Open theism

Open theism is a theological movement that has developed within Evangelical and post-evangelical Protestant Christianity as a response to certain ideas regarded by some as a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Several of these ideas within Classical theism (a designation which is not to be taken as inclusive of all of orthodox theism) state that God is immutable, impassible, and timeless. For several versions of classical theism, God fully determines the future; thus, humanity does not have libertarian free will, or, if free, that its freedom must necessarily be compatible with God's determining actions.

Open theism is not about reconciling free will and the sovereignty of God. Open theism is fundamentally about the character and attributes of God and how the Bible describes Him. Open theism aims to separate any humanist influences in defining God:

Practically, open theism makes the case for a personal God who is open to influence through the prayers, decisions, and actions of people. Although many specific outcomes of the future are unknowable, God's foreknowledge of the future includes that which is determined as time progresses often in light of free decisions that have been made and what has been sociologically determined. So God knows everything that has been determined as well as what has not yet been determined but remains open. As such, he is able to anticipate the future, yet remains fluid to respond and react to prayer and decisions made either contrary or advantageous to His plan or presuppositions.

Historical development

The first post-Pauline concept similar to open theism with regard to the issue of foreknowledge is found in the writings of Calcidius , a 5th-century interpreter of Plato. In the 19th century several theologians wrote in defense of this idea, including Gustav Fechner, Otto Pfeiderer, Jules Lequier, Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, Joel Hayes, T.W. Brents, and Lorenzo D. McCabe. Contributions to this defense increased as the century drew to a close. The term "open theism" was introduced in 1980 with Seventh-day Adventist theologian Richard Rice's book The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. The broader articulation of open theism was given in 1994, when five essays were published by Evangelical scholars (including Rice) under the title The Openness of God.

Theologians of note currently espousing this view include: Gordon Olson, Winkie Pratney, Richard Rice, Gregory Boyd, Thomas Jay Oord, Clark Pinnock, John E. Sanders, C. Peter Wagner, William Hasker, David Basinger.

Philosophical Arguments

Open theists maintain that some of the classical attributes of God are contradictory and unintelligible. The five main classical attributes are as follows:

  • Immutability – God cannot change in any way. Augustine argued that because God is immutable he cannot even speak in time, using created beings to utter eternal words. Immutability did not allow God to be altered in any way by time or by his own creatures.
  • Impassibility – God is without emotion.
  • Omnipotence – God has all power, which includes complete sovereignty over all things.
  • Omniscience – God has all knowledge, including all past, present, and future.
  • Omnipresence – God is everywhere, or alternatively God is above the concept of space.

Contradictions in the traditional attributes are pointed out by open theists and atheists alike. Atheist George H. Smith writes in his book “Atheism: the Case Against God” that if God is omniscient, meaning he knows the future, he cannot be omnipotent, meaning he can do anything, because: “If God knew the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it – in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it.”. Likewise, if God is omnipresent, he cannot be omnipotent because he could not limit his own location. Open theists would again use the same argument here that changing his location would conflict with his immutability.

Open theism also answers the question of how God can be blameless and omnipotent even though evil exists in the world. H. Roy Elseth gives an example of a parent that knows with certainty that his child would go out and murder someone if he was given a gun. Elseth argues that if the parent did give the gun to the child then the parent would be responsible for that crime. However, if God was unsure about the outcome then he would not be culpable for that act; only the one who committed the act would be guilty.

Another claim made by open theists is that the traditional definition of omniscience is incompatible with a real love relationship with God. It is claimed that for someone to have a real love relationship, it must be give and take. Each member opens themselves up and becomes vulnerable. They point out that God, throughout the Bible, is shown as grieving over Israel’s rebellion. They claim that if the future was known with absolute certainty, then Israel could not have freely chosen to rebel and God could not be genuinely grieving, knowing that this was the only possibility. Israel’s actions would have been set in stone a millennia before they were ever born. They would have been compelled by fate or providence to take those actions. This would be the same as a relationship between a programmer and computer. Open theists, such as John Sanders, claim that the only way a relationship can be real is if there is freedom to choose.

Biblical Arguments

In order to defend open theism, open theists also tend to focus on verses that, so they claim, tell of failed or subverted prophecies and instances where God changes his mind through interaction with man. The following is a quick overview of where the Bible expounds ideas that seem to contradict the classical attributes of God:

Varieties of Open Theists

Philosopher Alan Rhoda has described several different approaches several open theists have taken with regard to God's knowledge of the future and the nature of the future.

"Voluntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because he has voluntarily chosen not to know truths about future contingents. Dallas Willard espouses this position.

"Involuntary Nescience: The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open for God because truths about future contingents are in principle unknowable. William Hasker espouses this position.

"Non-Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions about future contingents are neither true nor false. J. R. Lucas espouses this position.

"Bivalentist Omniscience: The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open for God because propositions asserting of future contingents that they 'will' obtain or that they 'will not' obtain are both false. Instead, what is true is that they 'might and might not' obtain. Greg Boyd espouses this position."

Critics of Open Theism

Opponents of open theism include Dr. Norman Geisler, Bruce A. Ware, Thomas R. Schreiner, John M. Frame. Dr. Norman Geisler attempts, in his book ‘’Creating God in the Image of Man?’’ to show that open theism is a heresy and that the traditional attributes of God are true. He quotes Exodus 3:14 (“I am who I am”) and claims that it establishes God’s aseity. From there, Geisler deduces Simplicity, Necessity, Immutability, Impassability, Eternity, and Unity. He also addresses the claims that the Classical attributes were derived from the Greeks with three observations:

  1. He claims the quest for something unchanging is not bad
  2. He claims the Greeks did not have the same concept of God
  3. He claims philosophical influences are not wrong in themselves

Opponents of open theism claim that the verses commonly used are anthropopathisms (see Anthropopathy). They also point to verses that suggest God is immutable, such as:

  • Mal 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
  • Num 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
  • 1Sa 15:29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
  • Isa 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

Those advocating the traditional view see these as the verses that form God’s character, and they interpret other verses that say God repents as anthropomorphistic. Authors who claim this can be traced back through Calvin, Ambrose, and Augustine.


See also

External links



  • Trinity and Process, G.Boyd, 1986
  • The Case for Freewill Theism: a Philosophical Assessment, David Basinger, 1996, InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-1876-6
  • The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will, Richard Rice, 1980, Review and Herald Pub. Association, ISBN 0-8127-0303-0
  • The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, Clark Pinnock editor, et al, 1994, InterVarsity Press ISBN 0-8308-1852-9, Paternoster Press (UK), ISBN 0-85364-635-X (followup to Rice book includes contribution from him)
  • The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, John Sanders, 1998. InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-1501-5
  • God, Time, and Knowledge, William Hasker, 1998, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8545-2
  • God of the Possible, Gregory A. Boyd, 2000 reprint, Baker Books, ISBN 0-8010-6290-X
  • Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness (The Didsbury Lectures), Clark Pinnock, 2001, Baker Academic, ISBN 0-8010-2290-8
  • Providence, Evil, and the Openness of God, William Hasker, 2004, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-32949-3


  • God's Lesser Glory, Bruce A. Ware, 2000, Crossway Books, ISBN 1-58134-229-2
  • Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (editors), 2000, Baker Academic, ISBN 0-8010-2232-0
  • Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, Douglas Wilson editor, et. al, 2001, Canon Press, ISBN 1-885767-84-6
  • No Other God: A Response to Open Theism, John M. Frame, P & R Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-87552-185-1
  • Consuming Glory: A Classical Defense of Divine-Human Relationality Against Open Theism, Gannon Murphy, Wipf & Stock, 2006, ISBN 1-59752-843-9
  • Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, John Piper et al., 2003, Crossway Books, ISBN 1-58134-462-7
  • What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?: The Current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge, Millard J. Erickson, Zondervan, 2006, ISBN 0-310-27338-2
  • How Much Does God Foreknow?: A Comprehensive Biblical Study, Steven C. Roy, InterVarsity Press, 2006, ISBN 0830827595
  • The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty, James S. Spiegel, Crossway Books, 2005, ISBN 1-58134-616-6

Multiple views

  • Divine Foreknowledge: 4 Views, James Beilby and Paul Eddy (editors), et al, 2001, InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-2652-1
  • God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature, Gregory E. Ganssle and David M. Woodruff (editors), 2002, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-512965-2
  • God & Time: Four Views, Gregory E. Ganssle (editor), et al, 2001, InterVarsity Press, ISBN 0-8308-1551-1
  • Predestination & Free Will, David and Randall Basinger (editors), et al, 1985, Intervarsity Press, ISBN 0-87784-567-0
  • Searching for an Adequate God, John Cobb and Clark Pinnock (Editors), et al, 2000, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8028-4739-0

Related work

  • God, Foreknowledge, and Freedom, John Martin Fischer (editor), 1989, Stanford, ISBN 0-8047-1580-7
  • The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge & Human, William Lane Craig, 2000, Wipf & Stock Publishers, ISBN 1-57910-316-2
  • The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge, Linda Zagzebski, 1996, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-510763-2
  • Eternal God : A Study of God without Time, Paul Helm, 1997, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-823725-1
  • Time and Eternity: Exploring God's Relationship to Time, William Lane Craig, 2001, Crossway Books, ISBN 1-58134-241-1
  • Time and Eternity, Brian Leftow, 1991, Cornell, ISBN 0-8014-2459-3
  • Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time, Robin LePoidevin, 2003, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-875255-5 * The Ontology of Time, L Nathan Oaklander, 2004, Prometheus Books, ISBN 1-59102-197-9
  • Four-Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time, Theodore Sider, 2003, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-926352-3 * Real Time II, Hugh Mellor, 1998, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-09781-9
  • The Suffering of God, Terence E. Fretheim, 1984, Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-1538-7

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