading of the Bible. Though there are many reasons that account for the different approaches to the biblical texts by open theists and classical theists, I want to focus on two key ones.

Different Understandings of the Nature of Language.

Evangelical Calvinists claim that the “didactic” (descriptive) texts are a better guide for discerning scriptural truth than the “narrative” or poetic texts. Erickson says we should stick with “the more traditional approach of giving primacy to the didactic statements of Scripture and interpreting the narratives in light of these.” “I would contend that the didactic portions, not the narrative passages, should be determinative of the meaning.” For Erickson and others, we should seek the universal timeless propositional truths taught in the didactic passages. Open theists, according to these critics, take the metaphorical texts literally because they rely heavily on the narrative texts instead of the didactic texts.

I have a number of responses to this charge. To begin, it seems to me that our critics want to “get past” or “behind” the metaphorical to see the literal truth. For them, truth is only propositional so the various forms of divine revelation such as narrative and poetry must be transposed into literal language in order to state the truth. Keven Vanhoozer, an evangelical theologian, criticizes this approach for relying solely on the informative function of language and the picture theory of meaning. He calls it the “’heresy’ of propositional paraphrase.” In general, open theists have a different approach to language that acknowledges its many functions and they value the metaphorical nature of language. My proposal is that language is better understood as a vehicle for conceptual understanding rather than as a descriptive devise.

Several years ago when I was speaking on open theism at Brigham Young University I was asked why I took the God has emotions texts literally but not the God has a body texts literally. I replied that I did not take either of these texts literally. My approach is shaped by the theory of conceptual metaphor. A central claim of this theory is that the traditional way of understanding language involves a number of false assumptions: (1) That metaphors are figurative ways of stating what could otherwise better be said literally; (2) Definitions and conventional everyday language are literal; and (3) Only literal language can be true or false.

That these longstanding assumptions are erroneous may be illustrated in the following way. We commonly speak of our relationships in the following ways: “Our relationship hit a dead end” and “Our love broke down.” The traditional view of language says these are literal statements when, in actuality, they are metaphorical ways of conceiving our experience. Such statements “map” our experience of love in terms of our experience of going on a journey and driving into a dead end street or having our car stop working. We are conceptualizing our love relationship in terms of a journey where the lovers are the travelers, the relationship is the vehicle and their common goals correspond to the destination on a journey. Hence, “our relationship hit a dead end” is a conceptual metaphor.

When the critics speak about the “strong and clear” texts of Scripture they fail to realize that they are using conceptual metaphors. In this case, “clear” utilizes the “knowing is seeing” metaphor. The source domain of seeing an object is mapped onto the target domain of knowing. Just as a clear window makes it easier to see an object on the other side, so we “see” certain texts as easier to comprehend than others. “Strong” refers to the ability of one object to support another. Again, we see that we cannot “escape” using conceptual metaphors since it is through these that we understand abstractions. Also, though windows may be literally clear and steel beams strong, texts are not literally clear and strong. If the language about “clear and strong” texts is itself metaphorical rather than “literal” then the very dichotomy, figurative-literal, upon which the critics rely, is false.

Broadly speaking, conceptual metaphors have three characteristics. (1) They are vehicles for understanding our world—they structure the way we think about life experiences. (2) They only partially map reality for they do not say everything that can be said and consequently they constrain our understanding. For instance, the apostle Paul speaks about the Christian community as a body but since this conceptual metaphor does not communicate all aspects of the community he also speaks of believers as a building and as a farmer’s field. (3) They are culturally constrained since not all cultures use the same conceptual metaphors to give meaning to our experiences of love, anger, success, failure or truth.

This means that the traditional way of understanding metaphors used by the critics of open theism is wrong headed. The assumptions made by the traditional theory are false because we erroneously think we are speaking literally when we are often using conceptual metaphors. Cognitive linguists have discovered a huge system of such metaphors by which we give meaning to our life experiences. In the words of George Lakoff, a preeminent proponent of conceptual metaphor theory: “It is a system of metaphor that structures our everyday conceptual system, including most abstract concepts, and that lies behind much of everyday language. The discovery of the enormous metaphor system has destroyed the traditional literal-figurative distinction, since the term ‘literal,’ as used in defining the traditional distinction, carries with it all those false assumptions.”

B. Prototypes of Sovereignty.

The second main reason for the different approaches to the biblical texts by open theists and Calvinist evangelicals is that they have different “prototypes” of sovereignty. Why are certain texts strong and others weak? Why do some biblical texts tell us the literal truth about God while others are anthropomorphic? They do so because the person making this judgment has a particular understanding of the nature of God. Cognitive linguists speak of “idealized cognitive models” or “prototypes.” We have ideal notions of events, emotions, relations and virtues. For example, we have ideal conceptions of what a wedding is like and if we attend one that fits our idealized cognitive model we say “Now that was a wedding!” We have idealized cognitive models of parenting, love, government, friendship, and care for the elderly. However, though every culture will have idealized cognitive models the content of the model might differ from one group of people to the next. For example, someone from another culture might claim that children in the United States do not love their elderly parents since the parents usually live in nursing homes instead of with the children. It does not fit their idealized cognitive model.

In terms of the debate over open theism, theologians have different ideal cognitive models of God’s relationship to the world. Bruce Ware speaks of the “diminished God” of open theism and Paul Helm accuses open theists of “reducing God to human proportions. Ware and Helm have very specific ideal prototypes of what they consider sovereignty to be. For them, an exalted conception of deity entails total control over human affairs and no risk taking. What is their source for this lofty understanding of God? Ware and Erickson say that it is what the Bible clearly teaches. Erickson claims there are 143 biblical texts which affirm God’s meticulous sovereignty. This claim is suspect, however, because freewill theists and theological determinists have been disputing the interpretation of those 143 biblical texts for nearly two millennia.

There are values that lie behind the different ideal models of sovereignty. Historically, natural theology has played a significant role in this debate. Philo of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and many others argued that a perfect being could only change for the worse so God must be strongly immutable, impassible and atemporal. It was considered inappropriate for God to have changing emotions, switch to Plan B, or be influenced by human prayers. These theologians readily acknowledge that there are many biblical passages depicting God doing these very things but they claim that the Bible only “appears” to teach this. When the divine nature is properly understood, then we must interpret these in a way different from their plain sense. Consequently, natural theology determines what these biblical texts are allowed to mean. Our prototype of divinity is one means by which we decide which texts teach the literal truth about God and which texts are figurative.

Yet, it may be asked why total control is a “better” and more exalted view of sovereignty than sovereignty understood as faithful, resourceful, wise and competent. The prototype of sovereignty affirmed by evangelical Calvinists does not allow them to consider any other view as genuine sovereignty. After delivering a paper at an Evangelical Philosophical meeting, a Calvinist challenged me: “You used the word sovereignty, but your God is not really sovereign.” For such folks God is a particular type of king: one who always gets his way even in the least details. After all God is the omnipotent potter shaping every human action as he wants it.

My response to this returns us again to the understanding of metaphor. First, God relates to us in ways that are conceptualized through multiple metaphors: father, mother, rock, vulture, shepherd, king, advocate, judge, husband and many more. No single metaphor is adequate to understand all aspects of God’s relations to us so we need multiple metaphors.

Another crucial point is the “blending” that takes place between source domains and target domains. For example, take the statement: “George Bush and Dick Cheney are on the deck of the ship of state which is why it is listing to the right.” When we say this we are mapping from our experience of a ship veering to the right (source domain) to understand what is happening in our national government (target domain). However, not all aspects of the source domain actually apply since it simply is not possible for two people to stand on the right side of a ship and cause it to list to the right. Yet, our minds have no difficulty understanding the point of the metaphor even though it is physically impossible because we selectively consruct an image from the web of underlying connections. Within a single conceptual metaphor, such as “God is Israel’s husband,” not all aspects of the source domain (human husband) apply to the target domain (God). Though God can be a husband who loves Israel, God cannot be a sexual partner with Israel.

That all aspects of the source domain do not map onto the target domain is vital for understanding the conceptual metaphor of the potter and clay in Jeremiah 18. The potter image might lead us to conclude that everything turns out exactly as the divine potter fashions it. Jeremiah, however, rejects that conclusion. In this passage God is the potter and Israel is the clay. God has produced a piece of pottery but it has turned out to have flaws. Our experience with potters and clay would lead us to conclude that either the potter (God) is not very skilled or the pottery turned out flawed because the potter wanted it flawed. One would presume that a tremendously skilled potter would be able to create exactly what the potter wanted. Yet, Jeremiah makes it clear that God wanted the pottery to be different from what it is so it seems that God is an incompetent potter. However, we need not draw this conclusion because there is another option.

In this instance we are mapping from a source domain (e. g. potters and clay) onto a target domain (e. g. God and Israel). In doing this we utilize some aspects, but not necessarily all aspects, of the source domain. Just as some, but not all, elements of a ship listing to the right apply to our national government, so God is like a potter in only some respects and Israel is like clay in only some respects. Hence, when Jeremiah says the flaws are due to Israel’s unfaithfulness, not God’s lack of skill, we have no difficulty grasping that God is not an incompetent potter even though the clay did not do what he wanted it to do because only some aspects of the potter-clay domain map onto the God-Israel domain. We selectively blend information from the two domains so that we construct a meaningful image even though it is technically inconsistent with the source domain.

In his detailed study of divine kingship in the Hebrew Bible, Marc Brettler applies this same approach to the metaphors regarding God as king. He concludes that the Israelites drew upon the source domain of human kingship in order to conceptualize (understand) the target domain of God’s relationship to them. However, they were highly selective and did not apply all aspects of the source domain to the target domain. Though some aspects are used in the same sense, most aspects are qualified such that God is king in a special way that either surpasses or is contrary to human kings. Furthermore, some aspects of earthly kingship are not applied to God. For example, human kings and God are both called shepherds but only God uses his staff beneficially rather than for punishment. Also, though both have “power,” God can use his power for peace and justice. Finally, God uses his strength to forgive and his right hand for righteousness whereas human kings often use their right hand for bloodshed.

For open theists, God is indeed a king and potter but not every aspect of human kingship or pottery making is applied to God. God is not exercising meticulous control over human affairs. Instead, God initiates and then humans respond and this is followed by innumerable responses from both sides as God works in human history to produce a peculiar kind of people.

It may be asked what sorts of values lie behind the open theist prototype of sovereignty. Open theists appropriate the Cappadocian teaching on divine relationality in the trinity. Moreover, they also readily accept the modern emphasis on relationality in Western culture. Hence, their understandings of what ideal fathers, husbands, and kings are is shaped by the value of nurture rather than control. It is not surprising then when Millard Erickson says that the open theist conception of God contains “feminine” elements. Perhaps he believes a God full of testosterone is a better prototype. At any rate, open theists are shaped by tradition and cultural trends just as much as their Calvinist counterparts have been.


Is open theism biblical? If we mean by this whether or not a case can be made for it from the biblical texts, the answer is yes. If, however, we mean whether or not biblical passages demonstrably affirm it then we have those who say yes and those who say no. The reasons for this different assessment are, in part, due to divergent understandings of the nature of language and prototypes of sovereignty. This should not surprise us since it is the same situation we find ourselves in concerning numerous other doctrines. Take the atonement, for example. All can agree that the Bible teaches that Jesus atones for our sins but there will be disagreement about the nature of that atonement. In the same way, all can affirm that the Bible teaches that God is wise and omniscient, but they will disagree on the content of omniscience. Given that the different readings of the biblical texts results from alternative conceptions of language as well as sundry underlying values, I see no way to bring it about that everyone will read the Bible in a way that is clear as day.

Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), pp. 60, 136-7.
Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 312. See also, Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 39-57. Roy claims that a “straightforward reading of the omniscience texts” requires exhaustive definite foreknowledge whereas the openness type texts do not require a rejection of foreknowledge (220-1).
See, for example, Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000), pp. 14, 118.
Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000), pp. 67, 85.
Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, p. 85. Emphasis is his. Steven Roy disagrees with Ware on this. He claims that open theists read their views into the Bible. Open theists do not have any “clear, explicit statements [read literal] of God’s lack of certain and infallible foreknowledge. Rather this limitation on God’s knowledge of the future is inferred from biblical statements about God’s repentance, his surprise, his disappointment and so forth….But inferential evidence does differ from clear and explicit teaching.” Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? 220-1.
Ware uses the same reasons in the other “openness” passages he examines.
According to his criterion Ware is obligated to show reasons in each of the texts such as Genesis 22 that the authors did not intend the meaning open theists ascribe to them. Ware might respond by saying that God is the author of both Genesis 22:12 and 1 Chronicles 28:9. So the author’s intended meaning in Genesis could not be literal. But this will not resolve the issue since we have to decide which texts God intended us to take literally and one could simply say that God intended us to take Genesis 22:12 literally and read 1 Chronicles 28:9 in light of it.
See his The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 51-4. See also Erickson, What Does God Know? pp. 79-81.
A significant problem with the claim that exhaustive definite foreknowledge is the “clear teaching” of the Bible is that in the past certain “clear” passages of scripture were used to justify a geocentric solar system, deny women any relief from the pain of childbirth, sanction persecution of the Jews, and legitimize slavery of blacks. In fact, until the 1800′s the majority of Christians, including well-known conservative pastors and theologians, used the Bible to sanction slavery. In America, many southern clergy took up arms against the “infidel” northern clergy because they believed the Yankee Christians were rejecting the clear truth of the Bible. See Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 388-9 and Kevin Giles, “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics,” Evangelical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (Jan. 1994): 3-17.
Paul Helm, “An Augustinian-Calvinist Response” in James Beilby and Paul Eddy, editors, Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pp. 61-64.
Weinandy, “Does God Suffer?” First Things, 117 (Nov. 2001): 37.
The Works of Philo, edited C. D. Yonge (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), p. 386. Augustine, On the Trinity. 1.1.2. Also, this distinction is found in several religious traditions such as Hinduism where some distinguish between saguna and nirguna Brahman and the Buddhist doctrine of the double truth. Al-Ghazali in Islam and Maimonides in Judaism both use the via negativa to arrive at the same conclusion as Philo and Augustine.
For a helpful discussion of the hermeneutical, theological and philosophical presuppositions underlying the debate see Amos Yong, “Divine Omniscience and Future Contingents: Weighing the Presuppositional Issues in the Contemporary Debate,” Evangelical Review of Theology 26.3 (2002): 240-264.
Erickson, What Does God Know? pp. 73, 75.
Erickson, What Does God Know? p.76. See also Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? 173, 221.
Vanhoozer, “The Semantics of Biblical Literature: Truth and Scripture’s Diverse Literary Forms,” in Donald A. Carson ed., Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995), pp.67.
George Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor” in Metaphor and Thought, second edition, Andrew Ortony ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 204-5.
Ken McElhanon pointed out to me that this can lead to significant misunderstandings of Scripture. For instance, Westerners commonly conceptualize truth as an object so we speak of “discovering,” “exposing,” “covering up,” “twisting,” and “stretching” the truth. Though it is legitimate to understand truth in this way, if we ignore other ways of conceiving truth we may miss important insights. For instance, John and Paul often speak of truth as a journey on a path signifying a way of life. Jesus is the path we are to follow (Jn. 14:6). We are to walk in the truth (3 Jn. 1:4) and the Spirit will guide us in the truth (Jn. 16:13). Paul warns us not to wander away from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18). All of these conceptual metaphors conceive truth as a path on which we are to walk (just as the Rabbis spoke of the halakah). Hence, it makes sense for Paul to instruct us to “truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Paul’s point is that we are to live in loving ways, following the way of Jesus, so that we grow up to become like him. Unfortunately, in English we tend not to think of truth as a journey but as an object that we possess so it is not surprising that most English translations read “speaking the truth in love” even though there is no verb “to speak” in the Greek text. The focus then becomes propositional beliefs rather than a way of living which has led many Western Christians to over emphasize correct doctrinal formulations rather than proper living. For a more extensive treatment, see Kenneth A. McElhanon “Mired in the Basic Level: the Quagmire of Cultural Relativism.” Paper presented to a symposium on Christian Perspectives on Anthropological Theory, Biola University – School of Intercultural Studies, La Mirada, CA. 6-8 April, 2000. ms. and “From Word to Scenario: the influence of linguistic theories upon models of translation.” Paper presented to Bible Translation 2001 Conference: International Conference on Bible Translation and Practice. 45 pp. Published electronically on a CDROM in Acrobat PDF format. Dallas, TX: SIL International.
Lakoff, “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” 204.
Yong, “Divine Omniscience,” pp. 249-250, discusses this in different terms.
For discussion see my “On Reducing God to Human Proportions” in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark Pinnock, eds. Anthony Cross and Stanley Porter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 111-125.
Erickson, What Does God Know? p.81.
The same problem applies to Roy’s claim that 4,017 biblical texts that teach God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Proponents of dynamic omniscience sincerely believe that these texts do not teach this
This raises serious problems for those evangelicals who insist that we stick with what the Bible teaches. If, in fact, some texts teach that God has changing emotions then these evangelicals are rejecting the teaching of the Bible in favor of philosophical arguments. If there are texts that teach God is strongly immutable and other texts that teach God changes in some respects, then there are contradictions in the Bible and the doctrine of inerrancy is false. If it is claimed that these biblical texts only “seem” to teach divine passibility then why does the Bible contain so many misleading texts? Are they for the “duller folk” who cannot understand what God is really like? If so, then perspicuity of scripture has evaporated. It seems to me that these evangelicals are using sachkritik but this undermines their stated methodology. See the article by I. H. Marshall.
See Vincent Brümmer, “Metaphorical Thinking and Systematic Theology,” Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 43 (July 1998): 222.
Technically, this is called “conceptual blending” or “conceptual integration.” On blending theory see Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002). Fauconnier and Turner, “Metonymy and Conceptual Integration.” 77-90 and Seana Coulson and Todd Oakley, “Blending Basics,” Cognitive Linguistics 11-3/4 (2000), 175-196.
Some evangelical Calvinists critics of open theism affirm something close to this when they argue from the doctrine of analogy that only some aspects of the analogy actually apply to God. However, they fail to acknowledge that they interpret the analogies in light of their prototypical understanding of the divine nature. They claim they are only reading the Bible. See Michael Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method,” pp. 209ff. and Ardel Caneday, “Veiled Glory: God’s Self-Revelation in Human Likeness—A Biblical Theology of God’s Anthropomorphic Self-Discloure,” pp. 172, 192 both in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianisty, editors John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Helseth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003).
Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 76 (Sheffiled, England: JSOT Press, 1989).
George Lakoff distinguishes two main types of thinking about authority in our culture: the strict father and the nurturing parent. In many respects the characteristics he identifies that distinguish these types correspond to differences between evangelical Calvinists and open theists. The strict father prototype tends to emphasize firm boundaries, tight control, hierarchical structures, male over female, conceptual absolutism, and that the father initiates suffering in order to produce obedience. The nurturing parent prototype tends to emphasize learning as process, a centered set of values, guidance, reciprocal relations, equality of male and female, critical realism, and that the parent seeks to instill empathy as a key value. See Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Erickson, God the Father Almighty, p. 161.
There are other linguistic and hermeneutical issues that need to be addressed such as, the distinction between universal and historical truths and whether or not the biblical language portrays God as he actually is, but I cannot do so here. Ardel Caneday and Michael Horton, for example, claim that the Bible does not disclose God “as he truly is in himself.” See Caneday, “Veiled Glory,” 168, 198 and Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? 208-211.
For elaboration see my “How Do We Decide What God is Like?” in And God saw that it was good: Essays on Creation and God in Honor of Terence E. Fretheim, ed. Fred Gaiser, (Word & World supplement series 5, April, 2006), 154-162.

Open Theology & The Church 2013 Conference

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Thanks to OpenViewTheology for putting together these videos.

Greg Boyd

OPEN 2013 – Greg Boyd – History and Hope, Part 1

OPEN 2013 – Greg Boyd – History and Hope, Part 2

OPEN 2013 – Greg Boyd – History and Hope, Part 3

OPEN 2013 – Greg Boyd – Q&A Part 1

OPEN 2013 – Greg Boyd – Q&A Part 2

John Sanders

OPEN 2013 – John Sanders – Inherent Virtues, Part 1

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OPEN 2013 – John Sanders – Q&A

Tom Oord

OPEN 2013 – Tom Oord – Moment-by-Moment, Part 1

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OPEN 2013 – Tom Oord – Moment-by-Moment, Part 3

Eternal Now and Theological Suicide: A Reply to Laurence Wood

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by John Sanders
Wesleyan Theological Journal. Volume 45, Number 2, Fall 2010

Although it may not seem so from his article, Laurence Wood’s position has many points of agreement with open theism. Both views are part of what I call the free-will Christian family of theology. Hence, both agree on matters such as: God loves creatures and seeks their highest good; God grants humans libertarian freedom; God does not exercise meticulous providence; and thus, God takes some risks since not everything goes the way God would like it to go. Both positions agree that the watershed divide between free-will Christianity and theological determinism is whether or not any of God’s decisions are responses to what creatures do. Free-will Christians believe that God enters into genuine give-and-receive relations with us, our prayers can affect some of God’s decisions, and, in many areas of life, God takes risks. Hence, God is open to what creatures do.

Additionally, open theism affirms a second element of openness: history is open in that it contains multiple possible futures rather than just one actual future. These two senses of openness motivate open theists to diverge from traditional free-will Christianity on two issues, God’s relationship to time and whether God has exhaustive-definite knowledge of future contingent events.1 Though some traditional Wesleyans have held that God is temporal, the majority have affirmed that God is atemporal. The lightning rod issue surrounding open theism has been the claim that God does not know with certainty what creatures with libertarian freedom will do in the future. In his article, Wood links these two issues in order to argue, as many Wesleyans have done in the past, that, if God experiences all time at once (the “eternal now”), then God bas knowledge, not merely beliefs, of what we will do in the future.

For open theism, God has dynamic omniscience. God has definite knowledge of all the past and present and God knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of those events that are determined to occur (e.g., natural events and anything God has decreed), as well as knowledge of what may possibly happen, and which of those possibilities are most probable. Though the future is partly open, God is not caught off-guard since divine foresight anticipates what we will do.

Wood implies that open theists affirm a limited omniscience when he repeatedly says that we reject “full omniscience” or “exhaustive omniscience.” This makes it sound as though there are things that God could know that open theists deny that God knows. Wood’s rhetoric suggests that 1 00-proof omniscience includes exhaustive-definite knowledge of the future, with any view which denies this being a watered-down omniscience. This would be like claiming that only transubstantiation is 1 00-proof Eucharist-any other view is watered-down communion. However, both Wood and open theists agree that God is omniscient. The debate is about the content of omniscience (e.g., does omniscience include middle knowledge?). The real focus of Wood’s article is not whether God is omniscient but whether God has definite knowledge of future contingents. In ordinary parlance, the disagreement is about divine foreknowledge.

Traditionally, free-will Christians have affirmed that God knows what we will do in the future. Two different theories have been used to explain how God has such knowledge. Perhaps the most common view has been “simple foreknowledge” in which God “looks ahead” and “sees” what we will do in the future. The second option uses divine atemporality (whether thought of as timelessness or the experience of all time at once) to say that God “sees” all of history at once (the eternal now). This is often accompanied by the illustration of God standing on a mountain which allows God to see everything in the valley of history below. In the second view, God does not have “fore” knowledge since there is no past or future for God. 2

Wood accuses me of “equivocation” when I say that God “looks ahead” because a being with an eternal now does not “look ahead.” Open theists are quite well aware that that, according to divine atemporality, God has knowledge, not “fore” knowledge.3 Perhaps I should have been clearer about the reason why “looks ahead” and “sees” are in quotation marks in my book, even when discussing simple foreknowledge. The language of God knowing and deciding things in succession concerns the “logical” or “explanatory order” of events, not a temporal order. For example, God’s decision to liberate the Hebrews from Egypt is logically subsequent to the divine knowledge that they are in bondage. Reversing the explanatory order leads to the nonsensical: God knew they were in bondage because of his decision to liberate them.

Wood goes with the second option of divine atemporality (understood as the possession of all time at once). He uses the notion of an eternal now/present to explain how God knows what we call our “future” actions. It seems to me that Wood’s key claim is that a Boethian account of divine atemporality gives free-will Christians everything they believe is important for the God~human relationship, libertarian freedom and divine responsiveness to creatures, while also affirming exhaustive-definite knowledge of future contingent events. His arguments in support of this claim, though not clearly stated in his paper, seem to be the following:

1. The Bible supports the claim that God has knowledge of our future.
2. Theological tradition affirms that God has knowledge of our future.
3. If relativity theory is correct, then the future is real. Since God knows all of reality, God must know the future.
4. A God with dynamic omniscience is not trustworthy.

The astute reader will notice that few (if any) of these arguments support the claim that the eternal now supports a responsive God. Rather, the bulk of Wood’s article is spent peppering open theism with criticisms. The strategy seems to be to criticize open theism so that readers will conclude that the eternal now position is correct. Wood repeatedly claims that a “Boethian” conception of eternity allows God to experience before and after, such that God can enter into genuine give-and-receive relations with us, avoiding determinism. However, he never explains how this can occur. He simply repeats the claim over and over in the paper without providing evidence for this claim. Moreover, he fails to address the lengthy discussion in my The God Who Risks of the contradictions between the eternal now position and the core doctrines of free-will Christianity.4

In the remainder of this article I will comment on each of the four arguments of Wood in an attempt to show why the eternal now view is problematic for free-will Christians. Also, I want to respond to a number of his criticisms of open theism. Wood’s article contains many factual errors and misrepresentations of what we have said. Therefore, the reader should be cautious about accepting his word as to what particular open theists believe, or what we believe as a group.5 Now to his main arguments.

First Argument: The Bible affirms that God has knowledge of our future.

Though he could have given more texts, Wood cites only one text from Isaiah with the authority of Von Rad in support of this claim. He says, “Sanders attempts to soften this statement that God knows the “end from the beginning” in Isaiah by saying that it refers to the deliverance from exile …. “Well, it would be softening if it were certain that Wood’s interpretation is the correct one. However, my discussion follows the detailed exegetical work of Fredrik Lindstrom who notes that Isaiah’s use of light and darkness is connected to the beginning and the end of the exile, such that Isaiah is talking about a specific event and not the entire history of the world. 6

The God Who Risks contains a hundred pages discussing biblical texts in support of dynamic omniscience and that God experiences time. Here I can only highlight the types of texts used in support of open theism. The Bible portrays God as:

1. Authentically responding to petitions (Ex. 4, 32; 2 Kings 20; Mk. 2; Lk. 8:48).
2. Grieving over sin (Gen. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:11; Mt. 23:37; Jn. 11 :35).
3. Expecting something to happen but it does not (Jer. 3:6-7, 19-20; Isaiah 5: 1-4; Mk. 6:5-6).
4. Testing individuals and Israel “to find out what they will do” (Gen. 22; Ex. 15:25; Deut. 13:3).
5. Refusing to change his mind (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29).
6. Changing his mind (Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11-35; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13-14; Mt. 15:21-28) and reconsidering what God had previously promised (1 Sam. 2:30-31; 13:13).
7. Having knowledge of some future events but not others. There are two types of texts about the future in scripture.
7.1 Predicting specific events that do come to pass (2 Kings 20:17-18; Jer. 29:10).
7.2 Predicting specific events that either do not come to pass at all or not in the precise way they were predicted (Ezek. 26:17ff; 29:17-20; Amos 9:11-12 & Acts 15:15-18; Acts 21:11).

Wood correctly says that a God with an eternal now “knows all things instantly.” If so, then how can grief, change of mind, and testing be attributed to such a being? How can God expect something to happen and it not happen? How can a God who knows all events of history simultaneously be said to predict that the city of Tyre will be totally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. 26) and then later admit that the prediction failed (Ezek. 29: 17 -20)?7 What does Wood do with these texts? He claims his eternal now view can handle them, but he never once shows how this can be done. Wood claims to take the biblical portrayal of God seriously, yet he makes no attempt to explain the meaning of these texts if the eternal now is true. Open theists have developed a view which seeks to explain all the types of biblical texts mentioned above.8

It is part of the core piety and beliefs of free-will Christians that God is responsive. In the book I explained why it is contradictory to say that a God who experiences an eternal now also experiences changing emotions and changing decisions. On several occasions Wood supports his case with the classic article on eternity by Stump and Kretzmann. They are proponents of the eternal now and acknowledged experts on what the position entails. In this article, they say that an atemporal being “has no past or future, no earlier or later. “9 They point out that, if God experiences an eternal now, then “God cannot deliberate, anticipate, remember, or plan ahead.”10 The experts on divine atemporality admit that grief, expectation, and change of mind cannot be attributed to God. Wood, however, says both that God experiences all time at once and also that God has “before and after.” Stump and Kretzmann say that this is contradictory, but Wood makes both claims without acknowledging that there is a problem here, let alone furnish us with a solution to it.

Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that for the eternal now “none of God’s actions is a response to what we human beings do; indeed, not only is none of God actions a response to what we do, but nothing at all in God’s life is a response to what occurs among God’s creatures.”11 This is precisely the reason why the influential Methodist theologian John Miley rejected divine atemporality.12 He understood that it undermined essential Wesleyan piety, such as God responding to prayers.

Wood admits that “outright logical contradictions cannot be affirmed without committing theological suicide,” yet it is precisely at this point that he fails to demonstrate why his own authorities are wrong to claim that it is logically contradictory to affirm both that God is atemporal and also that God grieves. Instead, Wood simply claims that his position contains “tensions” and “mystery.” If there is a contradiction at the heart of his claims, then it is not mystery, but nonsense. If Wood and other Wesleyans do not believe that this position is contradictory, then they need to show why it is not and why the expert proponents of divine temporality are wrong. Wood and I agree that human language is stretched when applied to God, but contradictions do not stretch our language, they snap it in half.

Second Argument: Theological tradition affirms that God has knowledge of our future.

In my own work I have documented that the early church fathers and Wesley affl.rmed divine atemporality and that God possesses exhaustive definite knowledge of future contingent events. Also, I have explained the theological work that they intended for this doctrine to accomplish (e.g., how God could elect people for salvation prior to creation based on “foreseen” faith). So, I agree that the dynamic omniscience view is going against the mainstream of theological tradition. However, dynamic omniscience agrees with the free-will tradition that God does not determine the events because it is our actions which cause God to have the knowledge of what we do.13 That is, God “sees” what we will do in the future but God does not ordain that we do them, as with Calvin.

Though the dynamic omniscience view cannot claim the early church fathers, it has had a few proponents as far back as the fifth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the view began to gain a wider following, particularly in Methodist circles.14 On the contemporary scene, Wood lists Barth and Pannenberg on his side, while proponents of dynamic omniscience include Moltmann, Pinnock, Paul Fiddes, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Henry Knight, and Barry Callen. Also, the strong majority of contemporary Christian philosophers reject Wood’s view of divine atemporality, though there are a few distinguished exceptions such as Leftow and Stump.15

Third Argument: If relativity theory is correct then the future is real. Since God knows all of reality, God must know the future.

Wood does not actually formulate the argument as I have stated it, but I am trying to be charitable by developing an argument that would support his key claim that an eternal now is the best solution to the problem. It is unfortunate that the bulk of his article does not actually give evidence in support of his claim. Instead, he concentrates on the accusation that divine temporalists reject relativity physics and thus parallel the fundamentalists at the Scopes Monkey Trial. Space limitations permit only three areas of response.

A. Wood’s statements about contemporary physics. Professor Wood is to be commended for his extensive research into relativity theory. He is much more informed on the topic than am I. However, his statements on this subject are not always up-to-date or as settled as he suggests. For example, he castigates me for separating space and time into different categories. Apparently, what Einstein hath joined no one must put asunder. But a recent development has the physics world abuzz about a new theory of gravity which requires that space and time be separated, at least for high energy events. The December, 2009, issue of Scientific American has an article titled “Splitting Time from Space” in which the new theory, called Horava gravity, is discussed. The creator of this theory says, “I’m going back to Newton’s idea that time and space are not equivalent.”16 Though it is being widely discussed, the theory has not been established as the correct one. Also, this does not imply that everything in physics is in dispute, but it does show that physicists are not as dogmatic as Wood is that time and space are inseparable.

B. Why divine temporalists cannot accept the dominant interpretation of special relativity theory. It seems that the dominant interpretation of the special theory of relativity (STR) entails that all of time exists because there is no privileged present moment; all times are on a par ontologically.17 Hence, “now” is only a word expressing the speaker’s own temporal perspective. The idea of the present has no special status. This implies the “block theory” of time. Think of time as an extended block that includes what we call the past, present, and future. The entire space-time block exists together, and the “future” (from some temporal perceiver’s point of view) is just as much “fixed” and “there” as is the past. In other words, the future is real-it exists ontologically. Open theists agree with the third argument that, if the future exists, then God must know it. We just deny that the future is real.

Why do open theists have a problem with this majority interpretation of STR? For two reasons. First, because if the block of time is real then everything you and I will do in the future already exists on the block, which means that there are no “alternative possibilities” of the sort that are required for libertarian free will. Recorded on the block is a fact of the matter as to what each of us will do tomorrow. There is no possibility that these facts of the matter can be changed. In other words, the standard interpretation of STR is deterministic and that is why not only open theists but all libertarians must look for some other interpretation of the data. Second, as was stated above, the biblical portrait of God and the piety of free-will Christianity require divine responsiveness-which is excluded by the eternal now position. If the block theory is correct, then we do not see how it is possible to maintain these core beliefs.

I and other open theists may indeed be wrong to go with the minority interpretation of STR, but we do so because we want to affirm libertarian freedom and divine responsiveness. Hence, proponents of libertarian freedom should reject the block theory in favor of the dynamic theory of time in which the present has a special status and the future is not ontologically real. According to the dynamic theory, time is actually changing and is not, as Einstein said, a stubborn illusion. There is an interpretation of STR that is compatible with the dynamic theory.18 It is called the neo-Lorentzian interpretation. Though some prominent physicists affirm it, it is not popular among physicists.19 It is empirically equivalent to the standard interpretation of STR and has not been refuted empirically. Wood is wrong when he claims that we do not accept the empirical confirmation of relativity theory.20

C. Wood has a fundamental problem with four-dimensionalism. Wood affirms that, according to the standard interpretation of STR, four-dimensionalism is correct. It entails that the future is just as ontologically real as the past. Wood also acknowledges that Einstein held to the block theory because of STR. However, Wood rejects the block theory in favor of the dynamic theory.21 He does so without even a hint that there is any sort of problem here. The problem is that the block theory is the view that that there is no ontological distinction between past, present and future. Four-dimensionalism and the block theory are one and the same thing. The dynamic theory of time is logically incompatible with four-dimensionalism because, according to the dynamic theory, the future is not ontologically real. Hence, Wood’s position is logically contradictory in that he affirms both that the future is ontologically real and that the future is not ontologically real.

Wood does say that God is infinite and transcends time, but such remarks do not address this fundamental contradiction in his position. Also, Wood accuses me of “dictating to God what sort of world is possible” because I assert that the future is not ontologically real.22 This is unfair because on the very paragraph of The God Who Risks which Wood uses to justify his claim I say, “God could have created a world in which he knew exactly what we would do in the future if God had decided to create a deterministic world.”23 The point is that, if the block theory is correct and the future is an ontological reality, then God would know it, but then we would not have libertarian freedom. I am not dictating to God, I am only claiming that our theological statements cannot contain logical contradictions. Since Wood affirms this very principle, he must either demonstrate that this is not, in fact, a logical contradiction or he must modify his position. Appeals to divine infinity do not remove the logical contradiction at the heart of Wood’s view.

Finally, Wood’s attempt to combine the dynamic theory of time with the eternal now entails a serious theological problem.24 If God experiences all of time at once in an eternal now, then God knows all events that ever occur as well as the order in which they occur. Since there is no before or after in God’s experience, what is “now” for us is simply a set of events which God knows occur in history. However, if the dynamic theory of time is correct, then the God of an eternal now does not know what is happening in history right now because God’s now does not correspond to our now. In order for God to know what is happening right now, God must change, because a few moments ago these events were not happening but other events were happening instead. But, according to the eternal now theory, God cannot change. This means that Christ’s death, resurrection, and second coming are all simultaneous for God. So, when Jesus died, God did not know the event was happening then. God eternally knows that it happens, but at our moment in history when Jesus rose from the dead God did not know it was happening (a very strange idea and certainly not one the biblical writers endorse). The God of the eternal now does not know that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Fourth Argument: A God with dynamic omniscience is not trustworthy

Towards the end of his article, Wood says that a God without exhaustive knowledge of the future “may weaken one’s capacity to trust in the Lord.” He suggests that such a God may “lead us wrongly” and thus be in need of atonement.25 Several responses are in order. According to dynamic omniscience, divine guidance is given on the basis of God’s perfect understanding of all that is possible to happen and perfect understanding of the probabilities of each of those possibilities. God knows what each of us is likely to do but, because we have libertarian freedom, we can, at times, act out of character and do what was unlikely. For example, God says he expected Israel to put away her idols and return to him but they did not (Jer. 3 :7). In this case God knew it was more likely that they would repent, but he also knew the lesser possibility that they would not repent. God did not say that they would definitely repent because God will not definitely believe that something will occur unless it is certain to occur. If an event is not certain to occur, then God knows the degree of probability that something will happen in a particular way. But God will not hold that belief as absolutely certain if human freedom is involved because our decisions, though somewhat predictable, are not absolutely so. When God expresses surprise, it is evidence that the less likely event came to pass, but this is not a “mistake.”

Second, let us say that I advise a friend to accept a job offer because I know the supervisor and that this individual is a wonderful boss. However, a couple of months into the job, the supervisor dies in an accident and is replaced by a horrible person. Is it legitimate to say that I sinned in the guidance I gave to my friend? I do not see any need of atonement in such as case. Gregory Boyd tells the story of “Suzanne,” a woman in his congregation, who was very angry with God because she believed God had intentionally guided her into an abusive marriage.26 From a young age she wanted to be a missionary in Taiwan. When she went to college she met a young man who shared that same goal. For three years they attended church together and prayed together. They consulted with their parents, pastor and friends, all of whom thought they should marry. After college, they married and then attended a missionary training school together. However, at this time her husband had an affair with another student. When confronted, he repented, but then the affair resumed. After a while he became physically abusive to his wife and then divorced her. Several of her friends told her what Job’s friends had told him-that God intended this horrible set of events to teach her a lesson.

Open theists give a different interpretation. At the time of their engagement her fiancée was a godly person with a passion for ministry, so the prospects were good that they would have a healthy marriage and ministry. However, because of free will, he gave in to temptation and resisted the promptings of the Spirit, even after he was found out. Through a series of choices he became what he had not been when they were dating. God’s guidance had not been wrong. What was wrong was the husband’s misuse of his free will.

How would Wood explain Suzanne’s story? Perhaps he believes that a God who possessed exhaustive knowledge of future contingent events would guide her away from marrying the fellow because God “eternally saw” that he would abuse her. That is, a God with knowledge of the actual future would be in a position to guide her so that she would not marry him. This is a common belief among free will Christians. It is also a common belief among critics of Christianity who say that a God who eternally knew Hitler would carry out the Holocaust should have prevented Hitler from doing so. Unfortunately, both sides are mistaken because the eternal now is useless for guidance. To understand why this is so, it must be kept in mind that what a God with an eternal now knows is what actually happens in history, not what might happen. If what God eternally knows is that Suzanne marries him and is abused, then it is not within God’s power to bring it about that she not marry him because that would mean that God’s knowledge of what actually occurs is wrong. By definition, God’s eternal knowledge of the actual future is always correct.

A God with an eternal now knows that Suzanne will be abused and thus cannot use that knowledge to either bring about the abuse or to prevent the abuse from occurring. What God knows is not some antecedent events which, unless hindered in some way, will lead to her abuse. Rather, what God knows is the actual abuse. It is contradictory to suppose that God knows an event will occur and also to hold that God prevents that event from occurring. That is, God knows that Suzanne will be abused and God knows that Suzanne will not be abused. It is logically impossible for God to know that an event will actually happen and that God will prevent that event from happening.

In The God Who Risks and elsewhere I have explained in detail why both simple foreknowledge and the eternal now positions are useless for divine providence.27 It does God no good to have either simple foreknowledge or the eternal now because God cannot change what God knows for a fact will happen. God cannot use knowledge of what we call the future to guide us in the best ways, or to prevent horrible events from happening, or to give predictions about the future to the prophets. Suppose that Tom asks God for guidance about whether or not to accept a job offer. Tom believes that God knows for a fact what will happen to Tom in that job (whether good things or bad), so Tom believes that God is in perfect position to lead him. The problem is that, if God knows only truths about the future and God knows for a fact that Tom accepts the job and endures years of misery while thus employed, then God cannot change that from happening. Once God knows it as a fact that Tom works there, then it is useless for God to give Tom guidance to reject the job offer. It is incoherent to claim that God knows the actual future and on the basis of this knowledge changes it so that it will not be the actual future. A God who eternally knows the actual future cannot answer such prayers.

Philosopher David Hunt, a proponent of the simple foreknowledge view, believes that the “uselessness problem” is one of the most serious objections and needs to be rebutted. If the eternal now and simple fore· knowledge views are useless for providence, then they are worthless for our theology. That is why Hunt has attempted to construct a way in which eternal knowledge could be somewhat more useful for providence than if God has dynamic omniscience.28 To date, I am aware only of the attempts by Hunt and another philosopher to solve the uselessness problem. William Hasker and I have explained in print why these two attempts fail.29 It is disappointing that Wesleyan theologians, including Wood, do not address the problem of uselessness. Wesleyans have sought to argue against the claim that, if God knows the future, then the future is determined but they have not taken seriously this new problem (uselessness) which is devastating to the simple foreknowledge and eternal now positions. Wood claims that his eternal now position is useful for providence, but he provides neither any evidence that this is so or any explanation of why it is not a logical contradiction to believe that God eternally knows that an event will occur and yet it is in God’s power to bring it about that it not occur.

Summary and Conclusion

I have argued that Professor Wood’s position entails three significant contradictions. (1) It is logically contradictory to affirm both that God is atemporal and also that God grieves and responds. (2) It is logically contradictory to say that the future is ontologically real and that the dynamic theory of time is correct (the future is not onto logically real). (3) It is contradictory to suppose that God knows an event will occur and also to hold that God prevents that event from occurring.

Wood says that “outright logical contradictions cannot be affirmed without committing theological suicide.” Appeals to “infinity” and “mystery” can be quite legitimate, but they cannot transform a genuine contradiction into an attempted suicide. Perhaps someone will figure out a solution to these problems, but until this happens the only views of omniscience that are useful for providence, and which are not logically contradictory, are theological determinism, middle knowledge, and dynamic omniscience. The only one of these three which affirms the biblical portrayal of divine responsiveness, grief, change of mind, and is compatible with the core tenets of Wesleyan piety and belief, is dynamic omniscience. If Wood and other Wesleyans are to avoid theological suicide then they must either solve these contradictions or accept open theism.30

Why Simple Foreknowledge is Still Useless (In Spite of David Hunt and Alex Pruss)

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William Hasker*
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52/3 (September 2007): 534-544
Original PDF may be downloaded here: Why foreknowledge is still useless.


The doctrine of simple divine foreknowledge (SF) is probably the most common way of understanding divine knowledge of the future among non-Calvinist evangelicals. Simple foreknowledge means that God has complete, exact, and certain knowledge of the actual future, including the future free actions of human beings, in contrast with the probabilistic knowledge of the future postulated by open theism. Simple foreknowledge is “simple” in that it affirms merely that God knows the future, but not that he predetermines it as is held by theological determinism (Calvinism). And simple foreknowledge implies that God knows the actual future, but not (as is asserted by the theory of divine middle knowledge, or Molinism) that he knows hypothetical futures, such as what actions would be chosen by free creatures under possible circumstances that never in fact occur.

Recently, however, simple foreknowledge has been criticized by arguing that it does not, in fact, afford the theological benefits it is commonly thought to offer.1 Foreknowledge is often thought to be important because of its benefits for God’s providential government of the world. For instance, by knowing what is going to happen in the future, God is able to inspire prophets to foretell the future. He can also prearrange events and circumstances in the light of a foreknown future occurrence, so as better to achieve God’s purposes in the world. (An example: by foreknowing Saul’s disobedience and unfitness for the kingship, God was able to prearrange circumstances so as to facilitate the eventual elevation of David, such as by arranging David’s spectacular victory over Goliath.) The arguments mentioned above, however, claim to show that simple foreknowledge offers no such benefits: if God has simple foreknowledge, he is no better off in these respects than if he had only complete knowledge of past and present. To the extent that these arguments are successful, simple foreknowledge tends to be eliminated as a serious contender, and the debate about divine providence becomes a three-way discussion between Calvinists, Molinists, and open theists.2

The main objections to date against the arguments in question are those raised by philosopher David Hunt.3 Hunt does not deny that both Calvinism and Molinism afford God more providential control than can be provided by simple foreknowledge. However, he has serious reservations about both of those doctrines, and he argues that simple foreknowledge does indeed allow God greater providential control than is possible with merely probabilistic knowledge of the future. In this paper I address the most recent article in which Hunt defends his claims.4 I will show not only that he has not succeeded in demonstrating how simple foreknowledge is providentially useful, but that he cannot possibly succeed in showing this, given the understanding of divine foreknowledge with which he is working.5

My case against Hunt can be stated in the form of a simple, three-step argument:

(1) Simple foreknowledge is providentially useful if and only if God can determine, on the basis of his simple foreknowledge, how he shall act providentially in the world.

(2) If Hunt’s view of foreknowledge is correct, God cannot determine, on the basis of his simple foreknowledge, how he shall act providentially in the world.

(3) Therefore, if Hunt’s view of foreknowledge is correct, simple foreknowledge is not providentially useful.

These points, however, require further comment. Step (1) merely clarifies what is meant by the claim that foreknowledge is providentially useful. In order to be useful, it must enable God to act in the world, on the basis of his foreknowledge, in ways such as those described above–enabling prophets to predict the future, prearranging circumstances in the light of foreknown events, and the like. It should be particularly noted that simple foreknowledge needs to be of use to God in ways that go beyond what is possible for God on the basis of knowledge of the past and the present, plus probabilistic knowledge of the future such as is postulated by open theism.6 So understood, I do not think (1) is open to serious challenge.

The remaining task, then, is to justify premise (2). In order to do this we need to explain a distinction, first made by John Sanders, between two ways of understanding simple foreknowledge. The first of these is termed “Complete Simple Foreknowledge” (CSF) and is explained by Sanders as follows: “even though he knows things will occur in sequence God does not acquire the knowledge in sequence. God simply sees the whole at once.”7 The other way of understanding simple foreknowledge is termed “Incremental Simple Foreknowledge” (ISF) in which God “timelessly accesses the future in sequence or incrementally.”8 (Here as elsewhere in this article, references to God knowing or deciding things sequentially should be understood as referring, not to temporal succession–which according to SF does not exist in God’s knowing and deciding–but to the logical or explanatory order between different events. The key idea here is that events that are “later” in the explanatory order can happen because of events earlier in the order, but not vice versa.) The potential benefit of ISF is that after accessing one segment of the future God could then, on the basis of what he has accessed, make some decision concerning his own future actions before going on to access additional parts of the future.

Now, Sanders quickly dismisses CSF, and spends most of his article arguing that ISF is providentially useless. Hunt does not challenge the latter claim, but he thinks Sanders made a serious mistake in dismissing CSF. On the contrary, Hunt urges, CSF provides precisely the resources for divine providential action we have been looking for. I think it is not difficult to see that Hunt is mistaken about this. For consider: according to CSF, God “sees” the entire future all at once, in a single glance as it were, including God’s own future actions and the reasons for which God will perform those actions.9 Now, can we make any sense at all of the notion that God, on the basis of this knowledge of the future which already contains his own actions, determines what those actions shall be? I submit that we cannot. Those future actions are all already determined; they are spread out before him in his complete knowledge of the future. At this point, there is no “determining” left to be done! This can be stated as a formal argument, as follows:

(1) In order for God’s decisions to be made on the basis of his foreknowledge they must be subsequent, in the logical and explanatory order, to that foreknowledge.

(2) In order for God’s decisions to be included in God’s foreknowledge th decisions must be prior, in the logical and explanatory order, to that foreknowledge.

(3) Therefore, if God’s decisions are included in God’s foreknowledge (as they are according to CSF), those decisions cannot be made on the basis of his foreknowledge.

Once we have seen this, it is crystal clear that premise (2) of the argument given above is correct: God cannot determine, on the basis of his simple foreknowledge, how he shall act providentially in the world.
Hunt, however, wants to resist this conclusion. He writes, “Certainly God couldn’t make foreknowledge of his own action A the ‘basis’ for that very action A; but there’s no reason why he couldn’t use foreknowledge of other events as the basis for A” (p. 378). Now, the first part of what Hunt says here is undoubtedly correct. It makes no sense to picture God as saying to himself, “I know that I will arrange for David to defeat Goliath, and for that reason, I now decide that I will arrange for David to defeat Goliath.” But what is the alternative? According to Hunt, what we should suppose is that God, while fully aware that he is going to arrange for David to defeat Goliath, ignores that fact and reasons thus: “I desire the eventual elevation of David to the kingship, and for that reason I now decide that I will arrange for David to defeat Goliath.” But this makes no sense either! The only reasonable conclusion is that because God already knows all about the fact that he will arrange for David to defeat Goliath, as well as the reasons for which he will do that, there is no more decision to be made concerning that matter. But this conclusion is fatal to Hunt’s argument.

Hunt, however, still wants to resist, and in order to do this he argues that God’s knowing what he is going to do does not preclude his subsequently (in the explanatory order) deciding to do that very thing. He invokes a subtle distinction here, roughly the distinction between knowing that one will perform a certain action, and willing to do that thing–or, one might say, endorsing the action in question. He gives the example of a time traveler who, traveling into the future, sees himself committing suicide.10 He knows that he will perform this act, but he may not (at this point) will or endorse the action in question. (He may actually be horrified to see what his future self is doing.) So, Hunt reasons, God’s knowing that he will perform some providential action in no way precludes God’s subsequently deciding to do that very thing.

There are at least two reasons why this example does not help to save Hunt’s position. First of all, the time traveler knows the fact about what he will do, but be may not understand the reasons why he will do it. And even if he does know the reasons he may not yet appreciate the reasons in such a way that they lead him to endorse the decision. In order to fully appreciate them, he may need to live through the intervening life history up to the moment of suicide. But it is out of the question that God, in contemplating his own future actions, should be unaware of his reasons for those actions or should fail to fully appreciate those reasons. So the example, even if successful on its own terms, fails to throw any light on the alleged providential usefulness of simple foreknowledge.

But the example does not even succeed on its own terms. The time traveler does not, after seeing himself commit suicide, determine that he is going to perform this action. He may “decide” to perform it, in the sense that he decides to “go along with the inevitable” and do what it is already unavoidable that he should do. But the determination has “already”11 been made, by his future self; at most he can decide to ratify that already-made determination.

Given CSF, the conclusion is clear: God cannot determine, on the basis of his simple foreknowledge, how he shall act providentially. The determination in question has already been made prior to God’s accessing his foreknowledge, which already contains the actions in question. God is no more able to determine what action he will take than the time traveler is able to determine that he will commit suicide.12 Premise (2) is secure, and simple foreknowledge as conceived by Hunt is useless.


At this point we turn to the somewhat different argument put forward by Alexander Pruss.13 Pruss’s specific concern is with prophecy, and his goal is to show that simple foreknowledge does indeed provide resources for divine prophecy–something that we have argued is not the case on David Hunt’s view of foreknowledge. Can Pruss succeed where Hunt has failed?

It is initially encouraging to see that Pruss is aware of some of the logical problems that are inherent in such an endeavor. He recognizes that were he to have complete knowledge of the future, including his own future actions, “then not only this knowledge would not help me make a free decision but, it seems, would undercut the very possibility of my making a free decision” (p. 435). We have seen exactly this problem in Hunt’s view of foreknowledge, so we will need to see how Pruss avoids it. Again, in speaking of Christ’s
prophecy that Peter will deny him, he says,

God’s belief that Peter will deny him must be responsive to Peter’s choice. What explains why God believes that Peter will deny him is God’s omniscience together with Peter’s actual future denial. But God’s belief is explanatorily prior to God’s decision to speak to Peter.14 And God’s speaking to Peter is explanatorily prior to Peter’s decision, it seems, since it is a part of what formed the character that Peter had while making the decision. This means that we have a vicious circularity in the order of explanation.15

Once again, it is encouraging to see that Pruss is aware of the problem. Furthermore, he lays out his strategy–or rather, two possible strategies–for avoiding these problems when he says the response must be “that God is in effect bracketing this categorical knowledge [of the future] when making the decision or that God’s knowledge of the future is posterior in the order of explanation, but not in the temporal order, to the decision about what future to actualize” (435; emphasis original). So we need to see how Pruss implements these strategies.

In order to solve these problems, Pruss needs to find something God’s decision can be based on, other than merely God’s foreknowledge of what will actually happen. In order to do this, he postulates, as a necessary truth, a “relevant similarity principle” which states that differences in circumstances do not matter for what Peter will do, so long as these differences are “invisible to the agent”-that is, they make no difference in the situation that the agent is able to detect. Pruss, however, is not fully satisfied with this, so he stakes a claim for an even broader relevant similarity principle:

The principle that invisible differences between circumstances do not matter might be part of a wider principle that all that matters in the circumstances is the time, the character of the agent, the subjective mental state, external causal influence on the agent, and maybe the history of previous choices.16

We might wonder what benefit is derived from these principles. Here is the answer: Pruss sees that it will not do to picture God as reasoning thus: “I know by my foreknowledge that I will tell Peter he will deny Jesus. Therefore, I decide that I will tell Peter that he will deny Jesus.” As he rightly sees, that sort of divine thought process would undercut the possibility of God’s making a genuine decision to say this to Peter. So, there must be some other reason, other than the mere fact that God knows he will say this to Peter, which is reason for his saying this. And the relevant similarity principles give him a way of getting this other reason. For example, very possibly, God knows that, at the time when he is questioned by various persons in the high priest’s courtyard, Peter will have forgotten (temporarily) what Jesus said to him. And this means (according to Pruss) that Peter’s character, his subjective mental state, the external causal influences on him, and so on would be exactly the same, whether or not Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny him. So God knows the following concerning Peter:

(PD) If Peter is in such-and-such circumstances in the courtyard, then, regardless of whether or not Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him, Peter will in fact deny Jesus.

Based on this knowledge, God issues the prophecy to Peter. And since the reason for the prophecy is not the fact that God knows that he will issue the prophecy, God’s ability to make a free choice is not impeded and circularity of explanation is avoided. Or so Pruss supposes.

By this time, however, things have gone seriously wrong. First of all, Pruss’s relevant similarity principle, which he posits as a necessary truth, is very likely false. Notice that the principle makes no mention of the subject’s neurological state: it does not matter what that may be, so long as the difference is not introspectively perceptible to the agent. Now, in the light of contemporary neuroscience, this is highly implausible. One need not be a materialist, nor need one embrace neurological determinism, to think it very likely that one’s neurological state can have a major influence on one’s decisions, even in cases where the differences in neurological state are subjectively indetectible. (Note that Peter’s neurological state was certainly affected in a significant way by what Jesus had said; this is shown by the fact that, immediately after the threefold denial, he remembered Jesus’ words to him.)

But this is really a secondary point. For, even given the relevant similarity principle, how is it that God is able to know (PD)? The answer Pruss gives is, because of his foreknowledge. That is to say, God knows that Peter will deny Jesus in the actual circumstances, in which Jesus has said to Peter that Peter will betray him. And by combining this knowledge with the (supposedly) necessarily true relevant similarity principle, God arrives at the truth of (PD). And by using (PD) instead of his foreknowledge as the reason for telling Peter that he will betray Jesus, this account avoids the problems noted by Pruss and referenced above.

But this just will not work. Explanation is a transitive relation: If A explains B, and B explains C, then A explains C. (That is to say, A is part of the explanation why C is the case; at each step, the factor indicated may not be the complete explanation.) If God’s knowledge that Peter will deny Jesus is the explanation for God’s knowledge of (PD), and God’s knowledge of (PD) is the explanation for God’s issuing the prophecy, then God’s knowledge of Peter’s denial is the explanation for God’s issuing the prophecy. So far, Pruss would not disagree. But here is the key point: Does the prophecy not constitute a part of the explanation for Peter’s denial? Pruss, I think, wants to answer the question “No,” because (by hypothesis) Peter would have denied Christ with or without the prophecy. But that, I contend, is a mistake. God’s knowledge of Peter’s denial is not to be thought of as knowledge of the bare proposition “Peter will deny Jesus.” It must, rather, be understood as a complete grasp of the concrete event of Peter’s denial, including all relevant facts about Peter at the time of the denial. And these facts will undoubtedly be different in many details as a result of Jesus’ prophetic words to Peter. (Again, recall that just moments after his denial, Peter is able to recall what Jesus had said to him.) So the prophecy is (in part) the explanation for Peter’s state when he denies Christ, and the explanatory circle has not been avoided. It is still the case that the prophecy to Peter is explained (in part) by Peter’s total state in denying Christ, and Peter’s state in denying Christ is explained (in part) by the prophecy. None of Pruss’s elaborate and ingenious maneuvering has succeeded in avoiding this explanatory circle. But as Pruss agrees, such explanatory circles are unacceptable; therefore his account fails.

Nor does Pruss escape the difficulty that God’s foreknowledge of how Peter acts under the circumstances in which he has been told by Jesus that he will betray Jesus actually prevents God from making a free decision to issue the prophecy. Admittedly, Pruss is less explicit than David Hunt on the question of Complete Simple Foreknowledge vs. Incremental Simple Foreknowledge. Matters are clarified, however, if we recall Pruss’s proposal that “God is in effect bracketing this categorical knowledge [of the future] when making the decision.” If the knowledge is bracketed, then it is “there” in his foreknowledge, even if it is not, as such, being used to make the decision. So we are in the same situation we imagined in Hunt’s case where, as we saw, “God, while fully aware that he is going to arrange for David to defeat Goliath, ignores that fact and reasons thus: ‘I desire the eventual elevation of David to the kingship, and for that reason I now decide that I will arrange for David to defeat Goliath.’” And as we observed before, this makes no sense. If the knowledge the God will issue the prophecy is included in God’s foreknowledge, then the decision to issue the prophecy is explanatorily prior to that foreknowledge. But if the decision is made on the basis of the foreknowledge (which we have seen is the case on Pruss’s scenario), then the foreknowledge is explanatorily prior to the decision. The contradiction is palpable, and it has not been avoided by all of Pruss’s skillful maneuvering.

I am afraid that for some readers the more technical nature of this discussion of Pruss’s work may pose a problem. I can only say in extenuation that Pruss’s actual discussion is a great deal longer and more technical than anything I have said about it here! What is striking, however, is that in spite of his admirable ingenuity he has not, in the end, succeeded in evading the same problems that we found in Hunt’s simpler and more straightforward presentation. To be sure, the discussion of this topic is still relatively young, and it may be premature to conclude that there will be no further twists and turns in the debate. But the fact that two extremely capable philosophers, working independently and using different approaches, still leave us with the same intractable problems should caution us against undue optimism. For now, the most reasonable conclusion to draw is that simple foreknowledge is still useless.17

A Critical Evaluation of the Religious Adequacy of Open Theism: Toward an Open Theistic Theology of Petitionary Prayer

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TITLE:                         A Critical Evaluation of the Religious Adequacy of Open Theism: Toward an Open Theistic Theology of Petitionary Prayer.


NAME:                        Thomas G. Belt


INSTITUTION:           Continental Theological Seminary, Brussels, Belgium & The University of



DEGREE:                     MTh




Open theists have claimed that their views of the God-world relationship provide a religiously adequate basis upon which to live life. It is specifically claimed that the open view makes best sense of petitionary prayer as an act by which believers freely participate in fulfilling God’s purposes through shaping themselves and the world. How ought the unique beliefs of open theism to affect our understanding of petitionary prayer? In this thesis I examine the implications which open theism has for our understanding of prayer as a means by which God accomplishes his purposes in the world and ask whether or not this understanding of prayer is religiously adequate. In focusing on the implications which open theism has for our understanding of prayer, I hope to bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical every-day concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential case for open theism.


This thesis examines the nature and difficulties of adequacy claims, summarizes the defining claim and essential convictions of open theism, reviews the contributions to an understanding of petitionary prayer made by open theists, evaluates objections that ground the existential case for the religious inadequacy of open theism, and offers several guiding theses towards an open theist theology of prayer. It concludes that open theists may enjoy at least as vibrant and adequate a prayer life as other Christian believers.














1.1         The arrival of open theism

1.2         The popularity of open theism

1.3         The challenge of open theism

1.4         Proposed thesis


2.1      The limits of this study

2.2      The difficulty with adequacy claims

2.3      The relationship between ‘doctrine’ and ‘praxis’

2.4      Assumptions regarding the usefulness of existential arguments


3.1      The defining claim: divine epistemic openness regarding the future

3.2      Supporting convictions of open theism

3.2.1         Love: the divine purpose for creation

3.2.2         Freedom: the necessary context

3.2.3         Risk: the implication of freedom for the God-world relation

3.3      Various relevant diversities within open theism


4.1      Reality of spiritual warfare

4.2      Acceptable risk

4.3      Rules of engagement

4.4      Infinite intelligence and God’s governance of the world

4.5      Consequent ambiguity

4.6      Consequent assurance


5.1      Open theists on prayer

5.2      Summary of contributions


6.1      General objections

6.2      Bruce Ware: Their God is Too Small

6.3      Stephen Roy: How Much Does God Foreknow?

6.4      David Ciocchi: “The Religious Adequacy of Free-will Theism”


7.1      Response to Bruce Ware

7.2      Response to Stephen Roy

7.3      Response to David Ciocchi


8.1       Eight guiding theses

8.2       Trusting God in a risky and ambiguous creation







§1.1 The arrival of open theism

            With the publication in 1994 of The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God[1], Evangelicals in America began discussing God with increased interest. In it authors Pinnock, Rice, Sanders, Hasker, and Basinger proposed a re-examination of how God and humans relate and in so doing ignited a debate which continues unabated today. The questions addressed by the authors are hardly new. Christians have long been debating God’s nature and attributes. One specific question raised by these issues is evident in the attempt to affirm both exhaustively definite foreknowledge and the efficacy of petitionary prayer. It was a popular issue of debate in Origen’s day and has been addressed by Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and others down to the present. The Openness of God reinvigorated this conversation and cast academic questions in a new and common light.[2]

Open theism attempts to articulate an understanding of God’s relationship to creation that is biblically sound, philosophically convincing, and existentially fulfilling. In the simplest terms, the open view claims that the future is partly settled and partly open and that God, being omniscient, knows it as such.[3] As we shall see, what the future is and how and what God knows about it, ostensibly ‘open view’ issues, have turned out to be in effect only the specific field of battle on which competing views of divine providence face off.


§1.2 The popularity of open theism

            After the release of The Openness of God, theologians, educational institutions, and whole denominations became engrossed in the debate over what has come to be known as “open theism.”[4] The importance of the view, arguably, was evident in the effect the debate had on a general lack of interest in doctrinal questions among average believers. People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? is ultimately the question believers put to theological issues. And where believers fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, and vocations, they fail to engage those issues for any length of time.

With the publication of The Openness of God, the practical implications of one’s beliefs about God and the world were being discussed passionately even by those outside the academy. Where people were reluctant to engage theological questions about God’s nature and attributes because the language in which the conversation was conducted made the conversation inaccessible to them, The Openness of God and other early publications related theological questions to these everyday concerns in terms people could grasp, successfully fusing academic questions to the everyday issues of Christian believers—prayer, guidance, and suffering. In light of the increasing popularity of the open view and the intensity of the opposition it faces, I hope to clarify relevant issues and encourage further discussion and research on the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’ in general and the practical implications of open theism in particular.


§1.3     The challenge of open theism

            The debate over open theism can be described as carried out in terms of Wesley’s quadrilateral—the rational/philosophical, the biblical/theological, the traditional, and the existential/pragmatic, the latter of which shall be the concern of this thesis. It is an approach to life that open theists argue for. As Paul Sponheim says:


…we have spoken of ‘making a difference’…We have argued that vital lessons for living follow from Christian faith in God. We have claimed that if what Christians say in speaking of the presence, power, and action of God is true, life will be seen differently. It comes down to that: life…to that ‘bottom line’ matter of living…The faith we express in our God-talk makes a difference in how we see life. The question is: does it make a difference in how we live?[5]


Opponents of open theism have claimed that the effects of the open view are ruinous and will inevitably shipwreck faith in God for those who embrace it. Open theists have argued that their views make better sense of our existential intuitions, provide a better existential fit, and that of all the available views of providence on the market, that espoused by open theists is already assumed in practice by the manner in which Christian believers actually live their lives.[6]


§1.4 Proposed thesis

            How ought open theism to affect one’s understanding of prayer? In response to this and related questions, I propose (a) to examine the implications which open theism has for one’s understanding of petitionary prayer as a means by which God accomplishes his purposes in the world and then (b) to ask whether or not this understanding of prayer is religiously adequate. In focusing on the implications which a belief has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical every-day concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential argument for open theism.[7]

The underlying question regards the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’, i.e., how we relate what we believe about God and the God-world relationship to the practical concerns of daily life. Theology matters, so all theists seem to agree, and open theists have confidently made ‘adequacy claims’ about the practical advantages of their beliefs. At the same time, opponents equally object to the open view on existential grounds, insisting that the view undermines one’s confidence and trust in God, God’s word, and God’s ability to achieve his purposes.

The existential matrix (the inter-relating intuitions, a priori beliefs about the world, experiences, decision-making processes, etc.) by which we evaluate the truth of a claim is a complex and fallible guide. I hope to explore this matrix, examine the validity of pragmatic, outcome-based arguments, and make some suggestions regarding how existential concerns and assumptions might determine the religious adequacy of open theism’s approach to petitionary prayer. I shall argue that prayer is the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Given the open theist’s core claims, how are we to understand the purposes and place of petitionary prayer? If one cannot divorce the question of what God is like from the question of how we pray, then open theism’s proffered revision of the traditional view of God is most relevant and deserves continued and rigorous consideration.







§2.1 The nature of adequacy claims

            Let us first clarify what sort of question we are dealing with. When one argues that a belief is best believed to be true (or not) because of the practical effects of believing it, a particular sort of claim is being made, one that is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Professor of religion Christopher Heard has attempted to assess the evidentiary status of the effects that follow from believing or disbelieving in open theism, a form of argumentation he calls an appeal to outcomes or argument from affect.[8] After reviewing the debate, Heard concludes that God’s defining attributes are independent of human desires and opinions. Simply put, “God is what God is, whether humans like it or not.”[9] Heard argues that outcome oriented arguments reduce to arguing one’s “personal preference” and thus are ultimately useless in determining truth. He writes:


This points to one of the weaknesses of outcomes-oriented argumentation: the larger debate lacks an objective, consensual framework within which individual outcomes can be assessed as relatively worse or better than other possible outcomes. Because outcome-oriented arguments are inextricably linked to human preferences, and because human preferences differ, outcome-oriented arguments will typically succeed only with those who already agree with the arguer’s implicit value system which allows the arguer to categorize certain outcomes as good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on.

Even if such an objective, consensual framework were available, however, outcome-oriented arguments would still suffer from a fatal flaw, in that human preferences do not determine the divine reality.[10]


Even if it is true that God is responsive in the sense of adapting to us, Heard says, it would still not be the case that “we can reshape the reality of God simply by proclaiming one theological alternative ‘better’ than another and assuming that God conforms to what (some!) humans consider to be ‘better’.”[11] Agreement or disagreement on which divine attributes are “better” than others, Heard argues:


…would not prove that those attributes actually characterize God. If God’s foreknowledge is in fact exhaustive, then it is exhaustive, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to be better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs; and if God’s foreknowledge is in fact limited or probabilistic, then it is so, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs. God is who God is, and human beings do not enjoy the privilege of defining what God ‘must’ be and assuming that God lives up to that definition.[12]


Heard suggests that the principle “God is what God is, regardless of human value judgments about the quality of the divine nature” undermines the evidentiary force of existential arguments proposed in the debate over open theism. At best, such arguments can show what practical implications a particular theological approach on this question may have.


§2.2 The difficulty with adequacy claims

            Three observations in response to Heard seem appropriate. First, neither side in the debate suggests that our views of God actually “shape the divine reality” as Heard argues. Open theists agree that God’s self-determining existence and nature are logically prior to and independent of all non-God actualities. Undermining belief in God’s aseity is not what existential arguments for (or against) open theism are about. What such arguments are believed to do is offer a kind of argument from design. That is, assuming God has purposed and designed us for truth, it is at least safe to reason abductively[13] from our experience of ourselves and the world to the plausible truth or falsity of those beliefs responsible for life’s functioning as it does. So although outcome oriented arguments involve a subjective element that makes them difficult to assess, they simply cannot be dismissed given our assumptions regarding the unity of truth and its role in our properly relating to God and the world.

Second, if the best outcome based arguments can legitimately do is establish what the practical implications of a view are, and if these practical implications have no part in determining the truth of the view in question, as Heard appears to claim, then one wonders whether or how the implications matter at all. Surely what is ‘legitimate’ about the implications of a belief is their contributing something to the determining of the truth of the claim. Heard, however, appears to affirm the importance of a belief’s implications while denying that the implications impinge on the truth-value of the belief in question.

Lastly, with Heard we can agree that it is a weak argument which claims simplistically that since believing some claim seems at the moment to meet a perceived need, the claim is therefore true. On the other hand, Christian believers will hardly want to deny the intuition that what is true about God and the God-world relationship will best explain our experience and best enable our existing in the world with and for God. Truth is, on a Christian account of things, intended to enable, enrich, and verify our living for God. This conviction grounds the usefulness of outcome based arguments or adequacy claims. Doctrine must prove itself by demonstrating its power to transform life. It is a kind of living that God is after. So the truth about God and the world, I shall assume, ought to secure belief states that enable our living our lives in the honor and enjoyment of God.


§2.3 The relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’

            Our understanding of the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’ is expressed well by Bruce Epperly:


I believe that good theology integrates: 1) an affirmative, hopeful, and convincing vision of God and the world; 2) a promise that our deepest beliefs can be experienced as we grow spiritually and ethically; and 3) practices that enable us to experience the theological vision that we affirm. The faith we affirm is profoundly concrete and can be a matter of life and death for persons and the planet. Accordingly, our theological visions must always be tested in relationship to the concrete practices and experiences of faithful persons as well as seekers. They must be tested in terms of whether they inspire reverence, gratitude, and a heart-felt ‘yes’ as we contemplate the universe and our role as companions in God’s holy adventure. [italics mine][14]


We can agree with Heard, then, that existential arguments are difficult to evaluate. But we disagree that the lines of influence travel in only one direction—from doctrine to how we live. Theological truth cannot be determined independently of pragmatic concerns. We simply do not function this way. The lines of influence move in both directions—from doctrine to how we live as well as from how we live to verifying what is true.

Heard argues that both sides in the open theism debate should spend less time on existential arguments and return to the role of Scripture in revealing truths about God. To learn what God is like, Heard suggests that we “move from biblical statements about God to theological statements about God” and then undertake the “careful exegetical and theological studies necessary to elucidate God’s character as revealed in the Bible.”[15] In response, I submit that while Scripture is of primary importance, it is at the same time the case that Scripture’s truth is a truth designed for our living and to which our living best conforms. Thus the practical/existential dimension informs our interpreting and theological systematizing by limiting the set of possible interpretations or claims to existentially meaningful ones.

Finally, while outcome based arguments are somewhat subjective, they can be more than mere arguments from “personal preference.” The ‘praxis’ for and from which open theists argue is that of shared experience. An individual experience that remains the experience of a single person can hardly be the grounds upon which a community understands and expresses itself. But shared human experience cannot but be the basis upon which a community understands and expresses itself. And it is a shared human experience that open theists offer as the basis of the existential fit of their views.


§2.4 Assumptions regarding the usefulness of existential arguments

            We have good reasons, then, to conclude that outcome based, or existential, arguments, while limited and fallible by virtue of their individual subjectivity, can be useful in determining truth by grounding meaningfulness in the shared experience of a community. This is a fundamental pragmatic insight.[16] The point of existential arguments is not to say that whatever I find ‘convenient’ is therefore ‘true’, but rather to say that (a) whatever are the natural consequences of a belief, those consequences are that belief’s meaning for us, and that (b) whatever beliefs are true (theologically in our case), they will make possible a truly livable existence on the assumption that God has designed us to function best in truth. In the end, all of us conclude the truth or falsity of claims based on the difference that believing or not believing makes.

Granted, we are finite and fallible. With Heard we can agree that our experience itself can neither determine the divine reality (aseity) nor alone establish truth for a community. But these are not necessary to existential arguments per se. The usefulness of such arguments does not require an infallible individual subjectivity that makes individual experience an absolute judge of truth. Rather, as suggested here, we best look to the shared experience of a community to tell us what a belief ‘means’ and then admit this into whatever other arguments (exegetical, biblical/theological, traditional) are at play in order to determine theological truth-value.[17] We do not, with Heard, first establish truth on grounds that admit no influence from shared experience and then seek to accommodate ourselves to it.[18]

To conclude our survey of issues related to the nature of adequacy claims, I offer the following four guidelines for evaluating such claims. First, the pragmatic maxim grounds the meaning of a belief in the practical effects that belief has and so makes it impossible to determine the truth-value of claims apart from their practical effects.[19] Second, the practical effects must constitute the shared experience of a community before they can be admitted into the hermeneutical process by which that community understands and expresses its identity and mission. No one individual’s experience should be elevated to the status of being the measure by which the community is defined.[20] Third, Scripture possesses a God-given authority that makes it an ultimate judge of human beliefs and experience, not visa versa, and this conviction must guide our reading of experience. This is easier said than done, however, for by our first guideline above, the practical effects a belief has in our life are what that belief can be said to ‘mean’. We are bound to live in the tension of this dialectic. Lastly, adequacy claims are still subject to the rules of logic and meaningful argumentation. No ‘experience’ in itself constitutes an ‘argument’. It remains for us to argue the place that some shared experience has in our larger theological framework in a logical and coherent manner.




§3.1 The defining claim: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents[21]

Having defined the sort of question we face and briefly outlined four provisional guidelines for establishing religious adequacy, let us clarify open theism’s defining claims. There is significant diversity among open theists, something that is often overlooked by opponents. I shall summarize this diversity in due time, but let us first state what core values and commitments appear to be common to all open theists.

The defining claim of the open view states that the future is epistemically open for God so far as it is in fact causally open and epistemically closed for God so far as it is in fact causally closed, a conviction open theist philosopher Alan Rhoda calls the epistemic thesis (ET).[22] To say the future is causally closed in some respect is to say that what occurs is causally entailed by antecedent states of affairs. To say the future is causally open in some respect is to say instead that what occurs obtains indeterministically; that is, it is to deny that what occurs is causally entailed by preceding states. In either case, God’s knowledge of the future follows accordingly, so that to say the future is epistemically closed for God in some respect is to say God knows that some event ‘will’ or ‘will not’ occur, that is, God knows the future as “certainly this will occur” or “certainly that will occur.”[23] Theological determinists maintain that the future is both exhaustively causally closed (because God determines all things) and correspondingly exhaustively epistemically closed for God (because God knows his own determining will).

On the other hand, indeterminists argue the future is causally open in some respects. There is genuine indeterminacy in creation. Indeterminists disagree, however, over what follows from this for God’s knowledge of future contingents. Traditional Arminians and Molinists agree that though the future is causally open in some respects, it is nevertheless exhaustively epistemically closed for God. God eternally knows all that shall ‘freely’ occur in the world. God’s foreknowledge is, thus, ‘exhaustively definite’.[24] Open theists disagree with their fellow indeterminists and argue with determinists that definite foreknowledge is incompatible with causal indeterminacy, affirming Rhoda’s epistemic thesis (ET), viz., that the divine mind is epistemically open with regard to future contingents. In this case God does not know how future contingencies will turn out, though he does know how they might and might not turn out.[25]

Open theism is thus essentially the conjoining of (i) Christian theism (i.e., Trinitarianism and creatio ex nihilo, to distinguish it from process theism), (ii) causal indeterminism, and (iii) divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents. To affirm these three would, so far as I have been able to research the question, make a person an ‘open theist’.


§3.2 Supporting convictions of open theism

            Apart from asserting divine epistemic openness with respect to future contingents, open theists typically share a number of other supporting convictions which account for the truth of this central claim. These supporting claims are ‘love with respect to divine purpose’, ‘freedom with respect to creation’, and ‘risk with respect to providence’. While the defining claim of divine epistemic openness essentially defines open theism, these three convictions play a crucial role in shaping how open theists view providence and prayer, in what sense they trust God to engage the world in response to their prayers, and how they understand what they may and may not legitimately expect in a fallen and conflicted world.


§3.2.1 Love: the divine purpose for creation

            The primary model that maps open theists’ understanding of God and the God-world relation is ‘love’.[26] God is love and freely creates out of the overflow of God’s own loving, personal, trinitarian self-related actuality. In the words of Jüngel:


To think [of] God as love is the task of theology. And in so doing it must accomplish two things. It must, on the one hand, do justice to the essence of love, which as a predicate of God may not contradict what people experience as love. And on the other hand, it must do justice to the being of God which remains so distinctive from the event of human love that ‘God’ does not become a superfluous word.[27]


God has purposed creation for loving, personal, sociality. God loves creation and the human beings that populate it. John Sanders expresses this core conviction as well:


According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. God has freely decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. In creating us, the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune God’s love and respond to it with love of our own, freely coming to collaborate with God toward the achievement of his goals.[28]


All open theists share the conviction that “God is love” constrains both our understanding of God’s own nature and self-relatedness on the one hand and our understanding of the nature of creation and God’s purposes for us on the other.[29] Whatever else open theists might go on to conclude about the God-world relationship, it all proceeds from the fundamental conviction that God is love and that God’s relationship to creation is defined, motivated, and directed by divine love, which open theists view as constitutive of the divine essence or nature itself.[30] In the words of Boyd:


Throughout its narrative the Bible shows us that God created the world out of his triune love with the goal of acquiring for himself a people who would participate in and reflect the splendor of his triune love. More specifically, God’s goal from the dawn of history has been to have a church, a bride, who would say yes to his love, who would fully receive this love, embody this love, and beautifully reflect this triune love back to himself.[31]


Thus we are created to experience, enjoy, and reflect (or replicate) the love of the trinity—in relating to God, to others, and to the created order. Once again, Boyd explains, “The goal…is for the perfect triune love of God to be manifested to people, replicated in people, and reflected back from people…The whole creation is meant to express and embody the eternal triune love that God is. It exists to glorify God.”[32]


§3.2.2 Freedom: the necessary context for contingent love

            The next two central convictions shaping the open theist’s worldview follow necessarily from the primacy of love. Boyd asks:


If love is the goal, what are its conditions? What must creatures be like if they are to be capable of participating in the love of the Trinity?…Agents must possess the capacity and opportunity to reject love if they are to possess the genuine capacity and opportunity to engage in love.[33]


It is the metaphysics of creaturely love and moral responsibility which necessitate libertarian freedom as the context for loving creaturely personhood. Once God determines to purpose us for loving relations with God and others, endowing us with an appropriate capacity to determine ourselves is the metaphysical price-tag. God cannot reach his goals apart from such risk-taking. Creation, Boyd argues, must possess a certain “order” to be a “stable medium” in which humans can grow responsibly into relationship with others and God.[34]

We must say something here about the open theist’s view of God’s relationship to time. It is a complex question but central to the open theist’s view of creation as an appropriately free context for human choice and true becoming and God’s real relatedness to it. Open theists agree in three important respects regarding the question of time. First, time and temporal becoming are genuine and objective features of creation. Thus, open theists are A-theorists with respect to time. Second, God is viewed as temporally eternal and not as absolutely timeless. Here one must exercise some caution to distinguish between God’s relationship to time sans creation and God’s relationship to time since creating, for the question of God’s relationship to time sans creation remains a matter of debate among open theists. However, because creation is believed to be (temporally) dynamic and not static, God is seen as temporally related to creation and thus as dynamically omniscient. His knowledge of the universe changes as the universe changes.[35] Lastly, open theists agree that what is at stake in the debate over God’s relationship to time is the integrity of divine-human relations and God’s knowledge of tensed facts. These require, in the view of open theists, the abandonment of the timeless view of God in favor of temporal eternity.[36]




§3.2.3 Risk: the implications of freedom for the God-world relation

            The existence of creaturely freedom has important consequences for the God-world relation—for the world because freedom constitutes the indeterminacy which open theists argue is incompatible with exhaustively definite foreknowledge, and for God because such freedom is also incompatible with it being the case that God can always guarantee that his will is fulfilled. God, open theists believe, respects our freedom in those situations where our acting freely constitutes the necessary conditions for our achieving the purposes for which God created us. But if love requires freedom, what does freedom entail? It entails ‘risk’. And so the reality of ‘risk’ becomes the third in a trinity of convictions that support open theism’s defining claim of divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents.

Several open theist authors address the question of divine risk-taking and its implications for our understanding of divine providence and in turn the implications that form the object of this thesis—the practical effect which such beliefs have upon believers, specifically our understanding of petitionary prayer.

One open theist who has addressed the question of divine risk from a biblical/theological point of view is John Sanders, whose chief contribution to this debate is aptly titled The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Sanders categorizes all views of divine providence under two models, the “no-risk” view and the “risk” view. Meticulous, or specific, providence, that manner of relating to the world in exclusively deterministic ways, takes no risks. Sanders responds:


…if God is in some respects conditioned by his creatures, then God takes risks in bringing about this particular type of world. According to the risk model of providence, God has established certain boundaries within which creatures operate. But God sovereignly decides not to control each and every event, and some things go contrary to what God intends and may not turn out completely as God desires. Hence God takes risks in creating this sort of world.[37]


Divine conditionality, Sanders argues, is the watershed issue dividing “risk” and “no-risk” views of divine providence. If God engages in “dynamic given-and-take relationships with us, God is conditioned by our freedom in some ways, and this implies that he runs the risk that his intentions are not always fulfilled.”[38]

Another key contributor to the defense and development of a theology of divine risk-taking is Gregory Boyd. Boyd figures risk into a biblical worldview, what he calls the trinitarian warfare theodicy (TWT). It rests upon six theses that form the core of his theodicy. The second of these theses (TWT2) states that ‘freedom implies risk’. Risk is just the metaphysical price-tag God must pay to get the sort of loving creation he desires.[39] As Boyd states, “God could not have created a world in which creatures possess a measure of self-determining freedom without risking some loss. His free creatures might not choose as he wants them to choose.”[40] Boyd summarizes:


If the case…for a partially open future is accepted, it is possible to ascribe risk to God for the sake of love without concluding that God is not in control of the world. While Scripture assures us that the overall objectives of history are secure…it also teaches us that the fate of any one of his free creatures is unsettled until they themselves choose to enter into the saving covenant with him. This is the ultimate risk the Lord takes in creating a world with the purpose of sharing his triune self with others.[41]


Another open theist who discusses the meaning and implications of divine risk-taking is William Hasker.[42] Hasker defines divine risk-taking as follows: “God takes risks if he makes decisions that depend for their outcomes on the responses of free creatures in which the decisions themselves are not informed by knowledge of the outcomes.”[43] What determines whether God’s actions are risky or risk-free? Hasker answers, “God is a risk-taker if he endows his creatures with libertarian freedom; otherwise not.”[44] Open theists would agree that what creates risk in the world is the existence of libertarian freedom. However, an open theist could argue that Hasker has not captured what is at the heart of risk-taking, the notion of purpose. It is conceivable at least that I make a decision which depends for its outcome on responses of free creatures but where none of the possible outcomes constitutes a risk of loss. The point is that loss can only be defined in terms of purpose. And while every choice is made for a purpose, not all choices that depend for their outcome upon responses outside my control necessarily entail risk. It might be that none of the possible responses that lie outside my control presents a risk. One would have to relate possible outcomes to stated purposes in order to establish risk per se. Still, open theists, Hasker included, argue that it is often the case that the fulfillment of some purpose of God depends for its fulfillment upon the free responses of creatures and that this can and does constitute a risk for God.

By definition, then, love must be freely chosen. Creating us with the capacity for saying “yes” to loving God also meant creating us with the capacity for saying “no” to God. If we can’t say “no” to God, open theists argue, we can’t love God. Creating a world capable of genuine love and intimacy, therefore, involved a risk on God’s part that we might choose not to love him. On the open model, the choice to love or not to love God responsibly and with integrity cannot be predetermined by God (contra Calvin), nor can it be eternally foreknown as certain by God (contra Arminius).


§3.3 Various relevant diversities within open theism

            Having surveyed the defining claim and supporting convictions of open theism, I shall now note a few relevant diversities. Not all open theists agree on the best way to argue God’s knowledge of future indeterminacy. Four versions, or articulations, are presently argued by various open theists.[45] These may each be understood as falling along a two-fold continuum representing ‘bivalent/non-bivalent omniscience’ on one hand and ‘voluntary/involuntary nescience’ on the other, as follows:

(1) Voluntary Nescience. The future is epistemically open for God because he voluntarily chooses not to know truths about future contingents. In this view, there are truths describing what we shall freely do, but God chooses not to know them. Dallas Willard espouses this position.[46]

(2) Involuntary Nescience. The future is epistemically open for God because truths about future contingents are by definition unknowable. In this view, there are truths describing what we shall freely do, but no one including God can know them. William Hasker represents this version of open theism.[47]

(3) Non-Bivalent Omniscience. The future is epistemically open for God because propositions about future contingents (or future indeterminacies) are neither true nor false. In this version there are no truths God does not know (either voluntarily or involuntarily) because propositions positing future contingents are neither true nor false. Thus, not knowing them doesn’t undermine omniscience since there are no truths God does not know. J. R. Lucas argues this view.[48]

(4) Bivalent Omniscience. The future is epistemically open for God because propositions positing future contingents in terms of what “will” or “will not” occur are in fact false.[49] What is true in the case of future contingents is that they “might and might not” occur. Greg Boyd, Alan Rhoda, and the present author espouse this position.[50] In this view, bivalence is believed to hold universally (or at least for propositions describing future contingents), omniscience is held to mean “knowledge of all truths,” and God is believed to be omniscient. However, the scope of future-tense propositions is enlarged from exclusively “will” and “will not” type propositions to include “might and might not” type propositions, so that the three together are the jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive ways of describing the future.[51]



§4.1 The reality of spiritual warfare

            We now have firmly in hand open theism’s defining claim of divine epistemic openness and the essential convictions that ground this claim. According to openness, the triune God of love has freely created the world and purposed it for personal, loving relationships wherein God is most glorified as creatures freely choose to replicate that love throughout the cosmos. To this end God endowed humans with libertarian free will, a commitment which entailed a certain risk for God and creation, but a risk God deemed worth taking given his purposes.

Before directly considering the implications these convictions have for our understanding of petitionary prayer, I shall sketch the general providential contours of open theism, for these determine the game and rules that define the field of play upon which open theists believe us to be engaged when we pray. Boyd asserts:


Scripture certainly encourages the believer to find consolation in the fact that Christ suffers with us when we suffer…It admonishes us to trust that God is always working to bring good out of whatever circumstances we find ourselves, however tragic…It encourages us to be steadfast when we are persecuted for our faith and when the Lord uses trials to build our character…Finally, as we just argued, the Bible certainly teaches that we can derive a peace that passes all understanding from the fact that our eternal fellowship with God in his kingdom will more than make up for our sufferings in this present age…But I do not believe that Scripture teaches us to find consolation in trusting that everything that occurs has a divine reason behind it.[52]


Boyd expresses the fundamental difference between Calvinistic and Arminian versions of providence on the one hand and process and open theistic versions of providence on the other. That difference is whether or not we assign to everything that occurs in the world a specific divine ‘reason’ or ‘purpose’. As we shall see, whether or not we make this assignment transforms our understanding of prayer.

Sanders has argued that the entire open view debate is essentially not about divine foreknowledge at all, but rather about competing views of divine providence:


Our rejection of divine timelessness and our affirmation of dynamic omniscience are the most controversial elements in our proposal and the view of foreknowledge receives the most attention. However, the watershed issue in the debate is not whether God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) but whether God is ever affected by and responds to what we do.[53]


Indeed, it is far easier to lose sight of foreknowledge when discussing love, freedom, and risk than it is to avoid the question of providence when discussing these. Open theism is a belief about divine risk-taking before it is about divine foreknowledge. Since one’s beliefs about what sort of relationship God has with the world and what sort of actions God may or may not take in pursuing the fulfillment of his purposes determine whether, why, and how we prayer, the foundation of any theology of prayer begins with one’s understanding of the nature and scope of God’s providential actions.[54]




Among open theists, Boyd has most thoroughly argued the reality and nature of spiritual warfare, constructing what he calls a “warfare worldview.”[55] The reality of warfare conditions everything about our lives, including the open theist’s understanding of the nature of providence and its relationship to prayer. We are engaged in a genuine war facing real risks, not a mock exercise which is either the inevitable consequence of an unconditional divine decree involving secondary causation or specifically permitted in its minutia based on definite foreknowledge.


§4.2 Acceptable risk

            We have seen that open theists all believe that God has purposed the world for loving relationship and endowed it with the requisite freedom. This freedom in turn, argue open theists, entailed the risk that agents would choose contrary to God’s will. This belief shapes the open theist’s understanding of providence. If God takes certain risks, then some of his purposes may not be fulfilled, in which case we cannot assume that all that occurs in the world happens as it does because God is purposefully behind it either by decree (Calvinism) or specific permission (Arminianism). Boyd characterizes both these understandings as sharing a ‘blueprint’ worldview, for they both understand God’s governance of the world to mean the world is always precisely what God decided it should be (either be decree or specific permission).[56]

The belief that divine providence is compatible with both a warfare worldview and divine risk-taking has serious consequences for our approach to prayer. There may be occasions when we pray as we ought in which God responds favorably, but the desired outcome will fail to actualize because of factors outside the immediate control of God and those praying. As Basinger explains, “it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.”[57]

In examining the models of divine providence, John Sanders focuses on what he calls the major traditionalist models that affirm omnipotence and divine involvement in the world. He names and compares six such models: Augustinian-Calvinism, Thomism, Molinism, Calvinistic-Molinism, Mystery/Antinomy, and Freewill Theism. The latter in turn is divided into traditional and open view versions.[58] Sanders comments:


Openness agrees with traditional freewill theism regarding libertarian freedom, the rejection of meticulous providence, that some of God’s decisions are conditioned by what the creatures decide (e. g. conditional election), and that, at times, God’s will is thwarted. Proponents of openness emphasize that God has chosen to establish reciprocal relationships with us based upon the eternal love shared by the Holy Trinity. There is genuine give-and-take with God. In love God takes risks that we will not respond appropriately to the divine love.[59]


The three supporting convictions earlier mentioned—love with regard to purpose, freedom with regard to creation, and risk with regard to providence—together lay the foundation for the open theist’s understanding of divine agency in the world. While some non-openness models embrace the first two, open theists are unique in positing diving risk-taking. This means that prayer will not always issue in the desired outcome even when God wishes to favor us by acting in response to our request. On such occasions, for God to grant our request means God agrees to act on our behalf with a view to bringing about the desired state of affairs. It does not guarantee that the desired state will obtain.


§4.3 Rules of engagement

            What sort of conditions must there be if the world is the sort of place where God can wish to bring about a state of affairs and act with a view to bringing about that state but the desired state fail to obtain? And does this not decimate any hope that prayer is efficacious? Boyd answers these concerns by appealing to the multifaceted nature of the conditions or “creational variables” under which we live and pray. We might say these constitute the “rules of engagement” sovereignly designed by God to govern the God-world relationship. Boyd argues that whereas traditionally the church has claimed it understood creation well and posited the mystery of evil in God, it is rather in the complexities of creation where we ought to locate the fundamental mystery (about evil, pain, suffering) and God’s character and loving intentions which we ought never to doubt.

What interfaces between a predictably loving God and the complexities of an unpredictable and fallen world that might account for the failure of an omnipotent God’s will on occasion? Boyd suggests that we understand God’s relationship to creation to be guided by conditions God freely set in place when God created but which God covenants to honor for the sake of his purposes. The entire project of creation is held together and governed from beginning to end by overarching purposes and a correspondingly appropriate creaturely context (our capacities and the capacities of the physical universe to behave freely). This context is required for the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

We understand that the material universe is an ordered system governed by laws that apply to material entities (motion and gravity for example). Similarly, Boyd suggests, there are metaphysical laws that govern the God-world relationship. Several of these can be known by us, but we can never comprehend the whole of it. One creational variable, Boyd argues, is prayer. Prayer (or the lack of it) is one of the influencing factors which constitute the totality of relations that determine outcomes on any specific occasion, but it is not the only factor. This is at the heart of what makes faith and prayer both comforting and frustrating.


§4.4 God’s infinite intelligence and the governance of the world

            One last contribution of Boyd’s is necessary to fill out our understanding of the providential contours of open theism. Boyd has offered what he calls the Infinite Intelligence Argument to explain how foreknowledge under the open model provides God a providential advantage in governing the world. It is argued against the open view that if God does not foreknow that some particular evil will occur at a particular time, God cannot act providentially to prevent it. He must wait until things occur to discover anything about them. Hence God is caught off guard, as it were. Providence then becomes a matter of damage control as opposed to wise preparation.

Open theists have made two responses to this, one relative to determinism and one relative to traditional simple-foreknowledge. To the former it is admitted that a God who unconditionally decrees all that occurs exercises the greatest possible level of control and takes no risks. Indeterminists, including open theists, have objected that viewing God as exhaustively determining all things is unacceptable on biblical/theological, philosophical, and existential grounds. I shall not here present these arguments. I shall only comment that open theists concede that theological determinism offers us a view in which God exercises the greatest possible control. However, for such a God, the notion of ‘preparing’ for the future would be precluded on the basis of the fact that all that occurs is equally unconditionally decreed by the one divine will.

To those indeterminists who embrace either timeless knowledge or simple-foreknowledge, it has been shown that these would be providentially useless to God.[60] There is nothing a God who possesses such knowledge can do that a God who does not possess such knowledge cannot also do. The challenge is to understand what sort of foreknowledge would provide God a basis upon which to act providentially in ways not equally foreknown. This Boyd does with his Infinite Intelligence Argument.

God’s ability to deal with what happens, the argument goes, is not in the least affected by the fact that God faces a future comprised of “possibilities” and “certainties” as opposed to one comprised exclusively of “certainties.” The answer lies in appreciating the infinite intelligence of God. As an infinitely intelligent person, God would eternally foreknow all possibilities, all the possible story lines, including all the possible responses he might give and all the possible counter-responses of people. Being infinitely intelligent, God is able to attend to any number of such possibilities as if each was the only thing that could happen. When any possible event becomes actual, Boyd insists that God was perfectly and eternally aware that things might happen this way and so was perfectly and eternally prepared, no less so than if this was the only thing God had to contemplate from all eternity.[61]

We humans possess finite intelligence. This means that our ability to think, plan, and prepare for the future is limited the more we have to consider. Suppose we have ten, fifty, or a hundred possibilities to contemplate. We are necessarily less prepared for them the greater their number, for our intelligence is divided among them. But God is infinitely intelligent. His intelligence is not “spread thin” or “divided” among the possibilities. God can bring all his attention and preparation to bear on each of any number of possibilities and thus not be any less prepared than if he were to anticipate one certain story-line. In the open view, then, God does not under-know the future, he over-knows it.

Consider the game of chess as an analogy.[62] Suppose I challenge Kasparov to a match. Kasparov doesn’t possess definite foreknowledge of my moves, but he does possess knowledge of the possible moves I may make (and in certain circumstances throughout the match he will be able to predict with certainty some of my moves). Because he is far more intelligent than I, Kasparov is able to anticipate and prepare adequate responses to any move I may make. Is there any question who is in control of the game? Is there any question who will win? None whatsoever. Kasparov is not put at any disadvantage by having to consider possibilities as opposed to certainties.

Let us grant for the sake of argument, however, that Kasparov does possess a printout of the entire match, including all of my and his moves, in a manner analogous to traditional indeterminist notions of divine foreknowledge.[63] Would this knowledge give Kasparov any advantage? Would he be able to make use of this knowledge in order to determine his moves ahead of time? The answer, of course, is no. There is no advantage to be gained (and some problems created) by Kasparov’s having definite foreknowledge of every move in the game. On the contrary, such knowledge could not at all explain how it is that Kasparov is able to prepare for the game or how he is able to interact during the game.

One might argue that the simple-foreknowledge model is nothing more than pre-recorded open theism. Consider, the simple foreknowledge model believes that we live in a world where God responds to us in dynamic mutual relations, where we are libertarianly free to choose, where our prayers make the required difference to God, and where things might sometimes genuinely be different than they are. Open theists also believe we live in this kind of world. The only difference is that advocates of simple foreknowledge believe that everything about this world exists eternally in God’s mind. And, it is argued, our trust in God’s providential care rests in this being the case. But open theists ask, What difference would such knowledge make? What providential advantage would God gain by possessing this kind of foreknowledge as opposed to knowledge of all possible story lines? None whatsoever. But if such knowledge is of no practical value to God, believing that he possesses such knowledge can be of no practical value to us.



§4.5 Consequent ambiguity

            Once we posit a universe of intersecting and sometimes competing divine, angelic, and human wills, together with genuine risk and warfare under a myriad of creational factors we cannot comprehend, we have an entirely different approach to the problem of evil. We can know that for any given evil, God, being perfectly loving, always does all God can do to maximize good and minimize evil, but we also know that given the metaphysics of freedom and risk, how much good God is able to actualize on any given occasion is conditioned by these creational factors. Thus, we can never know enough about the complexities of creation and the contributing factors that determine specific outcomes to judge precisely which variables played which determining roles. Consequently the world presents us with a good deal of ambiguity, not with respect to the divine character or intention (which open theists insist is loving and good), but with respect to the intersecting creational variables.

Open theists generally admit that God can and does on occasion guarantee outcomes. They also admit that God can and does on occasion make compatibilistic use of evil. Consequently, given our ignorance of the complexities and the hidden variables, we are consigned to ambiguity regarding specifics. We can never know whether some specific evil was opposed by God as such, given all the variables that are part of any event in the world, or whether God was specifically permitting or making use of agents in their evil intentions in a larger attempt to minimize evil and maximize good in the world. We must, open theists urge, wean ourselves of the need to know and therefore of our tendency to judge.[64]


§4.6 Consequent assurance

            This ambiguity just considered relates to creation, however, and not to God’s character or his loving purposes. We can never comprehend the totality of divine and creational influences under the rules of engagement established by God, but we may enjoy profound assurances. First, we may know that God always does all God can do given his purposes and the context in which God finds himself, to maximize good and minimize evil in the world.[65] Here “all God can do” does not equal something like “flex all the muscle God has” or “exercise all the power God possesses.” It rather means God always exhausts all the available avenues for achieving his highest glory and the good and perfection of creation within the constraints he freely put in place to achieve the desired relationship with creation. Within this context, God does all he can to maximize good and minimize evil. That is his nature.

A second assurance is that however grave may be our suffering, we can rest in the confidence that God is resourceful enough to redeem our circumstances when we cooperate with him (Rm. 8.28-29). There is no horror so great that God cannot redeem good and beauty from it. God is always redemptively engaged in every occasion seeking to bring about the highest good and most loving state of affairs.

A third assurance we have in a risk-filled world is in the entrusting of our souls to God. With respect to our final state and our eternal enjoyment of God’s presence, we have an unconditional divine guarantee that those who trust God cannot possibly be disappointed[66] whatever else may occur in this life.




§5.1 Open theists on prayer

            Having laid an adequate foundation for an open theistic theology of prayer by noting the nature and limits of existential arguments, the defining claims and convictions of open theism, and the general contours of God’s providential actions in the world, we are now ready to examine specific open theist contributions to an understanding of petitionary prayer.

Let us begin with David Basinger’s contribution in The Openness of God[67] since it marks the beginning of a debate that has continued unabated for over ten years now. Basinger sketches the practical implications which follow from this view of God and the world. He notes that most Christians believe that whether God directly intervenes in our world depends at times on whether we petition God to do so.[68] In other words, many times it is the case that “we have not because we ask not” in the sense that “certain states of affairs that God can and would like to bring about do not occur because we have chosen not to request that he intervene.”[69] God, in the open model, intends us to become morally mature persons, and our shaping the world in partnership with God through prayer is part of that process.

Basinger points out the crucial difference between petitionary prayer as viewed by theological determinists and process theists on the one hand and open theists on the other:


…it is also possible for proponents of the open model to conceive of    petitionary prayer as efficacious in the crucial sense in which it is not possible for proponents of either specific sovereignty or process theism to maintain that it is. Since proponents of specific sovereignty believe that God always ensures that we freely make the exact decision that he would have us make, and since process theists deny that God can ever unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs, those in neither camp can justifiably maintain that petitionary prayer initiates unilateral divine activity that would not have occurred if we had not utilized our God-given power of choice to request such divine assistance. However, since we who affirm the open view deny that God can unilaterally control human decision-making that is truly voluntary but affirm that God can unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs, it does become possible for us to maintain justifiably that petitionary prayer is efficacious in this sense—that is, to maintain justifiably that divine activity is at time dependent on our freely offered petitions.[70]


Not all open theists agree on just how God ought to be viewed as “intervening” into the lives of those for whom they pray. All open theists would agree that God as a general rule does not override a person’s freedom to determine that she perform some action. But what if we assume, Basinger asks, that what is being asked when we prayer that God intervene on behalf of someone in a troubled marriage, for example, is that God only “influence their lives in such a way that it will be more likely that things will work out for the best”? Basinger answers:


The answer depends on what we who affirm the open model mean when we say that God loves all individuals in the sense that he is always seeking the highest good for each. For some of us this means that God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one person’s life simply because someone else has failed to request that he do so. And, accordingly, we naturally find prayers requesting even non-coercive divine influence in the lives of others to be very problematic.

Other proponents of the open model, though, see no necessary            incompatibility in affirming that God always seeks what is best for each of us and that God may at times wait to exert all the non-coercive influence that he can justifiably exert on a given person until requested to do so by another person. And thus they readily acknowledge the potential efficacy of prayers of this type.[71]


Another open theist who treats prayer is Boyd. In the second of his trilogy on evil, Boyd develops his view of prayer within an open-warfare worldview, beginning with the affirmation that “God miraculously intervenes in world history and responds to the prayers of his people.”[72] Given this conviction, and the thesis that God’s exercise of power to direct events as he wishes is restricted by free agency,[73] what can petitionary prayer contribute? Boyd explains:


One could argue that [petitionary prayer] is pointless, for if what a person prays for is something that is best for God to do, it seems God would already by trying to do it whether or not that person prayed. On the other hand, if one naively prays for something that is not best for God to do, then it seems that a God who always does the most good he can would not do it, regardless of the prayer. In other words, if what one is praying for is best, praying for it seems either unnecessary if God can carry it out or pointless if he cannot. Moreover, if what one is praying for is not best, God would not carry it out even if he could. So what is the point of petitionary prayer?[74]


We shall consider how others have addressed the problem of petitioning a perfectly good God. For now we can summarize Boyd’s own answer:


I submit that the problem is solved if we understand prayer to be part of the morally responsible potential, the spiritual say-so that God gives free agents in his desire to have a creation in which love is possible. I have argued that God is restricted in terms of what he can unilaterally carry out by the domain of irrevocable freedom he has given to agents. I have further argued that this entails that the short- and long-term implications of agents’ behavior for all other agents must be allowed to unfold, for better or for worse. We may understand prayer as a central aspect of this moral responsibility. By God’s own design, it functions as a crucial constituent in the ‘givens’ of any situation that makes it possible for God more intensely to steer a situation toward his desired end.[75]


Thus Boyd defines prayer as “creaturely empowerment” and sets it within those “variables” that define the “givens”[76] of any particular situation, givens that just are that situation to which God relates and within which he must work. That is, among all the variables God respects in relating to the world (God’s loving purposes, the irrevocable freedom they require and God endows, the laws of nature, the specifics of any actual situation, and many other variables we can’t possibly fathom), prayer is fundamental. It is a variable that, along with other variables, defines the contexts in which God sometimes gets what he desires and other times does not. And this arrangement is God’s own sovereign design. It is how we help shape ourselves and the world we live in.

This, Boyd argues, makes sense of prayer as we see it in Scripture, as an activity that influences God and contributes to outcomes that might otherwise not have been. In Boyd’s words, “the effectiveness and urgency of petitionary prayer as it is commanded and illustrated throughout Scripture only makes sense if we are asking God to do something he would not otherwise do and if God at least sometimes does this.”[77]

But why should God design the world this way? What is the divine rationale for such an arrangement? In Satan and the Problem of Evil, Boyd suggests three reasons. First, such prayer “preserves our personhood.” Interpersonal relationships require that the persons involved be empowered over and against one another. Where one party exhaustively determines the other, the dominated party is depersonalized.[78] Thus, we must possess the capacity to determine and shape ourselves and the world we live in if our relationship to God is to possess personal integrity. Second, mutual interdependent relationships are maintained and encouraged through personal communication. By making much of the good God truly desires for us and the world dependent in part upon our petitioning God, God weaves into the fabric of the cosmos the sort of interdependent communication necessary to the thriving of divine-human relationships. Third, Boyd suggests that prayer is an essential part of our learning to reign with God. God wants us to share in his universal reign by being vice-regents through whom his loving jurisdiction is mediated throughout the universe. Thus, this life is a kind of probationary training grounds, as it were, where we learn to employ those gifts and authorities by which we will forever rule with God. God could not have the desired result without endowing us with the required capacities and leaving us free to mature into their proper use. Petitionary prayer, freely offered, is an exercise of creaturely power fundamental to our growing into God’s eschatological aims for us.[79]

Lastly, Boyd discusses variables related to prayer. These variables are always present. They define the context in which we pray and influence outcomes, though as noted, we are often confined to ambiguity regarding specifics. Boyd lists nine such variables: God’s will, the faith of those prayed for, the faith of those praying, the persistence of prayer, the number of those praying, human and angelic free will, the number and strength of spirit agents, and the presence of sin. These, Boyd explains, are only some of the variables we are aware of which influence prayer’s effectiveness.

In describing his understanding of prayer within a “risk” (open) model of providence, John Sanders emphasizes the sense in which God acts in the world “because” we request him to do so. “Does it make sense,” asks Sanders, “for proponents of specific sovereignty to claim that God grants something because of or in response to the request made?”[80] He notes Paul Helms’ understanding of prayer within a deterministic worldview. Helm comments that in a “no-risk” model of providence “intercessory prayer is not one means of settling God’s mind on a course of action, but one of the ways in which the already settled mind of God effects what he has decreed.”[81] Thus, though God has unconditionally determined outcomes and the means (prayer) by which they are to come about, Helm claims we can still agree that God answers ‘because’ we pray. Petitionary prayers are efficacious in the sense that God wills them as the means by which determined ends are to be actualized. Sanders argues that this sense of ‘because’ is clearly different than the sense of ‘because’ which attributes contingency to our requests and God’s responses. Sanders argues:


…the God of specific sovereignty is not actually prevailed on by prayer. God never responds to us or does anything because of our prayers because this would imply contingency in God. In this model it is difficult to make sense of James’s statement that ‘you have not because you ask not’ (Jas 4:2) because if the God of specific sovereignty wanted you to have it, then he would ensure that you asked for it. If God’s will is never thwarted in any detail, then we can never fail to receive something from God because we failed to ask for it.[82]


Sanders goes on to summarize the “risk” model of prayer:


Our prayers make a difference to God because of the personal relationship God enters into with us. God chooses to make himself dependent on us for certain things. It is God’s sovereign choice to establish this sort of relationship; it is not forced on God by us….Our failure to practice impetratory prayer means that certain things that God wishes to do for us may not be possible because we do not ask.[83]


Sanders also addresses the debate among open theists over the objection that God, being omnibenevolent, must always act to bring about the best possible state of affairs in any given situation whether or not he is requested to do so. Sanders makes two points in reply to this objection. First, he points out that it is not clear that the notion of a “most valuable state of affairs” is coherent.[84] God, Sanders suggests, would have any of several alternative actions to pursue. Second, if what God holds to be “most valuable” is the personal relationship with other persons, then his actualizing all possible goods independently of our asking him to do so (at least on occasion) would undermine the integrity of the sort of relationship God wishes to have with us.[85] The first of these two seems less than convincing. Surely it is coherent to suppose that on occasion there is one best, most loving option to pursue even if there is no one best possible world to create. So the question remains, what are we to expect of perfect love in such instances? Sanders’ second point, however, provides what I think is a most fruitful way to understand why God would sometimes make his actions in realizing good in the world contingent upon our petitioning him.

The open view approach to prayer is further argued by Clark Pinnock who holds petitionary prayer “to be a good indicator of the interactive nature of our relationship to God.”[86] In his words:


In prayer the practicality of the open view of God shines. In prayer God treats us as subjects not objects and real dialogue takes place. God could act alone in ruling the world but wants to work in consultation. It is not his way unilaterally to decide everything. He treats us as partners in a two-way conversation and wants our input….[87]


Thus prayer validates the open view of God because it so adequately reveals the interactive nature of the God-world relationship. Pinnock argues this is crucial to providing a proper sort of motivation for prayer. “People pray passionately,” he says, “when they see purpose in it, when they think prayer can make a difference and that God may act because of it.”[88]

Terrence Fretheim has had an enormous effect on open theism.[89] He describes prayer as “creating openings (relational space) for God in the world.”[90] In his review of prayer in the Old Testament, Fretheim notes that “silence on the part of the people means that God is not able to be God for them in a way that God would like to be.”[91] Likewise, “what is possible for God in responding to prayer in a way that is in the interests of all concerned may vary from one situation to the next.”[92] With Boyd, who describes prayer as “creaturely empowerment,” Fretheim notes that “prayer has to do with that which brings the human and the divine factors into the fullest possible power-sharing effectiveness.”[93]

The tabernacle provides an example in physical terms of creating space in the world for God. Likewise, the prayer that is offered in this house of prayer creates space wherein God dwells and acts in the world. J. Gerald Jenzen, agreeing with Fretheim’s approach, comments:


It is of the utmost significance for both theological reflection and the practice of prayer that this mystery of unity [between God and humankind] as mutual indwelling is embodied in an act of prayer, the prayer of Jesus as high priest bearing on his shoulders and his heart the names of his followers and, ultimately, of his whole creation. To pray as a Christian, then, is to enter with Jesus into that space, as the space God has freely opened up for the world to be, a space within which it is safe to invite God, and the company of God, into the space of one’s own internal freedom.[94]


Fretheim’s fundamental insight into prayer as our “creating space for God in the world” expresses well what is at the heart of open theism’s approach to prayer. Prayer is that “relational space” we create in response to God’s invitation and in so doing create an opportunity, a space, for God to move in the world.

Samuel E. Balentine has offered a most thorough review and commentary on prayer in the Old Testament,[95] and his work deserves more review than we can here give. Balentine argues that prayer in the Old Testament is a means of delineating divine character. He points to prayers that appear in the text not merely as an individual’s prayer on this or that occasion (insignificant in terms of the theology that motivates it), but as prayers “put into the mouths of certain pray-ers for the purpose of conveying the ideological and theological concerns of the editors.”[96] Balentine further shows how prayer reveals the dialogical nature of the divine-human relationship. God chooses to engage humanity in a relationship of reciprocity. “The texts I have examined,” concludes Balentine, “repeatedly present God with reality-depicting metaphors as speaking and acting toward humanity, and as listening for, hence inviting, human response.”[97] Balentine further concludes:


The central point here is that covenant relationship is fundamentally dialogical. Two parties are mutually bound to one another in a relationship that is desirable and important to both. Both parties have a voice and a role to play; neither can disregard the appeals of the other and maintain the relationship as it is intended to be. If either God or Israel does not participate in the dialogue, then communication fails and the relationship is impoverished by silence.

To sharpen this point with respect to the discourse of prayer, covenant partnership means that God cannot and does not use the divine prerogatives of power to reduce Israel’s response to monotones of praise, submission, or silence. Such limitations on human response effectively eviscerate genuine covenant relationship, substituting instead enforced obedience and passive devotion.[98]


Thus, for Balentine, prayer is a constitutive act of faith that creates the potential for newness in both God and humanity.[99] Neither party in the relationship can remain unaffected after prayer is offered. The view of God that emerges from the Old Testament is of a God who is personal, accessible, loving, powerful, and compassionate.

Let us further consider the work of Robert Ellis.[100] After summarizing both the Old and New Testament evidence regarding prayer, Ellis has a helpful review of the history of interpretation on relevant texts and issues. It is when he discusses prayer and the doctrine of God, however, that Ellis makes very fruitful contributions, arguing the link between our doctrine of God and our understanding of prayer. Ellis also focuses on Christ as the definitive word on what God is like. Thus, a Christocentric theology of prayer views God as “Christlike.”[101] In drawing together the evidence from both the Old and New Testaments and the contributions of history, Ellis concludes that prayer is fundamentally a “participation in the action of the Trinity in the world.”[102] The Trinity is crucial for Ellis because it suggests that prayer is not so much something we offer to God as it is something that takes place within God. God draws us into himself, into an experience of his triune love and purposes. Furthermore, God’s being complex (triune) suggests that God values synergy and sociality (both crucial elements in an open view theology of prayer). For prayer to reflect these trinitarian values God and humans must mutually engage one another; humans must be sufficiently autonomous persons in their own right.[103]

Consider one last contribution to open theism’s understanding of prayer, that of Vincent Brummer.[104] Our concerns take us to three issues taken up by Brummer: the nature of impetratory prayer as constitutive of personal relations; issues involved in praying to an omniscient God, and problems faced by claiming a perfectly good God would make his performance of some good dependent upon the prayers of less than perfectly knowledgeable and perfectly good agents.

Regarding the first of these, Brummer argues a two-way contingency that characterizes the relationship between us and God. Petitionary prayer makes sense as a free engagement occurring between personal agents. Brummer places petitionary prayer’s efficacy in the space between those actions impossible for God to perform (because they are logically impossible or incompatible with God’s holy character) and those which God performs inevitably by virtue of his nature and character.[105] Constitutive of impetratory (petitionary) prayer is the presupposition that:


God does what is asked because he is asked. In this sense the petition itself is a condition for God’s doing what he is requested. On the one hand, however, it is not a sufficient condition making it inevitable for God to comply with the request. In that case prayer would become a kind of magical technique by which God could be manipulated by us…On the other hand, although the petition is not a cause which makes God’s response inevitable, it is the reason for his response.[106]


Thus we must reject divine immutability as understood by Aquinas, for:


…not only would all events in the world be inevitable and therefore not the sort of things that could meaningfully be objects of petition, but God would not be the sort of being to whom petitions could meaningfully be addressed. If his intentions are immutably fixed from all eternity, he would not be able to react to what we do or feel, nor to the petitions we address to him. He could not be said to do things because we ask him to do them.[107]


Second, Brummer considers the problem of petitioning a God who is believed to know precisely how future contingents will obtain. Were God to infallibly foreknow every event and human choice, “no event could take place differently from the way it in fact does, and no human agent could act differently from the way he in fact does, for that would falsify God’s infallible foreknowledge.”[108] So far as we know, Origen was the first Christian to take up this question.[109] And his answers were not novel. He adopts standard Stoic explanations.[110] Boethius also urged, “If God foresees all things and cannot in anything be mistaken, that which his Providence sees will happen, must result.”[111] Brummer declines Boethius’ own solution to this problem (divine timelessness) and instead concludes:


God…could of course have created a deterministic universe, in which case there would have been only one possible course future events could take. In that case it would have been coherent to claim that he knows with absolute certainty what course all events will take—since there would be only one. However, we all know from personal experience that this is not the sort of universe which he has in fact created. He has rather created a world with an open future in which various possibilities could be actualized.[112]


Prayer cannot, then, be approached with the understanding that God is somehow informed by his knowledge of future contingents in determining how best to answer our prayers. That is quite impossible on a presentist, indeterminist cosmology. This does not contradict the claim that God knows all things, however. Brummer contends that God knows all things as they are, not as they are not.

Brummer’s third concern is the problem generated by supposing both that God is perfectly loving and that God makes the provision of our good dependent upon our petitioning him. This problem has been addressed by both Boyd and Sanders and will be consider again under §7.2 in response to Stephen Roy’s criticism and David Basinger’s concern. I shall only mention here that Brummer’s reply is similar to that which I give in §7.2. The problem with many of the proposed solutions to the problem, claims Brummer, is that these aim petitionary prayer at stimulating either God or the petitioner himself to action. This is misleading in that it does not take into account the “relational character of prayer” or the “mediate nature of divine agency.”[113] God acts through the actions we perform.

As will be seen, I am in fundamental agreement with Brummer on this last issue. Both the relational and mediate nature of divine agency is where we must find a solution to the problem posed by praying to a perfectly good God. What is needed, moreover, is a sufficient rationale for justifying a perfectly loving God’s making his loving provision dependent upon our prayers. I address this in §7.2 and again in the eight concluding theses of §8.1.


§5.2 Summary of contributions

            There are other contributions we could include, but the foregoing will have to suffice in representing what open theists generally perceive to be the nature of divine action in the world and the role of petitionary prayer.[114] To temporarily summarize these contributions, then, we can say that open theists:

●     view the God-world relationship as a covenant in which God pledges to achieve his loving purposes for creation in partnership with human beings.

●     understand that our shaping the world with God through prayer is constitutive of the order and synergy required by the sort of loving relationship for which we were created.

●     define prayer as God-given “creaturely empowerment” by which we “create space” in the world for God to act.

●     see prayer as one of many variables that determines what we and the world become, part of the morally responsible potential God grants us in making possible the sort of free and responsible world that reflects God’s own triune loving personhood and that is required for us to develop the capacities necessary to reigning with God throughout eternity.

●     acknowledge the necessary ambiguity that characterizes the world and limits our ability to judge why things happen as they do or why they do not always happen as they might have.




We have now discussed the nature and difficulty of adequacy claims (2.1-2) and suggested that open theists ground such claims in the pragmatic maxim, the light of Scripture, and the shared experience of a community (2.3-4). We have noted divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents as the defining claim of open theism (3.1), reviewed love, freedom, and risk as the three essential supporting convictions shared by open theists (3.2), and noted various relevant diversities within open theism (3.3). We then surveyed the main providential contours of open theism relevant to a theology of petitionary prayer (4.1-6) and surveyed the representative contributions open theists have made to an understanding of prayer. It remains only to engage specific objections (§6 and §7) and in response lay out what appear to be the building blocks of an open view theology of petitionary prayer (§8) that is religiously adequate.


§6.1 General objections

            Objections to open theism cover a wide range of issues, including biblical/theological questions, philosophical objections, the question of church tradition, and of course the practical effects.[115] Objections to the practical effects of believing open theism to be true generally claim that the view results in a loss of trust and therefore of hope in God and his word. Consequently our confidence in God with respect to guidance, prayer, and suffering is undermined and faith is eventually shipwrecked.[116]

John Piper has been unambiguous in his opposition to open theism, listing fifteen grounds for dismay, which include claims that open theism undermines the Church’s  “common vision of…God,” holds that God “makes mistakes,” attributes ignorance to God, is pastorally harmful, and undermines the believer’s hope.[117] Thomas Ascol has similarly criticized the pastoral implications of open theism, urging that open theism undermines confidence in Scripture, God, faith in Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and confident living.[118] If God does not know what the future holds in every respect, and if God’s will is not always triumphant, then prayer at best is only accidentally efficacious, nothing like a robust biblical portrait of prayer.

Bruce Ware has argued similarly that open theism’s God is unworthy of worship and unable to answer prayer.[119] The open view undermines one’s confidence and hope in God and adds despair to human suffering.[120] Ware urges evangelicals to beware of open theism because “the very greatness, goodness, and glory of God and “the strength, well-being, faith, hope, and confidence of Christian people in and through their God are at stake.[121]

Anit-openness rhetoric like the above constitutes a competing contrary existential argument that makes essentially the same claim. Much of it lacks any logical sophistication in the way of formal argumentation, but three authors have offered more sophisticated arguments against open theism based on the perceived adverse effects it has upon petitionary prayer, and to these I shall now turn.


§6.2 Bruce Ware: Their God is Too Small

            Bruce Ware’s most recent response to open theism is concerned entirely with the practical implications of the view.[122] Previous of his works engage this question, but we shall here engage his most recent arguments.

Ware lists three difficulties with open theism and its view of prayer.[123] First, it issues from a modern psychologized culture which encourages an inordinate estimate of personal self-importance. Modern culture caters to what we want and places the “customer” first. Open theism is infected with this consumerism which in turn distorts prayer’s purpose and role. The view has only managed to grow in popularity, Ware insists, because of the immensely low view of God and the unrealistically high view of self that characterizes Christian culture in the West. Second, because God knows the past and all my present thoughts and desires that go into the formation of my petitions, there is no sense in which God can interact with me in them. They cannot represent the sort of reciprocal relationship open theists claim they do. And third, since in open theism God does not know how future contingents will actualize, God lacks the knowledge he needs to know best how to answer our prayers. Ware is here responding to Basinger’s explanation of the general providential contours of open theism. Basinger explained in The Openness of God that divine guidance from an open view perspective cannot mean discovering “exactly what will be best in the long run” but rather a means of determining what is “best for us now,” because within the providential contours of open theism “it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.”[124] This is intolerable for Ware, who responds:


On the one hand, because God knows the past and present exhaustively and accurately, he is simply too knowledgeable and wise to learn anything from our prayers. But on the other hand, because he lacks exhaustive definite knowledge of the future, he is not knowledgeable and wise enough to answer our most urgent and pressing prayer in the ways that are, in fact, best.[125]


Ware also offers four points toward understanding prayer more biblically. First, he considers the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6.9-13). Ware believes this prayer assumes God’s mind is “made up” regarding God’s will. We are not asked to pray “Your will be formed,” Ware interprets, but rather “your will be done.”[126] The assumption is that the God-world relationship assumed by Christ here precludes our prayers affecting God in the sense open theists claim they do. God’s will predates our prayers. Thus, “we must never approach prayer,” urges Ware, “or think of God in terms of what we contribute to God.”[127] Second, Jesus teaches us that “your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vv. 7-8). Before we bring our requests to God, Jesus says, God knows what we need. It follows that we can never tell God something God does not already know and did not anticipate. Ware believes this contradicts open theists’ claims. Third, Ware argues from Exodus 32.11-14 (a favorite open theist text used to show that God “changes his mind” regarding destroying Israel in response to Moses’ petitions) that God need not be thought of as having changed his mind. Could Moses have brought God some new insight or perspective that caused God to change his mind? Ware shows that all the points Moses offers to God as reasons for not destroying Israel are believed by open theists to be known by God independently of Moses’ petitions. Ware then inquires:


On which of these points would God have responded to Moses and said, “Say, Moses, good point. I just didn’t understand it that way. Thanks for the insight—and for the reminder! I can hardly believe that I almost forgot about the covenant!”? But isn’t it clear that, to understand this text in a way in which God literally changes his mind, something like this must be envisions?[128]


Lastly, Ware inquires into what sense our prayers might “make a difference” to God. It cannot be that God ever changes his mind in response to human actions or that we “contribute” to God. In what sense then do our prayers make a difference? Ware answers:


Simply put…God has designed that his good and perfect will be accomplished, in some respects, only as his people pray and first ask for God so to work. The role of prayer, then, becomes necessary to the accomplishing of these certain purposes, and our involvement in prayer, then, actually functions to assist in bringing these purposes to their fulfillment.[129]




§6.3 Stephen Roy: How Much Does God Foreknow?

            Stephen Roy has recently offered a comprehensive engagement of the open view that makes a substantive attempt to establish the religious inadequacy of the view based on four problems that result from an open view approach to prayer.[130] The first regards how the God of open theism decides whether he should answer my prayer in the way I ask.[131] Various crucial events in the future that would, Roy supposes, make a particular answer to my prayer wise and loving are unknown to God. Roy cannot see how, given divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, God can know how best to answer our prayers. Second, Roy objects that since there is nothing we can tell God in prayer that he does not already know, our prayers contribute no new information to God, in which case it is difficult to see how our prayers make a genuine contribution to God.[132] More specifically, it is difficult to see how prayer contributes to a “genuine and mutually responsive relationship between God and his children as open theists claim.”[133] The point is that God knows too much about us for his relationship with us to be genuine and real (presumably in the open theist’s sense of ‘genuine’ or ‘real’).[134] Since what we contribute in prayer is the present product of our past experience and present understanding, and since God knows these infallibly, the sort of “mutually interactive, mutually instructing relationship with God in prayer that is often promoted by open theists would seem to demand not only that God not have exhaustive foreknowledge but also that his knowledge of the present and past be limited as well.”[135]

Third, God’s commitment to respect our libertarian freedom means that with respect to prayers whose answer depends on the free exercise of wills other than God’s, God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer those prayers. This is unacceptable to Roy.[136] Lastly, Roy suggests that open theists who insist God’s love is universal and impartial (admittedly a core value for open theists) have a hard time squaring this with their belief in the efficacy of petitionary prayer. Roy wonders how a God of such love is justified in withholding any good gift simply because he has not been asked to bestow it. If open theists place a high value on the efficacy of petitionary prayer so that God’s actions in maximizing good in the world are sometimes dependent upon our prayers, it becomes difficult, insists Roy, to consistently claim that God’s love is genuinely universal and impartial. On the other hand, if open theists do justice to the universality and impartiality of divine love by insisting that God always actualizes the greatest possible good, then it becomes difficult to consistently maintain an efficacy to petitionary prayer.[137]


§6.4 David Ciocchi: “The Religious Adequacy of Free-will Theism”

            A more logically formal argument for the religious inadequacy of open theism is offered by David Ciocchi.[138] Ciocchi challenges the claim that open theism supports a rich religious life. He advances an understanding of ‘religious adequacy’ and then argues that open theism fails to be religiously adequate with regard to petitionary prayer because it fails to honor beliefs implicit in the way ordinary Christian believers pray. Ciocchi first defines religious adequacy. A position is ‘religiously adequate’, Ciocchi suggests, “to the degree that it comports with the common beliefs and practices of ordinary believers.”[139] Religious adequacy is thus, in Ciocchi’s view, a measure of the “intellectual fit” of a position vis à vie “the actual lived faith of most believers.” [emphasis mine] Ciocchi then makes two central assumptions. First, the implicit belief of common believers that Ciocchi believes open theism fails to honor is the presumption of divine intervention in response to petitionary prayer (PDI). Furthermore, Ciocchi argues, prayers must be ‘appropriate’.[140] Thus PDI is the presumption of divine intervention in response to the petitions of appropriate prayer.[141] In Ciocchi’s view, a position’s religious adequacy requires accommodating PDI. Second, Ciocchi defines “petitioning God” as “mak[ing] a request of an agent who may say ‘no’ but who cannot be blocked from granting the petition if His answer is ‘yes’.”[142] William Hasker, whose response to Ciocchi will be noted shortly, terms this second assumption of Ciocchi’s the supplementary requirement, or SR, and formulates it as follows: “(SR) It is impossible for God to be prevented from granting a petition he wants to grant.”[143]

Given PDI and SR, then, Ciocchi’s basic argument follows rather simply: Many (most) ‘appropriate’ petitions depend for their fulfillment upon the free actions of persons other than the pray-er. And since libertarian free will is such a value to open theists, and since open theists allow for the possibility that God may act in view of granting a petition only to have his will frustrated by free agents, open theists cannot affirm PDI, in which case their view fails Ciocchi’s test for religious adequacy. Open theists should acknowledge that their views on prayer diverge dramatically from the beliefs and practices of ordinary believers and that open theism is in fact religiously inadequate.




§7.1 Response to Bruce Ware

            Ware’s three criticisms of open theism’s effect upon one’s prayer life were: (1) It issues from our modern western consumerist’s mentality that fosters an unrealistically high view of self; (2) it cannot represent the kind of mutually reciprocal and interpersonal relationship open theists claim since our petitions offer nothing to God in the way of new ‘information’; and (3) not knowing how future contingents will turn out, God cannot now know how to best answer our petitions. He also offers comments on the Lord’s prayer and Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32.

It is difficult to know how to respond to Ware’s first charge. Undoubtedly western consumerism exerts its influence on us all. But has Ware actually argued his point or has he simply claimed that it is so? Establishing a causal link between consumerism’s emphasis upon the priority of the customer and open theism’s insistence upon the value of the individual would require much more than Ware offers. One could argue that open theism’s insistence upon individual responsibility and the value of a person are rooted in biblical concerns—Ezekiel’s emphasis upon the ‘individual’ (Ez. 18.13, 18, 20) and Jesus’ overwhelming declarations of God’s love for humanity (Jn. 3.16). One could also reply that much of non-openness Evangelicalism, including Ware’s articulation of the gospel, is the result of western consumerism’s influence as well. After all, Ware does not deny that believers enjoy a ‘personal’ relationship with God, and his emphasis upon the ‘individual’ can be as easily attributed to western consumerism as Ware insists is the case with open theism’s emphasis upon the individual. How does Ware distance the personal dimensions of his own faith from such consumerism while implicating open theism’s personal dimensions? Ware doesn’t say. And then lastly, Ware’s criticism could apply to his own theology in another sense. One could argue that Ware, unable to live with the truth that God’s will is sometimes not accomplished, has embraced a theology that feeds the consumer’s craving for personal security and hence offers as a ‘product’ a risk-free creation and the all-controlling God.

Regarding Ware’s second criticism, it seems to misconstrue what open theists believe to be at the heart of mutually reciprocal personal relations. Ware makes such relationships entirely about ‘information’ and assumes that two persons cannot transact personal loving relationality unless one is ‘educating’ the other by introducing information previously unknown to the other. But in fact open theists have agreed that petitioning God cannot be about ‘informing’ God.[144] Ware’s assumption about information’s relevancy to personal relationships is entirely unfounded and without analogy. Even human-human relations can be mutually reciprocal in a fully personal sense without one party having to ‘educate’ the other.

One line of thought that sheds light on this point is speech act theory.[145] The fundamental insight of speech act theory is that the paradigmatic function of language is to do things, not to say things. We all intend our speech to do something, to accomplish something. Likewise with prayer. To petition is to perform some ‘act’, an act that is not reducible to a transfer of information from the petitioner to another party. Information doubtless counts for something. We are, after all, communicating with language. But we perform a linguistic “act” in terms of speech act theory. Thus Ware’s objection that since we are not ‘educating’ God of our needs, our petitioning God cannot amount to the kind of personal act wherein we engage God and God in turn responds, is ill-conceived.

For open theists, the “act” of petitioning another creates its own reality. It transcends information per se. Open theists thus do not suppose God responds to our prayers because they believe they have brought to God some new bit of information about the world which they believe God did not already know. On the contrary, it is the “act” of engaging another through petition that creates a personal, social dynamic (or disposition) wherein an exchange of life (the mutual sharing of thoughts, feelings, and desires) occurs. Consequently, outcomes are defined in terms of this personal exchange. Take some specific good G. God may provide G independently of our requesting it or God may act to provide G in response to our undetermined prayers. I submit that G is not identical in both cases. God’s acting ‘in response to’ our undetermined request gives definition to G. Thus G achieved synergistically is more complex and so a more beautiful (more ‘good’) or more lovingly relational state of affairs. If the beauty of such loving relationality is at least part of what God is after in creating, then it is simply not available to God via unilateral action.

Lastly, Ware’s claim that if God were not to know future contingents he would not know how “best” to answer our petitions begs the question. Ware is doubtlessly assuming a notion of “best” that entails his own beliefs about the meticulous sort of providence he believes God exercises. “Best” for Ware just is his way of viewing God’s relationship to the world. But where there are real indeterminacy and risk in the world, “best” is to be understood in probabilistic terms. Does this mean God’s will is sometimes thwarted? Yes. Does this mean, as Basinger explains, that sometimes even God’s attempts to secure our petitions may fail to produce the desired outcomes? Yes. But it is no argument against this that it fails to satisfy a definition of “best” on some other construal of providence. That is rather to be expected.

Before moving on, let us consider the two biblical passages Ware introduces, the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6.9-13) and Moses’ petition of God (Ex. 32.11-4). Ware argues from the Lord’s prayer that (a) God’s will predates our petitions and that this therefore precludes our “contributing to God” in the sense argued by open theists, and that (b) since God knows what we need “before” we ask, our prayers do not inform God and so cannot be the means of the sort of mutually influential relationship open theists believe prayer represents.[146]

Given what we have seen thus far, an open theist response to Ware here is not difficult to imagine. Open theists do not suggest that God’s mind and will are entirely undecided until we settle them through prayer. On the contrary, open theists assume God has desires for every occasion and that he pursues them regardless of human contribution. The question is whether or not the fulfillment of the aims God pursues are ever at risk because their fulfillment depends upon the free prayers of believers. Far from precluding such a view, Jesus’ admonition, open theists argue, expressly makes fulfillment of the will of God contingent upon our requesting it. It is not the determining of God’s will that open theists here suggest is our contribution to God. It is rather the accomplishing of his will. And open theists argue (Basinger excluded) that some purposes of God for us are of metaphysical necessity dependent upon our free cooperation.

There is then Ware’s suggestion that since God knows our needs before we petition God, prayer cannot be about informing God of our needs. But no open theist argues that we ‘inform’ or ‘educate’ God when we present our needs to him. The efficacy of petitionary prayer for God is not information driven, and to construe exhaustively definite foreknowledge from God’s knowing what we need before we pray is to misread the passage. All that is implied by Jesus is God’s perfect knowledge of our present needs. He knows our needs “before we ask,” not “before we need them.”[147]

Lastly, what of Ware’s comments regarding Moses’ prayer to God in Ex. 32? He objects to open theists’ use of this passage to argue a genuine response on God’s part to Moses’ appeal. Again, Ware grounds any possibility of response in Moses’ informing God of something God did not previously know. Ware cannot imagine any other basis upon which personal responses to requests can be made. But we every day respond to requests that introduce no new information to us simply because the request presents us with an opportunity to value others and realize states through cooperative agreement rather than unilateral action. Consequently we adjust a course of action in response to requests in order to pursue a future that yields more relational complexity and love, and so more beauty, by virtue of being achieved interdependently. We do so because we value the aesthetic satisfaction of relating and working synergistically. I shall say more of the value God places upon the beauty of jointly achieved aims in §7.2.


§7.2 Response to Stephen Roy

Roy presented four problems facing the open theist’s understanding of prayer, the first two of which are identical to Ware’s second and third criticisms which I have already addressed. Let us then consider Roy’s third and fourth objections, which are: (3) God’s commitment to respect our libertarian freedom means that with regard to prayers whose answer depends on the free exercise of wills other than God’s, God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer those prayers; and (4) open theists cannot affirm both God’s universal and impartial love (by which Roy believes God would not make his provision for some good dependent upon our petitioning him) and the efficacy of petitionary prayer (by which God’s actions in maximizing good in the world are sometimes dependent upon our prayers).

In response it should be obvious that open theists plead guilty to (3). Roy has simply accurately stated the open view position, not argued against it. Given the providential contours of open theism (genuine indeterminacy with its consequent epistemic openness, risk, and ambiguity), it is indeed the case that God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer some of our prayers. But for open theists this arrangement is just the metaphysical price-tag for the sort of loving, personal, and morally responsible world God wishes to achieve.

Roy’s fourth objection is more serious and deserves attention. As noted earlier by Basinger, placing divine love at the center of our understanding of God and his actions in the world leads to one of the basic tenets of open theism: “God always desires our highest good, both individually and corporately.”[148] Elsewhere Basinger restates this conviction as follows, “an omnibenevolent God is obligated to maximize the quality of life for those beings he chooses to create.”[149] Consequently, Basinger argues, “God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one person’s life simply because someone else has failed to request that he do so.”[150] This leads to the problem Roy notes.[151]

For Basinger, then, the belief that an omnibenevolent God always seeks to maximize good and minimize evil (something on which all open theists appear to be in agreement) entails the notion that God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one’s life simply because someone else failed to request that God do so. But is the latter entailed in the former?[152] One might respond to this as Keith Ward does:


It is not sensible to complain, that, if I fail to pull my neighbor out of a ditch when I could easily do so, God is responsible for leaving him there. It is no more sensible to complain that, if I fail to pray for my neighbor when I could easily do so, God is responsible for not doing what my prayer might have effected.[153]


But Ward is too quick. Suppose a second neighbor is aware of my first neighbor’s plight in the ditch and has the ability to help but refrains from doing so unless I ask him. Who would excuse this second neighbor for refraining from helping simply because I had not asked him to do so? What possible constraints could my requesting him to help place upon my second neighbor that would excuse him while implicating me? An articulation of a rationale for such constraints, freely entered into by my second neighbor, is what Basinger is after.

I have noted responses to this supposed impasse by both Sanders and Boyd. Boyd affirms that God as love entails God’s always doing all God can do—given the creational variables he sovereignly established—to maximize good. Limiting certain outcomes to the petitions of believers is part of the morally responsible “say-so” believers must possess and exercise if they are to grow into their eschatological ends. Sanders adds to this that if the good we suppose God pursues as a matter of character includes a personal relationship with us, then God is properly speaking incapable of unilaterally achieving every possible good. Basinger fails to take the metaphysical nature of the constraints seriously enough.

Basinger is unconvinced. He does “not believe that a perfectly good God could justifiably refrain from granting any believer’s essential needs, even if she has consciously decided not to request God’s help.”[154] But in his response, Michael Murray exposes this as problematic. Murray responds:


If Basinger means to adopt this as a general principal which follows from the conceptions of God’s obligations he endorses, then serious trouble looms. And the reason is simply that if (a) God exists, and (b) the principal is true, it would follow that (c) no believers would ever die from starvation, exposure, or, presumably, death on a cross. Since they do, we have an argument against not only efficacious petitionary prayer, but theism itself![155]


Basinger’s claim seems excessive. It makes it difficult to affirm with James that believers “have not because they ask not” or any number of other essential goods we know God is desirous to grant but for which we are told to petition God.[156] Basinger objects that none of the rationales offered thus far are the sort of goods that would justify a divine policy of making provision of essential needs sometimes dependent on our petitioning God for them.

I submit that Basinger’s essential concern expresses a sound conviction but that he has misconstrued the matter a bit. That is, God ought to be viewed as ‘maximally involved’ at all times, in all circumstances, seeking to bring about the most good possible given the variables that define each circumstance. Thus, it is never the case that God “refrains” from performing goods simply because he was not petitioned. Where I believe Basinger is mistaken is in limiting the “good” that an omnibenevolent creator would pursue to the good of “the individual” understood independently of other considerations. Along these lines I suggest that there is a “good” to be had in synergistically achieved aims that cannot be achieved by unilateral divine action, that such good is that for which the cosmos has been designed, and that our individual “goods” are implicated in the interdependence necessary to achieving this larger “good,” which is simply the consequent beauty of loving relationality, the relational (divine-human and human-human) synergy reflected in outcomes cooperatively achieved. As noted above, some good G achieved synergistically is essentially different than G achieved unilaterally. The contingent cooperation of freely offered petitions shapes the identity of outcomes and makes them more aesthetically pleasing or beautiful to God. This is what loving relationships produce.

Consider the accomplishing of any task a person may want to undertake and introduce personal relations into the context, so that the task is transcended by the relations, that is, the greater task becomes the enjoyment of relational intimacy. An example from my personal experience will suffice. Some years ago I moved with my wife and children into a new home, and my daughter’s room needed painting. My daughter (then 12 years old) loved art and wanted to paint the room, or at least be a part of painting the room. But I was pressed for time and preferred to do the job myself. I knew I could get the room done quicker, more efficiently, and more neatly if I did not have to accommodate my daughter. I knew involving her would mean greater risk of spillage and a less professionally looking job. But I also loved my daughter and valued our relationship more. Painting the room with her and not just for her or through her, allowing her to hold the brush in her hand and not determine its every movement to insure a neater job, would (a) accomplish something between us that could not be gotten were I to paint the room in any other way, and (b) give definition to the room that reflects this relational intimacy.

This analogy suggests a way of understanding how nurturing the divine-human relationship is the ultimate task at hand and that this relationship transcends the specific creational contexts in which those relationships reside. Basinger objects that a loving parent would never make her provision of a child’s essential needs (food, shelter, clothing) contingent upon the child’s petitioning for such needs. Considered purely in terms of this-worldly individual needs, Basinger may be right. But this begs the question. God’s purposes and agency in the world are best conceived cosmically and eschatologically, and no individual’s ‘good’ can be conceived of or realized independently of ‘the whole’. Since God always seeks on every occasion to maximize good (i.e., the relational beauty ‘of the whole’), synergy must be sought. This just is the good which open theists ought to insist God necessarily pursues. Basinger misses this point I believe. It is not as if God “refrains from intervening beneficially” when we fail to petition God. God is doing all God can do given the failure of prayer, so there is no “refraining” from doing what perfect love by definition does, viz., seek the highest possible good in every circumstance. Nor is “intervention” an appropriate description of God’s part of the divine-human venture we call prayer. That assumes that God is sometimes not fully engaged until we petition him. On the contrary, however, God doesn’t ‘intervene’ in this sense. God ‘supervenes’ as it were. He actively ‘inhabits’ every occasion and is thus always maximally involved, seeking to bring about the most beautiful state possible given what he has to work with.[157]

As noted earlier, Boyd’s and Sanders’ essential point is that our petitions create avenues, “space” (to use Fretheim’s word), wherein “all that God does” in that instance is able to achieve more, not less, good. But this means that on occasion “the most that God can do” fails to achieve what it might have had we prayed. But this is not to say God “refrained” from anything.

In conclusion then, Roy’s claim that open theism provides an inadequate basis upon which to engage meaningfully in petitionary prayer because open theists affirm a notion of divine love that is incompatible with God’s making the provision of a person’s ‘good’ depend upon the prayers of others proves to be false. We have noted that there are conceivable circumstances and conceivable goods that justify God’s making his involvement in securing these goods sometimes dependent upon his being petitioned to act.


§7.3 Response to David Ciocchi

            William Hasker has responded to Ciocchi’s argument[158] for the religious inadequacy of open theism based on PDI and SR.[159] It is clear that SR must be true if PDI is to be satisfied. “If there is any significant class of requests that are ‘appropriate’ in terms of PDI, but that God could be prevented from granting,” notes Hasker, “then the satisfaction of PDI cannot be guaranteed.”[160] Hasker has only to demonstrate that relatively few believers upon reflection would affirm anything like SR, and this he does by showing how equally problematic SR is for other views of providence (simple-foreknowledge, timeless knowledge, Molinism, and determinism). Ciocchi’s argument is equally problematic for understanding petitionary prayer within these views on the assumption of SR. PDI and SR are, in Hasker’s words, “excessively strong claims,”[161] not at all implicit in the practice of ordinary believers.

Moreover, Hasker notes biblical examples of cases in which God’s desired outcomes are both pursued by God and yet fail to obtain. Jesus prays regarding Jerusalem, “How often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Mat. 23.37) Other presumably “appropriate” prayers go unanswered. What of the petitions for “peace on earth” in the Gloria or that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s prayer? Hasker concludes:


…while some of those who pray the Gloria and the Our Father may for various reasons be insufficiently pleasing to God, this can hardly be true of all. On the contrary, some of the most devout believers have also been most assiduous in the use of these prayers. And given the very extensive use of both the Gloria and the Lord’s Prayer, petitions of this sort probably constitute a significant fraction of al the prayers that are offered; they are by no means exceptional. Yet we must confess that peace of earth—especially the spiritual peace that is primarily intended—and the doing of God’s will are rather the exception than the general rule. The reason, of course, lies squarely in the wills of creatures such as ourselves, who in very many cases are far from desiring what God desires and from willing to do God’s will. Examples such as these constitute compelling evidence that PDI as stated [by Ciocchi] is overly strong….[162]


Without SR, Ciocchi’s argument fails. Open theists can agree with Ciocchi, of course, that religious adequacy requires a certain existential “fit” between belief and practice and that this practice ought to be the shared experience of a community and not of an isolated individual (as I earlier argued). Indeed, this is urged by open theists themselves. Whether or not the required shared experience must constitute the ‘majority’ of believers before it can be considered ‘religiously adequate’ for a community is doubtful. Open theists will gladly admit, though, that open theism cannot meet the requirements set out by PDI and SR. But this is hardly fatal to the religious adequacy of open theism for those who reject SR, as Hasker argues, and these may in fact constitute a great many, perhaps the majority, of ordinary believers.



§8.1 Eight guiding theses

            We are now at a position to state some essential theses arising from our study which guide open theism’s understanding of prayer within the larger providential framework already noted in this paper.[163] I state these in terms of eight guiding theses:

(1) Prayer is simply that personal, interdependent, mutually influential communication necessary to the establishing and flourishing of loving relationships. This grounds all else open theists might say about prayer.

(2) God is always doing all God can do given his purposes and the contextual variables of every given circumstance to maximize good and minimize evil. That is, God always and everywhere ‘supervenes’ upon/through/in creation, bringing all the influence that God can bring to bear in each circumstance within the creational constraints he sovereignly established (and discussed in this thesis) in order to achieve the most aesthetically satisfying, lovingly relational state of affairs possible.

(3) The ‘good’ God seeks in creation is the beauty of freely determined loving synergy. The fundamental conviction here is that an outcome brought about unilaterally by God is less good or beautiful than the same outcome achieved as a result of the synergy created by our petitioning God. Outcomes shaped synergistically represent a greater good than outcomes unilaterally achieved. Consequently, the outcome achieved in each of these two manners is not essentially the same ‘good’ after all. They are essentially different. This provides us with a divine rationale for God’s making his meeting essential needs on occasion contingent upon our petitioning him. Why pray to an omnipotent, omniscient, all good God? Because the beauty and love for which we and others were created is achievable at least sometimes through an interdependence of both divine-human and human-human relations, and that interdependence is free and risky. This is not to say that when the greater good of cooperatively achieved outcomes fails on account of a lack of prayer that God as a matter of policy settles for the next best thing, viz., bringing about the same outcomes unilaterally and thus somewhat less beautifully. It is to say the good of cooperatively achieved outcomes is only possible if there is a certain integrity to the conditions for such relationality, and this in turn involves a real commitment to risk and precludes God’s being able to guarantee the same outcomes minus the cooperative component.

Given (2), God is always maximally involved in seeking to redeem every occasion in the cosmos and to maximize its potential for loving relationality. But given (3), the nature of loving relationality limits both God and humans to a fundamental interdependence that links the ‘good’ of individuals to the larger ‘good’ of creation. Petitionary prayer is fundamentally an affirmation of this interdependence.

(4) The efficacy of petitionary prayer is grounded in the interdependence of God’s purposes for us and the metaphysical constraints those purposes place on the God-world relationship. God is ‘functionally’ finite in some respects with regard to achieving desired outcomes, and the God-world relationship possesses an integrity that cannot be undermined by unilateral divine (or human) action without destroying the very synergy by which God’s aims are to be achieved.

(5) The urgency and motivation for petitionary prayer are grounded in the worth and beauty of God which God created us to reflect.[164] As argued, synergistically achieved outcomes are more beautiful than unilaterally determined ones and worth the constraints of interdependence.

(6) The religious adequacy of open theism is grounded in (a) the shared experience of a community that testifies to the existential viability of believing open theism’s defining claim and core convictions, and (b) the confirmation this experience receives from biblical and theological considerations. In a word, open theists constitute a growing community of people who experience life and prayer as fulfilling in the biblical sense of the word.

(7) Prayer involves offering ourselves in answer to our prayers by committing actively to engage the fallen and conflicted structures in which we live.[165]

(8) Lastly, what open theists may justifiably petition God for is limited (as it would be in any approach) by the constraints of their view of God, his purposes, and the nature of divine providence. In open theism God is believed incapable of unconditionally determining the morally responsible behavior of agents, including whatever choices persons make that establish and develop their character relative to the sort of loving relationality they were created for. Thus, a request for God to “Save Uncle Frank’s soul!” motivated by a belief that Uncle Frank’s choice for God is something God can entirely determine, is incompatible with the open view, as would be any request that God determine a person with respect to loving relationality. This does not rule out our asking God to act in ways that provide Uncle Frank with greater opportunity, understanding, motivation, and awareness of God. But would not a perfectly loving God already be doing “all he could do” in this sense without having to be asked? Our answer to this (chiefly in §7.2) was “yes,” but we argued that what God’s “all” is able to accomplish is at least sometimes constrained by the contributions (actions and prayers) of believers because the fundamental accomplishment God seeks is the beauty of outcomes synergistically or cooperatively achieved. This is the love for which we were created. This consideration would figure into an open view missiology as well. The fact that a loving God is always maximally involved in every situation seeking the most relationally (loving) beautiful state possible does not rule out the belief that contingent, human involvement makes greater beauty achievable.


§8.2 Trusting God in a risky and ambiguous creation

            What can “trust” mean in such a risky world? What may we confidently expect of God when we offer our petitions to him in faith? Can a God who ever faces possible futures, whose expectations sometimes do not come to pass, whose will is sometimes thwarted, be trusted? We have here considered the place and urgency of petitionary prayer within open theism and have argued for the adequacy of viewing prayer as God’s invitation to us to participate with him in accomplishing his purposes. For such prayer to have integrity to it, open theists argue, it must be the case that we genuinely influence the outcome of events in self-determined ways. Many times the future God intends to actualize through us fails to come about as desired because we fail to respond as we might. The point is that things might genuinely have been different from God’s point of view had people made different choices. But if the potential difference which prayer makes is as real for God as we believe it is for us, then God faces a future that is in some respects open and unresolved and has freely decided to allow us a part in resolving it. Open theists simply point out that it is not resolved until we resolve it and hence cannot be eternally foreknown in its resolved state. Our lives make a difference to God and the world, and this difference possesses integrity for both God and us.

I submit that trusting God within open theism amounts to five things: (1) Resting in the confidence of God’s character and intentions. We can know that God’s intentions for us are unchangeably loving and good if we understand God to be, in Ellis’ words, “Christ-like.”[166] (2) Resting in the confidence that God always does all God can do, given the limitations inherent in his own freely determined purposes, to maximize good and minimize evil in the world. (3) Relying upon the supervening presence and resources of God. If God is everywhere present and actively seeking to maximize loving beauty and goodness in the world, then we trust that he is working to bring good out of every evil. (4) Knowing that our prayers participate in shaping the world though we may not always perceive the difference we have made. And then (5) rejoicing in the confidence of knowing that in the end God will win and his rule will be realized throughout all creation. Open theists need not agree that ultimate victory is something God cannot guarantee even if they agree that much about the journey is open.

Together these five express a robust understanding of what it means to ‘trust’ within the open view and to engage in petitionary prayer with hope and confidence. Much hangs in the balance of our praying or not praying, and our prayers make a material difference.




Prayer and divine foreknowledge have together constituted a problem that has kept Christian thinkers busy from at least the early 3rd century CE. Origen reports on those who gave up on prayer for failure to reconcile it to predestination and foreknowledge. Origen’s On Prayer was in fact composed in response to controversies of his day over the efficacy of prayer on the assumption that God either predestines or foreknows all to come. He describes the objection to prayer as follows: “First, if God foresees everything that will happen, and these things must happen, prayer is useless. Second, if everything happens according to the will of God, and His decisions are firm, and nothing that He wills can be changed, prayer is useless.”[167] Origen concludes that divine determination of all things would render prayer meaningless and so the former is to be rejected. But he concluded that divine foreknowledge does not equally affect prayer and is to be received. Later, in the classical philosophical tradition, prayer was seen as a means of effecting change in us, not God, or the decreed means by which God brings about decreed ends.[168] This classical tradition has been rejected by a great many today, open theists included, who seek a more coherent exercise of a faith that better reflects Scripture’s portrayal of the difference that praying makes to God and the world.

I have set myself in this thesis (a) to examine the implications which open theism has for one’s understanding of petitionary prayer as a means by which God accomplishes his purposes in the world and (b) to ask whether or not this understanding of prayer is religiously adequate in the hope of judging the existential argument for open theism. We have examined the open theist’s defining belief and essential supporting convictions. We have suggested eight guiding theses that define petitionary prayer within open theism. And we have suggested what trusting God in a risky and ambiguous world entails. Is this vision religiously adequate? May open theists engage meaningfully in petitionary prayer given their core beliefs? I have attempted to show that open theists can enjoy at least as vibrant and passionate a prayer life as other believers, and perhaps a more religiously adequate one in terms of the intellectual fit between faith and practice.
































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*Formating and minor changes (typographical and grammatical corrections) to the text of the original thesis have been made by the author resulting in pagination different than the original.

[1] Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[2] For select bibliographies see Justin Taylor in John Piper, ed., Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Chicago: Crossway, 2003), 385-400; Dennis Swanson, “Bibliography of Works on Open Theism,” Masters Seminary Journal 12:2 (Fall 2001): 223-229; and John Sanders “Bibliography on Open Theism,” available from; Internet; accessed 26 November 2006.

[3] “Partly open” and “partly closed” were introduced by Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000), and have become an established part of open view language. Exactly what is “open” and what is “closed” will be discussed.

[4] The view is variously referred to as “the openness of God,” “open theism,” and “the open view.”

[5] Paul Sponheim, Speaking of God: Relational Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 81.

[6] David Basinger presents the existential case in The Openness of God with his chapter “Practical Implications.” We shall consider his and other open theist arguments in due course.

[7] In the words of Pope Clement I (5th century), lex orandi est lex crendendi or “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” This is essentially an existential argument and represents precisely the order for which I shall argue.

[8] R. Christopher Heard, “‘I AM WHAT I AM’: Inputs, Outcomes, and the Open Theism Debate,” Christian Scholars Conference, Malibu, California, presented July 22, 2005.

[9] Heard, “I AM,” 10.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Abductive reasoning is the process of reasoning to the best explanation. Adbuction was first introduced into logic by Charles Pierce, see his Harvard “Lectures on Pragmatism” (1903) and “Deduction, Induction, and Hypothesis,” Popular Science Monthly, 13 (1878): 470–482, both reprinted in Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur Burks, eds., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 vols., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958).

[14] Bruce Epperly, “Surprising God: Prayer, Partnership, and the Divine Adventure,” American Academy of Religion, Washington D.C., presented 18 November, 2006 and available online at; Internet; accessed December 23, 2006.

[15] Heard, “I AM,” 12.

[16] Charles Pierce is responsible for the pragmatic maxim, which simply states that we are to consider whatever practical effects a particular conception might have to be the whole of our conception of the object in question; see Peirce’s “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (1877): 1-15 and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” Popular Science Monthly 12 (1878): 286-302, both reprinted in Hartshorne, et. al., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce.

[17] See Charles Hartshorne, Creative Synthesis and Philosophical Method (LaSalle: Open Court, 1970), 81, and Gregory Boyd, Trinity and Process: A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne’s Di-Polar Theism Towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), 65-66, for arguments against determinism based on the pragmatic criterion of meaning.

[18] William Alston argues for the evidentiary value of experience in religious claims in “Divine-human dialogue and the nature of God” Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985): 5-20.

[19] David Ray Griffin, “Process Theology and the Christian Good News,” in John B. Cobb, Jr. and Clark Pinnock, Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue Between Process and Free Will Theists (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands Publishing, 2000), 3, argues for the “acceptance of the inevitable presuppositions of practice…as the primary test of adequacy for any philosophical or theological position.” [italics mine] Griffin calls these “hard core commonsense notions.” But what counts as adequate is a matter of disagreement even among those who agree there ought to be an agreement between faith and practice. In spite of this, not pursuing such existential, commonsense tests seems more problematic.

[20] Individual experience, yes, but an individual experience shared by a community as opposed to an individual’s unique experience.

[21] The phrase “epistemic openness” comes from Alan R. Rhoda, Gregory A. Boyd, Thomas G. Belt, “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future,” Faith and Philosophy 23:4 (October 2006): 432-459.

[22] Alan Rhoda, “Four Versions of Open Theism,” available from; Internet; accessed November 26, 2006, writes: “The core thesis of open theism is that the future is now, in some respects, epistemically open for God. Let’s call this the epistemic thesis (ET). In general, a proposition P is ‘epistemically open’ for subject S at time T iff nothing that S knows at T suffices to guarantee either that P or that not-P. Thus, the future is epistemically open for God at T with respect to possible future state of affairs X iff for some future time T* neither ‘X will obtain at T*’ nor ‘X will not obtain at T*’ is known by God at T. Whatever is not epistemically open for God is epistemically settled.” The “openness” in question, I should note, is a feature of the future and not God’s knowledge. It is the ‘future’ that is open.

[23] Again, terms introduced by Boyd, God of the Possible.

[24] Ibid., 23f and Trinity and Process, 66, n. 46. Boyd was the first to emphasize the distinction between ‘exhaustively definite foreknowledge’ or EDF (the view that God’s foreknowledge of all that occurs is eternally ‘definite’ or ‘settled’) and ‘exhaustive foreknowledge’ (the view that God’s foreknowledge of the future is exhaustive but not exhaustively definite). Open theists affirm the latter but deny EDF.

[25] See Rhoda, Boyd, and Belt, “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future” for specific semantic arguments.

[26] Vincent Brummer explores love as the defining model for understanding God in The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and to a lesser extent in Speaking of a Personal God: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). All open theists make divine love the fundamental starting point, see Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 126-127; Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God, chs. 1 and 3; Pinnock and Robert Brow, Unbounded Love (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994); John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Barry L. Callen, God as Loving Grace: The Biblically Revealed Nature and Work of God (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 1997); and Sanders, God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998).

[27] Ebehard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 314, quoted in Paul Sponheim, “‘The art of power lies precisely in making another free’: God’s Suffering-Action in Relational Transcendence,” in “And God Saw That It Was Good” Essays on Creation and God in Honor of Terence E. Fretheim, eds. Frederick Gaiser and Mark Throntveit, (St. Paul: Word and World, 2006), 171, n. 8.

[28] Sanders, “How Do We Decide What God Is Like?” in Gaiser and Throntveit, Essays, 155.

[29] For treatments of God’s love from decidedly non-openness points of view, see D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999) and Kevin Vanhoozer, ed., Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[30] For a philosophical articulation of the primacy of love as definitive of the divine reality and purpose for creation, see Boyd, Trinity and Process.

[31] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 51.

[32] Boyd, Is God to Blame? Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 63.

[33] Boyd, Satan, 52. See also Boyd, Is God to Blame?, ch. 5, for more on why these creational constraints of freedom and risk are metaphysical and not merely incidental.

[34] Boyd, Is God to Blame?, 113-114.

[35] Does the belief that God’s knowledge changes with a changing universe entail that God “discovers” or “learns”? Open theists answer this differently. All agree that God cannot “learn” in the sense of moving from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. Applied to God, this would amount to a denial that his knowledge is co-terminus with reality. Hence, open theism does not require the belief that God either ‘discovers’ or ‘learns’, although it does affirm that God’s knowledge changes with a changing universe. Being perfectly omniscient, God knows possibilities for what they are. As these possibilities are resolved into actualities in the course of time, God keeps infallible, unmediated, and co-terminus account of the state of reality.

[36] For a philosophical treatment of the questions, see Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge. Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).

[37] Sanders, God Who Risks, 10f.

[38] Ibid., 280.

[39] Boyd, Satan (2001). Boyd’s six thesis are: TWT1: Love requires freedom; TWT2: Freedom implies risk; TWT3: Risk entails moral responsibility; TWT4: Moral responsibility is proportionate to the potential to influence; TWT5: Power to influence is irrevocable; and TWT6: Power to influence is finite.

[40] Ibid., 23 and ch. 3.

[41] Ibid., 115.

[42] William Hasker, “The God Who Takes Risks,” in Michael Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 218-228.

[43] Hasker, “The God Who Takes Risks,” 219.

[44] Ibid.

[45] This four-fold distinction was noted by the present author and friend and professor Alan R. Rhoda independently of each other and later published online by Rhoda, “Four Versions,” available from; Internet; accessed November 26, 2006.

[46] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998): 244-253. John Sanders, “Be Wary of Ware: A Reply to Bruce Ware,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45:2 (2002): 221-231, n. 4, writes that Willard has conveyed this to him in personal correspondence, stating, “[Willard] argues that, just as God has all power but chooses whether to utilize it or not, so God could know our future actions but chooses not to know them. Willard believes that, for God to have truly personal relationships with us, God cannot know what we will do.”

[47] Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge.

[48] J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) and The Future: An Essay on God, Temporality, and Truth (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990). Also arguing this position are philosophers Trenton Merricks, Truth and Ontology (Clarendon Press, forthcoming), and Dale Tuggy, “Three Roads to Open Theism,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy.

[49] Rhoda, “Four Versions,” summarizes, “Positions (3) and (4) are wholly compatible with a traditional definition of omniscience (i.e., essentially knowing all and only truths). Positions (1) and (2) require some revision of omniscience as traditionally defined (viz., being capable of knowing all truths; knowing all truths that can be known).”

[50] See Rhoda, Boyd, and Belt, “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future,” and my “Open Theism and the Assemblies of God: A Personal Account of My Views on Open Theism” available at; Internet; accessed November 26 2006. A bivalent version of divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents is anticipated by Charles Hartshorne in “Real Possibility,” The Journal of Philosophy, 60:21 (1963): 593-605.

[51] See Rhoda, Boyd, and Belt, “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future.”

[52] Boyd, Satan, 162.

[53] Sanders, “Summary of Open Theism,” available from; Internet; accessed November 26 2006. Providential models are also discussed by Sanders in “Historical Considerations,” in Pinnock, et. al. The Openness of God.

[54] See Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), who has a fine summary of the options, and Peter Baelz, Prayer and Providence (New York: SCM Press, 1968).

[55] Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996). Walter Wink has also argued a warfare worldview in Engaging the Power: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992).

[56] Boyd coins the phrase “blueprint worldview” to describe the traditional understanding of foreknowledge throughout God at War. See also Is God to Blame?, ch. 2.

[57] Basinger, “The Practical Implications,” in Openness, 165.

[58] Sanders “Mapping the Terrain of Divine Providence,” 2-8, available from; Internet; accessed November 26 2006.

[59] Ibid., 6-7.

[60] For a presentation of the simple-foreknowledge view of the future, see David Hunt, “Divine Providence and Simple Foreknowledge,” Faith and Philosophy 10:3 (July 1993): 394-414 and Hunt’s chapter “The Simple-Foreknowledge View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001). The objection that such knowledge is providentially useless has been offered by David Basinger, “Middle Knowledge and Classical Christian Thought,” Religious Studies 22 (1986): 407-422, “Simple Foreknowledge and Providential Control,” Faith and Philosophy 10:3 (July 1993): 421-427;  Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge, ch. 3; and Sanders, “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God,” Faith and Philosophy 14:1 (January 1997): 26-40. Hunt offers replies in, “Prescience and Providence: A Reply to My Critics,” Faith and Philosophy 10:3 (July 1993): 428-438.

[61] See Boyd, “Neo-Molinism and the Infinite Intelligence of God,” Philosophi Christi 5:1 (2003): 187-204; “Unbounded Love and the Openness of the Future: An Exploration and Critique of Pinnock’s Theological Pilgrimage,” in S. Porter and T. Cross, eds., Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark H. Pinnock (Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster, 2003), 38-58; and most recently “Two Ancient (and Modern) Motivations For Ascribing Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge to God: A Historic Overview and Critical Assessment,” American Academy of Religion, Washington D.C., present November 27, 2006, and available from; Internet; accessed 22 December 2006. A Middle Knowledge response to Boyd’s Infinite Intelligence Argument is offered by David Werther, “Open Theism and Middle Knowledge: An Appraisal of Gregory Boyd’s Neo-Molinism,” Philosophi Christi 5:1 (2003): 205-215.

[62] Peter Geach devised the chess analogy, Providence and Evil: The Stanton Lectures, 1971-1972 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 58.

[63] Excluding Middle Knowledge, which is problematic on other grounds; see Hasker, ed., Middle Knowledge: Theory and Applications (New York: Peter Lang Publishers Inc., 2000).

[64] Boyd, Is God to Blame?, ch. 6, explores the ambiguity of life in relationship to prayer. Given the vast complexities of creation, we cannot judge the specifics of any evil that occurs, why our prayers were unanswered, or why circumstances do not always turn out as expected.

[65] Boyd, Satan, 210-212; see also §8.1.

[66] Ibid., 239.

[67] Basinger, “Practical Implications,” in Pinnock, et. al., Openness, 155-176.

[68] Ibid., 156.

[69] Ibid., 158.

[70] Ibid., 160.

[71] Ibid., 161. Basinger would classify himself among those open theists who find prayers requesting even non-coercive divine influence in the lives of others to be very problematic. He counts Hasker and Sanders as examples of the latter group who do not find such prayers problematic. Among open theists that I have researched, Basinger is alone is his view. All other open theists agree that there are times that God fails to bestow some good he is otherwise willing to bestow because humans fail to request it of him.

[72] Boyd, Satan, 210.

[73] Ibid., 226.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid., 231.

[76] The “givens” of any particular situation are those metaphysical and creaturely constraints with which God must deal. Metaphysical constraints are definitional and are grounded in the existence and nature of God. Creaturely constraints are contingent features of world God freely decides to create but which, once created, God covenants to honor and respect. Boyd’s Six Warfare Theses are the fundamental “givens” that define the God-world relationship. Boyd follows Francis Tupper, Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassionate God (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), is designating these constraints as “givens.”

[77] Boyd, Satan, 228. See also Boyd’s Is God to Blame?, ch. 6, which further develops his views on prayer.

[78] Ibid., 233.

[79] Boyd further develops these arguments in Is God to Blame? chs. 6 and 9.

[80] Sanders, God Who Risks, 269.

[81] Paul Helm, The Providence and God. Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 55, quoted in Sanders, God Who Risks, 269.

[82] Sanders, God Who Risks, 271.

[83] Ibid., 271, 273.

[84] Ibid., 273.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2001), 171.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Chiefly through his The Suffering of God. An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

[90] Terrence E. Fretheim, “Prayer in the Old Testament: Creating Space in the World for God,” in A Primer on Prayer, ed. Paul R. Sponheim (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988): 51-62.

[91] Ibid., 54.

[92] Ibid., 55.

[93] Ibid., 57.

[94] J. Gerald Janzen, “Praying in the Space God Creates for the World,” in Gaiser and Throntveit, Essays, 117.

[95] Samuel Balentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of Divine-Human Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[96] Ibid., 89. Balentine follows M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 32-45, who describes such prayers as “liturgical orations” and “literary programmatic creations” intended to confirm the community’s view of God.

[97] Ibid., 262.

[98] Ibid., 262-263.

[99] Ibid., 268.

[100] Robert Ellis, Answering God: Towards a Theology of Intercession (Waybnesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2005).

[101] Ibid., 94.

[102] Ibid., 178.

[103] Ibid., 180.

[104] Vincent Brummer, What Are We Doing When We Pray? A Philosophical Inquiry (London: SCM Press, 1984).

[105] Ibid., 34.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Ibid., 35.

[108] Brummer, What Are We Doing When We Pray?, 41.

[109] See §9, n. 167.

[110] Boyd, “Two Ancient (and Modern) Motivations,” n. p.

[111] Boethius V, quoted in Brummer, What Are We Doing When We Pray?, 41.

[112] Ibid., 44.

[113] Ibid., 57.

[114] See also Peter Baelz, Does God Answer Prayer? (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1982); Kara E. Verhage, “Prayer and a Partially Unsettled Future: A Theological Framework for Prayer From the Perspective of Open Theism Emphasizing Prayers of Supplication,” M.A. thesis, Luther Seminary, 2004; Frank W. Robinson, “Adversity, Crisis Counseling, and the Openness of God: An Evaluation of Open Theism for Pastoral Response to Victims of Violence,” D.Min. thesis, Azusa Pacific University, 2002; and Tiessen’s treatment of prayer within the open view, Providence and Prayer, chs. 4 and 5.

[115] The literature against open theism is growing quickly. See n. 2 for fuller bibliographies. The following together cover the essential arguments against open theism: John Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001); Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997); Norman Geisler, Wayne House, eds., The Battle for God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001); Douglass Huffman, Eric Johnson, eds., God Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2002); John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul K. Helseth, eds., Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003); John Piper, ed. Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Knowledge and Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000); Michael Robinson, The Storms of Providence: Navigating the Waters of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism (New York: University Press of American, 2003); Steve Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000); Douglas Wilson, ed. Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001); R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[116] For a brief summary of the existential arguments against open theism, see Heard, “I AM,” 5-7.

[117] John Piper, “Grounds for Dismay: The Error and Injury of Open Theism,” 371–384 in John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth eds., Beyond the Bounds (2003).

[118] Thomas K. Ascol, “Pastoral Implications of Open Theism,” in Douglas Wilson, ed., Bound Only Once (2001), 173-190.

[119] Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (2000).

[120] Ibid., chs. 7-9.

[121] Ware, Their God Is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 17, 19, quoted in Heard, “I AM,” 5.

[122] Ibid.

[123] Ibid., 101-105.

[124] Basinger, “The Practical Implications,” in Openness, 165. For Ware “best” equals “that which guarantees the ends God desires,” where for the open theists “best” equals “that which makes most probable the ends God desires.” In some cases of prayer in the open view, guaranteed ends are assured us. The prayer of repentance for salvation, for example, and others. But contexts exist in which we are not guaranteed outcomes.

[125] Ware, Their God is too Small, 105.

[126] Ibid., 89.

[127] Ibid., 90.

[128] Ibid., 95-96.

[129] Ibid., 98.

[130] Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow? (2006).

[131] This point is the same as Ware’s third criticism.

[132] Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 246. This point is the same as Ware’s second criticism.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Ibid. Ware concurs, Their God is too Small, 102, and God’s Lesser Glory, 166.

[135] Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 246.

[136] Ibid., 247.

[137] Ibid.

[138] David Ciocchi, “The religious inadequacy of free-will theism,” Religious Studies 38 (2002): 45-61.

[139] Ibid., 47.

[140] The petition must be consistent with God’s purposes and values and the petitioner must please God (i.e., have faith and personally be in submission to God).

[141] Ciocchi, “The religious inadequacy of free-will theism,” 48.

[142] Ibid., 56.

[143] Hasker, Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God (New York: Routledge, 2004), 220.

[144] Sanders, The God Who Risks, 272, and Boyd, Satan, 230.

[145] See J. L. Austin and J. O. Urmson, eds., How to Do Things With Words, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975); John Searle and Daniel Vanderveken, Foundations of Illocutionary Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and John Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Speech act theory is being applied to various interpretive and doctrinal questions by Evangelicals; see David Clark, “Beyond Inerrancy: Speech Acts and an Evangelical View of Scripture,” in James Beilby, ed., For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006); Kevin Vanhoozer, “From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts: The Covenant of Discourse and the Discourse of Covenant,” in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene, and Karl Moler, After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2001); and Nancey Murphy, “Textual Relativism, Philosophy of Language, and the Baptist Vision,” in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds., Theology Without Foundations, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

[146] Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 86-91, argues the same essential points.

[147] Ibid. Roy attempts to argue a future orientation for God’s knowledge here. The point is moot, for open theists would not deny that God knows a great deal about what we ‘shall’ need as well, even if this is not immediately in view in Jesus’ statement. What open theists deny is that God can know, for example, that in 2010 I will need help fixing a punctured tire on such and such a day at such and such a time (assuming the causal indeterminacy of the event). God surely knows this is one possible future and he is more than prepared for it should it obtain, but it is not, on an open construal, the only possible future God is able to anticipate.

[148] Basinger, “Practical Implications,” 156.

[149] Basinger, “In What Sense Must God be Omnibenevolent?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 14 (1983), 3. This need not be described in terms of God’s being “obliged.”

[150] Basinger, “Practical Implications,” 161.

[151] The problem has been around at least since Origen, who writes of some who refused prayer, claiming “What need is there to send up prayer to him who knows what we need even before we pray?…And it is fitting that he…who loves all…should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without prayer,” Origen, On Prayer, trans. Eric George Jay, (London: SPCK, 1954), 94.

[152] This debate goes back to Eleanor Stump’s “Petitionary Prayer,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 81-91. It is developed in Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?” Religious Studies 19 (1983): 25-41; Joshua Hoffman, “On Petitionary Prayer,” Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985): 21-29; Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers, “Ask and It Will Be Given to You,” Religious Studies 30 (1994): 311-330; and Basinger, “Petitionary Prayer: A Response to Murray and Meyers,” Religious Studies 31 (1995): 475-484. See also Keith Ward, Divine Action (San Francisco: Torch Publications, 1991), 156-158.

[153] Ward, Divine Action, quoted in Sanders, The God Who Risks, 274.

[154] Basinger, “God Does Not Necessarily Respond to Prayer,” in Michael Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 264.

[155] Michael Murray, “Reply to Basinger,” in Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 265. Basinger never replies to this.

[156] See Hasker’s quote as footnoted in n. 162.

[157] Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, 90, more accurately describes God in the open view as “continuously and impartially active in the world for good.”

[158] Hasker, “Is Free-Will Theism Religiously Inadequate: A Reply to Ciocchi,” Religious Studies 39 (2003): 431-440.

[159] Again, PDI is the ‘presumption of divine intervention in response to appropriate petitionary prayer’ while SR, or ‘supplementary requirement’, is the assumption that ‘it is impossible for God to be prevented from granting a petition he wants to grant’.

[160] Hasker, Providence, Evil, and Openness, 220.

[161] Ibid.

[162] Ibid., 223.

[163] I happened upon David Crump’s excellent Knocking On Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) too late to include an adequate review of his contribution. After a first and very brief reading, however, it appeared that Crump’s arguments and conclusions are decidedly favorable of open theism. For instance, he writes, “The Father’s unfolding plans for the world, and our part in those plans, may develop in more than one direction depending, in part, on how we prayer…The future has options,” 290. But in footnoting this very comment, Crump qualifies, “Affirming that God’s plan makes room for different future possibilities depending on human responsiveness (or lack thereof) says nothing, in and of itself, about one’s relationship to the theology of God’s ‘openness’. Views of flexible providence have a lengthy history that antedate and develop quite independently of the current openness controversy. What I am affirming is different from the position typically affirmed by open theists who are distinguished by their commitment to three fundamental tenets—(1) presentism (God lacks foreknowledge), (2) libertarian human freedom, and (3) divine temporality—none of which is essential to my argument.” Crump’s definition of presentism, however, is inaccurate; and I should very much like to hear him defend his core theses on a compatibilist view of freedom and assuming divine atemporality. Whether he can do so successfully is doubtful.

[164] See Boyd’s contribution in §5.1 where he describes God’s creating us to “reflect” God’s triune love.

[165] Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, 108 (following Polkinghorne) credits open theism with holding that “prayer is assigning value to thing,” see John Polkinghorne, “Can a Scientist Pray?” Colloquium 26:1 (1994), 9, who suggests that when we pray for something we commit ourselves to what we really want and so “assign value to it.”

[166] Ellis, Answering God: Towards a Theology of Intercession (2005), see n. 100. Or in the words of Boyd, Is God to Blame?, 16, “God looks like Jesus.”

[167] Origen, On Prayer, trans. J. J. O’Meara (New York: Newman, 1954), 30.

[168] Aquinas put it, “We do not pray in order to change the decree of divine providence, rather we pray in order to impetrate those things which God has determined would be obtained only through our prayers,” Summa Theologica, trans. T. Cornall (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), 2a2ae Q. 83.2, and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Fred L Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 215, 851-53.

Divine Reciprocity and Epistemic Openness in Clark Pinnock’s Theology

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John Sanders, Hendrix College

This paper was given at a session honoring the work of Clark Pinnock at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco, November 18,2011.


Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock was once a renowned defender of the doctrine of meticulous providence (where God tightly controls each and every event that transpires). He caused quite a stir when he rejected evangelical Calvinism and crossed the theological divide for freewill theism. In the final years of his life he caused an even greater controversy when he helped develop a particular theological model within freewill theism known as open theism. The lightning rod issue in this view is the affirmation of “dynamic omniscience” (God knows all the past and present exhaustively and the future as possibilities). This paper argues that the key motivation which led Pinnock to make these moves was his belief that God freely entered into reciprocal relations with creatures. This paper also claims that another factor was at work as well: he rejected an evangelical form of strong foundationalism which led to an epistemic openness to others. These two factors, divine relationality and epistemic openness coalesced for him in the openness of God model.

It began, he says, in 1970, when he was teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School that he questioned his affirmation of strong Calvinism. He rethought his interpretation of particular biblical texts and he inquired about whether our prayers of petition really had an affect on God.1 In 1975 he wrote that with what he calls “the insight of reciprocity in hand” he is now able to understand more of the implications of reciprocal relations between God and humans which led to his conclusion that strong Calvinism was inconsistent with.2

I suggest that there was an additional vital change in Pinnock’s epistemological approach at this point. His early work was apologetic in nature and the particular approach to apologetics he took is what Donald Bloesch criticized as “evangelical rationalism”. Pinnock was committed to the quest for epistemic certainty and he seemed to read divergent viewpoints only in order to show them wrong. At this juncture, however, he readily acknowledges that theologians are “fallible and historically situated creatures” (Grace of God, 16) and, importantly, he actually applies these ideas to himself and begins to see how much he needs to learn from others.3 He speaks of himself changing from possessing a “fortress mentality” to one of going on a “theological pilgrimage”. He rejected the strong foundationalism of conservative evangelical theology: “It took me decades to get free of the shackles of old Princeton, but this is a diminishing problem for younger people.”4 Pinnock begins to manifest some epistemic virtues that, he notes, are lacking in many evangelical theologians. Specifically, he becomes open to the other. He read widely among Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other theological traditions and made use of what he found of value in them in order to rethink evangelical theology.5

In the 1980′s he says he began to rethink the divine attributes. He rejected strong immutability, strong impassibility, and divine timelessness since they were incompatible with the biblical portrayal of divine reciprocity as well as with his own experience of prayer (Grace of God, 24). In 1986 he wrote a chapter in Predestination and Freewill: Four Views which lays out the key elements of his approach. He mentions that he had read Richard Rice’s The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will (1985). Yet, Pinnock’s focus here is on the type of sovereignty God practices, not the issue of omniscience and freewill. He rejects meticulous providence in favor of”omnicompetence” (146), claims that God acts “temporally and not timelessly” (146), and has chosen to be interdependent with creatures (146, 151). God operates this way because God wants relationships of love to form (148). If meticulous providence is correct then the relationship with God is closed, not open, and if it is closed then Pinnock does not know how to make sense of the idea that our prayers have an affect on God. He then argues that if the divine-human relationship is open, then the future must also be open which implies that the future actions of free beings cannot be known with certainty by God. He realized that divine timelessness, strong immutability, strong impassibility, and exhaustive definite foreknowledge were a package deal and their attempted harmonization with biblical teachings simply fell apart.

In 1994 he contributed the seminal book The Openness of God. At the beginning of his chapter he stresses that God is approachable and interactive. He also says that “humility is essential” for this topic since our understandings of God are always partial and in need of revision. Once again, we see divine openness and human openness placed side by side (102). He concludes by saying that “God is the best learner of all because he is completely open to all the input of an unfolding world, whereas we are finite and slow to react, reluctant to learn and inclined to distort reality in our own interest” (124).

The book received a great deal of attention and Christianity Today was generous enough to ask Roger Olson to write a review of the book. After receiving Olson’s review someone at the magazine decided it was too positive and so four other reviewers were hurriedly added and each them trashed the book. Tom Oden’s review called the dynamic omniscience view a “heresy” because it was not part of his fabled “consensus of the first eight centuries.” At the end of his review Roger Olson asked whether American evangelicals have “come of age enough to avoid heresy charges and breast-beating jeremiads in response to a new doctrinal proposal that is so conscientiously based on biblical reflection rather than on rebellious accommodation to modern thought? This may be the test.”

In the decade which followed the publication of The Openness of God a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society, Roger Nicole, charged that Pinnock should be expelled from the Society because the openness of God was incompatible the inerrancy statement of the ETS.6 The theme of one annual meeting of the ETS was on whether or not open theism was legitimate for evangelicals and a formal vote on his membership failed to garner the 2/3 majority needed to evict him. At this time several evangelical seminaries, led by the Southern Baptists, along with some denominations altered their statements of faith so that open theists could not be members.7

Pinnock responded to the controversy in his Most Moved Mover (181) where he suggests that the rancour surrounding the open theism debate could be lessened if: (1) We respect one another as believing scholars, (2) We always keep in mind that we know only in part, (3) Refrain from caricaturing what the other says, and (4) Refrain from politicizing the issue by declaring who is in and who is outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.

Pinnock believed that theological determinism coupled with strong foundationalism among evangelicals fosters a “pathology” of closed-mindedness with a fondness for gatekeeping in order to exclude others with theological differences from evangelicalism. I once asked him why he continued to attend the ETS and he replied that he needed to hear what they were saying and he believed that they needed to hear what he had to say. In his better moments Pinnock lived out his notion that we should emulate God as the best learner of all who listens to the other.

For Pinnock, the openness of God model was an attempt to render coherent the God he read about in the Bible and experienced in prayer. Understanding that God was open to, and affected by, creatures encouraged him to be open to learning from others and thus revising his own beliefs. From the beginning of his development of open theism he understood that that there are epistemic virtues endemic to the openness of God model.

Pinnock’s understandings of gracious divine reciprocity and the human need to listen to the other were both significant factors that motivated his embrace of open theism.

Divine Relationality and Theodicy in The Shack

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by Dr. John Sanders, Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas

Presented at the American Academy of Religion in Montreal Canada, November 7, 2009

I was asked to give this paper because some readers see a number of themes in the The Shack by William Paul Young that correspond well with open theism. That is certainly correct though the author explicitly rejects two key elements of open theism and so remains squarely in what many call Arminianism and I refer to as free will theism. First, I will mention a number of teachings in the book that open theists heartily agree with. Then I will discuss the two areas where open theists must disagree. The questions I raise along the way all pertain to whether the author is logically consistent in what he says throughout the book. However, I wish to acknowledge that the author is not a professional theologian and is writing a piece of fiction so I want to cut him some slack. Mr. Young is present at this meeting and I look forward to any responses he may make to my comments. It is my hope that the questions raised in this paper will promote helpful dialogue on the important topics he addresses in The Shack.

Points of agreement:

1.   It is wonderful that a book which portrays God as deeply relational, loving, and gracious has become so popular, especially among evangelicals.

2.   The focus of the book is to explain what God is like and to counter many common stereotypes people have of God’s intentions, plans, and actions. In particular, the book addresses the problem of moral evil and what responsibility God bears for it. Along the way sin, grace, and redemption are discussed in ways that bear striking resemblance to what Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow say in Unbounded Love. A number of proponents of theological determinism on the internet rip the book for failing to emphasize God’s judgment on and anger at sinners. As with the debate on open theism, the Calvinists typically fail to realize that divine judgment is present but is handled in the context of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He does emphasize the God as parent metaphor over the God as judge metaphor (119). God is more like a parent trying to get rebellious children to accept his reconciliation than a legal authority attempting to get us to feel guilty about what we have done (223).

3.   The nature of God.

3.1  The author affirms a social trinitarian model which emphasizes the intra- trinitarian relationships as the ontological framework for God’s relationships to creatures (89).

3.2   God is “wholly other” and he is critical of overly anthropomorphizing God (98).

Yet he says God is self-limiting, gets angry (119), and serves others (which seems quite anthropomorphic to me).

3.3   Rejects divine strong impassibility (95-96,). God’ character does not change but God has changing emotional states. Yet, the author also says that God always lives in a state of fullness, of perpetual satisfaction (98). How does this square with creation gone awry?

4.    God creates out of love and for love (97). The purpose of creation is for love so God took the risk of love.

5.   Humans have libertarian freedom within limits (94-95). Love does not force its will on the other (145, 190)

6.   God allows Mack to be angry and even to challenge God (81). God does not tell him to shut up but, rather, allows him to vent. God is extremely dialogical. This is a more Jewish understanding of God (e. g. Abraham, Moses, Habakkuk, etc.).

7.   The problem of evil.

7.1    Creation has miscarried (123, 125). Evil was not part of God’s plan (165). He affirms the free will defense (190-1) so God exercises general providential control rather than the meticulous providence of theological determinism.

7.2    What are the ways in which God works with humans? Did God orchestrate his daughter’s death as a judgment upon what he did to his father? (71) No. “Papa is not like that” (164). Did she have to die so that Mack would be changed? This is what some Christian friends told me was the purpose of the death of my older brother. But again, Young says, that is not how God works (185). Hence, he rejects meticulous providence. For Young, there are genuine tragedies. God works to bring good out of “unspeakable tragedies” but God does not “orchestrate the tragedies” (185). Much of what the author says about the problem of evil resonates well with what open theists have written (William Hasker’s The Triumph of Good Over Evil, IVP, 2008 and Gregory Boyd, Is God to Blame? Baker, 2003).

7.3    The basis for evil originates in our separation from God—our declaration of independence from God (136). Sin originates from improper relations (147). He thinks of sin primarily in relational terms rather than as a substance in humans.

7.4    On natural evil he seems to affirm a “natural-order” theodicy rather than the view which ascribes all mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, etc. as results of human sin. (133)

7.5    God does not want people to go to hell and God takes no pleasure in punishing people. Rather, God wants to cure us (119-120, 162-3). He points out that the gates to the heavenly city are always open (177). This sounds a bit like George MacDonald. If Young has the eschaton in mind here (he may be speaking metaphorically), is he hinting at the possibility of postmortem evangelization? However, on 182 he sounds more like an inclusivist in that God travels all roads (religions and political philosophies) to transform humans into those who love one another.

7.6    God will be victorious in the end (125) and “There has never been a question that what I wanted from the beginning, I will get” (192). In what sense will God get what she wanted? Does the author mean that ultimately each and every human being will be redeemed and eternally enjoy the presence of God in the eschaton? He says “I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome” (125). This sounds as though God can guarantee that each and every one of our acts results in ultimate good. But that would require theological determinism which Mr. Young clearly rejects.  In the next paragraph he says, “If you could only see how all of this ends and what we will achieve without the violation of one human will…” Again, I’m not sure what is meant by this. Does this mean that the eschaton is the justification for each and every instance of evil? I agree that God will be vindicated in the eschaton but if the author means that every instance of evil will be made good then I disagree. However, Young does end this particular conversation by saying “We’re not justifying it. We are redeeming it” (127). Perhaps what Young has in mind is not that each and every act of evil will be justified. Rather, God is working to bring good out of it. But on this point, can God guarantee that each and every instance of moral evil will be redeemed and that, in the end, there will be no pointless evil that is pure loss? If God cannot guarantee how we humans react to instances of evil or even to divine grace, for that matter, then how can God guarantee that each and every instance will be redeemed? I affirm most of what the author has to say about the problem of evil but I would like some clarification on this point.

Two crucial points of divergence from open theism:

1.    God and time. Mr. Young says that time, as humans experience it, presents no boundaries for the creator (172). The author seems to affirm divine atemporality. If so, then there is a significant logical contradiction to the major theme of the book—divine relationality. Young is similar to Phil Yancey on this point. Divine timelessness plays no real role in his theology. The book portrays the divine- human relations as temporal (before and after) in nature. But then it seems the author feels compelled to say, “Oh, I better say something about divine timelessness.” It has become customary to mention divine atemporality but it performs no significant theological work. Now I can’t be too harsh on Young for this since a great many theologians commit the same error. The problem is that a timeless being is strongly impassible (which the author rejects) and it is impossible for an atemporal being to experience grief or any changing emotional state (which the author affirms) since changing states require a before and an after—something an atemporal being simply does not have. Though I agree that God is not bound by time as we are, I fail to understand how an atemporal being has the types of experiences and relationships portrayed in the book. It is the type of logical contradiction that Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin avoided because they affirmed both divine atemporality and strong immutability (God has no changing emotional states or responses to creatures).

2.   Mr. Young affirms that God has EDF (exhaustive definite foreknowledge) (90, 106, 161, 186-7, 206, 222). Yet, the author also says that God limits herself to facilitate a genuine give-and-receive relationship (106). While speaking with Mack God does not bring “to mind, as it were” the divine knowledge of all facts. Can God have selective ignorance in the sense that God is temporally unaware of what God knows to be the case? On 206 he says that because of God’s EDF God has no expectations. How does this square with his other statements that God is grieved by the evil that takes place? On 123 he says that creation went down a path that God did not desire. So God has no expectations but does have unfulfilled desires? It seems to me that Mr. Young is here trying to say that he has no idea how to reconcile EDF with God having genuine give-and-receive relations with us. This seems to be logical contradiction.

3.   The author’s emphasis on divine responsiveness runs headlong into the brick wall of divine atemporality and exhaustive definite foreknowledge. One way out of these two logical contradictions would be for him to return to his statement that God is “wholly other” and therefore is beyond the limits of human logic. But if he takes that route then he undermines the entire project of his book which is to present a logically consistent understanding of God and God’s relationship with us—particularly on the problem of evil. After all, throughout the book God is very adept at catching Mack in contradictory thoughts. Hence, I don’t believe this is the route the author can take. Again, it seems to me that neither divine atemporality nor EDF help him make his case for the way God relates to us. In fact, he seems aware that these doctrines are genuine problems for his theology yet he feels compelled to affirm them. I think that is why he throws them in and then has to give undeveloped explanations as to why they don’t contradict his main thesis.

In closing I want to say that I welcome the book and believe it has much good to offer. Finally, this sort of theological analysis of a book of fiction is why my wife says that I know how to ruin a good book!

1994-2004, an Overview of the Debate on Open Theism in Evangelicalism

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John Sanders

Let me provide a brief overview of the history of the debate within evangelicalism. For many years the core ideas of openness had been buried in academic journals and I thought it was time to bring them to the attention of a broader public so I organized a team and we published The Openness of God. That the book had immediate impact is indicated by the fact that it placed eighth in the Christianity Today book of the year awards and that in January of 1995, Christianity Today reviewed the book with not just one but four reviewers.1 The lead review asked some good questions and was generally favorable but the other three absolutely trashed the book. In a February 1998 article in Christianity Today, Tom Oden wrote: “The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected. . . .”2 John Piper, a prominent pastor in the Baptist General Conference, used Oden’s hersey comment to argue that Greg Boyd, a professor of theology at Bethel College in Saint Paul and pastor in the BGC, should be fired from the college and his pastoral credentials revoked. A great deal of time and energy was spent in this attempt. A board of inquiry was formed that ultimately found Boyd within the boundaries of BGC doctrine. At the1999 and 2000 annual meetings of the BGC resolutions were introduced to remove Boyd but they failed.

The Calvinist critics of openness had some success in the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1999 they introduced a resolution on divine foreknowledge that the delegates approved to include as a revision to the Baptist Faith and Standard. In 2000 the SBC approved the following:  God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things,past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.  However, these changes were not ratified by a number of state conventions, most notably the Texas convention, which is the largest. After the 1999 resolution in the SBC a February 7, 2000 editorial in Christianity Today titled “God vs. God” exhorted the critics of open theism to continue to debate rather than seek political means to squelch it. Evangelical critics of open theism were outraged at the editorial, questioning whether Christianity Today could be trusted any longer.

When the evangelical publishers, Baker and InterVarsity Presses, decided to publish more books by open theists, accusations were made that such presses could no longer be trusted to produce only works fit for evangelical consumption. One high-profile critic, who has several books published with Baker, threatened to withdraw all his books if Baker went ahead with its plans to publish a book by an open theist. They published the book. This provoked the neo-fundamentalist magazine, World, to publish a scathing attack on open theism and Baker Books. Virulent and inaccurate critiques of openness appeared in the September 1999 issue of Modern Reformation with the theme: “God in Our Image” and in the March 2001 issue of Christianity Today titled “God at Risk.”

However, in May and June of 2001 Christianity Today published a series of e-mail exchanges on openness between Chris Hall and me titled “Does God Know Your Next Move?” This finally allowed a proponent of openness to explain the position to a large evangelical readership. The editors at the magazine must be given credit for allowing this theological debate to continue in the face of intense pressure to cut it off at the knees.

Other critiques of openness appeared in the winter 2002 edition of Contact, the news magazine of Gordon-Conwell Seminary and in the March 2003 issue of Moody magazine.

In 2001 some pastors in the denomination that owns Huntington College organized an attempt to have me removed from the college. Over a two year period I faced a board of inquiry and expended a tremendous amount of energy coping with the numerous political maneuvers of my opponents.

During this time opponents of openness worked to get open theists expelled from membership in the Evangelical Theological Society (a predominately Calvinistic, conservative evangelical, group that desires to speak for all evangelicalism). At the 2000 annual meeting the Executive Committee announced that the theme for the following year, “Defining Evangelicalism’s Boundaries” would include an examination of open theism. At the 2001 meeting over three dozen papers were read on openness. At an ad hoc business meeting the majority of the membership endorsed the following resolution: “We believe the Bible clearly teaches (emphasis mine) that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all events past, present and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.” The June 2002 issue of the journal of the society was dedicated to a discussion of open theism.

At the 2002 meeting Roger Nicole, one of the founding members of the society, formally charged Clark Pinnock and me with violating the doctrinal statement of the society by our denial that God possessed exhaustive definite foreknowledge. He charged that this implied that we denied the truth of scripture. The members voted to have the Executive Committee hold a formal hearing, which was done in October of 2003. The Committee decided that Pinnock was not guilty of the charge but that I was. The reason centered on the truth value of statements about the future actions of free creatures. I said they are only probabilities, not certainties. For them, any biblical statement about the future must be true in the sense that it is a certain fact to occur. It seems to me that such a view presupposes the stasis theory of time which open theists reject. Pinnock was exonerated because when asked about his stand on this matter he replied that he did not know much about such philosophical intricacies. Shortly before the 2003 annual meeting the faculty of the Southern Baptist seminaries passed resolutions against open theism. At the November ETS meeting a lengthy special business meeting was held. The “heavy hitters” of the Southern Baptists showed up and spoke strongly against open theism. The vote of the membership was 67% to retain Pinnock while 63% voted to remove me. However, this fell short of the required two-thirds needed for expulsion. I think the vote represents the fact that Executive Committee voted for Pinnock and against me due to the philosophical issues. One way to read this vote is that 1/3 of the members voted to expel us no matter what the recommendation of the Executive Committee was, another third voted to keep us no matter what the recommendation of the Executive Committee was, and the final third were swing votes that went with the recommendation of the Executive Committee. Hence, the ETS is very split on the matter.

Clearly, open theism has become a hot topic within evangelicalism. I am aware of nineteen books from evangelical publishers alone, dozens of journal articles, and over seventy conference papers. That open theism has struck a raw nerve with neoevangelical Calvinists can be seen in the titles of the books against open theism: God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God, The Battle for God, Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, God’s Lesser Glory: the Diminished God of Open Theism, No Other God, and, from one of my former professors, Creating God in the Image of Man.

At the end of his 1995 review of The Openness of God in Christianity Today, Roger Olson asked whether American evangelicals have “come of age enough to avoid heresy charges and breast-beating jeremiads in response to a new doctrinal proposal that is so conscientiously based on biblical reflection rather than on rebellious accommodation to modern thought? This may be the test.” Ten years later, I wonder how Professor Olson would score the test.

Why is OT so threatening to some evangelicals?

1.   Why have Calvinist evangelicals reacted so strongly? Why the brouhaha?

1.1 Open theists have presented the most acute criticism of, and alternative to, meticulous providence (theological determinism) in quite some time. Open theism has raised some extremely important points about Classical theism such as the inability of the God of Classical theism to respond to what we do or be affected

by our prayers. Open theists have exposed these drawbacks and the proponents of meticulous providence know that their model simply will not sell in, for instance, many evangelical circles. It is no surprise that virtually all of the railing accusations and virulent rhetoric have come from proponents of meticulous providence.

1.2 The hermeneutical issues raised in the debate have undermined the sense of certainty that some evangelicals desire to obtain in handling scripture. This leads to a crisis of authority. Who is right? How do we settle what is correct? Who has the right to determine what is acceptable for evangelicals to believe? This is the issue of “control” over institutions and whose theological legacy will be continued. This is why, in my opinion, this theological discussion is so politicized.

1.3 For some, it seems to undermine their confidence in divine providence.

Mapping the Terrain of Divine Providence

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John Sanders
Plenary address, 47′th annual Wheaton Philosophy Conference. Chicago. October 26-28, 2000.


Since 1994 a view of God and divine providence known as the openness of God has caused a storm of controversy in conservative North American Christianity.1 This has lead to the production of a host of books and articles on the topic, some with ominous titles such as The Battle for God.2 A tendency in this debate has been to speak as though there are only two views of providence on the market. Hence, it may be helpful at this juncture to by-pass the vitriolic rhetoric and take a look at some of the main views, showing areas of agreement and disagreement regarding the key issues. To date, there has not existed a concise summary of the primary positions in this debate to inform those who do not have the time to read all the literature. This paper will map the terrain of divine providence paying particular attention to the role different understandings of omniscience play in the contemporary discussion.

There are quite a number of perspectives on divine providence, unfortunately, so I have decided to focus on what I shall call “traditionalist” views that affirm strong understandings of omnipotence and divine involvement in the world. Before getting to these, however, I will briefly mention a number of views, which have been quite influential among scholars. Process theology affirms that God is concerned about and involved in the affairs of the world, but denies that God creates ex nihilo and holds that divine actions are limited to persuasion. Boston Personalism affirms creatio ex nihilo as well as God’s ongoing work with finite persons but posits a nonrational “given” in the nature of God such that the power of God is limited in overcoming evil by the divine nature itself. Both process theology and Boston Personalism hold that God does not foreknow the future actions of beings with libertarian freedom. Gordon Kaufman and Maurice Wiles are even more drastic in their revising of divine providence. For them God is the “master act” but does not “intervene” in the affairs of the world since such a deity would be a “spook” or a “magician.” Finally, there is the anti-realist perspective of D. Z. Phillips, Don Cupitt, and Gareth Moore for whom “God” is a lifestyle, a way of life such that God “exists” for the religious believer but does not exist as distinct being. All of the views mentioned so far take a strong stand for human freedom but put forth an understanding of the divine nature or divine providence which traditional theists find neither rationally or spiritually satisfying.

Before listing the major traditionalist models, let me point out that there is no single understanding of providence which may lay claim to the title “the traditional” notion of providence. Unfortunately, I have sometimes helped foster this error in my own writings by speaking of “the traditional view of God.”3 A survey of the history of Christian thought, however, reveals that numerous views have been in vogue at one time or another competing for preeminence in Christendom. Two other qualifications need to be made. First, though we tend to focus on differences it should not be forgotten that these views share more in common with one another regarding the nature of God and God’s redemptive acts in history than they differ. They all affirm what may be termed theism simpliciter: God is a personal being, worthy of worship, self-existent, the free creator (ex nihilo) of all that is not God, is distinct from the world, who sustains the world, is continually active in it, and who is perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternal. Moreover, they each affirm what may be called “basic Christianity” as defined, for instance, in the Apostles’ Creed. Finally, please remember that these are general summaries and that each view has varieties since their proponents do not agree on all details.

Traditionalist Views

1. Augustinian-Calvinism
This long-standing tradition affirms that the divine will, which is absolutely unconditioned or influenced by creatures, efficaciously micromanages everything that
happens down to the smallest detail.4 God does not take risks in governing his creation and his will is never thwarted in any respect. As Augustine put it, “The will of the Omnipotent is always undefeated” and “God is the necessity of things.” By foreordaining all that comes to pass, God has eternally known all that will happen (i. e. God knows the future because God determines it). Though God is in complete control, humans are responsible for their actions. In order to keep God from being the author of moral evil, proponents usually affirm what is called compatibilistic freedom whereby humans are free so long as they act on what they desire. In order for God to meticulously control humans God ensures that we have the desires he decrees and then we freely act on those desires. Election to salvation is based solely on God’s decree and petitionary prayer is a means by which we serve to bring about God’s plans. Our prayers never affect God.

2. Thomism
Although some key interpreters of Aquinas will disagree with my assessment, I believe Thomism arrives at many of the same conclusions as the Augustinian-Calvinist perspective, though it does so via a different route. “God’s knowledge is the cause of things” according to Thomas. Moreover, by one act of will God wills everything in his goodness and since the divine will is never caused or motivated by anything external to God, nothing happens except that which God explicitly desires to happen. As pure act God is never passive or reactive to anything humans do. Consequently, God’s providential control and predestinating power extend over every detail of the universe such that God never takes risks. This does not mean that God is the sole actor, however, since God works through intermediaries. Nor does it imply that God is responsible for human moral evil since God works concurrently with our good actions while withholding his concurrent activity from our evil actions. Election to salvation is based solely on the divine will, not on any foreknowledge of human actions. Petionary prayer is a means by which God brings about what he desires. As actus purus our prayers never affect God.

3. Molinism
Molinism (also called middle knowledge), along with the Augustinian and Thomistic models, affirms a risk free and meticulous providence in which everything that happens does so expressly because God wants it to happen. However, Molinists support a libertarian understanding of human freedom in which a person is free if the agent could have done otherwise than she did (i. e. it was within the agents power to perform or to refrain from the action). In order to harmonize these seemingly incompatible beliefs, Molinists appeal to what they call counterfactuals of freedom whereby God knows what any free agent would choose to do in any possible set of circumstances. For instance, God knows what you would do if you found a bag containing $1,000 and your family was starving and what you would do if you found the same money but were financially well off. Furthermore, they distinguish between “possible” and “feasible” worlds. Possible worlds are those containing the various logically possible events while feasible worlds are those that contain what free creatures actually would do in various possible situations. For example, there are possible worlds in which free creatures never sin, but there may be no feasible worlds in which creatures are left free to sin but sin does not arise. Humans may suffer from “transworld depravity” in that we would actually choose to sin in all the worlds in which humans are created and left free to sin or to refrain from sinning.

Prior to God’s decision to create, God utilized his knowledge of all the feasible worlds— what would happen in each of these worlds—and selected the world which best suited his purposes. William Lane Craig writes: “Since God knows what any free creature would do in any situation, he can, by creating the appropriate situations, bring it about that creatures will achieve his ends and purposes and that they will do so freely.”5 Another key difference between the Molinists and the other two traditional risk free models is that, according to the Molinists, the counterfactuals are not under God’s control. That is, what we freely decide to do in any specific situation is up to us, not God. This raises questions about God’s absolute independence since it seems to imply that God is, for some things, passive and dependent—an idea Augustinians and Thomists reject. Moreover, though Molinists hold that God takes no risks, the fact that God is not in control of the counterfactuals means that God may be lucky or unlucky regarding which feasible worlds are available for him to create. More will be said on this latter. In the past several years Molinists have applied their theory to issues of providence such as prayer, prophecy, and the destiny of those who die never hearing the gospel of Christ.6

4. Calvinistic-Molinism
Recently, Terrance Tiessen has published a book on providence in which he combines Molinism and Calvinism in the hopes of overcoming some, of what he considers to be, problems in Calvinism.7 However, unlike other molinists he rejects libertarian freedom in favor of compatibilistic freedom and affirms that the counterfactuals are fully under God’s control. Since the counterfactuals are under God’s control, not ours, it seems that middle knowledge is a superfluous element, adding nothing of importance to traditional Calvinism.

5. Freewill Theism
Freewill theists believe that God can and does unilaterally intervene in human affairs but they deny that God controls every detail since he has granted humans libertarian freedom. It was God’s sovereign decision to exercise general, rather than meticulous, providence. God has chosen to macromanage or be in general control. God set up the framework in which he would interact with human and there is considerable freedom within this framework. Thus what God would like to happen in some specific situations is not done—certain aspects of God’s will can be thwarted. This is the basis for the freewill defense to the problem of evil: God cannot prevent us from doing evil without removing the very framework he established for the divine-human relationship. Freewill theism may be divided into two types.

5. 1 Traditional Freewill Theism
Pertaining to providence this view is variously known as simple foreknowledge, the eternity solution, or Arminianism.8 It is probably the oldest Christian understanding of how omniscience applies to providence and it has remained popular through the centuries. It was the predominant view of the church fathers prior to Augustine and is represented today in the Eastern Orthodox, Arminian, Wesleyan, and Pentecostal traditions, to name but a few. According to this model God grants humans libertarian freedom and with it the possibility of going against the divine will. God timelessly previsioned our fall into sin and thus based his decision to provide redemption through Christ Jesus on this foreknowledge. In other words, God timelessly reacted to what he foresaw would come to be by formulating a plan to overcome our sinfulness. Moreover, God has elected individuals to salvation “before the foundations of the earth” by previsioning who would come to faith in Jesus (i. e. election is based on foreknowledge rather than foreordination). Hence, proponents of this view clearly believe that some of God’s knowledge is dependent upon the creatures. God is a responsive and reacting being, who, for some of his decisions, is conditioned by the decisions of his creatures.

5.2 Open freewill theism
The openness of God position is the “new kid on the block.” 9 Though it was promulgated as early as the fifth century by Calcidius and sporadically from 1550-1899 (primarily in Methodist circles), it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that analytic philosophers, biblical scholars and theologians began to affirm it in significant numbers.10 Openness agrees with traditional freewill theism regarding libertarian freedom, the rejection of meticulous providence, that some of God’s decisions are conditioned by what the creatures decide (e. g. conditional election), and that, at times, God’s will is thwarted. Proponents of openness emphasize that God has chosen to establish reciprocal relationships with us based upon the eternal love shared by the Holy Trinity. There is genuine give-and-take with God. In love God takes risks that we will not respond appropriately to the divine love. Open theism agrees with traditional freewill theism on all but two points: the nature of the divine eternity and omniscience.11 For open theism God is everlasting through time rather than timeless. This does not mean that God is “confined” by time, as if time was the container in which God exists. That God is temporal is simply to say that God experiences sequence—one thing after another. The divine consciousness experiences duration (before and after). Physical time, the measurement between objects, did not exist prior to creation. For open theists God’s omniscience consists of knowledge of all necessary truths, all the past, present, and that which God has unilaterally decided to bring about in the future, but God does not have exhaustive definite knowledge of future contingent events.12 God may have beliefs about what you will be doing a year from now, but God does not know with absolute certainty what you will be doing. Some of the future is definite and some of it is indefinite and God knows the indefinite future as it really is (i. e. indefinitely). The future is not a play already written but one that God co-creates with us. God is flexible, adaptable and wise enough to handle whatever we do. However, this does not mean that the being of God changes. God remains unchanging in his essence—his love, wisdom, faithful-freedom, and power—but God can and does change in his relationship towards us in regard to his thoughts, actions, and emotions.

6. Mystery/Antinomy
There is a venerable tradition that simply says that divine sovereignty and human freedom are both true, but that we are unable to rationally comprehend how this can be.13 Though it is an antinomy (a contradiction) for us, it is not so for God. Proponents of this view tend to favor meticulous providence—God is in complete control—but it is not always clear which understanding of human freedom they espouse. In order to have a genuine contradiction they have to affirm both meticulous providence (God is in complete control, takes no risks) and libertarian freedom (God is not in complete control, takes risks). But if proponents of antinomy affirm compatibilistic freedom there is no mystery for it is quite understandable how God can be in total control while humans are compatibilistically free (see the Augustianian-Calvlinist position). While I may have just settled that mystery, another one immediately arises when freewill theists ask why this does not render God responsible for moral evil—to which Calvinists typically appeal to mystery.14

Key Areas of Agreement and Disagreement

Before delving into this subject, a reminder that all of these traditionalist views share both theism simpliciter and basic Christianity in common. Of course, these positions wrangle over some key issues and to these I now turn.

1. The nature of God15
A wide array of questions arise regarding the divine nature and the stand one takes on them directly affects which views one finds plausible. Is God timeless? Does God respond or react to creatures? Does God grieve? Suffer? Can God change in any respect? The age-old discussions of divine impassibility, immutability, pure actuality, and simplicity all come into play. In my opinion, the watershed constellation of issues in the debate over divine providence is: (1) whether God has chosen to be, for some things, affected or conditioned by creatures; (2) whether God takes the risk that humans may do things that God does not want done; (3) whether God exercises meticulous or general providential control; and (4) whether God has granted human beings libertarian or compatibilistic freedom.

Augustinian-Calvinism and Thomism have both traditionally affirmed “classical theism” which involves the doctrines of timelessness, impassibility, immutability and pure actuality, and simplicity.16 For these views, God is unaffected by and absolutely independent of creatures. On the other side of the fence lie both traditional and openness freewill theisms which either reject or seriously qualify these doctrines. Freewill theists believe that God is affected by creatures in that God grieves and that some of God’s decisions are conditioned by creatures. Open theism, however, goes further than traditional freewill theism by rejecting divine timelessness. It is not easy to decide where to place Molinism in this spectrum since it denies God’s absolute independence (the counterfacactuals are not under God’s control), yet many (all?) Molinists also affirm impassibility and immutability, seeming to reject any conditionality in God. I do wonder whether some Molinists, especially those in the evangelical tradition, would want to hold that God is affected by, for instance, our prayers. If humans have libertarian freedom is it consistent to also affirm robust understandings of impassibility and pure actuality? Is it possible that Molinists will need to modify more of the classical attributes than has hitherto been the case in order to avoid arriving at the same conclusions as Augustinianism and Thomism?

2. Divine foreknowledge
Does God have beliefs or only knowledge? Can God change his mind? Does divine omniscience include exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) of future contingent events or does it only include present knowledge? That is, does God know with certainty all that you will do next year? If God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge, does God possess this knowledge because God foreordains all that will come to pass or because God simply “foresees” what will come to pass in some sort of timeless vision or because God simply knows his own essence or by middle knowledge?

All but one of the traditionalist views hold that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge, but they do so for different reasons. According to the Augustinian- Calvinist, God knows the future because God foreordains what will come to pass. God’s knowledge of our future is not contingent on creatures or passive in any respect. Thomism holds that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge because God knows his own essence and the natures of all things reside in the divine mind. In Molinism God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge by knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom together with God’s knowledge of his own creative actions. Traditional freewill theists claim that God possesses exhaustive definite foreknowledge by simple foreknowledge or timeless knowledge whereby God “previsions” the actions of contingent beings. Hence, God’s exhaustive definite foreknowledge is caused by and dependent upon the creatures. The openness of God view rejects exhaustive definite foreknowledge in favor of presentism. God has exhaustive knowledge of the past, present, and those future events that are causally determined to occur, but God does not know with absolute certainty the future decisions of beings with libertarian freedom. That God can change his mind, though not in a vacillating way, is affirmed by most proponents of openness as well as by some traditional freewill theists (though I do not see how a timeless being can be said to change his mind). However, it should be noted that, for openness, God can know in advance with certainty what he would do under certain conditions and it is consistent with openness, though not necessary, that God has already decided what he would do in all possible circumstances in which he might act.17

3. Types of sovereignty
Does God get precisely everything God desires? Can any of God’s desires be thwarted in the least detail by creatures? Does God permit events to occur which he would rather not occur? Is providence risky or risk free? Does God have a definite will or intention for every specific event in human history? Does God sometimes alter his plans in light of what humans do? Is there ever a “plan B” with God?

The Augustinian-Calvinist position upholds specific sovereignty or meticulous providence whereby every detail that happens does so because God ordains it. Consequently, none of God’s desires are ever thwarted in the least detail, God never alters his plans, and providence is completely risk free. Traditional and openness freewill theisms take the opposite positions. For them, God exercises general sovereignty whereby God permits certain events to happen which God would rather not happen (e. g. moral evil) and so God takes risks. God definitely reacts to what humans do, altering his plans accordingly.

Again, Molinism is an odd duck since it leans towards the specific sovereignty, no risk side, yet, it affirms libertarian freedom and contains the element of God being lucky or unlucky (fortunate or unfortunate) since God is not in control of the counterfactuals of freedom. That is, when God examined the warehouse of feasible worlds to create, though God is in control of which, if any, world he will bring into existence, God is dependent upon what the creatures do in those worlds. Hence, God may be lucky in that there is a feasible world in the warehouse in which God gets most of what he wants, say 90%. Or God may, like Old Mother Hubbard, find the cupboard quite bare and have to settle for creating a world in which God is satisfied with only 51% of what occurs. It all depends upon what humans do in those worlds and God is either lucky that much of what he wants does occur or unlucky in that much of what he wants does not occur. If transworld sin is exceedingly robust, then God may be quite unfortunate that the only feasible worlds he can create are ones with which he has a low degree of satisfaction. However, Molinists often give the impression that God gets pretty much everything he desires until it comes to questions such as the eternal destiny of those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus. Since God desires all to benefit from the redemption in Jesus, why did God create a world in which the vast majority of those who have lived on this planet have died never hearing the gospel? The answer of William Craig is that all those who die unevangelized suffer from transworld anti-gospel depravity—in every feasible world such people always reject Jesus.18 In which case, God is quite unfortunate that, though he desires all to be saved, the best world available for God to create was one in which the vast majority of people are damned. If this is the case, then Molinists need to tone down their degree of confidence regarding God’s ability to use his knowledge of the counterfactuals to obtain most of what God wants. However, nothing in Molinism requires following Craig’s pessimism regarding salvation for other leading Molinists, such as Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Flint, take a more optimistic stance.19

4. The nature of human freedom:
The primary division here is between those who affirm libertarian freedom and those who maintain compatibilistic freedom. The Augustinian-Calvinists typically utilize compatibilism while Molinists, traditional freewill theists, and open theists affirm libertarianism.

5. Our knowledge of God
From whence do we derive our knowledge of God? Do we use scripture or natural theology or both? If both, what role should natural theology play in our reading of scripture? Do biblical metaphors really describe the way God is? Is the distinction between metaphorical and literal language about God in scripture useful? If so, how do we identify what is literal language in scripture? What are anthropomorphisms? From what source of knowledge of God do we know what God is really like so that we can identify anthropomorphic language? What role should church tradition play in our determination of the divine nature and providence?

Generally speaking, there is no easy way to distinguish the views on these topics and there is much work yet to be done regarding these questions. Nevertheless, I shall hazard to suggest that Augustinian-Calvinists find it relatively straight-forward to distinguish the metaphorical and anthropomorphic depictions of God in scripture from the literal or exact descriptions.20 Proponents of openness, on the other hand, believe that many traditional readings of scripture have miscategorized some important biblical texts and thus missed some significant teachings about the nature of God and the divine-human relationship. As for the place natural theology and church tradition should play in our thinking, I see nothing in the positions themselves that necessitates a particular stance. One’s views on these matters will be decided by one’s epistemology, church affiliation and view of revelation.

5. Life applications
How are we to understand the functioning of divine providence in our lives? How do we explain the work of salvation? Election? What approach do we take to the problems of evil and suffering? What counsel do we give grieving parents when a young child dies? What sort of wisdom do we dispense regarding divine guidance? Does God have a “blueprint” for out lives? What is the nature of petitionary prayer? Do our prayers ever have an affect on or influence God? Are any of God’s actions ever dependent on our prayers? What do we mean by a “personal relationship” with God? Is our relationship with God a genuinely reciprocal one? Not only will our views on the nature of God shape our lives of piety, but our piety will also shape our understanding of the nature of God. The Fifth century Pope Celestine I put it thus: lex orandi est lex crendendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief).

The Augustinian-Calvinist will typically assert belief in unconditional election, irresistible (efficacious) grace, and that each instance of suffering has been specifically ordained for the benefit of God’s glory. In fact, everything in our lives is working out precisely as God’s blueprint has ordained. If my child is raped, murdered and discarded in a dumpster, it is because God will bring about a greater good—for someone, not necessarily me. There is no pointless evil. God has a blueprint for my life and divine guidance guarantees that I follow whatever God has eternally ordained for me. Petitionary prayer is seen as a means to accomplish what God has already ordained—God is never dependent upon or influenced by our prayers. However, contemporary Calvinists like to say that God “responds” to our prayers but they do not mean this in its usual sense. Rather, God had foreordained that we would pray a specific request at a particular time and God “responds” to that request by bringing about whatever he foreordained to do after the request. Our request is simply the divine instrument whereby God brings about whatever he eternally ordained—our request never influences what God decides to do.

Both traditional and open freewill theists, on the other hand, affirm some form of conditional election (whether one is saved depends, in part, on the human decision) and grace that enables us to exercise faith, but is resistible. Most freewill theists also believe that, for some things, God has sovereignly decided to be dependent upon our prayers of petition such that God may not do something God would like to do because we have not prayed. Our prayers may influence what God decides to do—you have not because you ask not (James 4:2). Hence, they understand a personal relationship with God to be genuinely reciprocal or give-and-take. Many traditional Arminians accept, while open theists reject, the notion that God has a blueprint for our lives that we are to follow. Though open theists believe that God may have specific intentions for us at specific times, generally, there is no single “best” way to go. Rather, God invites us to collaborate with God in determining what the future will be. Many Arminians believe that any suffering we endure is for our benefit because God knows what will happen to us in the future. In this case, it is doubtful that there is pointless evil. Proponents of openness disagree. For them, there is gratuitous evil: evil that does not lead to a greater good. God does not intend for my child to be raped and murdered. God is absolutely opposed to such sin and is grieved by it. However, God is not passive in the face of evil for God works to redeem it—attempting to bring something good even out of evil. But since we have libertarian freedom God cannot guarantee that we will actually benefit from our suffering for we may refuse his help. God takes genuine risks.

When it comes to Molinism things are not so clear. It seems its proponents would adhere to conditional election and enabling grace, but at least some would also wish to say that every instance of suffering is specifically intended by God for our benefit. God uses his middle knowledge to place us in situations of suffering which he knows we will respond appropriately and grow in faith. Of course, this all depends upon how lucky God is that there is a feasible world in which we respond in faith rather than turning away from God. I am not sure whether Molinists accept or reject the idea that our prayers affect God— that God is any respect dependent upon our asking. It seems to me that those Molinists in the Roman Catholic tradition would reject this, but those in the evangelical tradition might be inclined to affirm it.


It is my hope that this brief survey of traditionalist views of providence has clarified the main perspectives as well as highlighted key areas of agreement and disagreement. In particular, I hope that the role foreknowledge plays in divine providence has been elucidated. Again, all the traditionalist models agree on theism simplicter respecting the divine nature and they agree on basic Christianity. Although the majority of Christians have agreed on these important points, the history of thought on divine providence reveals that we should be cautious of speaking of “the tradition” as though it was singular. Regarding the divine nature and the type of providence God exercises, traditionalist Christians continue to disagree.

Who has affirmed dynamic omniscience and the open future in history?

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John Sanders

Updated April 2013

Briefly, the position is that God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and the present and knows as possibilities and probabilities those events which might happen in the future. God could have created a world in which he knew exactly what we would do in the future if God had decided to create a deterministic world. Consequently, God cannot know as definite what we will do unless he destroys the very freedom he granted us. Vincent Brümmer writes: “God knows everything which it is logically possible to know. But God knows all things as they are, and not as they are not. Thus he knows the future as future (and not as present, which it is not). He knows the possible as possible (and not as actual, which it is not).”1 God does not possess exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) of future contingent events.

Aristotle put forth the problem of the truth value of future contingent propositions (De Interprtatione 9), claiming that they could be neither true nor false. There were questions about how to interpret Aristotle’s remarks which led to lively debate among those who discussed this question. The issues involved in divine foreknowledge were much discussed by philosophers after Aristotle.

The dynamic omniscience view was affirmed by several non-Christian writers such as Cicero (first century B.C.E.) Alexander of Aphrodisias (second century C.E.) and Porphyry (third century).2  Cicero  argued that if God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) then humans cannot have libertarian freedom so Cicero denied EDF.3

For the reasons used to support belief in an exhaustively definite future in both secular Greco-Roman thought and in Christianity see “Motivations for Ascribing Foreknowledge to God” by Gregory Boyd on this website.

Commenting on the work of Aristotle, Boethius and several medieval theologians held that statements about the future lack truth value yet they also held that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF).4 Also, Boethius (see Consolations, 5.4), Augustine (City of God, 5.9.37-9), Bonaventure and Aquinas are familiar with the dynamic omniscience position of Cicero (see W. Craig, Problem of Divine Forekowledge, 59). Boethius also knows about Alexander of Aphrodisias who produced an argument similar to Cicero’s. Boethius and other Christians were more concerned to deflect the charge that Christianity implied fatalism rather than about Aristotle’s question regarding the truth value of future propositions. It was charged that if the God of the Bible predicts some future events, then the future must be determined.

These authors produce an array of solutions to the problem and those after them critique these answers and either modify them or offer new proposals. Most seem aware of the dynamic omniscience view but think that it either (1) fails to explain biblical predictions or (2) would imply that God has changing knowledge which would undermine their understanding of divine immutability. The great Aquinas (thirteen century) argues that if God is temporal (experiences changes of any kind) then the only options are determinism or dynamic omniscience. He says that a temporal God can only have EDF (exhaustive definite foreknowledge) if all is determined from prior causes. This is why he rejects the simple foreknowledge view because he thinks it removes human freedom. Another factor, for Aquinas, is that “the future does not exist and is therefore not knowable in itself” because it lacks being (Summa Theologica For Aquinas, the simple foreknowledge view of the church fathers (the same view what will become dominant in Arminian and Wesleyan circles) is deterministic. He believes that if God is temporal and humans have freedom then one should affirm the dynamic omniscience view. However, Thomas argues that since God is timelessness God can know an exhaustive definite future without it being determined. The important point here is that Aquinas thought the dynamic omniscience view was a legitimate option and he thought it should be affirmed if God is temporal and humans are free.

After Boethius, the mighty river of EDF followed the channel of divine timelessness though there were a few other channels such as divine determinism. However, in recent Christian philosophy the flow in the channel of timelessness has been seriously reduced in favor of dynamic omniscience and middle knowledge

The earliest Christian proponent thus far found is Calcidius (late fourth century).5 He wrote several books one of which is against fatalism and determinism (this work did not become well known until the middle ages). In it he says that since God knows reality as it is he knows necessary truths necessarily and future contingent truths contingently.6  Some Medieval Christian writers anticipate and seem to affirm an open future: Peter Auriol (thirteenth century) and Peter de Rivo (fifteenth century).

Some Islamic scholars affirmed dynamic omniscience: some in the Qadarite school (eighth century) and Abd al-Jabbar, an important figure of the Mu’tazilite school (tenth century).7 In Judaism the view has been widely held. God’s statement to Abraham “Now I know that you fear me” (Gen 22:12) was much discussed by Medieval Jewish theologians, a number of whom affirmed dynamic omniscience and the open future including the renowned Ibn Ezra in the twelfth century and Gersonides (Levi ben Gerson) in the fourteenth.8

John Miley claims that some of the Remonstrants (Dutch followers of Arminius) advocated it in the sixteenth century.9 The Anabaptist Fausto Socinus affirmed it though he, unfortunately, also denied many traditional Christian beliefs such as the deity of Christ and the trinity.10  If one tries to discredit open theism because a heretic affirmed the same view of omniscience then should the Reformation be discredited because this same heretic affirmed several of the key tenets of Calvin?

In the early eighteenth century, Samuel Fancourt published several works defending the dynamic omniscience view including Liberty, Grace and Prescience and latter, in 1730, What Will Be Must Be. He argues that the issue is not about the scope of God’s knowledge but about the nature of reality: are contingencies real or not? Andrew Ramsay (1748) put forth a variant of this position, claiming that though the future is knowable and so God could know it, God has chosen not to exercise this ability in order to preserve human freedom. John Wesley (1785) reprinted Ramsay’s material on this in Wesley’s Arminian Magazine.11

The position became much discussed in Methodism from the latter eighteenth into the twentieth century.12 In the early nineteenth century the well known Methodist biblical commentator, Adam Clarke (1831), defended it as did the well-known circuit preacher Billy Hibbard (1843).13

Hibbard says that he learned of the view from an article in a Methodist magazine but he develops the position much more than the Methodists before him. In the latter nineteenth century Lorenzo D. McCabe, a Methodist theologian, wrote two large, detailed works covering every biblical text relevant to foreknowledge (for example, Peter’s denial) as well as numerous theological arguments.14 According to McCabe, dynamic omniscience was widely affirmed by British and German theologians of his day and he cites other Methodists who held the view. In America, McCabe’s publications sparked a significant discussion in Methodist circles that lasted several decades.15 John Miley, an influential Methodist and contemporary of McCabe, speaks highly of McCabe’s work in his Systematic Theology (which was widely used well past the middle of the twentieth century). Though Miley affirmed prescience (foreknowledge) he recognizes a key problem that he does not know how to answer: How can God interact with us in reciprocal relationships if God has prescience? He says that if belief in an interactive God is contradictory to prescience then he will give up prescience. He goes on to say that belief in dynamic omniscience would not undermine any vital Methodist doctrines and would, in fact, free Methodism from the perplexity of divine foreknowledge and human freedom.16

Quite a number of articles and books affirming open theism from people in various denominations appeared in the nineteenth century (see the “Open Theism Timeline” chart). These folks affirmed traditional Christian orthodoxy and were generally evangelical in orientation. Edward Pearson (1811). Verax (1818), James Bromley (1820), John Briggs (1825), James Jones (two books 1828, 1829), Onesimus (1828), John Bonsall (1830), Richard Dillon (1834), Robert Bartley (1839), Joseph Barken (1846), William Robinson (1866), James Morison (1867), William Taylor (1868), Hans Martinsen (1874), J. P. LaCroix (1876), J. J. Smith (1885), Thomas Crompton (1879), Isaiah Kephart (1883), B. F. White (1884), J. J. Miles (1885), Joseph Lee (1889), J. S. Brecinridge (1890), W. G. Williams (1891), H. C. Burr (1893), William Major (1894), S. Hubbard (1894), J. Wallace Webb (1896), D. W. Simon (1898), and H. J. Zelley (1900).

In the mid nineteenth century, the great German theologian, Isaak Dorner, argued that “the classical doctrine of immutability” is inconsistent with Scripture, sound reason, and spiritual living because it rules out reciprocal relations between God and creatures. He argues for dynamic omniscience saying that a consistent view of God working with us in history requires that God knows future free acts of creatures as possibilities, not actualities.17

In 1890 Joel S. Hayes published The Foreknowledge of God, a lengthy volume examining the scriptural evidence and theological arguments for foreknowledge and concluded that dynamic omniscience was a superior explanation.18  In the opening chapter, he writes The design of this treatise is to deny and disprove the commonly received doctrine that God, from all eternity, foreknew whatsoever has come to pass. This doctrine, it seems to me, is contrary to reason and Scripture, and is in the highest degree dishonoring to the high and holy One that inhabiteth eternity.” T. W. Brents of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement dedicated a chapter of his “biblical” theology to the defense of dynamic omniscience. His book was influential in the Churches of Christ for many decades.19

In the latter nineteenth century many people defended the view including Rowland G. Hazard and the Catholic writer Jules Lequyer.20 Proponents also include less orthodox thinkers such as Gustave. T. Fechner, Otto Pfleiderer, William James, and Edgar S. Brightman.21

Theologians include Jürgen Moltmann, Paul Fides, and Michael Welker.22 Contemporary Dutch Reformed theologians such as Vincent Brümmer, Hendrikus Berkhof and Adrio König affirm it as do the American Reformed thinkers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Harry Boer.23 Other theologians include Thomas Finger (Mennonite), W. Norris Clarke (Roman Catholic), Brian Hebblethwaite, Robert Ellis, Kenneth Archer (Pentecostal) Barry Callen (Church of God), German theologian Heinzpeter Hempelmann and perhaps Albert Truesdale (Nazarene).24 Major Jones claims that the position is well known in the African-American tradition.25

The dynamic omniscience view is exceedingly popular among analytic philosophers who affirm orthodox Christianity. Quite a number of the luminaries among Christian philosophers assert it: Richard Swinburne (Oxford), William Hasker, David Basinger, Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame), J. R. Lucas, Peter Geach, Richard Purtill, A. N. Prior, and Keith Ward.26  It is also affirmed by Nicholas Wolterstorff (formerly of Calvin and Yale) and Vincent Brümmer (Dutch Reformed).27 Several philosophers contributed to a book on open theism and science: Dean Zimmerman, Robin Collins, Alan Rhoda, David Woodruff, and Jeffrey Koperski.28  Timothy O’Connor (Indiana University) also affirms the openness model.29 Though there remain defenders of both theological determinism and simple foreknowledge, it seems that the majority of Christian philosophers who publish on the subject today believe that the main options are middle knowledge and dynamic omniscience.

Acclaimed physicist and theologian, John Polkinghorne, holds it as does mathematician D. J. Barholomew and physicist Arthur Peacocke.30

For those interested in biblical support for the dynamic omniscience view, the most important work is by Hebrew Bible scholar, Terrence Fretheim, who has over a dozen publications that document in detail the biblical support for this view of omniscience.31

John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Seminary, has defended it in his Old Testament Theology.32 The work of Boyd and Sanders also contains biblical support.

A number of theologians, philosophers and writers have affirmed the position. Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, Richard Rice, and John Sanders have produced several volumes on the topic.33

Other notable scholars include Dallas Willard, Gabriel Fackre, William Abraham, Paul Borgman, Henry Knight III, Alan Padgett, Tom Oord, and Peter Wagner.34 Researchers and popular writers include Michael Saia, William Pratney, H. Roy Elseth, Gordon C. Olson, Madelline L’Engle, and Brother Andrew.35

The position is affirmed by many YWAM leaders and leaders of the Ichthus church movement in England. Many Pentecostals are supporting it.36 Some leaders in a couple of denominations have spoken in favor of it: the Evangelical Covenant Church and Independent Christian Churches. The organization, Evangelical Educational Ministries, publishes copies of the works of L. D. McCabe and Gordon Olson:

In sum, the dynamic omniscience view was held by a smattering of people until the nineteenth century when serious scholarship begins to be published on it.37

In the latter twentieth century the number of proponents and the amount of quality works setting forth the position has grown exponentially. In part, the view is increasing in popularity in the freewill tradition due to its ability to better explain the biblical texts and give greater intellectual coherence as to how God relates to us.

Some evangelicals do not embrace the open view of omniscience but do arrive at views that have great similarity to it. Gilbert Bilezekian, professor of theology at Wheaton and theological pastor at Willow Creek (he has been Hybels mentor since college) puts forward a view similar to the open view. He claims that God can know what we will do in the future but decides not to know. See his Christianity 101 (Zondervan). Arminian theologian, John Tal Murphy (Taccoa Falls College), interacts with open theism and suggests that though God knows all that will occur in the future God has the ability to “block out of his consciousness” knowledge of what will happen. God can, in effect, “forget” what he knows is going to happen. God does this in order to enter into genuine dialog and interpersonal relations with us. See his, Divine Paradoxes: A Finite View of an Infinite God (Christian Publications, Camp Hill, PA 1998), pp. 49-56. Though I see problems with the views expressed by Bilezekian and Murphy, I am pleased that they understand the problems with simple foreknowledge and, as evangelical Arminians, attempt to find a plausible solution that arrives, for all practical purposes, at a position quite similar to the open view.

In addition, the evangelical Arminian theologian, Jack Cottrell has recently affirmed a temporal version of incremental simple foreknowledge. This view, in my opinion, arrives at precisely the same practical implications for divine providence as the open view. See John Sanders “Is Open Theism a Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 38.2 (Fall 2003): 69-102.

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