I recently did a straw poll on social media to find out whether or not people have heard of Open Theism and what they made of it. A significant proportion of those who responded indicated that they did not know enough to form a judgement. Yet, I want to suggest that elements of the thinking behind Open Theism have rubbed off heavily onto the church, so whilst, if presented with a full systematic presentation of the theology, many would be inclined to disagree, we may find that there are traces of its influence in terms of how we approach God and the world around us. Therefore, I thought it might be worth taking a bit of time just to look at this particular belief.
What is Open Theism
At its heart, Open Theism is an attempt to explain suffering and evil, in the world and in the life of the believer. It arises primarily out of an Arminian approach to how we think about God and his relationship to us.
Reformed Theology starts from the standpoint that God is sovereign because he is eternal, infinite, omnipresent (everywhere), omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). On this basis, it argues that God must know everything, past, present and future. Not only that, it presumes that God wills, foreordains or predestines everything that happens. Reformed Theology recognises that humans are not robots, that they are responsible for their own actions and therefore have a form of freedom but argues that this freedom has to be understood and defined in the light of God’s sovereignty.
Arminianism developed out of and in response to Reformed or Calvinistic thinking. Arminians agree that God is sovereign but insist that we must also take the idea of free will seriously. They argue that God does foreknow everything (he must do as the eternal, omniscient God), however, he cannot predestine it (decide in advance what will happen) or that will overrule our freedom to make our own choices.
Both approaches leave us with a question though. They imply that God is sovereign and great as well as that he is good and loving. So, why then does God allow suffering and evil to happen? Both views accept that God knows about suffering and is presumably able to prevent it. Why then doesn’t he? The Reformed respond by saying that whilst we may not be able to understand suffering, we believe that God must intend it for good. The Arminian responds by saying that God doesn’t act to stop evil and suffering because that would interfere with our free will. You may find yourself more satisfied by either or neither of those approaches.
Open Theism comes along and offers this answer to the question:
“God in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God’s will for our lives, and he enters into dynamic, give-and-take relationships with us. The Christian life involved a genuine interaction between God and human beings. We respond to God’s gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses … and on it goes. God takes risks in this give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working towards his ultimate goals.”
On one level, this looks like a simple restating of the Arminian position. However, when you dig a little deeper, it is clear that Open Theism is a distinct view that has moved on from the Classical Arminian position. This is because Arminianism has a basic, inbuilt tension in it. If you accept that God already knows ahead of time what is going to happen, then it is difficult to insist that humans have genuine free will. Things will happen as foreseen and there is nothing that any of us, including God can do to change them. Clarke Pinnock, one of the originators of Open Theism puts it this way:
“Philosophically speaking, if choices are real and freedom significant, future decisions cannot be exhaustively foreknown. This is because the future is not determinate but shaped by human choices. The future is not fixed like the past, which can be known completely. The future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated, even by God.”
So Open Theism goes further and dismantles the whole idea that God foreknows. The argument is that our understanding of who God is and his character as the one who is eternal, outside of time belongs not to the Bible’s revelation but to Greek philosophy. The Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle imagined an “unmoved mover” as the first cause, distant from us and lacking in emotions or passions. Open Theist’s argue that God is a dynamic, emotional being who interacts with his environment, feels emotions and responds to events including by changing his mind.
It is important to recognise at this point that Open Theism is starting to say some significant things not just about predestination and free will but more widely about who God is, his character and his actions. To pick up on a few things that Pinnock describes.
- The Trinity: Open Theism envisions God as a community of persons or social Trinity, seeing this as best fitting a dynamic view of God. Social Trinitarianism emphasises the distinctiveness of the three persons but moves away from an understanding of God being one substance.
- Immutability: We describe God as unchanging but whilst Open Theists agree to this in reference to God’s “nature and essence”, hey argue that “God is subject to change.” That “God allows the world to touch him whilst being transcendent over it.” So that God is able to change his mind and will in response to prayer.
- This has implications for “impassibility.” Open Theists argue that God has emotions, can feel, is affected by the world and so, God suffers. It is important to note that the classical doctrine of impassibility is not about whether God is emotionless. God clearly expresses joy and delight, love, sadness, anger. The point is that classically, God is not subject to emotions so that they cannot influence, control or manipulate him.
- Eternity. Classically, it is taught that God transcends time. He created time and so existed before it and outside of it. In that sense God is timeless. He is not just everlasting, without beginning and end, so that he might have a life of growing experience stretched out over infinite years. Rather, he is eternal, having all of his existence at once and able to see the end from the beginning. Open Theism envisions God differently. Part of this arises out of a belief that if God were timeless, then he would not be able to intervene in time. Part of it relates to the belief that the future has not yet happened and so does not exist and is not knowable. This means that God grows in experience with us and responds to things as they happen. They are new and surprising to him.
Open Theists see all of this as positive, as Pinnock argues:
“We do not limit God by saying that he can be surprised by what his creatures do. It would be a serious limitation if God could not experience surprise and delight.”
The same God?
Open Theists argue that they are presenting and worshipping the true God, revealed in Scripture. They believe that their position can be defended exegetically from Scripture. I disagree and will engage with those claims in more detail in a later article.
The important thing to note today is that the beliefs identified above raise serious questions about whether Open Theists are talking about the same God as we are. This is important because this gets to the heart of whether or not we are dealing with an interesting viewpoint, some mistaken beliefs or heresy. You see, something is heresy when it presents a different God to the God of the Bible. This is important because it affects our worship and it also affects the Gospel.
How does it affect the Gospel? Well theological approaches that seek to preserve human freedom at all cost, tend to argue from 1 John 4:9 which says that “God is love.” The tendency is to suggest that this emphasises love as God’s primary, essential attribute, to the point where love and God are equivalent, love is God. Freedom is then seen as essential to love, otherwise there is coercion and compulsion. So, the most important thing for people, the essential outcome of God’s love is not that we are rescued from sin but that we are free beings. That’s beginning to redefine the Gospel.
Open Theism has arisen out of good desires, the desire to understand and explain suffering and evil. However, it takes us to a very different place in terms of the Gospel and God. It undermines the Doctrine of the Eternity and offers a limited, finite god who is subject to outside influence and can change.
I believe that this is both contrary to Scripture and whilst sounding attractive on the surface ends up pastorally unsatisfying.
 Such attempts are usually referred to as “theodicy”.
 Pinnock, Rice, Sanders, Hasker, Basinger, The Openness of God, 7.
 Pinnock, “Systematic Theology” in the Openness of God, 123.
 See Sanders “Historical Considerations” in The Openness of God, 58-100.
 Pinnock, 108.
 Pinnock, 118.
 Pinnock, 118-119.
 Pinnock, 119-121.
 Pinnock, 123.