Top 6 Misnomers about Open Theism

Derek Ouellette —  August 28, 2010

From reading books criticizing Open Theism to many casual conversations online and in person, I have formed a list of the top 6 misnomers about Open Theism:

Misnomer 6: Open Theism is regurgitated Arminianism.

This is an unfair criticism which almost always comes from Calvinist. It is unfair because it fails to pay proper due to vital distinctions between these views. Granted people usually travel through Arminianism on their way to Open Theism, but the difference is significant enough that the two cannot be equated as the same. The vital difference, of course, is that Arminianism is largely based on the concept of Simple Foreknowledge. For Open Theism, there is nothing “simple” about God’s foreknowledge.

Misnomer 5: Open Theism teaches that God does not know the Future.

It might shock some people to discover that Open Theism is quite indebted to Calvinism in at least two crucial ways: 1) Open Theism believes that God foreknows that which he foreordains. Like Calvinism (and unlike Arminianism) God’s foreknowledge is based on what he has predetermined to sovereignly cause and to sovereignly make happen. 2) God sovereignly over-rules man’s free will in order to sovereignly cause or sovereignly make what he has predetermined to happen, happen. So it is not accurate to say that God does not know the future. He knows it in so far as he determines it.

Misnomer 4: Open Theism undermines God’s Divine Sovereignty.

Again, and not surprisingly, this criticism comes largely from the Calvinist camp and is based on the commandeering of the term “sovereignty”. Open Theist understand the term sovereignty to be a reference to God’s ability and authority, and does not see sovereignty as a term which preconditions God to control all things. Open Theists (like Arminians) teach that God has the sovereign right and ability to limit himself if he so sovereignly chooses too, and for the sake of the covenant which God established with humanity, he chose to limit his foreknowledge. This allows for a genuine relationship between God and his children.

Misnomer 3: Open Theism undermines biblical prophecy.

Many Christians find their faithful security blanket in biblical prophecy. Wherever Open Theism is introduced the first kneejerk reaction is to ask: What about prophecy? Doesn’t Open Theism cast doubt on biblical prophecy? Open Theism believes that there are two types of prophecy in the scriptures, contingent prophecy and determination prophecy. 1) Contingent prophecy is evident throughout the scriptures everywhere terms like “if” or “maybe” or “perhaps” comes from God’s lips; they are contingent upon the actions of individuals (e.g. Jeremiah 26:3). 2) Determined prophecies are prophecies which God himself has determined will happen and sovereignly makes or causes that thing to happen (e.g. Ezekiel 24:14).

Misnomer 2: Open Theism undermines future prophecy.

In close relation to Misnomer 3 is the fear that somehow our future in Christ may not be secure. Is it possible that in the end the Devil might just pull a quick on one God and win the day? First it is important to note that the end has been determined by God, the fact that God wins in contingent upon nothing but God’s sovereignty. Second, the question about the enemy maybe pulling a quick one on God may reveal something of the questioner’s idea of God; as if God, if he were not in control of every detail, can’t control anything. From the Open Theist perspective, the concept of god this question is based on is simply too small. Open Theism believes that God is omnicapable, omniresourceful and infinitely intelligent as well as omnipotent. Like a master chess player – only infinitely more so because God is infinite – God sees every possible move the enemy could ever possibly do and God has prepared an action for everyone one of those moves. The enemy cannot win, because God said so.

Misnomer 1: Open Theism denies God’s omniscience.

Since many people take for granted the belief that the future is already determined completely (something Calvinists and Arminians agree on), it seems obvious to them that if God were to not know the future fully, this must mean that God must not be omniscient. This amounts to a denial of an orthodox attribute of God. But Open Theism has a different view of time. The Open Theist understanding of time is that the future simply does not exist yet, and there is nothing in reality or science to suggest that it does. So, beginning on that premise (and not on the Calvinist/Arminian premise) God can still be omniscient, he can still know everything, without knowing the future exhaustively. There are two reasons for this: 1) theologians and Christian philosophers have long acknowledged that God cannot do what is logically impossible. For example, God cannot hear silence because silence is the absence of sound, there is nothing to hear, and therefore it is logically impossible for God to hear silence. Because the future simply does not exist, it is unknowable and it is logically impossible to know the unknowable. 2) Because omniscience is defined as knowing all there is to know, and because the future is not knowable the way the past and present are, God can be omniscient and yet not know the future.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Brian MacArevey

    Thanks for posting on this Derek. It is helpful to see some of these things. I think I am in agree ment with some of it (maybe more than I realize)but would like to know more.

    How would and open theist answer the question of the death of Christ? In other words, how does he ensure the accomplishment of His death by not forcing men to commit the sin of murder?

    Related, the question of biblical typology? How is it that God can ordain this system in advance of Christ’s death? I guess if you answer the first question this will be answered for me.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Brian, you have essentially nailed down perhaps the single reason why I struggle with accepting Open Theism as a system, even though I feel that the future must be partly open in some way.

    The question like the one you posed is better answered by the skilled and (in my opinion) brilliant Greg Boyd. The best primor of Open Theism available is God of the Possible. You should pick up a copy.

    In any case, allow me to offer an answer the way I think a full blown Open Theist might answer (as briefly as possible):

    1. No individual was foreordained (or, forseen in the Arminian sense) in the murderous act.

    2. The scrifice of Christ was predetermined from the beginnig, but the details remained largely unsettled.

    3. In the beginning he could predict (because he is omni-capable, and infinitley intelligent) every possible recourse in history to the most finite of details.

    4. God would steer the big picture of history towards the conditions which would lead to “the fullness of times”

    5. He would do this without causing in individual human to sin.

    6. As history approached “the fullness of time”, the possibilities of human recourse naturally narrowed.

    7. Within years of the actual act of crucifixion God could infinitely look upon the condition of the world, of the middle east and of every inclination of every individuals heart and predict to an infinite degree of accuracy how Christ would be sacrificed.

    8. For example, God knew that if Christ told the religous establishment, “Before Abraham was I AM”, he knew exactly how they would react (plotting Christ’ death), without causing them to act that way.

    9. So without causing men to murder Christ (as Calvinist believe) and without foreseeing men murdering Christ (in the Arminian sense), God could predict in detail how Christ would be murdered, who would do it and what roll they would play.

    I believe the Open Theist response would be somewhere within that line of thinking.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Thanks for taking the time Derek.

    I am not sure how I feel about this. I need to think about it alot more. I do agree with some things I have been checking out over the last few days. For instance, I believe that the issue of how it is exactly that God knows the future are much more complex than the normal calvinist or arminian would allow. I have though similar things to what OT’s are saying.

    I am not sure how far I can go with it though before I start rejecting other clear things in scripture. I guess I’llhave to keep cntimplating the issue. I may have to return to ask more questions if that will be okay.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Okay, pop a question by anytime. Just keep in mind (regarding your question), all we know for sure are the facts about what the scriptures tell us. As far as the mystery behind those facts, Christians have philosophized about them for centuries in an attempt to theorize further about God, using other scripture passages (aided often by Greek philosophy).

    Now back to your question, Christians within the Augustine tradition philosophized that God caused the murderers of Christ to act, Christians following the mainstream tradition agreed upon at the council of Orange have philosophized that God foresaw the murderers act and God responded to that foreknowledge accordingly resulting in consequential forsight based on God’s actions. (A circular foreknowledge based on foresight of his own actions resulting in that very foreknowledge, round and round).

    Open Theism simply offers a third way to theorize about these things, suggesting that the Simple Foreknowledge (essential behind the council of Orange decision which became prominent in Arminius’ teaching), were essentially right, only complicated things by assuming the premise of exhaustive foreknowledge.

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  • W. Scott Taylor

    A very interesting FB share led me to your page today. I agree with about 95% of what is called Open Theism today. Not having read anything but this page and a few responses I hope I’m not snapping a branch off the wrong tree.

    The first light on the public horizon in American Theology was the work of L. D. McCabe Professor at Ohio Wesleyan for about 30 years. He published two books “The Foreknowledge of God and Cognate Themes” & “Divine Nescience of Future Contingencies: A Necessity” in 1882 & 1888 respectively. Both works can be found in the public domain (see free).

    You will find the good professor footnoted in Dr. John Sander’s section in “The Opennes of God.” The clearest and most eloquent exposition of many of the very ‘misnomers’ that you have presented are extensively dealt with in McCabe’s books.

    The most pressing of which given the comments I have just read concerns the Case of Judas. McCabe exposits from the original Greek on the telic vs ebatic fulfillment of prophecy as signaled by the particle *hina* (that, or so that, was fulfilled). That coupled with other issues of sytax, most notably found in John chapter six, is used by him to show that the betrayal of Christ was not only unnecessary but a confabulation of Augustinian syncretism of Eternal Now with theology. In short, the notion was erroneously shoe-horned into Christian theology first and foremost as a result of the remnants of philosophical assumptions received from his early education as a Philosopher/Scholar.

    Judas’ betrayal was an unnecessary and diabolical personal decision that had no connection with the planned Atonement of Christ.

    You will undoubtedly mentally recall any number of passages that seemingly say ‘in black and white’ that Messiah must be betrayed. In such a short space I can only hope to raise misgivings about traditional notions require personal research on your part.

    It should be a breath of fresh air to have it even hinted that one need not carry the ponderous weight of the necessity of the betrayal of Christ for our Salvation that is asserted as part of traditional Christian theology.

    W. Scott Taylor
    Alabama 2012

  • David Wheeler

    I rejoice for your eloquent defense of open theism. My
    heart and mind have longed to see this day for over 30 years. May the eyes of our hearts be opened so those who understand, that God wants us to be partners with him in the building of the kingdom and that the devil is personally responsible for deception, can be free to express this truth without suffering outside the camp as a heretic.

  • Anonymous

    Hello, I am thankful to your site. I apologize if I have entered to write here. First of all, I have no freedom to say or say here. I am not free in this country that is United States. So, I am thankful to your site. I do not want to get in trouble if I talk about God. Thanks for your encouragement.

  • Graham

    Thanks for the clearing up of that. I have just finished reading “Does God have a future” by John Sanders and Christopher Hall which is a really interesting read on the topic of Open theism. It is basically a whole lot email correspondence/debate back and forth which I found really engaging and easy to read. By the way, I welcome myself to your blog from way down in New Zealand

    • Derek Ouellette

      Welcome to a Canadian blog!

  • Graham

    Just a question: If you were going to preach on God’s omniscience, how would you go about it? As I read more on this, I am coming to appreciate more and more the open view. I think I had become too fatalistic. What the open view has done has made me realise that God is more involved in my life than I give him credit, that my prayers can actually change God’s mind, that God can be surprised by my faith, that my responses to him on a day-to-day basis matter, that God suffers with people going through grief, that evil is not necessarily God’s will to bring about his greater plan. BUT, would I preach it on a Sunday morning? Or do you think it is ok to preach by holding the classical view and the open view together and preaching the paradox? Most of the open theist guys would say that it is a logical impossibility and the paradox is completely different to say that of the trinity. Thoughts?

    • Derek Ouellette

      Honestly, I think you could preach freely from an Open Theist perspective and most of your congregants will be none the wiser. I just wouldn’t preach a sermon on Open Theism. But I wouldn’t preach a sermon on Calvinism or Arminianism either. Preach on the power of prayer to move God, for example. Use as helpful source material Clark Pinnock’s “The Most Moved Mover.” The sermon will be powerful and give people a true sense that prayer really does change things (and you can say that, as an Open Theist, and actually mean it!).