Posts tagged John Sanders

Open Theology & The Church 2013 Conference

Download PDF

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

OPEN 2013 – John Sanders – Inherent Virtues, Part 2

OPEN 2013 – John Sanders – Q&A

Tom Oord

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

OPEN 2013 – Tom Oord – Moment-by-Moment, Part 2

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

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

Download PDF

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

Divine Reciprocity and Epistemic Openness in Clark Pinnock’s Theology

Download PDF


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

Download PDF


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!

Mapping the Terrain of Divine Providence

Download PDF


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.

Polkinghorne, is he an Open Theist?

Download PDF

Full Question:


I read John Polkinghorne’s Belief in God in an Age of Science, and I am wondering if he supports this position? What he writes sounds like it, but he is not listed in the books PRO.

Norman Hillestad

Reply to Norman Hillestad:

Polkinghorne does reject the “one act” creation of a timeless deity as per classical theism (see pg 82 of “The faith of a physicist” 1996 edition) but I cannot say how exactly he works out God’s relation to time from this statement. As often happens, he makes a negative objection but does not offer a constructive alternative, at least in this context… His rejection of the timeless deity is tied to his commitment to God as personal.


Click Next Page for More Responses

Are any Reformed theologians sympathetic too or proponents of open theism?

Download PDF


Full Question:


Are any Reformed theologians sympathetic too or proponents of open theism?



Reply to Anonymous:


Many people believe that only those from the Wesleyan-Arminian side of the tracks are open theists or are friendly towards open theism but that is not the case. Reformed theology has many who fit this category. For Reformed resources for relational theology and the dynamic omniscience view see the following.

Berkhof, Hendrikus.
Christian Faith. Tr. Sierd Woudstra. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.

Bloesch, Donald.
God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love. Christian Foundations. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Boer, Harry.
An Ember Still Glowing. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Brummer, Vincent.
The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Speaking of a Personal God: An Essay in Philosophical Theology. Cambridge: University Press, 1992.
What Are We Doing When We Pray? A Philosophical Investigation. London: SCM Press, 1984.

Brunner, Emil.
The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Tr. Olive Wyon Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952.
Christian Doctrine of God. Tr. Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949.
The Divine-Human Encounter. Tr. Amandus W. Loos (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1943.

Case-Winters, Anna.
God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.

Daane, James.
“Can a Man Bless God?” Eds. Clifton Orlebeke and Lewis Smedes. God and the Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975.
The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973.

Fackre, Gabriel.
The Christian Story. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984.

Konig, Adrio.
Here Am I: A Believer’s Reflection on God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

See the works of Jurgen Moltmann.

Placher, William C.
Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994.

van den Brink, Gijsbert.
Almighty God: A Study of the Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence. Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1993.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.
(see his essay in God & Time: Four Views, p. 188).

John Sanders

If God controls everything, isn’t his foreknowledge a moot point?

Download PDF


Full Question:


If God “meticulously” controls His creatures wouldn’t that be the end of any thinking along the lines of God not having exhaustive foreknowledge?



Reply to Anonymous:


If God meticulously controls everything which happens such that nothing ever happens but what God decrees should happen, then must God not have exhaustive foreknowledge of all future contingent events? Not necessarily since God may lack exhaustive foreknowledge and simply exercise meticulous providence as things unfold. To be honest, I don’t know of anyone who holds such a view, but it does bring out the fact that certain other beliefs must accompany meticulous providence in order to rule out lack of foreknowledge. Typically, timelessness and a strong notion of immutability are added to the mix of divine attributes which would then require that no change in God’s knowledge take place. In addition, regarding human nature, either determinism or compatibilism (you are free so long as you get what you desire but your desires are determined). Given these additional beliefs, God would eternally know all that God has decreed should happen.

Also, a distinction may be drawn between divine foreordination of all things (meticulous providence) and foreknowledge. Foreknowledge was used by the early church fathers, Arminius and Wesley to claim that God did not exercise meticulous providence. Instead, God “foresaw” who would exercise saving faith and then, on the basis of that knowledge, God predestined those people for eternal life. According to this view, divine foreknowledge does not entail foreordination of all things. God foresees what humans will freely do. Calvin repudiated this notion of the early church fathers that God foresees faith in humans and then elects them. On the contrary, says Calvin, God “foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place.” God knows the future because he determines the future. This debate was over whether God is ever affected by human decisions.

From what has been said we see two things: (1) that meticulous providence combined with timelessness, immutability and lack of libertarian freedom in humans ensures that God knows all that will happen in our future because God foreordains everything; (2)just because God possesses foreknowledge does not imply that God has foreordained all things. At least, this is the claim of the early fathers, the Eastern Orthodox church, Arminians, Wesleyans and all proponents of simple foreknowledge. This is, of course, a hotly contested belief. Nonetheless, a great many Christians have believed that God could have foreknowledge without exercising meticulous providence.

John Sanders

So how does prevenient grace fit in with Open Theism?

Download PDF


Full Question:


Is there any room in open theism for the traditional Arminian affirmation of the necessity of prevenient grace?



Reply to Anonymous:


Yes, though I don’t believe there is anything in open theism which logically entails the necessity of prevenient grace, all of us affirm it as necessary due to sin. On the whole, our view tends to line up with Wesley, and the Eastern Orthodox church on this matter.

Dr. John Sanders

Doesn’t God work outside of time?

Download PDF


Full Question:


Webmaster, I feel way out of my depth with this question, but its been bugging me. I’m not even sure I can word it right, maybe you can figure out what I’m asking? It seems like open theism wants God to live day to day like we do. it seems like it only works if God is limited by time. But, it also seems that God is not limited by things like time. If God lives without the constraints of time, then couldn’t he be surprised in the present and still know the future? Well, maybe not, but it just looks like if we removed the time problem, this foreknowlege thing would just go away.

So, I guess I am asking: why do you think God works “only” within time, and if he also worked outside of time, wouldn’t the whole debate just go away? At least I think that’s what I asked. This could give you a headache.

Jenny H.


Reply to Jenny H.:


I think this is what needs to be said.

The Bible clearly does present God as living and acting in time. The notion of God as timeless, “outside of time,” originated in Greek philosophy but has often been accepted by Christian theology.

The problem is, this is a very difficult concept to really understand. Just saying, “God is not limited by things like time” is not good enough. One needs to give a lot of careful thought to grasping what divine timelessness really means. Unfortunately, people often pick up the idea very superficially, and in effect what it means for them is that “anything goes” when we are talking about God in relation to time. In effect, it is just a way to get out of having to think about the problems in the area.

So my advice to Jenny is this: If you are seriously interested in the idea of God’s being timeless, take some time to study the subject and think carefully about what it really means. Then you will be in a better position to decide whether it is a view you want to accept.

William Hasker Ph. D.

Click Next Page for More Responses

Go to Top