What is Open Theism?

Openness Theology (commonly referred to as Open Theism and Free Will Theism) connects with the spirituality of many Christians throughout the history of the church especially when it comes to prayer. Many Christians feel that our prayers or lack of them can make a difference as to what God does in history. The Openness of God is an attempt to think out more consistently what it means that God enters into personal relationships with humanity. We want to develop an understanding of the triune God and God’s relationship to the world that is Biblically faithful, finds consonance with the tradition, is theologically coherent and which enhances the way we live our Christian lives. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, we agree, but we believe that some aspects of the tradition need reforming, particularly when it comes to what is called “Classical Theism.” We believe that some aspects of this model of God have led Christians to misread certain Scriptures and develop some serious problems in our understanding of God which affect the way we live, pray and answer the problem of evil.

A Summary of Openness Theology (Open Theism)

According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals. We believe love is the primary characteristic of God because the triune Godhead has eternally loved even prior to any creation. Divine holiness and justice are aspects of the divine love towards creatures, expressions of God’s loving concern for us. Love takes many forms-it can even be experienced as wrath when the lover sees the beloved destroying herself and others.

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us. That God changes in some respects implies that God is temporal, working with us in time. God, at least since creation, experiences duration.[1] God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history.

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

Finally, the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he created. The content of divine omniscience has been debated in the Christian tradition; between Thomism and Molinism for example. In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? We believe that God could have known every event of the future had God decided to create a fully determined universe. However, in our view God decided to create beings with indeterministic freedom which implies that God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God. For many open theists the “future” is not a present reality-it does not exist-and God knows reality as it is.

This view may be called dynamic omniscience (it corresponds to the dynamic theory of time rather than the stasis theory). According to this view God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of that which is determinate or settled as well as knowledge of possibilities (that which is indeterminate). The determined future includes the things that God has unilaterally decided to do and physically determined events (such as an asteroid hitting our moon). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite and God knows it as such. God is not caught off-guard-he has foresight and anticipates what we will do.

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

– Dr. John Sanders

[1] It is not essential for open theists to take a stand on whether or not God was temporal prior to creation. Even if God was eternally temporal God did not experience metric (measured) time until the creation. See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s discussion in God and Time: Four Views, ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 233.

4 thoughts on “What is Open Theism?

  1. Pingback: Tying up loose ends—Part 2 « An Open Orthodoxy

  2. I have not heard, nor can I find any references to such a thing as “Static Time Theory”. Modern day quantum mechanics views the entire universe as dynamic and the steady state theory died long ago.

    Your first four postulations are quite defensible,but it is with the “finally” assumption I disagree. The idea of “dynamic omniscience” is based upon the belief that human free will has a great deal of influence on the future. Indeed God answers prayer and our lives have small effects on our locale, but the overall flow of time is not changed by our small effects of expressing our will. It is quite sensible to believe in God’s nature as being omnipresent and personally involved simultaneously as long as we do not try to place our ideas of physical limitations on God’s nature. The Scriptures state that God knows the beginning from the end, and they indicate He is coexistent throughout time, but it is unnecessary to speculate about how God interacts with the universe through time.

    Scripture says God loves us. We are told God answers our prayers. We have been shown God has changed some short range plans in answer to prayers and repentance. Scripture says in the prophesies what the future holds as unchangeable for our planet and the people living on it. I find no benefit in trying to define some new relationship of God and time that conflicts with prophetic Scriptures to back up the idea that God loves us and will help us when we call on Him. We Americans also have free will and a guarantee according to 2Chronicles 7:14 that we can change the path out nation is traveling, but it is not going to happen. I don’t need to be God to see America as we know it is about to totally collapse and likely take the world with it. All of my efforts to awaken my fellow Americans to the truth of our impending destruction will not change the truth, I may save a few, but myself and others like me will not succeed in changing the path America has chosen. This is what most makes me believe in the rapture of the church. I believe we 2.3 billion Christians could indeed stop Lucifer’s followers from world domination even by our prayers alone, but if we are taken away it is easy to see how the prophesies will happen.

    This fallen world is almost finished and a new world is coming. We can accept God loves us and does great things for us and with great personal interest, all without trying to shoehorn God into something not described in our instruction book.

  3. Pingback: I. Open Theism and Cancer. J. Todd Billings and John Sanders | The Evangelical Calvinist

  4. I am looking at Open Theis as directly as I can as some of the info is from critiques too overbearing to be considered accurate. I have no website, just a couple of books with Kindle (go to Kindle, type my name and they will popup).
    Enjoy the detail here. Jim Barnett

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