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Open Theism

November 2002 | by Nick Needham

The cutting edge

An occasional series on doctrinal issues today

The friends of this movement see it as a means of liberating Evangelical Christianity from stifling error. The enemies of the movement see it as the destruction of Evangelicalism and biblical Christianity. Clearly, there is little space for diplomatic compromise.

The movement is ‘Open Theism’, or ‘the openness of God’ as it is sometimes called. Its promoters are a group of radically Arminian theologians, mostly from the USA and Canada. Leading names include Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, John Sanders and William Hasker.

What is their basic argument? Essentially it is about the relationship between God, time and human freedom. They hold that if human freedom is to be real, the future must be ‘open’ — unsettled, unfixed, undetermined.

But if the future is like that for us (they argue) then it must be like that for God too. If God knows (not just guesses, but certainly and infallibly knows) what we are going to do in the future, then the future must be fixed, and human freedom is an illusion.

So to safeguard human freedom, Open Theists deny God’s foreknowledge of the future. He can make educated guesses and, like a grand chess master, outmanoeuvre our sinful choices and actions. But he does not infallibly know what those choices and actions will be — because we are free.

How did God know?

How should Evangelicals respond to this? Let me suggest four lines of thought.

First, Open Theism flies in the face of Scripture. If God has no infallible knowledge of the future, how could Jesus say to Peter: ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times’ (Mark 14:30)? Was that an educated guess?

Or how did the Lord know that Judas would betray him (John 6:64)? Another educated guess?

Indeed, how did God know that Adam would fall? The company of the redeemed were ‘chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4), and Christ the sacrificial Lamb was ‘foreknown before the foundation of the world’ (1 Peter 1:19-20). Neither of those statements makes sense unless God foreknew the Fall.

And, of course, biblical prophecy becomes a tissue of divine guesswork if the Open Theists are correct. How did God know that Judah would be so wicked as to end up in exile in Babylon — only to be delivered through the instrumentality of Cyrus? And so we could continue.

In short, it looks as though Open Theists are letting a preconceived philosophy (concerning God, time, and human freedom) ride roughshod over the clear and pervasive testimony of Scripture.

Human freedom

Second, according to the overwhelming belief of Christian theologians down the ages, Open Theists are wrong to think that God’s knowledge of the future destroys human freedom.

We must be careful here, especially as Reformed Christians, because we hold that unregenerate humanity is in slavery to sin. Even so, before the Fall, Adam was not enslaved. He was free to sin or not to sin.

God’s foreknowledge of Adam’s choice to sin did not mean that God caused Adam to sin. God never causes anyone to sin. He permissively ordains sin; omnipotently sets bounds to it; mysteriously guides its outcome; and continuously overrules it for his own glory.

But his infallible foreknowledge and exploitation of sin do not make him its author. Even though the unregenerate are slaves, they are under no compulsion to commit this or that particular sin.

Within the context of their spiritual bondage, there is still a choice (for example, to be kindly neighbours or murderers). Yet God infallibly foreknows all the choices of all rational creatures.

Time and space

According to mainstream Christian theology, this infallible foreknowledge is because God is no more limited by ‘time’ than he is by ‘space’. We live within time and space, as their subjects; God lives outside time and space, as their sovereign Lord.

A God who is not under time’s control, but is himself its absolute Creator and Master, is perfectly capable of knowing the future without causing all our sins. Both Augustine and Calvin taught that all time is present to God’s sight in an ‘eternal now’. He ‘foresees’ the future (indeed, he sees all time) much as we ‘see’ the present.

Not a new debate

Third, the Open Theists have gone way beyond even Arminianism. No classical Arminian has ever denied God’s foreknowledge.

Open Theists have, in fact, joined hands with the Socinians. These were anti-Trinitarians who, in the 16th and 17th centuries, denied almost all the cardinal beliefs of orthodox Christianity.

In other words, this is no new debate. We have been here before. If you have Francis Turretin’s wonderful systematic theology, you can see him refuting the Open Theist arguments about divine foreknowledge in volume 1, p.206 ff.

Of course, he was writing against the Socinians, not Clark Pinnock and his friends. But the arguments are the same.

Whiff of arrogance

To be blunt, Open Theism is not historic Christianity. For two millennia Christians have been reading their Bibles and seeing with a tranquil unanimity that it teaches the doctrine of God’s omniscience, including his eternal foreknowledge of the future.

The early church fathers, the medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, the Protestant Reformers, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Arminians — everyone lines up on this issue, whatever other grave differences they might have.

But now Open Theists tell us that the entire Christian tradition throughout its whole history has been radically wrong — wrong in its understanding of something as basic as what the Bible teaches about God’s knowledge of his own creation.

Only now has the light dawned. Only with the advent of this late 20th century wisdom has the real meaning of the Bible become clear!

We can hardly help detecting the whiff of arrogance — what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ (‘we moderns know best’).

If Open Theists wish to persuade us of their case, they must provide an overwhelming argument as to why the Holy Spirit kept the church in the dark on this crucial issue for almost the whole of her life to date.

Heresy

Or at least, he kept the church in the dark, but revealed the truth to heretics — for the only theological companions Open Theism can boast are the Socinians. And this is the alarming thing. What was once a radical Socinian heresy is now bidding fair to become a respectable Evangelical option.

Open Theists are professing Evangelicals, and Open Theism has made big waves in American Evangelicalism.

Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, John Sanders and William Hasker all claim with passion to be true Evangelicals, and vocally resent any suggestion that they might not be. The rejection of God’s foreknowledge is coming from within the evangelical camp.

At the Evangelical Theological Society of America in November 2001, a resolution was put to the society by Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem declaring that Open Theism was not consistent with the Society’s Evangelical theology. The resolution was passed thus: 71% in favour; 18% against; 11% abstained.

While this vote was a triumph in one way, it was disturbing in another — 29% (almost one third) thought that Open Theism was compatible with evangelical theology or else had no clear views on the matter.

Furthermore, since it was a non-binding resolution, it had no official implications for membership of the Evangelical Theological Society. A binding resolution would have required an 80% vote, and would not have passed. What does this tell us about the state of Evangelical theology today?

A different faith

Finally, think how different your faith would be if you rejected God’s foreknowledge and bought the Open Theism package. A friend of mine described his own flirtation with Open Theism thus:

‘I eventually realised that rather than [introducing] a more intimate and less foreign God, it actually made God more distant and less divine. I guess the positive was that it forced me into a confrontation of issues of divine sovereignty, which pushed me out of vague Arminianism into a more consistent Augustinianism.’

Speaking for myself, I remember feeling the same sense of being distanced from God when I first encountered the denial of his foreknowledge in YWAM (Youth With A Mission) in the 1980s.

Those who reject God’s foreknowledge and providential sovereignty live in a different universe — one pervaded neither by God’s all-directing purpose nor by his all-seeing knowledge.

We end up with a universe which feels godless in its substance and structure. I am not in charge, but neither is God; I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, but neither does God. The big bad universe feels a lot bigger than God.

If this is the kind of God offered to us by Open Theism, I can only say that he does not seem much like the God of the Bible or the God confessed and worshipped by the community of faith through the centuries.

Stripped of mystery and majesty, God becomes little more than ‘the man upstairs’. Can true faith and true worship survive such a disastrous denial of the mighty Lord of the universe?

The author is on the faculty of the Highland Theological College.