Open theism is a topic that tends to rustle a lot of feathers, especially in some conservative/fundamentalist camps where the view often gets immediately labeled as unorthodox or even blasphemous. When I was in seminary, it was always quickly dismissed as just the problematic view of a small minority of contemporary theologians, and the professors quickly rushed us back to the books and statements of their preferred Reformed/Calvinist guys.
Yet, the open view has come to be supported by a great many Christian philosophers and a growing number of biblical scholars, theologians, and influential pastors. I finally decided to make the time to start reading primary sources arguing for this view, and I’m glad I started with The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (IVP Academic, 1994). It was an excellent primer on the subject.
In The Openness of God, five different authors set out to introduce open theism, offer a brief defense of it on biblical, theological, philosophical, and practical grounds, and explain why it should at least be considered as an orthodox Christian viewpoint.
Open theism (also referred to as the “open view” of God or “free will theism”) challenges traditional understandings of God as absolutely immutable, impassible, and eternally decreeing everything that comes to pass. Instead, it posits that God is inherently relational, choosing to extend significant freedom of choice to his creations, and open to accepting new developments and even taking risks as part of that loving freedom.
On an even more fundamental level, open theism makes an important claim about the nature of the future. While God’s omniscience means he knows everything that can possibly be known, the future cannot be known because it does not yet exist. God is therefore “open” to the future as something that has not yet come into being.
This means that human choices (along with God’s actions and reactions) help determine what kind of future comes into being, and God can therefore be genuinely affected by our choices — experiencing joy and sorrow (Gen 6:5-6; Matt 8:10; Luke 15), learning (Gen 22:12; Jer 32:35), and even changing his mind (Exo 32:9-14; 1 Sam 15:11, 35; Jonah 3:10). The future is thus neither exhaustively foreknown nor eternally foreordained; instead, God interacts with the decisions of people to bring about his desired ends.
Such an interpretation of God’s nature and his interaction with the world sounds very counterintuitive to modern readers who are so inherently used to the idea that a perfect God ought to know everything that will happen in the future. And yet, openness theologians claim, this popular preconception is not drawn straight from Scripture, but rather has been filtered down to us by centuries of tradition rooted in Greek conceptions of God as a timeless, changeless entity. The open view of God stands as a challenge to go back to Scripture and consider whether the tradition got it right. In this sense, openness theologians continue the project instigated by the Protestant Reformers of always going back to the sources and measuring even the most cherished interpretations against Scripture.
Each of the five chapter-length essays in The Openness of God does a good job covering its topic clearly and concisely. The authors state their case well, summarizing the weaknesses of alternate views and anticipating potential objections to their arguments. However, since this book is intended as an introduction to the subject for a popular audience, it doesn’t go into exhaustive detail or extensive argumentation.
Readers who are already staunchly opposed to open theism probably won’t have their minds changed, and others like me who are at least open (pardon the pun) to the idea but not fully persuaded will likely need more convincing. I still had lingering questions after reading, but thankfully there are many resources furnished in the extensive endnotes.
That aside, in my opinion the authors do succeed at making the case for at least seeing open theism as a valid doctrinal option. They demonstrate a clear concern for remaining faithful to the essentials of Christian orthodoxy and have a high regard for the authority of Scripture when forming their theological viewpoints. They also do a good job of pointing out the key problems inherent in the other main Christian approaches to the nature of God’s relationship to creation and time (Calvinism, Molinism, Classical Arminianism, and Process Theology).
And they raise a very good point that’s well worth considering when they argue that, no matter what theological conclusion we come to regarding God’s relationship to time and the future, on a practical level nearly every believer lives, prays, and worships as if they really do have a genuine, give-and-take relationship with God and as if their choices genuinely do matter and affect him personally. While by no means settling the issue, it should at least give us pause and invite us to consider whether such concrete realities tell us something important about how God has, in his unmatched wisdom and love, decided to structure his creation.
The Bottom Line: All in all, The Openness of God is a great introduction to an important topic and also a great exercise in practical theology. I found it very informative and enjoyable to read, even if not ultimately persuasive enough to shift my position at the moment. Recommended to anyone wanting to better understand different perspectives on the nature of God.
If I get some time, I may interact more with the contents of this book (and/or arguments for and against open theism in general) in future posts.
A Postscript: I know that some readers in my circles may be among those who have been led to feel that open theism is “beyond the bounds” of Christian orthodoxy (as some of its detractors claim). However, I did not find that any of the claims in The Opennness of God fell outside of the core essentials of the Christian faith as expressed in, for example, the Nicene Creed (to take an early Christian confession that pretty much all Christians agree on). Nothing I read here went against the spirit of what C. S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity.”
It seems to me that many of open theism’s most vocal opponents really are concerned less with the actual claims of open theists and instead are reacting to what they perceive are possible implications of the view. Or, in the case of Calvinists, they simply have issues with open theism for the same reasons they have issues with all other schools of thought that don’t support meticulous divine determinism (the idea that God has already preordained everything that comes to pass). Most of the arguments I’ve seen Calvinists level against open theism are essentially the same ones they would level against forms of Molinism or Arminianism or any other system that affirms libertarian free will.