Examining Problems and Assumptions: An Update on Criticisms of Open Theism
David M. Woodruff 1
Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 47, Number 1 • Spring 2008
Abstract: Open theism, a form of relational theology, has generated a host of criticisms. I examine some of the recent criticisms by analyzing several that center around biblical, doctrinal and philosophical problems. I show how many criticisms miss the mark by failing to recognize and address the underlying assumptions held by open theists.
Key Terms: open theism, atemporal, foreknowledge, molinism.
Open theism is a form of relational theology.2 Relational theologies start with the belief that God desires to be in relationship with creation, and use that belief as a basis for interpretation and explanation of other aspects of the divine nature. I would like to offer an update on criticisms of open theism.3 My approach to these criticisms is rooted in my belief that some form of relational theology is accurate in that it properly represents relationship as a divine value, and then interprets the divine nature and other theological concepts based on this value.4 Thus, open theism makes sense of a wide array of views about God’s nature including God’s purpose, actions, and intentions throughout all creation along with other features of a systematic theology, by locating as central the belief that God values the relationships that the created order offers.5
Because of this, open theists believe creation history is not uniquely determined by the divine creative act. It is “open” in the sense that there is more than one possible outcome in creation. The two most contentious consequences of this are: first, not everything that happens in creation was ordained (or foreordained) by God; and second, God lacks exhaustive definite foreknowledge. According to open theists, God takes risks in achieving the ends or purposes of creation. Furthermore, to some degree, God cannot know the outcome in its totality.6 I would like to present here an update of some additional points of contention. Although there are numerous criticisms I will only examine several typical criticisms organized into three categories: biblical interpretation, doctrine and philosophy.
Biblical Interpretation and Open Theism
There are a number of different criticisms of open theism that claim open theism is unbiblical. Using a verse by verse approach, critics amass a host of verses claiming each one shows that open theism is wrong. One possible response is to provide a verse by verse reply to these criticisms. What an analysis of these criticisms and the respective replies show is that little progress can be made without an independent guide to how we approach such texts.7 The interpretative assumptions we bring to the texts determine how we interpret the texts. Verses offered by critics against open theists are given Openness Friendly Interpretations (OFI) by open theists.8 All this seems to show is that there is not a single universally accepted interpretation of biblical texts. However, when we accept that the meaning of the text is pliable, this does not entail that it will be infinitely pliable.9 What then will guide us in deciding which meanings are acceptable and which are not?
The response critics usually offer is that we should interpret difficult texts using clear or obvious texts. Paul Helm has offered a solution that distinguished weak texts and strong texts.10 Yet critics argue that open theists wrongly elevate weak texts and use them as the basis for incorrectly interpreting strong texts. There is something to be said for the principle offered here, but I do not think it gets the critics what they ultimately want. All of us do interpret texts based on the assumption that some are more basic and fundamental than others, although often enough we do this without consciously being aware of it. We understand difficult texts in light of those that seem to be more clear and basic; what counts as a ‘difficult’ text is determined by what we accept as clear and basic. The problem that critics fail to address is that there are no independent grounds for establishing which texts are to be treated as clear and basic. We cannot approach the text in a perfectly neutral way, and then following some neutral pattern of interpretation, derive from strictly textual grounds the clear and basic texts.11 Instead, what we bring to the texts guides us.
One criterion we use to decide which texts are foundational is the longstanding interpretation of the church, and critics point out that the church tradition does not favor open theism. Notice this is an admission that there is not a single interpretation that we can obtain from the text if we are diligent and honest enough to let the text speak for itself. This rejects the criticism as it was originally given; it is a big shift to which few critics own up. Taken to the extreme, critics argue that open theism was not the view of the biblical writers. One critic recently
quipped that he doubted that Paul was an open theist. His point appeared to be that if we properly understand Paul, we will understand his view of the divine nature; and since Scripture is inspired, we must accept it as correct. While this criticism has significant rhetorical weight, it is actually no better positioned than the earlier criticisms I noted. In short, we must interpret Paul ourselves, and that puts us right back in the position of lacking an independent interpretive key to his texts.
Furthermore, I do think that there are a number of additional problems not being addressed. I am not so sure I agree with the above mentioned critic that it is at all obvious Paul was not an open theist,12 but for the sake of argument, suppose we accept that he was not. The inference from what Paul believed to what we should believe appears to rely on the following principle: “biblical writer X viewed the divine nature to be Y, therefore the divine nature is (obviously) Y.” This is much more problematic than many critics seem to realize. For example, it is not at all clear that Paul or other New Testament writers believed what we do about the structure of the Trinity. I accept a trinitarian view of God’s nature, and I do think there are biblical passages that support this doctrine. However, while Paul had a distinct take on the divine nature compared to his contemporary Jewish thinkers, it is not at all obvious Paul believed the divine trinitarian nature was to be understood in terms the church has accepted since it was worked out at the council of Nicea.13
Considering the Old Testament
Things only get more difficult when we look to the Old Testament. Is there any evidence that Amos was a trinitarian, or that if he were, he thought about it in the concepts defended at Nicea? If not, should we reject the Nicean formulation based on the principle cited above? Furthermore, some scholars have claimed that Moses was a henotheist.14 Yet if this is correct, it does not seem to me that I should be a henotheist as well. The underlying problem with the interpretive principle above is that it is based on a problematic view of inspiration, a view where inspiration so guided the words of the writers that we must attribute to them beliefs that it seems extremely unlikely they would have held.15 If we reject the principle, we face a difficulty, one which it seems critics of open theism are unwilling to address. As we think carefully about God, how do we come to understand new things about God, things that the original writers may not themselves have recognized?16 Perhaps this is as much a point of division as open theism’s view of exhaustive definite foreknowledge or specific sovereignty.
A crucial example of this issue is the question of what constitutes the ‘biblical’ notion of free will? Critics of open theism argue that open theology gets doctrine wrong because it does not utilize the biblical notion of free will. One criticism points out that in Old Testament law, people were held accountable for things over which they had no control.17 Here we find the open theists again appealing to larger themes. A fundamental assumption of moral responsibility is that ought implies can.18 Even if we can read some biblical passages in such a way that they would conflict with this interpretation, there seems to be a prevalent assumption that “ought does imply can.”19 Furthermore, there does not seem to be specific denial of this injunction. Finally, passages which can be read as denying the injunction can also be interpreted to be consistent with this moral principle.20
So, how can we agree upon an understanding of the biblical notion of free will? One thing we can start with is an agreement that humans are morally responsible for what they do. Those affirming compatibilism and those affirming libertarian free will each assert that a minimal constraint for a meaningful notion of free will is that it is a basis for moral responsibility. This assists us in seeing the two sides of the issue. Open theists want to look for an open-friendly interpretation of those biblical texts that seem to imply that someone could be morally responsible for their actions when they could not have done otherwise. Compatibilists want to convince us that we can understand our conception of moral responsibility apart from the ability to have done otherwise. That is, they need a good reason to reject the moral principle that “ought implies can.”
Of necessity, this requires interpretation. And until interpretations which affirm this principle are conclusively ruled out, the conclusion that open theism uses a non-biblical conception of free will inevitably lacks support.
Open Theism and Christian Doctrine
Other criticisms of open theism attempt to show that it is contrary to accepted Christian doctrine. Many such criticisms seem to presuppose implicitly that we are clear on doctrinal matters. A careful look at Church history makes it obvious that this presupposition is unwarranted.21 A look at the process of elucidating even the most central doctrines of Christian faith shows that it was not exactly an even-handed, loving activity handled by docile, peace-loving monks.22 A broader look at the development of any doctrine cannot fail to show that the interpretation of the Christian faith is far from being a historically closed matter.
The Example of Omniscience
What would an adequate criticism of open theism based on doctrine look like? Far too often, doctrinal criticisms merely assume that the doctrine being offered, say omniscience, is clearly defined and unambiguously necessitated by Christian faith. Few such doctrines exist. One criticism of open theism is that it rejects exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF).23 While widespread acceptance of EDF is a relevant criterion, to show EDF is an essential doctrine of Christianity requires that it be both unambiguously accepted and a necessity for an accurate explanation of the Christian faith.24 The doctrinally grounded arguments for example, God would be less than perfect if God lacked EDF, or that God would lack omniscience without EDF make significant assumptions. Notice that the claim without EDF God would lack omniscience—assumes that we have a precise concept of omniscience and that it includes knowledge of the future. Open theists question both of these assumptions. If a critic of open theism can establish that there is some fact, rather than simply a range of possibilities about the future, we might think that an omniscient being would need to know that fact.25 Open theists, because of their commitment to libertarian free will, question whether the future exists in a way that grounds present exhaustive facts about it. If open theists are right, the future lacks sufficient facts for God to have EDF. This is not inconsistent with omniscience.
On the other hand, some open theists have granted that while there are facts about the future, these facts are not knowable by God or by any other being. If this were the case, then it would not be a limit of God’s knowledge for God to fail know what no being could possibly know. Some have criticized this as tampering with the definition of omniscience, but until there is some independent ground for granting one view of the nature of omniscience over another, this hardly seems to be a sustainable criticism. Much already has been said by others about this topic, so I will refer the reader to some other discussions of the matter.26
The Example of God’s Sovereignty
Similar arguments have been presented against the sovereignty of God. As discussed above, many critics of open theism appear to think that there is an unquestionable concept of sovereignty that is universally accepted by Christians, with the exception of open theists. I doubt a careful look at what Christians believe will support this assumption. Even if there were no open theists around today there would not be a universally accepted concept of sovereignty. Some hold that divine sovereignty simply means that nothing happens that is not divinely ordained. This position is divided by others to distinguish those things that God wills from those things that God does not wish to happen but allows in order to bring about what is willed.27 Open theists reject specific divine sovereignty,28 but this is not the same as the rejection of the doctrine of divine sovereignty. According to open theists, God’s exercise of sovereignty is broad. This is based on the open theist belief that broad sovereignty fits better with God’s goal to enter into loving relationship with beings who are able to reciprocate that love. A good deal of both the liturgy and the practice of Christians, especially prayer, shows that specific divine sovereignty is neither unambiguously held nor necessitated by the Christian faith.29
Philosophical justifications of specific divine sovereignty are no better off. For a philosophical argument to work, there would need to be either unquestionable premises to work from, or one would need to show that rejections of specific sovereignty are necessarily self-contradictory. Either of these tasks is notoriously difficult. Even if one or more open theists has a contradictory conception of divine sovereignty, this would not prove that there is not a consistent concept that open theists could embrace.
Tom Flint has offered a different approach to doctrinal disputes. Flint argues that the way to approach these issues is not to try to come up with a cut and dried argument, but instead to look at how various doctrines work together, as a whole.30 Flint makes two important points in his arguments. First, he recognizes that doctrines are supposed to do things. So we might well ask of the open theist’s notion of sovereignty whether it does what we expect and need the doctrine to do. Second, Flint recognizes that doctrines do not operate in a conceptual vacuum. Flint asks us to consider whether a particular doctrine fits well or poorly with other beliefs. Let us consider an application of Flint’s approach to the question of divine providence: I argue that molinism (Flint’s chosen doctrine of divine foreknowledge) does not handle the notion of divine providence as well as open theism does.
Molinism: One Version of Divine Providence
Molinism attempts to show how God can have EDF, and at the same time, humans can have libertarian free will. It does this by attributing middle knowledge to God. Middle knowledge is the knowledge that God has between knowledge of what is necessarily the case, should God choose to create, and the contingent facts that would be true if God creates a particular world. The middle knowledge that God has is comprised of all of the ways things would be in the whole range of possibilities. The main point of interest is subjunctive conditionals concerning what a free creature would do in a particular circumstance: truths of the form, “if Bob were in circumstance C he would freely choose to do action A.” Based on knowledge of what a libertarian free creature would do in every possible circumstance, God chooses to create a particular world which would bring about what God desires.
Several things are relevant to the discussion of divine providence. First, God’s act of providence consists in the choice God makes to create the particular contingent world. Second, if God decides to intervene in creation,31 that intervention is a part of the particular creation that God has brought about. In other words, the action is part of the plan of creation prior to the act of creation. God’s response comes in the form of perfect anticipation of what we will do and say, including what we will request.32 Finally, God does not have control over what subjunctive conditionals will be true. If God did exercise control over such things, then we would not be free.33 Recall that the molinist is attempting to preserve both libertarian free will and exhaustive definite foreknowledge. It is because the truths of the subjunctive conditionals are not up to God, but are up to creatures that the libertarian free will of creatures is maintained. One might summarize this with the following: necessary truths of creation + subjunctive conditionals + divine selection of contingent conditions = human history, past present and future, including the providential acts of God.
The basic notion of providence is that God works to the good of all creation. Providence is a relational concept in that it tells us something about how God relates to us, specifically that God acts for our good and/or our overall long-term wellbeing.34 The molinist construal of providence seems to be offering us the possibility for a meaningful relationship with God. Suppose I had perfect knowledge, including knowledge of the free acts my children would choose in any possible circumstances and complete knowledge of those circumstances. I might well prepare a future that would meet their needs in a way that maximized their well-being. For example, if I knew I were going to die next week and I had such foreknowledge as described, I might make recordings of advice, support, and congratulations. I am sure under the circumstances this would help my children. However, suppose I have the choice between two options: either I could record my congratulations ahead of time for what I know my child will achieve, or I could be there when it happens to congratulate my child in person. I think that were I able to do either, it would be substantially less meaningful to my children if I chose the first option. Recording the congratulatory message would serve the same purpose as my actual interaction. I might initiate the exchange with something like, ‘Congratulations I know you worked hard for this.’ Given my perfect knowledge, I would know what my son or daughter would then say and wait the appropriate time and record the appropriate response. But this seems to me clearly to be a diminished relationship. The molinist is not denying that God seeks to be in a relationship; as a matter of fact, s/he views middle knowledge as a means of affirming divine providential action. My contention is that open theism has the potential for a richer sense of the providential divine-human relationship. So by Flint’s criterion we should prefer the open theist’s doctrine of providence.35
Finally, it might seem at first that the molinist doctrine of providence necessarily implies that God must choose the best of all possible worlds. Flint rejects this idea based on similar arguments, seen in the literature, dealing with the problem of evil; namely that there may be no best possible world, either because there is no upper limit or because there is a tie. Suppose we choose the later possibility.36 Given our understanding of providence for the molinist—as describing the divine choice of creating the world God did create based on the necessary and subjunctive truths—we now appear to be committed to one of two options. On the one hand, God could see that if anything were made better for any creature, in any particular circumstance, then it would result in either overall less well-being for that creature or less overall well-being for other creatures with which God was equally concerned. On the other hand, God chooses not to act as well as God knew was possible providentially. Each of these strains our sense of the doctrine of providence.37
For the open theist, God’s knowledge of the free actions of individual creatures is limited to the probability that the creature would act in a given way in a given situation. This is often expressed thusly: God knows future possibilities as possible. God acts, based on principles that guide the application of divine providential actions as a direct response to personal interaction with creatures. Perhaps it is only a reflection of already deep open theist tendencies in my own thinking, but as I look at the two approaches, the open theist’s view of providence seems to do a much better job of capturing what I think about as divine providence.38
Open Theism and Philosophy
The most significant type of criticism that open theism faces has to do with the assumptions and philosophical framework open theism endorses, some of which is the basis for replies given above. Do we actually have libertarian free will? Is divinity fundamentally concerned with relationship? Is it impossible for an atemporal being to enter into personal relationships with temporal beings? How is time best understood? Of these, I believe the issue surrounding the nature of time, and the implication this has on divine and human nature, is the most significant issue that open theists face.
The Example of Temporality
Some critics of open theism have asserted that we can maintain exhaustive definite foreknowledge and libertarian free will when we realize that God is atemporal. An atemporal God can know
the whole of the human experience without that knowledge determining human choice. This view maintains libertarian free will because it preserves the possibility that at this instant I can choose between real options. If, for example, I choose to continue typing . . . it nonetheless could have been the case that I took a break instead. Because God is outside time, God will always know what, in fact, I choose to do, but God’s knowledge is not the cause of my action.
The difficulty in the atemporalist’s approach is to avoid equivocation on the nature of time in the switch between the human perspective and the divine perspective. From the divine, atemporal perspective, the whole of time can be immediately known. Time itself must have a single nature, even if, when viewed from different perspectives, divine or human, it is seen in different ways. God is omniscient in that God knows all truths that happen at all times. From our perspective time flows or progresses. I can distinguish tomorrow from yesterday. What happened yesterday is something that is complete and I can not now do anything about it. What will happen tomorrow is, at least in some partial sense, yet to come. In so far as I exercise libertarian free will for some future event, I have the power to determine whether that event will or will not occur.39 Hence, divine atemporality avoids theological determinism and preserves libertarian free will.
It is not enough to preserve the epistemic grounds for free will; grounds that make it rational for us to believe that we have free will. For the divine atemporalist position to be worth our consideration, we want it to maintain the metaphysical ground of free will. We want a description of the structural nature of time that allows us the ability to actualize between genuine alternatives. If the divine atemporalist position does not get us this, then it fails in a significant way.40
The Role of Modern Physics
Modern physics appears to support the atemporalist position. Understanding time has been a major issue at least as far back as Einstein’s introduction of special relativity. There are a number of interrelated issues, but one of the fundamental distinctions is between the stasis or block theory and the dynamic theory of time.41 In the block view of time, the whole of time exists. What to us is past exists equally with what to us is present, and likewise the future exists in exactly the same way as what is present.42 Although some have argued that relativity theory does not commit one to a block view of time, the block view is the view most commonly associated with relativity theory.43 If space-time is understood to be a complete whole, and God—the creator of space-time—is not a part of space-time, then God would be outside of that continuum and outside time. God knows what is to me past, what is to me present and what is to me future with equal clarity and as equally real and occurring. How, exactly, God could be outside the continuum and yet have knowledge of it is difficult to work out; however, given that God could know anything of what is internal to space-time, there would seem to be no barrier to God knowing all of it and thus having what appears to me to be exhaustive definite foreknowledge.
If this is the right or only view of time which is compatible with relativity theory, open theism has significant, perhaps even fatal problems.44 Some have argued that it is not the case that the block view is the only view compatible with the best physics we have available to us. I contend that this view may not be as attractive to the open theistic divine atemporalist as it seems at first. The block or stasis view of time may well be incompatible with other things atemporalists want to affirm; in particular it may be incompatible with libertarian free will. If it is not outright incompatible, it presents such a different view of ‘change’ and ‘free will’ that it will be difficult to reconcile what atemporalists think about the temporal structure and its inhabitants.
The purpose of affirming divine atemporality is to provide a basis for avoiding theistic determinism; to avoid a conflict between God knowing what I will do and my having the ability to actualize from a range of genuine options. My free actions frequently involve a change in my state.45 First, I am one way; then, as I exercise my ability to actualize a genuine option, I come to be in a different state. Typically divine atemporalists take a traditional view of change. To understand the problem for the atemporalist we need to look at what block theory says about the nature of change.
Block Theory and the Nature of Change
According to block theory, humans, like every other thing that has any temporal duration, are spread out in time in the same way that spatial objects are spread out in space. I am not merely what is simultaneous with the typing on this keyboard, but rather, I am a four-dimensional whole that is spread out in time. When you and I interact, what you interact with is a temporal slice or part of me, but I am much more than the temporal slice before you. Here it gets a bit tricky for the divine atemporalist position. Just as the past is real and complete, the future slices of me are real and complete. In the traditional sense of ‘change,’ the four dimensional things spread out in space and time do not change. Supporters of block theory are quick to point out that they do not deny change. They want to affirm the obvious, that things undergo change. But they do not affirm the traditional view of change where I (the whole of me) am first one way and then later I am a different way. In fact, they deny that there is a meaningful referent for ‘I’ in such claims. Instead, based on their block view of spacetime, they affirm that the right way to understand change is: a temporal slice of me is one way and a different temporal slice of me is a different way. This is analogous to the way spatially extended objects change from one spatial location to the next. An aircraft carrier is one way at one spatial point and a different way at another spatial point.
I do not find the preceding description a particularly compelling view of change; however, there is no denying that it does account for much of what we want to say about change in a way consistent with the block or stasis view of time.46 However, it does not account for the idea that a single whole complete thing—me—is first one way and then at some later time that same complete whole thing is different. This is simply something that block theorists view as inconsistent with their metaphysical view. It is something that is inconsistent with what they think is the basic structure of the universe, just as the notion that the whole of you is before me when we interact is a mistaken view. We might now wonder what the block view commits us to regarding the nature of free choice. Am I able to do other than what I do? Whatever I will choose to do tomorrow—is it the case I am at that temporal point able to choose something else?
The discussion here is very difficult to track. In one sense, I necessarily occupy the spatial temporal whole that I occupy, and whatever state any temporal slice of me is in is necessary.47 God might well have instantiated a different spatial-temporal block, but it is difficult to see in what sense that block is relevant. More importantly, whatever sense of possibility might apply, I do not have the power to actualize what is ‘possible.’ We might work out the modal truths of a block world in such a way that it is broadly metaphysically possible that I do something other that what I in fact do; however, that sense of ‘ability’ seems to fall well short of what we need for libertarian free will. What we need for libertarian free will are circumstances where I am able to actualize more than one possible future, because the block universe is a physical universe that requires that it be physically possible for me to actualize more than one possibility. However, in the block universe there is only one future.48 This seems to eliminate libertarian free will. God, in creating this particular space time block, creates the whole thing. On the other hand, if we reject the block view of time, it is not clear that there is a future for God to be aware of. Open theists assert that if we do have libertarian free will and there exists no future for God to know, then God cannot know (with certainty) what I will do.
To sum up, the divine atemporalist faces a dilemma: either the future is complete, in which case the resulting view of objects and changes is unlikely to be reconciled with her/his view of freewill; or there is no future and thus there is nothing for God to know. It is not God’s knowledge which is the cause of the determinism that is inconsistent with libertarian freewill; it is the structure of reality put forward that is the problem. Of course, none of this shows that the block view of time is not the correct view of time. My point here is merely that divine atemporality does not, in any obvious way, get us both EDF and libertarian free will.
Open theism is not immune from significant criticism. However, I hope that I have shown how open theists respond to some recent criticisms. Many critics simply miss the mark by making assumptions that open theists will be unwilling to grant. Some assumptions that are common, like the clarity of doctrine or the notion that we can somehow independently determine which biblical passages are the strong and clear ones, open theists are right to reject. Some like the nature of time seem far more tenuous and difficult to justify.49