What is “Open Theism”?

Derek Ouellette —  January 3, 2013 — 12 Comments

As Open Theism becomes more popular many people want a clear and simple explanation of what it is. I’ve written this post for such a person. But if you already know what Open Theism is please feel free to share this post with your curious friends. I consider this post to be in perpetual development so I appreciate your feedback.

A PARTLY OPEN FUTURE

At the heart of it, Open Theism is the conviction that the future is partly open. What this means is that in general what you choose to do with your next moment has not already been written in stone or predetermined.

A PARTLY CLOSED FUTURE

Open Theism also teaches that the future is partly closed. This means that there are some things about the future that are not open. There are some things about the future that is written in stone and predetermined.

HOW CAN THIS BE SO?

Open Theists generally believe that because the future has not happened yet, it must be open. They believe that whether or not the future is open or closed is based on God’s foreknowledge, which in turn is based on what God has determined to do. But they believe that God does not do or determine everything. Therefore, those things that God determines to do in the future are “closed,” and those things that God has not determine to do in the future are “open.”

Example: If God does not determine every move you make tomorrow morning then you may wake up on time, eat breakfast and head to work early, or you may sleep in, miss breakfast and be late. Tomorrow is open. However, if – for whatever mysterious reason – God determines to cause you to wake up early, eat breakfast and head to work on time, or if he has determined that you sleep in, miss breakfast and be late, then the future is closed in those regards. What he determines will happen.

GOD IS STILL ALL KNOWING

Open Theists still believe in the classic Christian tenet known as “omniscience.” Simply put, God knows everything there is that can logically be known. However, since the future does not exist, it can not logically be known, at least not in the same way as the past and present.

This is where things sometimes get complicated, so let me explain. Everything that happened already can be known by an all knowing God because it has already happened. Everything that is presently happening can be known by an all knowing God because he knows it as it happens. But since the future does not exist it cannot be know in the same way as the past and present are known. Here is a classic parallel example: can God hear silence? The answer is no, God cannot hear silence because to “hear” something requires something to hear, and silence is the absence of sound. It is a logical contradiction. Thus, it is impossible for God to hear silence. Open Theists would say that likewise God cannot know the future because it does not exist. But remember, according to Open Theists, God knows everything that he determines to do, but he does not determine every detail of reality. Thus what he determines to do is closed (the future is partly closed) and what he has not determined to do leaves the future partly open meaning that there are some things that God has chosen not to know.

WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE OPEN THEISM?

Calvinism and Arminianism are systems of theology. They do the best they can with the biblical testimony, compiling all of the relevant data, and make a system out of it in an effort to understand how God works in this world. But if you wrestle with either of those popular views you’ll eventually have to wrestle with the philosophical implications they lead to. For example, the main view of Arminianism says that God “looks ahead” and sees all things before he creates. A main view of Calvinism is that God simple determines to cause all things to happen. Both views have further implications about the nature of time and as we journey down that road we find that we’ve journeyed far from systematic theology, through philosophy and straight into theoretical science.

Open Theism is no different. It is a system of theology that does the best it can with the biblical testimony, compiling all of the relevant data, and making a system out of it in an effort to understand how God works in this world. [Update: In terms of soteriology, Open Theism is a branch of Arminianism and shares it’s system, but in terms of the nature of God and time, Open Theism’ distinctions warrant it’s own system in that regard.] So far we’ve talked about philosophy and not scripture, but that is because Open Theism takes a different approach to the nature of time than traditional theology, and that scares some people. But Open Theism is rooted in scripture.

OPEN THEISM IS ‘BIBLICAL’

Open Theism is biblical in the sense that it is a system of theology rooted in the scriptures in the same way Calvinism and Arminianism are. For example, God changes his mind in answer to prayers (ex. Exod. 32:14; Num. 14:12-20; Deut. 9:13-14, 18-20, 25; 1 Sam. 2:27-36; 2 Kings 20:1-7 etc.); he often expresses regret (1 Sam 15:10,35; Ezek. 22:29-31); and surprise (Isa. 5:3-7; Jer. 3:6-7; 19-20); and sometimes He talks about what may or may not happen (Exod. 3:18-4:9; 13:17; Jer. 3 8:17-18, 20-21, 23; Ezek. 12:1-3), and so on (source). None of this makes any sense, argues Open Theists, if the future is absolutely closed.

OPEN THEISM IS A CHRISTIAN OPTION

None of what I said above is meant to imply that Open Theism is correct. Indeed there are some tough questions without satisfying answers that Open Theists have to wrestle with. But it’s the same with Calvinism and Arminianism. In summarizing Open Theism I want to advocate that a spot remain open at the Evangelical table for them in equal measure. It has every right to the evangelical Christian label as Calvinism and Arminianism.

ASK YOUR QUESTIONS IN THE COMMENT BOX BELOW

[Editors note: This post will remain “open” and in development as questions are answered, parts are elaborated on and new sections are created.]

Derek Ouellette

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

    Agree totally. Open Theism should be just as welcome at the evangelical table as Calvinism or Arminianism. I have grown quite weary of particularly Calvinists labelling Open Theism as Heresy. How could having a different view on the nature of the future ie that possibilities are real, be a heresy? No ancient creed accepted by Evangelicals says anything about the nature of the future or God’s knowing of it in advance. Open Theists are completely orthodox when it comes to issues of salvation. This is not a core doctrine of the faith.

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      The heresy charge is usually lobbied at Open Theism on the grounds that 1) it may indicate that God is not omniscient, 2) that God may be wrong about things he prophesied about in scripture and 3) that it is against inerrancy. But none of these concerns are valid if someone understands Open Theism. You’re right, it’s not heresy.

      • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

        They also argue that it infringes on God’s sovereignty to imply that there is anything not under God’s control. I believe they have confused the notions of sovereignty which I define as “has the power and the authority to do X” as opposed to determinism which I define as “has determined that all X will be done according to his choice.” In other words, their objection rejects the possibility that God might sovereignly delegate any choice wholly to his creation.

  • http://www.BeingTC.com/ T. C. Moore

    This is a good primer on Open theism Derek. I’d only suggest a small revision. It could be potentially misleading to call Open theism a “system of theology” along-side Arminianism and Calvinism, because it could lead to the mistaken notion that Open theism has a soteriology that is distinct from Arminianism. Soteriologically, Open theists are not Pelagian, we are Arminian (recognizing the need for divine grace for regeneration). I tend to think of Open theism as a modification of Arminianism rather than a completely separate system. Roger Olson has talked about this some on his blog too. [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/11/is-open-theism-a-type-of-arminianism/] Anyhow, keep up the good work!

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Good point T.C., I’ll make an adjustment accordingly.

      • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

        Careful how you adjust it though. If I correctly understand Arminianism, the salvation by grace involves something called “Prevenient Grace,” which basically means that even though God has invited all humans to accept his salvation, nobody can actually choose to accept it without that grace being extended to him. In order to resolve the free will problem, Arminianism teaches that God foreknows those who will freely choose salvation, and then extends that Prevenient Grace to those who he foreknows.

        To me, that’s a circular logic that can’t be fully resolved…the issue being that nothing can be truly foreknown and still logically open.

        Anyhow, you might want to dig into that issue which I most likely have oversimplified and gotten wrong; I haven’t studied it in detail. I say this because I got into a conversation with one of the guys at the Society for Evangelical Arminians, who goes by the screen name JC Freak. You may know him? Anyway, by his definitions and study we concluded that I’m not a proper Arminian precisely because of my Open Thesim.

        • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

          I’m a card carrying member of the Society for Evangelical Arminians and I am familiar with JC Freak. A word of caution: the SEA’s are generally hostile toward Open Theism or, at the least, want to emphasize a clear distinction between the two. It is exactly this point that caused Roger Olson – a full-fledged Arminian if ever there were one – to leave the group.

          I don’t think you’ve described Prevenient Grace in the same way that many Arminians would. God’s giving of salvation-enabling grace is not give to those he foresees. People’s salvation is not based on God’s foreknowledge. God knows who will be saved because he foresees who will and will not accept God’s prevenient grace. In other words, Arminians believe that God’s salvation-enabling grace (prevenient grace) is given to all people. I think Open Theists would generally agree which is why Olson argues that, in terms of soteriology, Open Theism is Arminian.

          • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

            Gotcha. So maybe we’re (I’m) not SCA material even though I might still be Arminian. I would hold that if God forsees who will accept his grace, than it must be in some way determined…as Alan Rhoda I do believe that nothing that is truly open can be conclusively foreknown.

            I guess that the impression I’ve gotten is that while Arminianism has become a shorthand label for any belief that God’s grace-given salvation is still open to our acceptance (or not) of that grace, the sense I got in dialog with JC Freak is that there’s more to the pie. I don’t claim to have studied it in sufficient detail to know.

            • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

              I’m not really SEA material either. I do consider myself an Arminian if Arminianism is understood mostly in terms of its soteriology. But of Arminians, I consider myself an Open Theists when discussing the nature of God, time, future, freewill, evil and so on. You are absolutely right IMO, that if the future is exhaustively foreknown it is also predetermined.

              If you haven’t already, might I suggest you pick up Roger Olson’s book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (affiliate link). I think you’ll really appreciate it.

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.com/ Leslie Keeney

    Do you have any plans to go to the conference in St. Paul in April? I’m trying to work it into my schedule.

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Sadly, no. My wife will be only weeks away from delivering our first child. If it weren’t for that I’d be there.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Nice summary, @derekouellette:disqus . As you know, I *am* an Open Theist myself and I think you’ve represented the position fairly. I would really like to see you expand this at some point (maybe a follow-on post?) with some of those questions you referred to at the end…the “some tough questions without satisfying answers that Open Theists have to wrestle with.”