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What is Open Theism?

The following is adapted from an original post published on 8 November 2010 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz and called “Openness Theology Part 1.” It describes what Open Theism is, three variants of Open Theism and what each entails.

WARNING: In this post I do not follow my general practice of keeping avoiding big words. Some of it is not simple. But the parts that are simple are enough to get the gist.

Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Max Born, dated 4 December 1926, describing his difficulties coming to terms with Quantum mechanics. In it he said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”[1] The quip that often follows is, “If he did, he’d win.” That is the basic idea people have of God. C. S. Lewis says, “Everyone who believes in God at all, believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow.”[2]

Traditional Christian theism has always affirmed the scope or perfection of God’s knowledge includes the future. In this respect, God knows what every roll of the dice will be and does not risk anything when he acts or chooses not to act. In the last forty years however there have been a growing number of theologians calling themselves mainstream evangelicals, who are challenging this idea. Their claim is that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future contingent propositions: God’s mind is, as it were, not settled on some questions regarding what will happen, but open. In other words, God’s actions are risky, for he does not know for certain everything that will happen. Thus the name they have chosen for themselves is Open Theism or Openness Theology (OT).

The specific type of future contingent propositions they have in mind are the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs). A CCF is what any creature Y would freely do if placed in any circumstance S. For example, they would claim that God does not know what I would do if won the lottery tomorrow. He may have a good idea, but not really know for certain. The future is open to any possibility. Likewise, God does not know what you would do if you if tomorrow you were offered either a cup of coffee or cup of tea. Additionally, Open Theists think this idea is more faithful to scripture than the traditional view that God does know these things.

It is not a new idea, but what is new is that the view is no longer isolated to a small amount of thinkers on the periphery of Christian thought and discussion, but has become quite popular. Outspoken proponents popularising Open Theism include Gregory Boyd, John Sanders, David Basinger, William Hasker and, most famously, Clark Pinnock.

Not all Open Theists are alike. Alan R. Rhoda, of the University of Navada in Las Vagas warns of conflating commitments of specific variants of Open Theism with what he calls Generic Open Theism (GOT). For this he distinguishes five minimal commitments for Openness Theology. The first four are (1) Theism,[3] (2) Future Contingency, (3) Divine Epistemic Openness, and (4) EC incompatibility. The third is implicitly affirmed by the defining characteristics of (1), (2) and (4), yet needs to be made explicit because it has been made “the central dialectic” of the debate.[4] For clarity we can construct the following syllogism.

  1. Theism, (i.e. God exists)
  2. Future Contingency, (i.e. the future is causally open).[5]
  3. . . .
  4. EC incompatibility, (i.e. it is impossible that the future be epistemically settled for God in any respect in which it is causally open. In other words, if the future is causally open, it is impossible for God to know the future).

Therefore, (according to the rule of logic called modus ponems, 2&4 lead to)

3. Divine Epistemic Openness (i.e. the future is epistemically open for God).

The Open Theist accepts both (2) and (4) and therefore (3). The objector to Open Theism who rejects (3) must therefore deny either (2) or (4). By denying (2) one sides with the determinist school of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. By denying (4) one sides with the EC incompatibilist school of Ockham, Molina, or Arminius. Under Rhoda’s schema, GOT is placed between both schools by affirming both (2) and (4). Millard J. Erickson, could well agree with Rhoda’s warning and clarification. He would however protest positioning OT in the middle ground between Calvin and Arminius, for GOT steps beyond the bounds of orthodoxy by denying the theism in (1): that God’s knowledge of future contingents is exhaustive, which unites both schools.[6]

At least two important corollaries follow from Rhoda’s clarification. Firstly, GOT is committed to divine temporality with creation, or that God experiences time. This is because God undergoes intrinsic change as his knowledge changes. This happens either when any state of affair X at future time t* comes to pass, or becomes causally closed. Second, GOT is committed to divine passibility in as far as God must undergo intrinsic change as his epistemic states change.[7] Thus if you have reason to think that God is either atemporal with creation or impassible in his epistemic states, you have reason to believe that Open Theism is false. Norman Geisler argues Open Theism is false with this method on scriptural grounds with Thomistic arguments.[8]

A fifth and important distinctive of GOT remains. This is (5) AC incompatibility, which states that future contingent propositions cannot be alethically settled and causally open. In other words, if a future contingent proposition is undetermined, then it is neither true nor false that it will happen. Insofar as there are future contingent propositions, to affirm (5) one either needs to deny the principle of bivalence (that propositions are either true or false) applies to future contingent propositions, or else affirm that future contingent propositions are not contradictory to each other, but only contrary. Alternatively, some Open Theists have rejected (5) by affirming that future contingent propositions are alethically settled and epistemically open for they cannot be known in principle.

This version of OT is labeled limited foreknowledge, and entails a redefining of omniscience. Instead of God knowing all and only true propositions (O), God only knows all propositions that it is logically possible to know (O“). William Hasker has defended this variant of OT.[9] William Lane Craig explains how this is an unacceptable “cooking of the books.” First, he states that any adequate definition must accord with the intuitive understanding of the concept. Second, he points out that omniscience is a categorical and not a modal notion. It is not merely the capability of knowing all truths, but actually knowing all truths. Third, he states that the only sufficient condition for a proposition to be known is that it is true, thus (O“) collapses back into (O).[10] One therefore should be honest and simply deny that God has maximal knowledge, thus entailing a denial of (1).

In addition, a principled limitation of God’s foreknowledge (without a denial that future contingent propositions have a truth-value or are uniformly false) requires a denial that “Truth supervenes on Being.” Since this entails a denial of the correspondence theory of truth, most OTs reject limited foreknowledge, for such a consequence is far too heavy to bear.[11]

A second and third variety of OT can be called Non-bivalentist and Bivalentist. Both of these accept that God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive. They can do this by denying “X at t*” and “¬X at t*” are either true or false. The Non-bivalentist OT accomplishes this by denying the principle of bivalence and contending that the ‘future’ is a set of multitudes of unsettled branches of possibilities rather than a specific sequence of events. For further support different appeals have been made to the A-theory of time, Presentism and Quantum Indeterminacy.[12] The Bivalentist OT accepts the standard logic but maintains “X at t*” and “¬X at t*” are both false. Instead, “either X or ¬X might obtain at t*” is true. Consequently, Gregory A. Boyd argues that the contemporary debate has more to do with the doctrine of creation than it does the doctrine of God. Specifically, about what constitutes the content of creation rather than the content of God’s foreknowledge.[13]

These are the variants of Generic Open Theism. A thorough refutation should engage at least three different levels.

  • Responsible methods of interpreting the scriptural data,
  • Unacceptable theological consequences, and
  • Philosophical objections.

Look out for future instalments where I will offer a critique of Open Theism. My parting question is this: does God know how these will read before I write them? If you can answer that, then you’ll have a clue as to whether Open Theism is correct and God plays dice with his creation.

Footnotes:

  1. This quotation is actually a paraphrased version of the following excerpt. “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.” The Born-Einstein Letters (translated by Irene Born) (Walker and Company, New York, 1971).
  2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1960), 148.
  3. By which he means classical monotheism, “God exists necessarily and possesses a maximal set of compossible great-making properties, including maximal power, knowledge, and goodness. He created the world ex nihilo and can unilaterally intervene in it as he pleases.” Alan R. Rhoda, “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 227
  4. Ibid., 229
  5. Rhoda explains, “the future is causally open at time t with respect to state of affairs X and future time t* if and only if, given all that exists as of time t, it is really possible both that X obtains at t* and that X does not obtain at t*. (In other words, whether X obtains at t* or not is, as of t, a future contingent.)” See “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 228.
  6. Millard J. Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The current Controversy over Divine Foreknowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 13.
  7. Whether God can change with respect to his will, his feelings, or his nature is optional, it not being a distinctive of GOT. Rhoda notes that GOT is not committed to impassibility in God’s nature, for it is committed to Theism. This however, this doesn’t seem to me to follow. He must therefore mean by “Theism,” a monotheism conjoined with a specific element of the doctrine of impassibility.
  8. See Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Rockville, MD: Bethany House, 1997). See also, Norman L. Geisler and H. Wayne House, The Battle For God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001).
  9. William Hasker God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 187; idem ‘The foreknowledge conundrum’, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 50 (2001), 97-114, esp. 110-111.
  10. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 138.
  11. Alan R. Rhoda, “Generic Open Theism and Some Variants Thereof,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 263
  12. Gregory A. Boyd, “An Open-Theism Response,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 111.
  13. Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, 13-14.

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