[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.

Thanks!

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.

Ready for another article?

Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)

12 Comments

  1. nick scarantino, March 13, 2014 at 1:32 am:

    Me again. I have a few questions for ya.

    One. What parts of the future are certain and what parts are possibilities? What qualifies each of those?

    Two. I’m still confused how Gods personableness excludes him from living outside of time. Of he can create the entire universe, certainly he can remain outside of time and still be personal. It’s like an author being personal with her characters. (not a perfect example but it’s the best I could come up with at this hour)

    Three. Does God ever actually change his mind? Of he is the same yesterday, today, and forever wouldn’t that mean his thoughts and decisions are the same consistently? Would it potentially be more accurate that he appeared to change his mind, but that’s just from our limited human understanding?

    Four. What produces the outcomes of the uncertain events. Humanity? God? A mix,

    Five. Forgive me if this is taking this view out of context but I’m trying to understand. So this view would postulate that when God made man he knew they could disobey him but he didn’t know they would for sure?

    Six. I can’t remember it for some reason… So the above five will have to be sufficient for now.

  2. nick scarantino, March 13, 2014 at 1:36 am:

    I whenever question six now. There are many Bible verses about things being done by God. One coming to my mind is that all governments are appointed by him. Are these things then certainties and not possibilities of they are done by God? If so, what is the Christians responsibility in these instances since its going to happen either way? ( that part of the question holds true for those who believe God knows and possibly ordains all that will happen) if these things are only possibilities, then how can it be said that God put them into place or ordained them? Or is it still that God decided which possibility happens?

    • Rocky Munoz, March 13, 2014 at 1:24 pm:

      Hey Nick! Thank you for your questions. I always enjoy when you comment on here. I’ll do my best to answer them…

      One. I would say that the parts of the future that are certain are (1) the parts that must necessarily come to pass due to the nature of our world and God’s nature, meaning that I don’t think it is merely a possibility that God will continue to exist or the sun will rise tomorrow, and (2) the parts of the future that God has through His own agency chosen to bring into reality, meaning that whatever God declares He is going to do will certainly happen. The parts that are merely possibilities are usually those that involve free agency other than God’s, human and spiritual. So while God is intelligent enough to have a really good peg on who we will marry, where we will go to school or work, and what we will eat for breakfast, because I believe in actual free will I do not think that these things are certainties until they come to pass. Additionally, even some of the things in Scripture that God proposes to do Himself are tinged with the language of possibility (“if” and “perhaps”).

      Two. I understand you example, but I think that it fails on the very grounds that it hopes to prove. Even an author must experience time, if for no other reason than that there must be a point before writing, a point of writing, and a point of completion. In fact, with this analogy, it is the author who is actually experiencing time where as the characters (if they are in a book) are stuck in an ever-present “now” where they are always doing everything that they do.

      Three. The phrase “the same yesterday and today and forever” come from Hebrews 13:8, which is speaking specifically about Jesus (who we know was not immutable). Moreover, the passage is exhorting believers to be steadfast in their character because Christ is steadfast in his character. So, while I would agree that God’s character never changes (and I think this is consistent with the passages often cited concerning this), I do think that He can and does change His mind. In fact, His ability to change His mind is one of the attributes of greatness that Scripture actually praises Him for (cf. Joel 2:12-14; Jonah 4:2).

      Four. Yes, the will of all freewill agents is what produces the outcome of uncertain possibilities.

      Five. “… when God made man he know they could disobey him but he didn’t know they would for sure…” Exactly.

      Six. It is true that God orchestrates human history, including governments and nations, in an attempt to bring about His will. That is not to say, however, that each and every ruler is there by God’s specific design, nor is it to say that everything that a nation does is within God’s will (elsewise, major atrocities such as the Holocaust and the rape of Nanking would be part of God’s will… which would mean that God was a monster). So while we could say that the flow of human history falls within God’s orchestration, we would be going too far in saying that therefore every freewill decision along the way was also part of God’s will. So our job as Christians is to affirm and be obedient to the parts of government that uphold God’s will (justice, order, that sort of thing), while peacefully and lovingly opposing that which opposes God (corruption, abuse, war, etc.). As for God ordaining governments, Romans 13:1 says, “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” The word Paul uses for “established” (sometimes translated as “appointed” or “instituted”) is the Greek tasso, which means to assign something to a particular task or position. Boyd often uses the analogy of a librarian organizing books – she doesn’t have to necessarily agree with or like a book in order to place it in its proper place on a shelf.

      Hope that helps. Great questions!

  3. nick scarantino, March 16, 2014 at 12:30 am:

    How do you reconcile this with psalm 130? Also, if God is the librarian it still assumes that he puts them into place and establishes them, not man.

    • Rocky Munoz, March 17, 2014 at 3:35 pm:

      Hey Nick! Thanks for commenting on here! Sorry I took so long to respond. I don’t see anything in Psalm 130 that would be problematic for open theology, but perhaps that was a typo, or perhaps I’m just not seeing it. As for the librarian analogy, the idea is that we should not confuse the librarian with the author. For instance, just because God used the Roman Empire (with its highway system and common language) to accomplish His purposes with the gospel does not mean that He had a direct causal role in each and every human freewill decision made along the way (which would include oppression and countless deaths).

      Does that make any sense?

  4. Nick S, March 17, 2014 at 7:40 pm:

    Sorry, i was typing on my phone. It’s supposed to be 139- the idea that everything we do is known to God from the beginning, even before we were born.

    Also, I better understand your analogy now, but I don’t think it holds up very well. While the Librarian does put books where they go, it requires that the thing already be published/written. The problem with seeing God as the librarian is that what happens and what He puts into place hasn’t already been created. (I know all analogies fall short at a certain point, but I think this one is fundamentally flawed). God can’t put things in their place if they haven’t already been created/authored. Who’s the author of the empires that God puts into place?

    • Rocky Munoz, March 18, 2014 at 3:52 pm:

      Okay, Psalm 139 makes more sense. While most of this song is about God’s intimate knowledge of every aspect of the psalmist (which fits well with open theology), the part that most people get hung up on is v16b, “in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (NASB). There are a number of reasons that I don’t think this verse is a problem for open theology, but I’ll just mention a few here. First, we should always be cautious about using a poetic passage to formulate a specific doctrinal stance, since literary devices such as hyperbole are part and parcel to the psalms. Second, remember that open theology only claims that part of the future is open; therefore, even if God did ordain the number of days the psalmist (probably David) would live, that doesn’t mean that every detail of those days were also preordained. Third, the word “days” doesn’t actually appear in the Hebrew (or LXX), which is why some translations (like the NKJV) insert the word “members,” which fits much better with the context, focusing on God’s knowledge of the author’s unborn physical body. But even if, despite all of this, we still translated and interpreted this verse to mean that God preordained all of the events in each day of the psalmist’s life, Scripture constantly portrays that which is written in the Lord’s book of life as being open to change (Exod 32:33; Isa 38:1-5; Jer 18:6-10; Rev 3:5). So no matter how you spin it, this verse still fits well within open theology (for a longer, more detailed explanation, check out this article).

      To your last question – “Who’s the author of the empires that God puts into place?” – I think that would be a combination of the freewill agency of humans, God, and other spiritual beings.

    • Rocky Munoz, March 18, 2014 at 5:54 pm:

      Sorry. Here’s the article I meant to link to http://reknew.org/2008/01/how-do-you-respond-to-psalm-13916/

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