Open Theism: An Introduction

Have you ever found yourself asking questions that look like this?

Do we have free will?

Does God change His mind in response to human actions?

Is my fate decided for me beforehand?

Is God somehow behind the evil that happens?

If God has known from eternity past what I’m going to choose was I ever really free to choose in the first place?

Does God ordain everything from what socks I choose to wear in the morning to the miscarriage the woman down the street had?

Is the future completely settled?

All of these questions have been on the minds of theologians throughout the centuries, and many different answers have been given to each one. So why do I bring these things up? Because all of these questions overlap in something called “open theism” or “openness theology.” Now don’t run away scared because you think I’m about to get super academic! I know that I have the tendency to do that from time to time, but this time that’s not the case. I honestly want to talk about these things as simply as I can because I find that there is much to be gained from understanding this view. I believe that this view gives relief to some of these big questions and is backed by both scripture and philosophy.

However, I do need to give you sort of a disclaimer. I ask that as you press forward into this post you do so with an open mind willing to simply consider some of what you read. It is by no means my goal to have everyone agree with me. It is, however, my goal to broaden your horizons and perhaps give individuals relief from some questions that have burdened them regarding God, His sovereignty, our free will, and even the bad things that happen.

So let’s break this down into two easy parts: “what is open theism?” and “what difference does it make?” Let’s start by tackling the first one.

What is Open Theism?

Alright here is a working definition, open theism is the belief that:

1) The future is partially open and partially settled

2) and God knows it perfectly as such.

I’m sure for some of you your heads might already be spinning, but hold on! That’s as academic as we are going to get! Let’s try to work this out.

The Future is Partially Open and Partially Settled…

What does that exactly mean? It means that there are certain aspects of the future that are settled, meaning that they are fixed and certain to come about and happen. And there are certain aspects of the future that are open, meaning that it could go one of multiple ways and is not certain to come about and happen.

Allow me to insert an illustrations that I made with my own hand. Imagine the future looks like this:

IMG_2634.JPG

See the difference here? Some parts are solid lines meaning that they are closed (or certain to happen) and other parts are still open (not settled or certain to happen. There are still a certain number of outcomes possible). This is essentially what the open theist thinks the future looks like. We believe that there are still genuine choices to be made by humans with free will, and therefore are not knowable.

…And God Knows it Perfectly as Such.

Now here is where things will start to feel a little uncomfortable for some people. The open theist believes that this is the nature of the future and that God knows it perfectly in this way. This means that God knows the future partially as settled facts and partially as possibilities. So God doesn’t know with 100% certainty everything that shall come to pass. This is the part where you throw up you hands and say, “Wait! God of course knows everything that is going to happen! He’s God! In fact, we have a big fancy word for it. We say that God is omniscient, or all knowing!”

I would respond and say that I too agree that God is all knowing. The open theist believes that God knows all that there is to know. The disagreement is about what is available to be known. We think that the future is made up of some portions that are settled and some portions that could go this way or that and God knows all of that 100%. People opposed to this view are of the assumption that the future is more like a blueprint with only one path to be taken and that God knows that perfectly.

As to the second comment about God having to know because He is God, I would ask why you believe that in order for God to be God He has to know absolutely everything that shall come to pass with 100% certainty. We say this as a gut reaction but it doesn’t mean it’s a correct reaction.

Now I have a lot more that I would love to say about all of this. I would love to show you the places where scripture seems to make this evident, such as when God regrets that He made Saul king (how can you regret making a decision when you had known from eternity past what would happen? Wouldn’t you just not make the decision?) or when God tests people to know what it is that they would do (why would you test them to know what they would do when you already knew what they would do?).

I would also love to take some time to talk about the philosophical arguments of why the future is partially open and can’t be fully settled, such as if it is eternally settled in the mind of God that tomorrow I will choose to lie to my sister am I now really free to choose otherwise? Or addressing the idea that something must be grounding any given truth claim (such as if I say, “Curtis is going to wear pink socks on August 19” as a truth claim, what is making that certain? If God didn’t foreordain it to make it certain then it has to be my free will, yet I have not used my free will to determine the truth value of that claim. Therefore there is nothing settling that claim as true and must be left open.) I know I might have left some of you behind on that. It’s okay you don’t have to worry about that now!

Now I want to address one last thing before moving on to talking about why this matters and the difference it makes. A lot of people will say they feel that if they were to embrace this view then it turns God into someone who is unable to ensure anything and is helpless against His creation. Another two responses to this.

First, let’s say an open theist has to say this is true (which they don’t. That’s gonna be number two. Sorry for the spoiler). I would say how is this any worse than a God who knows indefinitely the bad that is going to come about? Let’s say that God knows definitely that someone is going to break into your home in a week and harm you. How does God’s definite knowledge that this event is going to pass comfort you? In the traditional view, God knows what will happen, not what might happen. I find solace in a God who knows the possibility, but works toward a better goal and works out all circumstances for good.

Second, God is in no way helpless in the open theist’s position. God doesn’t under-know the future, He over-knows it. God knows every possibility that could ever occur and knows what He would do in response for every outcome. Therefore, it’s as if each possibility was the only one that could occur. God has prepared a response for each possible path of an open part of the future so He is never caught off guard. God is perhaps sometimes grieved over the outcome of a situation because He didn’t believe that it was the particular path that would happen (another good scriptural argument for my position) but He is never caught off guard as if He didn’t consider that path or wasn’t prepared for that path.

All this is simply to say that if someone embraces an open view of the future they are not signing off on a helpless God who lacks the capacity to help His people.

Why Does it Matter?

Finally we are to the part that I am actually most excited about. This is the part where the rubber meets the road. This is the part where I find the most beauty behind open theism. If you have done the hard work on the first part of this blog then you are now about to reap the rewards and see what my position has to offer practically. However, I don’t think that just because you like the repercussions of my view means that you should embrace it. You should definitely take the time to think through it and hear out other people. This is supposed to be a little introduction. Anyway, I digress. Let’s just get started.

I want to look really quick at two of the practical differences the open view can make in a person’s life and call it a day!

1) The Open View Helps Understand Evil

Let me set up a scenario. A woman meets a man and they fall madly in love and she wants to marry him. However, this woman is a devout follower of Jesus. She spends an enormous amount of time praying for guidance in this decision and also seeks out the counsel of spiritual leaders in her life. After doing all of this she gets the green light in every area. A little while later they end up getting married.

Three years down the road, the man developed an unhealthy dependance on alcohol and becomes abusive toward the woman and their son. She is stuck in this abusive relationship for years and the scars endure much longer than the time of their relationship as the man ultimately divorces her.

Now let’s look at the two classic options before us without considering open theism:

1) God foreordained this event to happen so as to “teach her some sort of lesson.”

2) God knew that if she were to marry him this would definitely happen, yet God had her endure it so as to “teach her some sort of lesson.”

Now bear in mind that these are actual situations that do happen to people. There is real weight to this. People ask me this question in different forms with different struggles. “Why did God have me do this?” or “why did God let this happen?” And a lot of people would give these two answers. God did this to teach her or help her. They try to redeem the circumstance by saying God had it happen for good. I think this is admirable but has some flaws. I want you to see what the open view allows for.

In the open view we could say that God did not know for certain that this would happen. In fact, based on the sort of character that this man had formed over the years God saw that He was good and would most likely make a wonderful spouse. He directed them in marriage and expected to bless it and see beauty come from it. Yet, much like the case of Saul, this man who seemed to be a perfect fit for the job, opened himself to the influence of the enemy and used his free will in a way that led to the awful circumstance above.

God sees this and is grieved. God regrets that He lead them to marriage. God’s heart breaks over the pain His daughter endures and what has become of His son. God then works what He can within the situation to bring healing. Seeing things in this light has brought healing and made sense of pain for many people.

2) The Open View Allows For Genuine Freedom

The open view gives us the framework for a world where possibilities actually exist. The open view sets up a model of the world where God has created room for actual possibilities. It gives a God who is creative and invites His creation into participating in His ongoing story and narrative.

In the open view of the future, the world is not simply settled facts that are coming to pass. Rather, the future exists partially in possibilities that will shape the way the narrative of the world goes. God gives us a role in shaping the story of creation for better or for worse. This is powerful. Things hinge on whether we choose to do this or that. Things hinge on whether or not we decided to pray. The open view reveals God as one who invites us in to being co-rulers with Him in this universe.

This is one of the things that is beautiful about the position of open theism, I do not simply live out what is eternally settled in the mind of God. Rather, God invites me to partner with Him to forge a better future and build His kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

Conclusion

I hope that after reading this you have come to understand a little of what is meant by open theism, come to see what it has to offer, and more importantly be stretched a little by rethinking the assumptions you have held about God. I believe that God is far more magnificent and free than we often think. I believe that the future is open to molding and that God is one who wants to work within and guide creation, not force it’s hand. God invites us to participate in the work that He has set before us, and who knows where that will take us? God might not even be sure.


Photo by JAY MANTRI via Magdeleine

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Published by

Curtis Snell

I am first and foremost someone who is trying to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. I serve on the pastoral staff of a church in Iowa and I love writing, reading, and my dog Pepper.

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