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Mapping the Terrain of Divine Providence

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


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

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

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

Traditionalist Views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Areas of Agreement and Disagreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Early Church Fathers on Hellenism and Impassibility

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John Sanders


Some misunderstanding has arisen regarding my view of the relationship between the church fathers and Hellenism and I would like to clarify my stance. In my chapter in the Openness of God (1994) I was more negative than I was when I covered the same material in The God Who Risks (1998), yet, even in the earlier work did not say that the early fathers were uncritical of Hellenistic philosophy. Rather, I said that they needed to be more critical on some issues pertaining to the divine attributes. I said that the fathers did not sell out to Hellenism and want to repeat that here. It was legitimate for them to work with the best Greek philosophical thinking of the day just as theologians today attempt to utilize the best learning in fields such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy. They desired to distinguish the Christian God from the gods of polytheism and though they found ideas in the philosophical discussions of deity useful for this end, they were also critical of various philosophical conceptions of divinity. However, I have changed my mind even more since 1998 concerning the degree to which the early church fathers were negatively influenced by Hellenistic philosophy.


One of the main obstacles for me had been the affirmation of divine impassibility by the fathers. From the middle ages to today, impassibility has generally meant that God is not affected by creatures. This had baffled me because these same fathers also said that God responded to our prayers, was compassionate, and even experienced changing emotions. It seemed to me that they contradicted themselves. I was not alone in reading the fathers in this way since this is the way the predominance of the secondary literature has interpreted them. However, Paul Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford, 2004) has helped me a great deal on this matter. According to Gavrilyuk, most of the early fathers did not have the stronger definition of impassibility in mind. Though there is no single definition of impassibility in the fathers, generally speaking they meant only that God could not suffer physically since God was not embodied or that God could not be forced to suffer or that God is not overcome by emotions as we are apt to do.


From the second through fourth centuries there was no standard definition of divine “impassibility.” i For Christian writers it did not mean that God was apathetic, distant, or lacked compassion. God did experience mercy and love. Christians disagreed with one another whether God experienced anger depending on whether or not they thought this emotion “fitting” for God. The word functioned in a couple of ways. First, it was a way of qualifying the distinction between creator and creatures. God is incorruptible while we are not. But we will be made impassible (incorruptible) in the eschaton. Also, we are prone to be overwhelmed by emotions, particularly negative ones, but God is not. Hence, it was used to safeguard divine transcendence (aseity) rather than deny psychological emotions to God. Second, it functioned to distance the Christian God from the gods of polytheism. They were passible in the sense that acted capriciously and lost control of themselves. In contrast, the Christian God faithfully loved, was patient, and acted consistently. ii Hence, it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he has emotions or that he is affected by and responds to us.


The Council of Nicea in 325 took up the matter and declared that the divinity of the Son was immutable. In its historical context this does not mean that God cannot change in any respect. Rather, the pronouncement occurs at the end of lengthy list of Arian statements including the famous “There was once when he was not.” The statement regarding divine immutability is there to safeguard the full divinity of the Son, not to rule out reciprocal relations between God and humans. After Nicea the question was raised as to the precise way in which Jesus is both human and divine. Apollinaris, Eutyches, Nestorius, Cyril and others tried to answer this and, once again, divine impassibility was a key issue. iii Cyril, whose view carried the day, seems to claim that only physical bodies can suffer and since God is not physical God cannot suffer. No one can stick a spear in God’s side. Consequently, the Son took on a complete human nature by which his humanity suffered while his divine nature did not. Cyril is not excluding emotions to God (though he does not think it appropriate to predicate “grief” or “sorrow” of God). iv Cyril’s position was endorsed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The preamble to the statement produced by the Council lists a number of views that are rejected: Nestorius, Arius, Eutyches, and Apollinaris. Of interest to this study is the condemnation of those who say the “Godhead of the only-begotten is passible.” In context, divine impassibility is used to safeguard the full divinity of the Son from Arianism and perhaps also monophysitism. v Overall, it seems they thought that anyone who said the divinity of the Son suffered implied that the Son was corporeal before the incarnation and therefore a creature. In conclusion, these Councils declare heretical those who say God is mutable and passible only if these doctrines are used to undermine the full divinity of Jesus.


This development is good news for it enhances the degree to which the openness model agrees with more of the tradition. Some have criticized openness for departing from “the” tradition and a few even called it “heresy.” A few responses are in order. First, “the” tradition is not singular for there are multiple streams. Those who accuse us of rejecting “the” tradition usually enshrine their own particular tradition as “the” tradition. Second, it is true that the vast majority of theologians have affirmed that God is timeless and has exhaustive definite foreknowledge. However, it is also true that the vast majority of theologians until about 1750 believed that all young children that died unbaptized (or without Christian parents) were damned to hell. Few believe that anymore. As was discussed earlier (2.3), traditions have erred and do change. Though there were few in the past who affirmed dynamic omniscience, today many orthodox Christian scholars hold it. Also, typically overlooked is how the doctrine of exhaustive foreknowledge has been used. I will seek to show that dynamic omniscience finds agreement with the purpose of the doctrine of exhaustive foreknowledge in the freewill tradition. Finally, regarding the charge of heresy it should be noted that no ecumenical council discussed this issue and a theory of omniscience has never been a test of orthodoxy. vi



See Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God , pp. 15-16, 48, 58, and 70.

ii For citations of the fathers on these meanings see ibid., Prestige, God in Patristic Thought , pp. 6-11 and Chris Hall, “The Church Fathers on Impassibility,” in John Sanders and Chris Hall Does God Have a Future? (Baker, 2003), pp. 109-112. Prestige (p. 7) seems to suggest that the fathers also meant that God was not affected by us, that our prayers do not affect God and that God never does anything in response to us. If so, then he goes too far.

iii  See Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God , chapter 6.

iv See Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God , p. 162. Cyril says this would imply impotence in God.

v Those who said God suffered as a “mixed” being undermined the homoousios (one substance) of the Son with the Father who is impassible.

vi It is conservative evangelicals, usually Calvinists, who accuse open theists of “heresy.” Evangelicals are prone to use the H-bomb on each other. B. B. Warfield called the holiness view of providence heretical because it led to faith-healing movements. Machen called premillennialism “a very serious heresy.” Cornelius Van Til called Gordon Clark a heretic and Clark was tried for heresy at Wheaton College. E. J. Carnell called Fundamentalists “cultic,” “sectarian,” and “heretics.” Evangelicals have demonized other evangelicals over evolution, charismata, mega churches, worship styles, women in ministry, inerrancy, the millennium and, dialoging with Catholics to name but a few instances. See Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), pp. 104-111 and my “On Heffalumps and Heresies: Responses to Accusations Against Open Theism” Journal of Biblical Studies [] 2, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 1-44.

Do we choose God?

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Dear Webmaster,

What would someone who affirms the Open View say is the nature of humanity? It would seem to me that the ‘total depravity’ taught through Reform Theology would be very inconsistent with the Open View (for obvious reasons Calvinism and the Open View are incompatible…). However, would it be accurate to say that we have an intrinsic value which allows us to make free-will choices, or is that simply bestowed upon us as a gift from God. What ‘right’ do we have to choose God? What biblical justifications can I use when discussing this topic with colleagues?

Thanks for your time!



Reply to Aaron:


The open view is in the same position with regard to this topic as classical Arminianism. Clearly, we cannot accept the Reformed view that everything that occurs, including our choices, is determined by divine decrees. We also cannot accept the view that we are “dead in sin” in such a way that, until we are regenerated by the Spirit, we cannot do anything other than totally reject God. We *can* accept the view that, in virtue of God’s “prevenient grace” (grace conferred before one’s actual conversion), we are *made able* by God to accept him, or at least to *stop rejecting* the grace he wishes to bestow on us. Thus, we can say that *in ourselves* we sinful humans have *no* ability to respond positively to God, but that *aided by the Spirit* we do have this ability. It seems to me that this is a reasonable view to take; emphatically, it attributes our salvation to God in Christ, not to ourselves.

William Hasker

What about verbal plenary inspiration? Wouldn’t that thwart man’s free will?

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Dear Sirs:

Just finished Sanders’ “The God Who Risks” and appreciate his relying on Scripture to make his arguments. However, I wonder how God could have ensured that the writers of Scripture wrote exactly what he wanted. Doesn’t open-theism threaten a belief in plenary, verbal inspiration and inerrancy?

Howard Donahoe


Reply to Howard Donahoe:


This is not such a difficult problem. If the writers of Scripture were willing to be led by God (and one would assume that they were), then God could direct their thoughts without violating their wills, since following God’s direction was what they wanted to do.

William Hasker

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Did Jesus have free will?

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I have embraced the whole idea of the “open view of GOD” for years and was very pleased when a friend referred me to the sight.

The question I have is whether Jesus was a true free agent (during His earthly time anyway) and thus able to sin or not able to sin at all.

I have read arguments on both sides and still strongly believe Jesus could have chosen to do other than He did. My main premise is that you CANNOT be tempted to do something that is impossible for you to do (e.g. I can’t be tempted to jump to the moon – it’s not possible to do so).

I believe the biblical position would be Jesus was able not to sin as opposed to “not able to sin” because he was the “last Adam”. And Adam obviously had the choice.

If you have time to respond to this message I would be thrilled!



Reply to Anonymous:


This is a really difficult question, and proponents of the open view will not all give the same answer. It seems to me, however, that the answer to this depends on the answer to another question: Is it possible for God to do evil? Like most Christian theologians, I believe the answer to that is No. Was Jesus, then, not a free agent? I believe he was indeed a free agent. But I would say that, as the co-equal Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God freely and voluntarily consented to assume human flesh and blood, to become a man and to die for our salvation. And subsequent to that, I think it was not really possible that he would do something that would, so to speak, “abort the mission.” I would amend Brent’s premise (“that you cannot be tempted to do something that is impossible for you to do”) as follows: you cannot be tempted to do something that you *know* is impossible for you to do. And this has the implication, which some may find it difficult to accept, that prior to the resurrection Jesus was not fully aware of the implications of his status as the divine Son. But these are deep theological waters, and the open view of God doesn’t stand or fall on the views I’ve expressed here being correct.

William Hasker

But it seems our environment and our past decide our actions, what do we mean by free will? Do we mean uncoerced?

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I am a sophomore at Wheaton College, and I have a question. I cannot quite figure out what a free will would look like. The concept of an innate power within me to create and to be autonomous baffles me.

For instance, yesterday I chose to drink peach juice during my supper, but I don’t see this as a free choice. Since I came from a small town in Wisconsin, I cannot bear to see milk coming from a machine, so I don’t get milk from the cafeteria. Also, the lines for the soda machines are always too long, and I am too impatient to wait for soda. I did not value the taste of soda enough to wait in a long line. I never could stand drinking coffee or tea, so I don’t get either of those, and I already had two glasses of water on my tray. I knew that I wanted a glass of juice based on previous knowledge. I like grape juice the best at the cafeteria so I tried that dispenser first, but the machine was temporary out of it. My environment didn’t allow me to make this choice. My other choices on this side of the cafeteria (there are two juice machines in Wheaton’s cafeteria) were grapefruit juice, orange juice and cranberry juice. I strongly dislike the taste of grapefruit juice and cranberry juice, and drinking orange juice with my spaghetti wasn’t sounding too appetizing. For some reason I am predisposed to liking certain tastes and disliking others. So I went to the other side of the cafeteria where I found a machine that dispensed apple and peach juice. I value the taste of peach juice more than apple juice, so I tried that one first, and seeing that there was juice there, I chose to get a glass of peach juice instead of the apple juice. It seems to me that all the choices that I make are in some sort of context as well. The way that I make choices is based on previous knowledge and is limited to my current environment. There was no other drink that I would have picked. If I had picked another drink, then the context would have been changed, I would have been changed, or I would not have been true to myself.

To see a free choice, then, I would need to see a random choice. That is, in order to see a choice that is not bound by what I know, who I am or my current surroundings, I would have to see a choice that doesn’t fit into a context. As I think about the word random, I cannot come up with an example of something in the created order that is random. Taking an example from Jurassic Park, if I drop a drop of water on my knuckle it will run down my hand according to a vast array of factors. It may appear that the course of the drop is random, but in effect it is the product of various factors. There always seems to be a context in the created world even if it is too complex for us to completely understand.

One friend of mine directed me to think about how God has a free will. The question then could become what caused God to create the world. It is clear that it fits into Gods nature to create a world, but most Christians would not want to say that God would not be being true to himself if he had not created the world because this would indicate that God was dependent upon his creation. Of course it would be impossible to make an exhaustive answer of why God created the world due to our limited knowledge, but the possibility exists that God’s act in creation was without a context and was random.

Now I admit that I assume that the world works in terms of causes and effects. That if I flick a light switch and a light goes on, something in my flicking eventually caused the light to turn on. But I also see that there was something causing me to desire light in the room in the first place. Whether this cause was the memory of the repeated commands of my father to never read in a dimly lit room, or if I thought it was a necessity for the very finding of my book in the first place, or even if I am emotionally attached to brightly lit rooms as opposed to dimly lit ones. I cannot prove that the world really works in causes and effects, so this could very well be the source of my confusion.

Following this line of reasoning then, the will becomes a point of synthesis inside a person. It is the part of the person that takes a bunch of raw influences and stimuli and organizes it, based on a set of values, into a course of action. Even the ranking of values seems to be the result of previous knowledge and experiences. As I look at how I came to value what I value, I end up seeing the reasons why I don’t believe that soda is a drink that is worth a long wait. The will is very much of a personal process and is therefore enough reason to hold a person responsible for the courses of action that he chooses. According to this paradigm, I do not see how the will could have creative power.

My question then is how should I understand a free will in light of all this. Am I correct in thinking of it in terms of it being random, or is this line of thought problematic? How can we make a choice that is not the product of various factors? What should be different in my understanding of the will that would allow for it to be free? Any insight into what a free will looks like will be very appreciated.

Thank you very much,
Tim Arentsen


Reply to Tim Arentsen:


Tim, Perhaps you are looking for free choice in the wrong place. It would not occur to me (unless there are unusual circumstances) to think your choice to drink juice for lunch was free in a libertarian sense. C.A. Campbell’s work in On Godhood and Selfhood can help us see what a responsible exercise of libertarian free will would look like. Imagine yourself in a situation of moral temptation, i.e., a situation in which you are reasonably convinced that you have a moral obligation to do X but in which you are strongly inclined to refrain from X (either because you are strongly disinclined to do X or because you are strongly enclined to do Y and your doing Y is incompatible with your doing X. If you perceive your situation as one of moral temptation and you are a morally serious person, then you will believe (1) I can rise to duty and do X (where “can” is understood categorically; not analyzable in terms of “will…if”). If you did not believe (1), you would not be perceiving your situation as one of moral temptation, but as one in which you are doomed to fail to do what your acknowledge as you moral obligation. Further, if you perceive your situation as one of moral temptation, you will believe (2) It is possible (again in the categorical sense) that I will fail to rise to duty; it is possible that I will submit to the inclination to refrain from doing X. If you did not believe (2) you would not be perceiving your situation as one of genuine temptation, but merely as one in which you have a strong inclination to refrain from doing what you ought to do but in which you assuredly will rise to duty and do X. Finally, in so far as you perceive your situation as one of moral temptation and in so far as you are a morally serious agent, you will believe (3) It is up to me here and now to determine which of these two open possibilities will become actual. If you perceived yourself to be in a situation of moral temptaion and as a result come to believe propositions (1) & (2) (which in conjunction entail indeterminism) and did not believe (3), believed that something other than you here and now will determine which possibility would be actual, you would not perceive yourself as a serious moral agent. Now I am not claiming that (1)-(3) are true; rather, I am claiming that in so far as you perceive yourself as a serious moral agent and perceive yourself as in a situation of moral temptation, you will find belief in (1)-(3) to be quite natural. As Campbell says, the important thing is to try to see the situation not from an observer point of view but from the participant’s point of view. When I try to remember/imagine what it is like to face a serious choice in a situation of moral temptation, I can neither think as a determinist (i.e., I find myself inevitably believing (1) & (2), nor can I avoid believing that I am being summoned to determine here and now by responsible choice whether I will rise to duty or whether I will yield to the contrary strong inclination.

Larry Lacy
Rhodes College

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Matthew 26:30-35, Mark 14:26-31

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What about Peter’s Denials. Jesus predicted that ahead of time and it appears to be a “future free decision” of a human being.
Is there an effective response to what I’ll call the “Problem of Natural Evil”? Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, etc. These cannot be pinned on Man’s evils as can most of the problems we face.
I appreciate this website. Keep it up.



Reply to Anonymous:


What about Peter’s Denials. Jesus predicted that ahead of time and it appears to be a “future free decision” of a human being.

There are two possibilities here, consistent with the view open theists take about prophecy generally. One possibility is that, given the state of Peter’s character, God simply knew that Peter would not be able to stand firm and profess his allegiance to Jesus when challenged. The other possibility is that this was, in fact, a conditional prophecy — that if Peter had repented, and asked God for help, then he could have had the strength to resist the temptation. (I first heard this suggested by a very devout classical Arminian; it’s not unique to the open view.)

Is there an effective response to what I’ll call the “Problem of Natural Evil”? Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, etc. These cannot be pinned on Man’s evils as can most of the problems we face.

This is a huge question, and to pursue it adequately you need to do some serious reading. But in the meanwhile: One possibility, which Greg Boyd finds very helpful, is that natural evil is caused by Satan and his host — thus, it is really a form of moral evil after all. It seems to me that this is of only limited value, because in many cases natural evil results from “deep” features of our natural world (for example, plate tectonics as the source of volcanoes and earthquakes), and it seems inappropriate to suppose Satan has that much to do with the way the world is made. I prefer two other explanations: First, there is the “Natural Law Defense,” which explains that, in order to live our lives, we need a stable, dependable, natural order, and it is this order which, under certain circumstances, results in harm and suffering. (Water, which is essential for life, can drown us or cause terrible destruction.) There is also the “Soul-making theodicy” developed by John Hick, which explains that the difficulties and challenges presented by the natural world are important for enabling us to develop into the kinds of men and women God intends for us to be. (This does *not* mean that *each particular instance* of natural evil is in itself beneficial!) This is just a beginning, but perhaps it may help to get you thinking.

William Hasker

The Incompatibility of Libertarian Free Will and Divine Timelessness

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by William Hasker

The affirmation of libertarian free will immediately negates the divine determinism that is characteristic of classical theism. But it also (though this is less widely recognized) negates the doctrine of God as timelessly eternal. To assert that humans possess libertarian freedom implies that there is a fundamental, ontological difference between the future and the past. The past consists of events that  have already occurred , and are now and forever more unable to be prevented. The future, in contrasts consists in large part of events or better, of the  possibilities  for events that  have not occurred , and may turn out in one way or another. This means that there is a real, objective, difference between past and future, separated as they are by a unique, though ever-changing, present moment. But  this  claim – that there is a unique moment that is literally and objectively – now stands in deep tension with the view of God as timeless. To see this, it suffices to point out that, if there is a unique present moment,  a timeless God cannot know what moment that is.  For in order to know which moment is really now, really the present moment, God would have to  change,  since the truth about which moment is present is itself constantly changing. But change is precisely what a timeless God cannot do.  A timeless God cannot know what is happening right now.  I believe that almost all theists, once they come to recognize this, will see it as an unacceptable compromise of divine omniscience. A God who has granted true freedom to his creatures must be a temporal God!

This same line of reasoning leads readily to the conclusion that contingent future events – those that are really able to turn out one way or another – cannot be known with certainty even by God. For it is true of God as of human beings that we  exist only in the present, not in the future, which does not itself exist.  At present, the future is a  realm of possibilities  for what  may or may not  come to exist, and is knowable only as such. To be sure, an infinite Mind will know incomparably more about these possibilities, and the likelihood of their being realized, than is knowable to any human mind. And an almighty Being may choose to  guarantee  that certain events will take place, and in so doing render events certain that would otherwise be mere possibilities. But a Mind that is perfect in knowledge will know all and only that which is inherently knowable, and this means knowing many future events as possibilities and not as guaranteed actualities. That this is so is the most characteristic, and also most controversial, assertion of open theism; it implies that for God, as for us, the future is open, still containing multiple possibilities.

Implications of Divine Repentance For the Attributes of God

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by William Hasker

The notion of divine repentance is pivotal for the differences between classical theism and open theism. If God repents, then God undergoes change. If so, then God is not absolutely unchangeable, and certainly is not timeless. Divine repentance is closely associated with expressions of divine sorrow and regret over a decision previously made, or at least over the consequences that have flowed from such a decision. But a God who can experience such sorrow and regret is emotionally affected by his creatures; he is by no means impassible. Furthermore, divine repentance is typically a response to actions and decisions made by human beings which were not in accord with God’s intentions. If this really occurs, then God is not all-controlling but rather has placed some of the control in human hands – control that, in this instance, has been exercised contrary to what God wished to have happen. And finally, divine repentance of this sort strongly suggests that a previous divine decision has had unforeseen consequences. But if this is true, it negates the view that God has certain and comprehensive knowledge of the entire future. It is entirely understandable, then, that the proponents of classical theism have found the biblical references to divine repentance to be problematic, and have mustered all their interpretive resources in order to dispose of them in some acceptable manner.

Tradition, Divine Transcendence, and the Waiting Father

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In his reply William Hasker urges that while the theological tradition is worthy of respect, the kind of deference to tradition insisted on by Freddoso is excessive and unreasonable; in the past, such deference might well have prevented theological developments now recognized as beneficial and important. It may be desirable to characterize divine transcendence in a “deep” metaphysical way, but the lack of such a characterization by no means leaves the interpreter of Scripture at the mercy of subjective prejudice. Finally, he argues for the superiority of the reading of the parable of the good Samaritan offered by the open view of God in comparison.

by William Hasker

It is a pleasure to continue a discussion with my friend Fred Freddoso that has been going on for a number of years, and from which I have profited greatly. [1] Fred has rightly discerned [2] the general nature and purpose of The Openness of God–and it is, of course, unbelievably gracious of him not to take us to task for the many faults he enumerates! Furthermore, he indicates quite accurately the nature of the issues which he between us. In reading over his critique, I am reminded of the subtitle of the book: “a biblical challenge to the traditional understanding of God.” To be sure, it would be an oversimplification to regard our differences as simply a matter of “Scripture versus tradition.” Yet that element does enter into our disagreements, as we shall see.
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