[This post is adapted from an online conversation with a friend… so yeah, keep that in mind.]
I recently heard a preacher rail against the “false teaching” of Open Theism.1 I also had a conversation with a couple of different friends on the issue of Open Theism, one of which was amicable and full of genuine inquiry,2 the other of which was a little less inviting. As you can imagine, all of this has motivated me to write a post or two on the subject. Now, Open Theism is certainly a difficult theology to comprehend, partially because most of church tradition speaks in terms that don’t fit well with Open Theism and partially because it gets straw-manned so often. So, I’d like to do my best to give it a fair hearing here (no promises). But first…
What is Open Theism?
Simply put, Open Theism is the belief that the future is partially made up of open-ended possibilities, even for God. This means that the parts of the future that are certain God knows as certainties, and the parts of the future that are uncertain God knows as possibilities. Where people tend to get their theological undies in a twist is in the unavoidable implication that therefore God cannot know for certain the outcome of those parts of the future that are not certain. But I don’t think that is as big of an issue as some people want to make it out to be. If you’d like a little more of an explanation about Open Theism, check out this short(ish) thing that Greg Boyd wrote for the Baptist General Conference, or watch this quick video with Greg explaining Open Theism, or go here for a really long explanation of Open Theism and some of the philosophical pillars supporting it, or read this post that explains how science and quantum physics supports open theology. And for all things Open Theist, be sure to check out The Open View website.
Does Open Theism do away with God’s sovereignty and even His omniscience?
To answer the first part, we’d have to come to a common definition of sovereignty. If by “sovereignty” you mean unilateral control over all events, then yes. If, however, you simply mean God’s control over history in general, then no. I would definitely say that Open Theism does not get rid of God’s omniscience; rather, it actually adds to His omniscience. You see, classical theology sees God as knowing the future only in terms of what will and will not happen (certainties), and they assume that this exhausts all of the possible forms of foreknowledge. Open theists simply believe that God’s knowledge of the future also consists of what might and might not happen (possibilities).
One way that I think helps is to know that Open Theism is not so much about the nature of God’s foreknowledge, but rather the nature of the future which God foreknows (which is why some prefer the term “open view” instead of “open theism”). God’s knowledge (His omniscience) is directly tied to reality. Since I am typing on a computer, God knows this to be a computer. He can’t know it to be something else (like a giraffe) if it is not that thing in reality. So too, God cannot know the future as only consisting of certainties (will or will not) if in reality the future is partially made up of possibilities (might and might not). Open Theists just believe that the future does partially consist of possibilities, and therefore God knows these possibilities.
Lastly, I would concede that God’s will can be sabotaged (and often is). But that’s Arminianism in general, not just Open Theism.
I was taught that God exists both in and outside of time, as it is simply yet another created dimension, meaning that God exists in the present at every point in time throughout history simultaneously. Does Open Theism consider God to be bound within time as we are?
That is a fantastic question, and one that I don’t get asked as often as I’d like. While I can’t say exactly how every other open theist understands God’s relationship with time, I’ll just explain how it makes sense in my mind (and that of a handful of other open theists I know).
Does God exist outside of time? No, I don’t think so. And I think this for a few reasons. First, I believe that Scripture reveals to us a God that is personal. Some theologians say that God only appears personal to us, but in reality He’s impersonal and altogether incomprehensible and un-relatable. This idea of God being entirely immutable, however, finds its starting point in Plato’s forms and certain types of philosophy (though not all), and not in the biblical text. In Scripture, God is personal, both functionally (how He appears) and ontologically (how He is in reality). To say that God is both personal and outside of time quickly raises the question, What would it even look like for a personal Being to exist outside of time? If we take away the conventions of time (seconds, minutes, hours, etc.) and simply imagine time as a sequence of events or moments – a now, and now, and now, and now – we have to wonder how God could from all eternity be personal without ever really experiencing past moments of relationship. It really is incomprehensible to say that God is personal and relational (which He must be as a Triune Being), and that He only ever experiences everything as a present now.
A second reason (from Scripture) that I think God exists within time is that often in the Bible God not only acts, but even thinks, in response to the things that people do.3 If God existed outside of time, He couldn’t actually change His mind in response to people (since His mind would have already been settled from all eternity); and yet this is what Scripture portrays Him as doing. Now, many will object by saying that all of those passages are merely anthropomorphic (the author attributing human characteristics to a non-human being). The problem with this explanation is that many times4 there is nothing in the context of the passage itself to suggest that the author is speaking anthropomorphically. Anthropomorphism is an artistic literary device used to refer to something by means of illustration (commonly used in poetry). Yet, many of the instances of God changing His mind and thinking in response to human action are not in the context of poetry. Moreover, one must wonder, if these are truly anthropomorphisms, what are they illustrating by saying that God changed His mind or thought something if not that God actually changed His mind and thought something. Anthropomorphisms are not just arbitrary metaphors; they point to something. For a passage to say that God changed His mind and had a responsive thought when in actuality He didn’t is not an anthropomorphism… it’s just inaccurate.
Now all of this often raises the question – but didn’t God create time? If God created time, then how could He be entirely within time? In response, I would say that God did not create time. Remember, we are thinking of time as merely sequence. I would suggest that sequence of moments is not something that needs to be created, because it is simply an inherent part of reality. Think of it like this – did God create the number 3? Not the script or human understanding of it, but the actual reality of one object and another object and another object being three objects. If you answer yes, then God has not eternally been Triune (He would have had to create His own triunity). Rather, I would propose that certain things (sequence, numbers, existence itself, etc.) are merely inherent parts of reality.5 And since God is ultimate reality, we don’t have to be worried that there are rogue forces out there in the universe that are beyond His control and ken.
Now, all of this does not mean that God experiences time like we do, nor is He restrained by it. For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity shows that finite bodies experience time differently due to location and velocity. But for an omnipresent, infinite Being, this theory wouldn’t apply. I don’t even know what that would be like to always experience everything the instant it is happening, but it would certainly take away a lot of limitations. Couple that with God’s infinite intelligence,6 and throw in a little omnipotence for good measure, and you can begin to see how God doesn’t need to control every event in history, or even foreknow it all as a certainty, in order to be confident that when all the chips are down He will be in the winner’s circle.
I hope that all helps. Hit me up in the comments section with questions or any of your own thoughts. Remember, you don’t have to agree with me; you just have to be moderately cordial about it.
1: Though I think he was confusing it with Kenotic Christology.
2: Which I have adapted into the bulk of this post.
3: For example… Exod. 32:14; Num. 14:12–20; Deut. 9:13–14, 18–20, 25; 1 Sam. 2:27–36; 2 Kings 20:1–7; 1 Chron. 21:15; Jer. 18:7–11; 26:2–3, 19; Ezek. 20:5–22; 33:13–15; Amos 7:1–6; Jonah 1:2; 3:2, 4–10; cf. Joel 2:13–14; Jonah 4:2
4: Most of the time?
5: Without question, the hardest part of all of this is coming to terms with the fact that time only flows in one direction, therefore it is not a dimension that one could exist outside of, therefore one could not bounce around from place to place within time, therefore my dreams of living out Dr. Who-esque shenanigans will never become reality. (sigh)… such is life.
6: That God knows all that will happen not because He is observing it objectively, but because He can process every piece of information in existence instantaneously.