Open theism is the belief that God is not timelessly eternal. “God changes in some ways so as to respond appropriately to a changing creation…God’s foreknowledge is limited, because of the limitations he has placed upon himself in giving humans freewill.” /1/ The idea that God has limited foreknowledge was first formulated by the Polish Socinian movement in the late 16th century. It was recently revived by several Open Theists (Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice & John Sanders et al) when they jointly published the seminal work, The Openness of God (IVP, 1994). However, anyone who feels swayed by their sophisticated arguments should recall the old-time rebuttal, “Your argument is logical but your conclusion is unfounded because your premises are wrong.” Applying logic to wrong premises only leads to conclusions that do not correspond to reality. For the same reason, the logic of Open Theism results in a god who is in conflict with the God of Biblical-Classical theism because its premises or fundamental philosophical intuitions are questionable.
I. The god of Open Theism is a limited god
Biblical-Classical theism is based on the biblical understanding that God is the uncaused, self-existing absolute being (aseity from Latin a se – of himself, from himself) who is self-sufficient and perfect in his attributes. James Dolezal adds, “To maintain that God exists a se, then, is merely to say that God himself is the sufficient ontological condition and explanation for his existence and essence.” /2/ The doctrine of aseity of God has a positive affirmation.
When God ascribes this aseity to himself in Scripture, he makes himself known as absolute being, as the one who is in an absolute sense. By this perfection he is at once essentially and absolutely distinct from all creatures…But as is evident from the word “aseity”, God is exclusively from himself, not in the sense of being self-caused but being from eternity to eternity who he is, being not becoming. God is absolute being, the fullness of being, and therefore always eternally and absolutely independent in his existence, in his perfections, in all his works, the first and the last, the sole cause and final goal of all things. /3/
God as the Creator must be distinguished from creation. God being absolute and necessarily free cannot be determined by any source outside himself, least of all by contingent creation. Conversely, everything is created by God and determined by him. All creatures are determined ad extra in their interactions but the all-sufficient Creator cannot be determined by anything in creation. He ordains everything that comes to past. The vital distinction between God and man is ignored by advocates of Open Theism as they construct models based on human action and freedom (whether determined ad extra or not) which they then apply without qualifications to the Creator. In effect, Open Theism is wrongly attributing the limitations of creaturely conditions to the Creator. No wonder, the god of Open Theism ends up being a limited being who is neither omnipotent nor omniscience in his interactions with humans. The god of Open Theism is all too human. We need to heed the wise words of caution given by Francis Pieper in his classic Lutheran Dogmatics, “By ascribing immensity to God, Scripture expressly reminds us that we dare not make our puny reason and intellect the yardstick to measure God’s being and activity. Scripture says that God dwells “in the light which no man can approach unto” (1 Tim. 6:16) and that “His greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3), and our Confessions, in accord with Scripture, say: “God is of infinite power.”/4/
II. Open Theism’s optimism towards the natural man contradicts the biblical teaching on fallen humanity
Disputations on the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom often proceed on the assumption that objective and neutral analysis requires the nature of human freedom may be kept as an open question, that the incompatibilist and compatibilist understanding of human freedom are equally possible options. However, philosophical neutrality is a myth. There are no neutral presuppositions in philosophical analysis. The Open Theist has already skewed his philosophical analysis by presupposing an optimistic view of humans as agents who possess inherent and unfettered freedom either to choose or reject God. This presupposition is in direct contradiction with the clear teaching of Scripture that the natural state of human beings is one of bondage to sin and total inability to choose God. Paul asserts,
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:1-5).
We are “by nature” that is, by disposition in our innermost self (heart) driven by desires that resolutely reject God. We are born into this natural condition as “children of wrath.” Scripture simply asserts as self-evident the tragic truth of human fallenness and pervasive depravity that render sinful humanity subject to divine judgment.
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8: 7).
The carnal mind is enmity to God, for it is not subject to the law of God. The law of God, however, is the revelation of his nature, and therefore opposition to the law, is opposition to God. This opposition on the part of the carnal mind is not casual, occasional, or in virtue of a mere purpose. It arises out of its very nature. It is not only not subject to the law of God, but it cannot be. It has no ability to change itself. Otherwise it would not be death. It is precisely because of this utter impotency of the carnal mind, or unrenewed heart, to change its own nature, that it involves the hopelessness which the word death implies. /5/
The basic and profound difference between Open Theism and the Biblical-Classical Theism is not whether God is omniscient in the light of human freedom. The difference is about the nature of the plight of humanity and the power of God’s salvation. For Open Theism, the action of God is causally necessary, but never causally sufficient for human salvation. Otherwise, faith in Christ would not be a free act. The autonomous free choice of humans is a vital addition to God’s grace to be causally sufficient for salvation. But this is contrary to the testimony of Scripture which emphasizes that humans in their natural state do not have the power or freedom to contribute to their salvation. The biblical view is that God’s grace alone is casually sufficient for faith and persons who are spiritual dead and in bondage to sin must first be freed by God’s grace so that he is able to receive Christ. God must take the initiative to regenerate the spiritually dead and endow them with spiritual freedom that is the necessary for persons to exercise faith to receive salvation. Augustine accurately captures the biblical approach toward human free will which is one of gratitude rather than arrogant impiety:
Men, however, are laboring to find in our own will some good thing of our own,—not given to us by God; but how it is to be found I cannot imagine. The apostle says, when speaking of men’s good works, “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” But, besides this, even reason itself, which may be estimated in such things by such as we are, sharply restrains every one of us in our investigations so as that we may not so defend grace as to seem to take away free will, or, on the other hand, so assert free will as to be judged ungrateful to the grace of God, in our arrogant impiety… Since therefore the will is either good or bad, and since of course we have not the bad will from God, it remains that we have of God a good will; else, I am ignorant, since our justification is from it, in what other gift from Him we ought to rejoice. Hence, I suppose, it is written, “The will is prepared of the Lord;” and in the Psalms, “The steps of a man will be rightly ordered by the Lord, and His way will be the choice of his will;” and that which the apostle says, “For it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of His own good pleasure.” /6/
For Augustine, God’s saving grace alone is sufficient and efficacious for human salvation. It is granted that biblical freedom is different from the “freedom” that is disputed between the compatibilist and incompatibilist, but it is real freedom that that transforms the recipient of grace into someone who is able to live a renewed spiritual life of loving and serving God. For the Bible, true freedom is not natural but is a supernatural fruit of God’s grace. We can only conclude that the idea autonomous, libertarian freedom held by Open Theism is a rationalistic construct that ignores the clear teaching of the Bible. We have here a classic case of rationalism trumping revelation as man becomes the measure of God.
III. The God of Open Theism is not the God of the Biblical-Classical theism
Philosophically, the god of Open Theism is not the greatest of all possible beings because it is subject to change. Change implies a greater possibility. A God who can change is obviously not at his maximal existence. But Brian Davies argues, “Nothing created can cause God to change or be modified in any way. In terms of classical theism, there is no causality from creatures to God since creatures are wholly God’s effects…God cannot be altered by anything a creature does, and God is intrinsically unchangeable.”/7/ On the contrary, the continuing existence of the universe and every possible change within it is dependent on God sustaining power and providence. Divine perfection does not imply immobility. While God does not change in his essence, he creates and acquires new dynamic relationships with his creatures. Louis Berkhof concludes, “The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is change round about Him, change in the relations of men to Him, but there is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purpose, His motives of actions, or His promises.” /8/
Theologically, the god of Open Theism is not the only wise God (Rom. 16: 27). For Open Theism, even if it is granted that god created the world for some reasons, nevertheless his purposes does not extend to all things. He does not have exhaustive foreknowledge or exercise meticulous providence. He has to cope with new things as they emerge, new things that were previously unknown to him. He does not create the world ex nihilo. In contrast, for Biblical-Classical theism, God is omniscient. His knowledge is (1) underivative, as he knows all things directly in their hidden essences, (2) non-discursive, i.e. not proceeding from the known to the unknown but intuitive as he discern all things directly in its own light. The perfect wisdom of God is expressed in his eternal plans revealed in the Bible. His wise reasons may not be immediately apparent to his creatures, but he will infallibly fulfill his eternal plans because he knows and directs all things (Job. 37:16; Psa. 33:13; Isa. 40:27-28; Isa. 46:10; Heb. 4:13; 1 John 3:20).
Pastorally, the god of Open Theism is unable to provide assurance of salvation. A god who does not know the future exhaustively, whose plans are contingent rather than eternal and who can only try his best to manage creation with educated guesses cannot guarantee our salvation. In contrast, the Apostle Paul was fully assured of his salvation. “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” What was the basis of Paul’s assurance? He rested in the character of God (2 Tim. 1:12). Assurance is based on the character of God as one whom one can trust because he keeps his promises. Only the God of Biblical-Classical theism who has exhaustive foreknowledge (omniscience) and exercises meticulous providence is able to deliver on his promises.
To conclude, the limited god of Open Theism is not the almighty God of the Bible. Open theism is not scriptural. It is simply a misguided attempt by finite and fallen man to render the infinite God more comprehensible by diminishing his greatness and glory.
Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: Conclusion. Part 7(b)/7
The Immutable God Who Cares. Part 1
The Immutable God who Cares. Part 2 – Aseity & Immutability of God
The Immutable God Who Cares. Part 3 – Divine Simplicity & Immutability of God
/1/ C. Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (IVP 2002), pp. 85-86.
/2/ James Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 71. For an authoritative discussion on the God of Classical theism see Brian Leftow, “Concepts of God,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Edward Craig (Routledge 1998), vol. 4, pp. 98-100.
/3/ Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 (Baker, 2004), p. 152.
/4/ Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics vol.1 (Concordia, 1950), pp. 441-442.
/5/ Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans reprint, 1993), p. 256.
/6/ Augustine, Anti-Pelagian Writings NPNF1 vol. 5 (Eerdmans reprint, 1997), p. 56.
/7/ Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion 3e (Oxford, 2004), p. 5.
/8/ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 59.