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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

1. David Woodruff joined the Huntington faculty in 2000. His scholarly expertise is in the areas of metaphysics, aesthetics and philosophy of religion. Woodruff earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Westmont College, and his Masters and Ph.D. in philosophy from Syracuse University.
2. It is also sometimes referred to in the literature as freewill theism.
3. Clark Pinnock initially addressed this issue in his article “Open Theism: An Answer to my Critics” Dialog 44:3 (Fall 2005), p. 237–245.
4. In an essay for the mini-conference on Models of God at the Pacific division of the American Philosophical Association 2007 and subsequently forthcoming in Philosophia, I defined divine values as those values we analytically attribute to God. If we understand relationship to be a divine value this will inter guide how we understand divine attributes. When I say some form of relational theologies get it right, I am asserting that relational theologies get the divine value of relationship right (in my opinion) and that while they might differ in how they then understand the divine attributes, some form (perhaps one not yet articulated) will provide the best understanding of the divine nature because they begin with the right values for doing so.
5. I think it is important to see this as God valuing relationship with the whole of the created order; however, I also think it is true that God places special value on relationship offered by free creatures.
6. Open theists differ on the scope of God’s knowledge. They generally affirm that God knows future possibilities as possibilities, but they often differ on what things are possibilities. They all affirm that the future is not fixed in its entirety but rather while some things may be fixed, perhaps those things which are physically determined like the course of the galaxy through space, other things especially those involving the free choices of humans are not. God knows the difference and God’s knowledge is appropriate to each.
7. Certainly much can be said following such an approach and in fact much has been said about the biblical nature of open theism, by open theists. See for example chapter 1 of The Openness of God , Pinnock, IVP, 1994. or God of the Possible, by Gregory A. Boyd, Baker Books, 2000, John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, Second Edition, IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 2007, or Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2001.
8. Openness Friendly Interpretations (OFI) stress themes and interpretations which emphasize the relational possibilities that God seeks to cultivate and use passages where God is presented as acting to bring about such relationships with creation to interpret passages where that activity is not as clearly conveyed. I accept here the basic view that there is no clear way to determine which interpretative approach we should take. I find the OFI to provide a rich and meaningful narrative.
9. A mentor, Charles Moore, used to say that the meaning was plastic but not infinitely plastic.
10. See Paul Helm, The Providence of God, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1994, pgs 52–54. For an open theist discussion of this see, A God Who Risks, pp. 74–76.
11. In fact, the idea that we can and should approach texts in a purely neutral way actually contradicts other arguments that are offered namely that open theists don’t interpret texts the way the church traditionally has. Whatever truth there might be to the claim, to appeal to the traditional interpretation at one point and yet argue that we ought to approach the text in a neutral way to find which scriptures are clear certainly appears to be a contradiction. I would also note that few critics seem to recognize that the real problem here is that they cannot merely assert which scriptures are basic for interpretation, because that is what is being disputed.
12. Both Sanders, The God Who Risks and Boyd God of the Possible offer interpretations of many passages from Paul.
13. While we might be satisfied that Paul accepted a Trinitarian view, we might remain skeptical that he thought about it in terms like homo ousion. This I contend should not be the deciding factor in whether we accept the Nicean formulation. Please note I am not saying what Paul said contradicts Nicea, but rather only that it is in no way obvious that he thought about the divine nature in those terms.
14. Henotheism is the view that there are many gods, but that one God is special and to be worshipped. Note that this God may be worshipped because it is seen as superior to other gods, but it can also be the case that the relationship is not based on superiority, but on a special relationship, sometimes a covenant, between a group of people and a divinity. It seems, on a chronological reading, that the covenant comes first, as evidenced by things like describing Yahweh as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and later that this very God was also to be seen as the God over all others, as evidenced by the freedom from Egypt and the protection Yahweh gave to Abraham’s descendants.
15. For example, I once had someone tell me I should believe the Bible was inspired because Isaiah knew the correct shape of the world based on Is 40:22. This verse, he said, showed that Isaiah had scientifically provable knowledge that it would have been impossible for him to have except by divine revelation. When I pointed out that at least his translation actually indicated that Isaiah thought the world was a circle and not a sphere, he was dumbfounded. I doubt Isaiah believed either of these things and that we should not base our belief in inspiration or the correct shape of the world on whether he did.
16. Notice that no matter what your theological tradition is or how far back you claim to trace that tradition you will still face this issue. All of the theological traditions are filled with thinkers struggling to figure out new ways to understand God.
17. In Ex 21:35, there are consequences for the owner of an ox that kills another ox, and some have argued that the Bible thus teaches that we are morally responsible for things which were not the result of the exercise of our free will. Ironically, just prior to this Ex 21:28-32, a distinction is made between reparation for death caused by the ox and punishment of the owner if an ox accustomed to goring, that he has been warned about, kills someone. In the later case, the owner is not merely to pay for the damage that his property has done but is punished for willfully acting in a way that allowed the damage to occur. Unfortunately, the Bible is not a metaphysics text-book so it is not as clear about the connection between moral responsibility and free will as we might like.
18. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ in the sense of ‘am able to’ and hence ‘ought not’ implies ‘I am able to refrain’.
19. Ironically, the conditional nature of some prophecies seems to imply both that we are able to do otherwise and that we are responsible for what we choose to do. I say this is ironic because open theists have been criticized based on the claim that they cannot accept prophecy and yet a significant number of prophecies are meaningful only as conditional claims. Finally, I might note that there are a number of prophecies which are often interpreted as conditional, because they do not come to pass, give no indication that they are conditional. This raises the question, how are we to know which prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled are conditional and which are not?
20. For example, in the case of the ox cited above (footnote 16, Ex. 21:35) note that the ox is viewed as my property and I am accountable for the property of others that it might damage. Furthermore, while I do not exercise my free will in deciding what the ox does, I do exercise my free will in deciding whether the ox is property that I wish to own given that owning it requires me to take responsibility for damage it might cause others.
21. One criticism leveled at open theists is, they are arrogant for thinking that after 2000 years they suddenly now have figured out the right doctrine. This seems a bit ironic given that it is coming from evangelical Protestants, many of whose doctrinal distinctives (6 day creation, inerrancy, decentralized church authority) are only slightly longer in their history. If this reasoning was sound, Protestants should be looking to rejoin the Catholic church. Furthermore, it is clear that the early (depending on how early you choose to look) Church had a great diversity of doctrinal ideas that were accepted by its different members.
22. See for example, Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006. Please note that as one might expect from MacMullen this is a very well researched book with a host of other resources; far more ample than I could give here.
23. As a philosopher, I am inclined to respond, as I have heard others giving papers respond to similar types of criticisms—well that’s not really a criticism so much as it is a statement of my theory, or in this case doctrine.
24. Some have offered a biblical basis for accepting EDF, but this will face similar problems as we encountered above. Certainly there are biblical passages which can be meaningfully read in this way, but this fact does not entail that these passages should be read in this way. I will not discuss this further as my aim here is to examine claims that Open Theism is contrary to Christian doctrine and I have already given a general strategy for dealing with biblical criticisms of this sort.
25. As we will see below according to some arguments even there being a fact of the matter is not sufficient for showing that God would of necessity know that fact for it to be true that God is omniscient.
26. See for example, Dale Tuggy, “Three Roads to Open Theism” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy .
27. It should be noted that this seems to cross a major divide where open theism is on the same side of the divide with the majority of theists. On the far side of the divide from the open theists is the strict Calvinist who asserts that absolutely nothing happens that is not specifically ordained by God to occur. Sanders refers to this divide as the watershed issue, see p. 12–13 and other discussions in the 2nd edition of his book. It seems to me that a parallel argument can be found in the Calvinist debate between the supralapsarianism and the infralapsarianism.
28. The rejection of specific divine sovereignty is not limited to open theists. Many forms of relational theism reject this concept, but it is of particular interest in the discussion of open theism because of the way this rejection is consistently connected to other features of doctrine.
29. Some have asserted that the open theist’s affirmation of a broad view of divine sovereignty is unbiblical; however, as we have seen above to show this requires that there be no passages supporting divine sovereignty which cannot reasonably be given an openness friendly interpretation. To this point in my opinion no one has done this.
30. Flint argues elsewhere that molinism does a better job with the incarnation. I will not reply to this particular argument here but will rather try to apply the principles of his approach to the issue of divine providence. One place to find his discussion of divine providence is Thomas P. Flint, “Two Accounts of Providence” in Divine and Human Action: Essays in the Metaphysics of Theism, ed. Thomas V. Morris, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1988, pgs. 147–181. The focus of Flint’s efforts there is to contrast the molinist account with the Tomistic account. Also see his Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, Thomas P. Flint, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1998.
31. Molinism is not committed one way or the other to whether God is a-temporal. Molinists who are atemporalists view the relationship between necessary, middle and contingent divine knowledge as a logical relationship and not a temporal one. Furthermore, they tend to view God’s interventions into the world as distinct parts of a single eternal divine act, perhaps built into the very fabric of the world. So, God knowing that in the particular circumstances that Moses is in, he will indeed put his staff into the Red Sea, has built into the very fabric of creation the desired results of Moses’ obedient action that the sea would part. We view the parting as the providential action of God.
32. It is important to see that God’s actions will have consequences in the world and those consequences will themselves form the circumstances which play into God’s knowledge of later subjunctive conditionals about the actions of free individuals. Hence, for God to choose to bring about a particular world, God’s knowledge would need to include how creatures would act as well as how He would act.
33. These counterfactuals are brute truths about us. We cannot give a causal account without calling into question our libertarian free will and that is not something that the molinist wishes to do. When choosing to consider creation God is in a sense lucky or unlucky to get the counterfactuals that are in fact available.
34. For more on Flint’s construct of the concept see “Two Accounts of Providence,” pp. 147–150. Some noteworthy comments he makes: “We tend to call providential those occurrences in which we find the presence of God especially evident…” (p. 147) He lists three components of providence as he understands it: providence involves foresight, providence involves God actively controlling what happens and providence requires that God exercises his sovereignty morally and wisely. (See pp. 149–150)
35. The source of the problem is that Flint treats the connection between providence and foreknowledge as conceptual. He treats it as part of the concept of an action being providential that it is grounded in foreknowledge. I see no real reason to think that for God to act to bring about my well-being requires that God foreknow future states.
36. I would not want to be committed to the view that this world is one of perhaps many equally best possible worlds, so I would not want to impose such a belief on molinists.
37. It seems incredible to suppose that any act of God beyond what we find in the world would have made the world to be a place of less individual or overall well-being. Remember God’s action to create the particular world is unilateral but limited by the true subjunctive conditionals which are under our power. So this amounts to saying that God knowing what I and every other free creature would choose to do in any possible situation choose this world as the one which maximizes our well-being. I hate to suppose that this is what Flint or other molinists will opt for because it seems incredibility unlikely to be true. The only other option seems to be that God did not, on the molinist account, act in the most providential way that he could have. The open theist does not face this dilemma because they see what actually transpires as in part due to the choices that God allows creatures to make. Creation is the joint product of first the divine creative/sustaining activity of God and the choices of free creatures.
38. I would be remiss if I did not note that Flint shows how the molinist approach to this discussion connects with other doctrines such as predestination and the problem of evil. (see pgs. 160–162) The substance of that discussion, however, is to show how middle knowledge provides a solution to the problems raised by these doctrines. It is not showing how the account of providence is connected to these views. I do not mean to fault Flint for this; no doubt this was not his aim. I merely want to point out that the discussion is there and to comment on why I have not utilized it more in what is covered above.
39. I think it is interesting to note how the open theist and some atemporalists agree on this point. Both agree that what happens is not fixed or determined by God although for different reasons. (One can of course be a strict theological determinist and an atemporalist but for the purposes of this discussion that particular position will be an uninteresting variant.) It is in this sense interesting to see the view of divine sovereignty at work here. Unless as molinists suggest God is selecting between different possible worlds, it would appear that God as God cannot determine that creation will be exactly intended, even if God can know whether it will or will not be as intended. Some in fact appeal to this as a tool against the problem of evil. As we will see in what follows this approach may face such deep problems that it is not worth pursuing.
40. According to libertarians the ability to do otherwise is essential to moral responsibility.
41. This has also been referred to as the B-theory of time, but I prefer either ‘stasis’ or ‘block’ theory as they refer to the nature of time and not the predicates we use to talk about time.
42. In fact one of the most difficult parts of this discussion is trying to characterize each position in a way that would be accepted by adherents of that view. This view is sometimes called the 4 dimentionalist or 4-D view of time. Even here care must be taken. Time is treated as a dimension similar in its ontological status (but not necessarily in its structure) to space. Just as other parts of space not present are no less real than the bit present to us, times are viewed in the same way. The most relevant point for my discussion here is the completeness of time. No one treats time as a dimension in exactly the same way that they treat space as dimensional. For this reason I will here refer to the view as the block view of time.
43. It should be noted that some have argued that the block view of time is the only view of time consistent with relativity theory. The most commonly cited reason for this is that many think that it is fundamental to relativity theory (either special or general) that we reject the view that there is a privileged point of simultaneity. Any two events not in the same inertial frame can be viewed as occurring either, the first before the second, the two simultaneous, or the second before the first. Notice this does not cause a conflict where a cause and an effect can be reversed, because the effect of any cause will be in the same inertial frame with its cause. I will not attempt to counter this claim here as it would take us well beyond the scope of this paper. The substance of the response is that to argue that while we are not in a position to pick which reference frame is privileged there may nonetheless be one. Relativity, in fact, does not rule out the possibility of this.
44. Dean Zimmerman seems to be arguing otherwise, in his paper “The Privileged Present: Defending an A-theory of Time,” forthcoming in Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics, ed. Theodore Sider, John Hawthorne and Dean Zimmerman (Badlen, Mass: Blackwell).
45. Some of what I freely do might be characterized as beliefs, but even where this is true many of my beliefs result in actions involving change.
46. We might well find all of what we cannot account for, the four dimensionalist does not want to affirm any way. So the question may well become what do we need our concept of change to do?
47. As I note below it may be broadly metaphysically possible, that would have to be worked out by giving the semantics of transworld identity for a four dimensional universe; a difficult task at best. I suspect that even if it were metaphysically possible it is not physically possible and that modality cannot here be ignored.
48. To get a range of possible futures in a block universe we will need to describe it in such a way that its parts are not essential to it. Even this may not be enough as in the block universe the future is actualized. Thomas Aquinas and others make the distinction between what is necessary in itself and what is conditionally necessary. Thomas identifies the past as an example of what is conditionally necessary. It is hard to see how for the block universe the future would not be conditionally necessary as well. If that is the case then I cannot do other than what I will in the future do. When I lose the ability to do otherwise I lose libertarian free will.
49. 48. I would like to thank John Sanders for his comments on this paper and Jonathan Evans and the participants of the Indiana Philosophical Association (Fall 2002 meeting) for their discussion of parts of an earlier drafts.