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OPEN THEISM by Gary Gilley

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Southern View Chapel

Think on These Things

(Philippians 4:8)

Volume 8, Issue 3 April/May 2002

Open Theism, Part 1

By Gary E Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

Any war is composed of major battles and minor skirmishes. The skirmishes, while often little more than irritants in the big picture, nevertheless cannot be ignored. True casualties are often the result of such conflict and the military ignores them at its own peril. Still, the war is won or lost on the front lines where the primary clash is taking place. So it is on the Christian battlefield. Relatively minor challenges to truth are constant. Overemphasis on this doctrine, ignorance of another, inordinate attention on emotions here, encroachment of the world's mindset there. Such altercations are disregarded at the high price of casualties among believers and churches alike. While we agree with the Puritan Richard Baxter that "charity should be practiced in all things", we must also recognize that minor attacks on our flank, left unchallenged and uncorrected, tend to evolve into full-blown invasions that threaten the very heart of the church. Such is the issue before us today.

Open theism (also known as free-will theism, open theology and openness of God) was, until recently, a little-known stirring on the fringes of the evangelical camp. In 1980, few noticed and fewer cared about perennial rebel Clark Pinnock and his friends, who claimed they had discovered the "true" biblical understanding of God. But more recently their views have both matured and emerged into the mainstream of Christian thought through the writings of among others, Pinnock, Gregory A. Boyd, professor of theology at

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Bethel College (Baptist General Conference) and Professor John Sanders. More lethal is the fact that this new concept of God is sneaking in through the backdoor of the camp by means of popular writers such as Phil Yancey, and the influence of men like Gilbert Bilezikian, who, as the resident theologian of the Willow Creek Community Church, wields tremendous power over the minds of many modern church leaders. Others in line with Yancey and Bilezikian include devotional/mystical writer Richard Foster and theologian Donald Bloesch. The particular danger of this latter group is that they may seldom, if ever, admit to holding open theistic convictions but espouse those views in attractive formats (e.g. Yancey's popular book, Disappointment with God).


Traditional or classical theism has dominated not only most of church history but Jewish history as well. Open theist Richard Rice, although obviously disenchanted with classical theism, captures well the essence of the classical understanding of God when he writes,

This traditional, or conventional, view emphasizes God's sovereignty, majesty and glory. God's will is the final explanation for all that happens; God's glory is the ultimate purpose that all creation serves. In his infinite power, God brought the world into existence in order to fulfill his purposes and display his glory. Since his sovereign will is irresistible, whatever he dictates comes to pass and every event plays its role in his grand design. Nothing can thwart or hinder the accomplishment of his purposes. God's relation to the world is thus one of mastery and control.

Open theism challenges every tenet of the above definition, denying God's sovereignty, His omniscience and His glory. Pinnock lays the groundwork with this definition of what he calls the openness of God.

In broad strokes, it takes the following form. God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God's will for their lives, and he enters into dynamic, give-and-take relationships with us. The Christian life involves a genuine interaction between God and human beings. We respond to God's gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses_ and on it goes. God takes risks in this give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working toward his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. On other occasions, God works with human decisions, adapting his own plans to fit the changing situation. God does not control everything that happens. Rather, he is open to receiving input from his creatures. In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being.

To some, and at first blush, Pinnock's comprehension of God may sound appealing and refreshing. But let's unpack this statement, and others to follow, to get a firm grasp on what is being said by the open theist. The major components of open theism, to which Pinnock alludes, and will be further documented in future papers, are the following:

  1. God is not sovereign. He is not always and necessarily in control. His will can be thwarted.

  2. God is at risk. God responds to our responses. While God is endlessly resourceful, He can make mistakes. He can drop the ball in our lives. Our actions can so affect God as to frustrate His plans and force Him to seek alternatives. To some degree God is at the mercy of His creatures' choices and actions.

  3. God is limited in knowledge. Since God does not know the future He seeks input from His creatures to help Him make decisions. He does not know the future because He is subject to time as we are. He is not infinite in knowledge; He is constantly learning. He is not immutable but is constantly changing, not in essence but in understanding. God truly does not know what anyone will do until they do it.

  4. God's ultimate purpose is not to glorify Himself but to give and receive love. His greatest and central attribute is love, around which all other attributes revolve.

We will develop and challenge each of these tenets of open theism, but first it would be wise to examine the roots of the movement.


The first appearance of open theology in modern times dates to a book edited by Clark Pinnock entitled The Openness of God. The book was published in 1980, then republished in 1985 under the title, The Grace of God, the Will of God, a Case for Arminianism. What Pinnock and the other thirteen contributors said about God blazed new territory, but went undetected by most, perhaps because the title implied that the book was a defense of traditional Arminianism. As we will see in a moment, this was not the case, for even though open theism launches from the base of Arminianism, it travels far beyond the Arminian view of God. The theism war did not really explode, however, until Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger published, in 1994, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Other influential books have followed, including Gregory Boyd's Letters from a Skeptic, and more importantly, God of the Possible; and John Sanders' God Who Risks. InterVarsity Press has been a major publisher of openness books, but Baker Books has recently stepped to the plate. Christianity Today has published numerous articles on the subject and seems to be playing, as usual, the middle ground, challenging both sides to reexamine their positions and "go do our homework." The Baptist General Conference is in open warfare over the issue since Gregory Boyd is a professor at its Bethel College and Seminary as well as a pastor of a BGC megachurch. Leading the charge against Boyd is another well-known BGC pastor and author, John Piper. At this point the BGC has been guilty of double talk of a nature that would warm the heart of a hardened politician. On the one hand it has passed a resolution stating that the openness view of God is contrary to their fellowship's understanding of God, but at the same conference (2000) passed a statement confirming that Boyd's teachings are within the acceptable bounds of evangelicalism. Go figure!

The consistent contention of the open theologians is that classical theism is as much a product of Greek philosophy as of biblical study. This is surely a challenge not to be taken lightly. On the other hand, it seems to have escaped the openness supporters that their views are not free of similar influences. One writer traces open theism back to Socinianism, a heretical splinter group which arose shortly after the Reformation. Of course the real issue is not whether Christian thought happens to overlap with secular philosophy, which of course occasionally happens; the issue is whether a teaching holds water biblically. To the Hellenistic philosophy indictment there is no question that Plato and his cronies got some things right, but that does not mean, necessarily, that our understanding of God is Hellenistic. Douglas Kelly assures us, "In reality, a careful reading of the Fathers (such as Athanasius, for instance) would indicate the profound Christianization of Hellenistic terms and concepts. Though they began as Greek terms conveying pagan content, such concepts as creation, being, logos, providence, and person were thoroughly transformed during the first four or five centuries of the Christian era." It is because the openness authors lack an understanding of this field of study that they make assertions of this kind, Kelly believes.


Until recently, most evangelical Christians held a common view of God. There have been, however, and still are, some significant differences within evangelicalism concerning the sovereign actions and knowledge of God. While there are some other theories hanging out on the perimeter of theistic thought, most Christians have fallen into one of two camps until the recent addition of open theism.


When a Calvinist speaks of God's omniscience he is saying that God knows not only what has happened and is happening, but He also knows the future. In addition, God is all-wise and therefore all of His interactions with His creatures or universe are perfect. But more than this, the Calvinist believes that God determines the future. God is not at the mercy of the choices of His creatures, but is proactive in determining the course of all events - yet He does so in such a manner that man makes choices that are free within the confines of his nature, and is held responsible for those actions. How God can be sovereignly in control and man can be morally responsible is a mystery that cannot be satisfactorily untangled in this life, but since it is taught in Scripture it is to be embraced by the child of God.


Arminians are in agreement with Calvinists that God is all-wise and perfect in wisdom. He knows all things, including all future events, and therefore nothing surprises Him or catches Him off guard. Where the Arminian parts from the Calvinist is in the area of sovereign control. They believe that when Scripture speaks of God's foreknowledge it speaks of His browsing into the future to see what mankind will do, and then determining the future based upon the foreseen actions of His creatures. In other words, man becomes the first cause, God is a responder. For example, Arminians believe in election, but election is reduced to God choosing to save individuals because He foreknew that they would choose Him. Arminianism attempts to solve the sovereignty/free-will tension by placing heavy weight on free-will to the virtual extinction of sovereign control.


The open theist believes that both the Calvinist and the Arminian fail to resolve the sovereignty/free-will enigma. Both systems stand guilty of the same crime - man ultimately loses his free-agent status. Open theology levels the same charge against Calvinism as the Arminian does - man is little more than a puppet and God is pulling the strings. But before the Arminian can shout "amen" openism turns the same guns on them and says, "If God's foreknowledge is infallible [as Arminians insist], then what he sees cannot fail to happen. This means that the course of future events is fixed, however we explain what actually causes it. And if the future is inevitable then the apparent experience of free choice is an illusion." The openness solution to this free-will dilemma is to limit God's foreknowledge. God is omniscient in the sense that He knows all that is knowable, but not even God can know the future. He can take incredibly wise guesses but He can be fooled, can make wrong choices, can give false guidance, can be mistaken, and can be resisted to the point of frustration. The open God is a God who not only lacks control, but also lacks knowledge of the future, for this is the only way that humans can be truly free moral creatures. To examine more carefully this radical new understanding of God will be the goal of our next several papers.

Think on These Things

(Philippians 4:8)

Volume 8, Issue 4 June 2002

Open Theism, Part II


The Unknowing God


By Gary E Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

The God Who Is Pretty Sure


The preeminent doctrinal shift required by open theism, the one upon which all the others rest, is the limiting of the omniscience of God. Open theologians hotly deny this, claiming they stand hand-in-hand with classical theists in the belief that God knows all things and is infinitely wise, resourceful, and competent. However, they add a little phrase that totally changes the landscape. God knows all things, they proclaim, that are knowable. That is, there are certain things that are outside the range of knowledge - even to God. God knows the past perfectly; He sees everything going on in the present with complete accuracy; but He cannot know the future for the future has not taken place. Boyd says it as clearly as anyone,

In the Christian view God knows all of reality - everything there is to know. But to assume He knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act assumes that each person's free activity is already there to know - even before he freely does it! But it's not. If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don't exist. Thus, in my view at least, there simply isn't anything to know until we make it there to know. So God can't foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.

A number of implications immediately arise from this theory. First, since God does not know the future it stands to reason that He cannot accurately predict the future. Clark Pinnock writes, "The future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated, even by God." Even biblical "prophecies are generally open-ended and dependent in some way on the human response to them," we are told. And God likes it this way for "it would be a serious limitation if God could not experience surprise and delight_. [And] this implies that God learns things and (I would add) enjoys learning them."

Next, as we might suspect, a God who cannot anticipate the future, One who is constantly learning and reacting to events as they happen, is also a God who will be impacted and changed by those events as they happen. "When I do something wrong, God comes to be in a state of knowing that I am doing something wrong, and this is a change in God_. God, we want to say, exists and carries on his life in time; he undergoes changing states. And this means that God changes - not indeed in his essential nature, his love and wisdom and power and faithfulness, but in his thoughts and deeds toward us and the rest of his creation, matching his thoughts toward the creature with the creature's actual state at the time God thinks of it."

If God is not omniscient, immutable, or infinite just what does He know and how does He interact with His creation? Richard Rice explains,

God knows a great deal about what will happen. He knows everything that will ever happen as the direct result of factors that already exist. He knows infallibly the content of his own future actions, to the extent that they are not related to human choices. Since God knows all possibilities, he knows everything that could happen and what he can do in response to each eventuality. And he knows the ultimate outcome to which he is guiding the course of history. All that God does not know is the content of future free decisions, and this is because decisions are not there to know until they occur.

Interesting explanation, but think with me for a moment. Every day there are billions and billions of choices made by people. If God does not know the content of all these future free decisions; if He is reacting to each of those choices as they take place; and if He is being impacted and even changed by each of those choices what kind of God do we have? If God does not know the future then in what sense does He govern His creation? The open theist tells us that He is an exceptional anticipator. While God does not control or know our behavior "he is able to predict our behavior far more extensively and accurately than we could predict it ourselves." Or as another author writes, God "can, as the ultimate psychoanalyst, predict with great accuracy what we as humans will freely choose to do in various contexts."

And what of biblical prophecies? How could a God who does not control the future, lest He violate the free will of man; nor knows the future, because the future is unknowable, even to God, authoritatively prophesy future events? How could He unquestionably know that Pharaoh would harden his heart, that Peter would deny His Lord (three times no less), that Judas would betray Christ? Rice answers, "Knowing their characters as intimately as God knows, one could accurately predict what they would do in certain situations. Genuine freedom excludes the concept that all human actions are predictable in this way, but it allows that some of them may be." And unfortunately since God neither controls nor knows the future it is possible that God's predictions could even be in error as well. For example, according to Sanders God not only did not foresee the Fall of man, He was surprised by it. Given all that God had done for Adam and Eve, it just did not make sense that they would reject Him yet, "The implausible_ the totally unexpected happened." God did not anticipate the Fall, and was apparently shocked at its occurrence.

Of course the implications of all of this are staggering. The classical understanding of God views Him as infinite in knowledge and wisdom. Scriptures such as Isaiah 40:13-14,28 lay the foundation for this treasured doctrine, Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, Or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge, and informed Him of the way of understanding_. Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired, His understanding is inscrutable.

By contrast the open view of God reconfigures Him to be devoid of all knowledge of the future; lacking in design and purpose for most events; a responder to the free decisions of His creatures, reduced to predicting, sometimes inaccurately, how events will turn out, and therefore unable to infallibly lead His own people. To be sure we are guaranteed God does have a master plan - an overarching template by which He guides all of history to His ultimate goal. But as far as everyday life is concerned God has a leg up on us only to the extent that He has a superior understanding of human nature and the world in general. Still He often gets it wrong and grieves with us when He does. In this rather anemic God we are to place our trust, if not for tomorrow at least for eternity. One has to wonder, however, if God can fumble the ball tomorrow; if He can predict falsely; if He can be surprised by His creation; if He is at risk at the hands of mankind (not to mention the devil), can He confidently be trusted with our eternity?

God, the Omniscient

While there is much left to explore concerning open theism (something we will endeavor to do in future papers) nevertheless we agree with Bruce Ware, who states that "Open Theism collapses as a comprehensive model of divine providence if it can be demonstrated that God does in fact know all of the future, including all future contingencies and all future free choices and actions of his moral creatures_. [And] the scriptural evidence for this position, simply put, is overwhelming." There are thousands of references in the Bible to the foreknowledge of God but one section of Scripture alone, Isaiah 40-48, pulls the rug out from under openism. This outstanding section of Scripture repeatedly sets forth God's knowledge of future events and His sovereign control as proof of His deity (41:21-29; 42:8,9; 43:8-13; 44:6-8,24-28; 45:1-7,18-25; 46:8-11; 48:3-8). For example, in Isaiah 41:21-22 the Lord challenges the idols that so enticed His people to "present your case, bring forward your strong arguments". Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may consider them, and know their outcome; or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods.

Isaiah 42:8,9 reads, I am the Lord that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, now I declare new things; before they spring forth I proclaim them to you. Ware says of this passage, "God's claim to deity and his right to unsurpassed and exclusive glory are founded on his knowledge and control of what occurs in history, including his ability to declare what will take place in the future."

This truth is even clearer in Isaiah 44:7, And who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it; Yes, let him recount it to me in order, from the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place.

In chapters 44 and 45 God foretells the ascendancy of Cyrus to the throne of Persia and his decree to rebuild Jerusalem more than a century and a half later. Think of all the future events that God would have to negotiate, or at the very least foreknow, to pull this off. Billions of free choices would have to be handled; kingdoms would have to come and go; battles would have to be won; even Cyrus' mother would have to somehow name her son Cyrus and not Tommy. Yet, "in the openness model, with the bulk of these future events dependent on future free choices, none of which God can either know or regulate, it becomes impossible to account for the certainty and exactness of these predictions and their fulfillment."

Isaiah 46:8-11 speaks a bit more to the sovereignty issue but is appropriate here as well. Verse 10b-11 reads, "My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure"_ truly I have spoken; and truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it. It doesn't seem to concern God much that He is stepping on the free will toes of a lot of open theologians in His insistence to get His own way.

The Lord had prophesied certain events that Israel was experiencing at the time to press upon them the fact of His deity. Isaiah 48:5 is helpful, Therefore I declared them to you long ago, before they took place I proclaimed them to you, lest you should say, "My idol has done them, and my graven image and my molten image have commanded them."

Jesus was in sync with Isaiah when He declared to His disciples, From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He (John 13:19).

Ware sums up our concerns well, "Since God himself declares the criterion by which the question of his deity is to be evaluated and established, and since that criterion is the possession of a knowledge of the future that can be declared and its truthfulness verified (or falsified) by the unfolding of future events, how utterly impertinent and presumptuous to deny of God divine foreknowledge and so deny the very basis by which God himself has declared that his claim to deity shall be vindicated and made known."

Think on These Things

(Philippians 4:8)

Volume 8, Issue 5 July 2002

Open Theism Part III

The Frustrated God

By Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel

In the mind of the open theist, God not only does not control most events on this planet, He is also blindsided by many of them - not able to foresee the future (as we saw in our last paper). Additionally, the God of openism apparently has no real purpose in most incidents - being almost as clueless and frustrated as we are. We encounter this rather unappetizing view of God in a story Gregory Boyd tells of a dedicated young lady who desired to be a missionary to Taiwan. She prayed earnestly for a likeminded husband and God led her to just the right man. Not only was this young man's heart set on a lifetime of ministry in Taiwan, but also God confirmed that their marriage was His will by overwhelming her with "a supernatural sense of joy and peace." There could be no question, she now believed, that this marriage was God's design for her life, and so they wed. However, two years after graduation from Bible college their marriage unraveled due to unfaithfulness by the husband. Bitter at God, this young lady approached Boyd and asked how she could ever trust a God who could so mislead her. Boyd, not recognizing that this gal was blaming God for her own misplaced and unbiblical trust in mystical leadings of the Lord (a subject we will pick up another day) could only offer one solution that would get God off the hook. He suggested that "God felt regret over the confirmation He had given Suzanne." It was most likely that God orchestrated the couple's marriage because at the time God thought it was a good match. The Lord had no way of knowing that her husband would leave her. Had He known how things would turn out, He would not have told her to marry him. God is now grieved. He is sorry, but He did the best He could with the information He had available.

So according to one of the leading theologians within the open system, not only is God ignorant of the future, but He can actually make mistakes. He can lead His people in the wrong direction, causing unintended and purposeless heartache, and the best He can say is "I feel your pain." I must confess this "new and improved" God leaves me a bit cold. Still, if Scripture actually paints this picture of God it matters little what I, or anyone else wants in their God, we are obligated to embrace it. Let's take a closer look, then, at how open theists view God and see if their understanding is biblical. We have already seen that to open theists God is a being of time, as we are, and therefore does not know, nor can He always accurately predict the future. In what other ways is the open God limited?

A God Who Lacks Purpose

There was a young girl this year at Bethel who was killed by a drunk driver, and a lot of students were wondering what purpose God had in "taking her home." But this I regard to simply be a piously confused way of thinking. The drunk driver alone is to blame for the girl's untimely death. The only purpose of God in the whole thing is His design to allow morally responsible people the right to decide whether to drink responsibly or irresponsibly.

The above account illustrates well the open view of God's active involvement in the affairs of His people. Boyd elaborates, "It is true that according to the open view things can happen in our lives that God didn't plan or even foreknow with certainty (though he always foreknew they were possible). This means that in the open view things can happen to us that have no overarching divine purpose. In this view, `trusting God' provides no assurance that everything that happens to us will reflect his divine purposes." Richard Rice wants us to know the rubber really meets the road especially in the face of sin and evil. When a child contracts an incurable disease, "It is a pointless evil. The holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences."

Of course most of us want to challenge these assertions with Romans 8:28, But we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Boyd heads us off at the pass with this snappy reinterpretation of this most beloved passage, which totally guts it of its power and comfort, "Whatever happens God will work with us to bring a redemptive purpose out of the event." Of course the passage says no such thing. God is not working with us to bring a redemptive purpose; God is causing all things to work together for our good, which in the context is our conformity to Christ (v.29). Bruce Ware comments, "While claiming to offer meaningfulness to Christian living, open theism strips the believer of the one thing needed most for a meaningful and vibrant life of faith: absolute confidence in God's character, wisdom, word, promise, and the sure fulfillment of his will. The strengthening and reassuring truth of Romans 8:28 is tragically ripped out of our Christian confession as it becomes an expression merely of God's resolve to try his hardest and to do the best he can."

A God Who is Frustrated and Mistaken

It gets worse. The open God not only has no planned design for our experiences, but as He works in our lives He can actually be wrong, change His mind and make mistakes. When He does, He is frustrated and grieved, but helpless to do otherwise. "Only God is aware," David Basinger writes, "of all relevant factors, and only he is in a position to determine the best course(s) of action given these factors. However," he goes on, "since God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run." The open thinkers believe that God made predictions in the Bible that turned out wrong, and He has the same track record in our lives today. Even things that God determines to happen occasionally fail, "Although certain things did (and do) happen in harmony with divine predestination, this does not mean that these events could not possibly have failed to occur. As we have seen, the Bible clearly indicates that God has often experienced disappointment and frustration." To get His way God has to battle also with the forces of evil, and sometimes He does not come out a clear winner, "The powers of darkness put up stiff resistance and to a degree block God's plans; that is, they can restrict God's ability to respond to a given crisis." It is no wonder then that the open God "is often as disappointed as are we that someone's earthly existence has ended at an early age or that someone is experiencing severe depression or that someone is being tortured."

What the open theologians are offering is a God who pleads, prompts, persuades and predicts, but has severely reduced power. Devils, humans and circumstances can trump Him. He is doing His best, but He can only do so much. He is as frustrated with sin and evil as we are and would like to do more about it but is limited by the present and future free choices of His creatures. All He can do some days is to wring His hands and regret ever having created us.

A God Who Needs Help

What could possibly motivate these theologians to attempt to replace the omnipotent sovereign God of Scripture with this weak-kneed rendition? It would seem to be the overwhelming desire to preserve at all cost the freewill status of the individual. Rice speaks for the movement, "Where human decision is presupposed, however, God cannot achieve his objectives unilaterally. He requires our cooperation. Endowing creatures with significant freedom means that God gave them the ability to decide a good deal of what occurs. Consequently, the actual course of history is not something God alone decides by himself. God and the creatures both contribute." Pinnock agrees, "The future is determined by God not alone but in partnership with human agents. God gives us a role in shaping what the future will be. He is flexible and does not insist on doing things his way. God will adjust his own plans because he is sensitive to what humans think and do." And Basinger adds, "God voluntarily forfeits control over earthy affairs in those cases where he allows us to exercise this freedom." To the open theists if God controls the future (Calvinism) or even knows the future (Arminianism) then mankind's choices are not truly free. In order to protect and promote this extreme and lopsided view of human freedom the open thinkers have chosen, contrary to Scripture, to offer a limited and feeble version of God.

Open theism takes all the scriptural evidence for the omnipotency, sovereignty, control and foreknowledge of God, strains it through the grid of personal freedom, producing an image of God barely recognizable by previous generations of Christians. God is reduced to one who does not know the future; does not control His creation; is at the mercy of human and demonic choices; stands by helpless as world events unfold; and is frustrated because things did not turn out differently. The God of openism is so impotent and lacking in wisdom and insight that He often leads His children in directions doomed to failure. Moreover, He is influenced by the prayers of His people to the extent that He is prone to grant requests that He is relatively certain are mistakes, and serve no purpose in His design. This issue of prayer is supposedly one of the attractive features of openism. "Because it holds that the future is not entirely settled and that God's plans can change, the open view is able to render the purpose and urgency of prayer intelligible in a way that neither classical Arminianism nor classical Calvinism can." As attractive as this might seem on first encounter consider these words by Ware: "Given the supremacy of God in all these relevant ways, and given the deeply sinful and vastly limited perspectives we bring to the table, do we really want God to do what we think he should do?"

When, due to His leading or action in response to prayer, unexpected tragedy occurs, the best that God can do is say, "Sorry, I will try better next time." And on top of everything else God has no purpose in much of what happens on the earth. Things happen because they happen. They happen simply because God has allowed free choice to reign supreme. Life is a series of accidents after all - not appointments. God has little more idea than we as to how things will turn out. The Lord of open theism has sketched out the big picture for the future but the details are loose ends waiting to be tied up by our choices. If the open God is the true God we are left with a hollowed out shell of the sovereign God described in Scripture. We will pick up this subject next time.

Think on These Things

(Philippians 4:8)

Volume 8, Issue 6 August 2002


The Unsovereign God

By Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chape

If God's inability to know the future is the core doctrine of open theism, then God's lack of sovereign power and control over the universe is the foundation of, or better, heart of openism. It is because these theologians want to believe that God is not in authority that they must believe that He lacks knowledge of certain things. Here is the argument: If God reigns supreme in such manner as to always get His own way (as Calvinism teaches), then man's choices are not truly free. Even if God simply knows perfectly the future actions of His creatures (as Arminianism teaches), they are not free because those actions are frozen in future time and thus unalterable. Free choices under Calvinism are a myth and under Arminianism a mirage. What are we to do if we are to maintain both the omnipotency of God and free moral agency of man? Openism's solution is to offer a God that maintains supreme power in theory but is limited by time. Pinnock writes, "I affirm that God is with us in time, experiencing the succession of events with us. Past, present and future are real to God." God is a being of time, as we are, and therefore cannot know the future, except where He has predetermined certain fated events. In this system God cannot know with certainty the actions of any creature until those actions take place. This, in the minds of Pinnock, Boyd and Sanders is the perfect answer for it solves the problem of freewill. Unfortunately it does so at the expense of the sovereignty of God. God, in the open system, is reduced to a responder to the free choices of His creatures. Not knowing the future, and unable and/or unwilling to force His will upon mankind, He finds Himself constantly adjusting and reacting to incidents as they take place. Let's take a look at the impotent God of open theism.

He Does Not Always Get His Own Way

Richard Rice comments, "The biblical descriptions of divine repentance indicate that God's plans are exactly that - plans or possibilities that He intends to realize. They are not ironclad decrees that fix the course of events and preclude all possible variation. For God to will something, therefore, does not make its occurrence inevitable. Factors arise that hinder or prevent its realization." Later in the same chapter Rice continues, "The will of God, therefore, is not an irresistible, all-determining force. God is not the only actor on the stage of history_. To a significant extent, then, God's actions are reactions - different ways he responds to what others do as he pursues his ultimate purposes."

Open theologians believe that God sets forth plans that He hopes will work. When, because of human choices, His plans fail, God changes His mind, adjusts His plan to fit the new situation brought about by our actions and develops a new plan - which may or may not fail as well. Rice gives these examples from Scripture, "God hoped that Saul would be a good king. When Saul disappointed him, God turned elsewhere (1 Samuel 15:35;16:1). God hoped that his chosen people would remain faithful to him and fulfill their mission. When they proved uncooperative, God revised his plans for them (Matthew 21:33-34)." The presupposition of the open thinkers is that God, using the best information at His disposal, appointed Saul as king over Israel, and chose Israel as His people, with every hope that things would turn out well. When both Saul and Israel disappointed God, He altered His plans. But, is it true that God did not know that Saul would fail? On the contrary, He had made plans years before that the king of Israel, and ultimately Messiah, would come from the tribe of Judah, (the tribe of David, not Saul's). In Genesis 49:10 it is prophesied concerning Judah, The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh [ a reference to Messiah] comes. And was Israel's failure a shock to God? Not according to Deuteronomy 29, which clearly details, while Moses was yet alive, the future disobedience and resulting judgement on Israel. In response to the question of why God's anger had burned against Israel, verse 24 implies, Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. Far from being taken by surprise by Israel's rebelliousness, God predicted it and in Deuteronomy 30 describes His future restoration of the nation upon repentance.

This view of God, that He knows the future and moves all things toward His purposes, is unwelcomed by the open theist. They want a theology in which God has a give-and-take relationship with His creatures. Such a God prompts, encourages and guides but does not rule. This "means that God interacts with his creatures. As a result, the course of history is not the product of divine action alone." Open theism brings new meaning to Spurgeon's old comment that men will allow God to be anywhere but on His throne.

He Has Given Away Some of His Power

If God is at the mercy of the free choices of man, as openism teaches, in what sense is He omnipotent, an attribute of God the open theist claims to support? Boyd gives this novel answer: "Prior to creation, God possessed 100 percent of all power. He possessed all the say-so there was. When the Trinity decided to express their love by bringing forth a creation, they invested each creature (angelic and human) with a certain percentage of their say-so. The say-so of the triune God was at this point no longer the only one that determined how things would go. God's personal creations now possessed a measure of ability to influence what would occur."

God, in the final tally, is not omnipotent after all, but is, as Sanders admits, merely "creative and omnicompetent rather than all-determining and immutable." God is doing His best, and He is the most competent, wise, creative and resourceful being in the universe, but His power to rule supremely is now limited by the free will of men and angels. Boyd writes, "God displays his beautiful sovereignty by deciding not to always unilaterally decide matters. He enlists our input, not because he needs it, but because he desires to have an authentic, dynamic relationship with us as real, empowered persons. Like a loving parent or spouse, he wants not only to influence us but to be influenced by us."

As with all error there is an element of truth in what these men are saying. God does desire our input, if by that we mean He desires to hear our prayers and petitions and even our thoughts. God is also influenced by us in the sense that, in some unfathomable way our prayers are taken seriously and answered by God, yet in accordance to His will and desires. We are reminded of Romans 8:26, 27, And the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. This passage seems to have been ignored, for in the open model God is waiting for our feedback, longing to be swayed by our thoughts and ideas. Yet, any honest Christian should realize that this is a step in the wrong direction. What can my contribution add to God's knowledge (cf. Isaiah 40:13,14)? Do I really want God to be convinced against His better judgment? The wise Christian lays his petitions and concerns before the Lord (Philippians 4:6) and then rests in His love and wisdom.

He Is At Risk

In the open system, when God created Adam and Eve, He took a risk. He gave them perfect bodies lacking sin natures, placed them in a perfect world and hoped they would choose to be obedient to Him. He knew there was a chance they would fall, but not knowing the future and not willing to interfere with their free will, God was conscious He ran the risk of them choosing sin. Still, He was surprised and frustrated at their fall and had to adjust His plans for the human race accordingly. This only makes sense, for it stands to reason that if God does not know the future then God is constantly at risk of the unknown. Bruce Ware makes this observation, "The fact is, the God of open theism brings into existence a kind of world in which he exercises largely a power of love and persuasion toward his volitional creatures. All their free decisions, unknown in advance by him, have the potential of either advancing or violating his purposes. The success of these purposes rests, to a significant degree, in others' hands. At this very moment, according to open theism, not even God knows whether his purposes will be fulfilled. The God of open theism truly is the God who risks." There is no guarantee in the open system that God will triumph.

God is willing to take this risk with us because, according to supporters of openism, God's overarching attribute, the one that dominates all others (such as holiness, omniscience and omnipotence) is love. "And love is more than care and commitment," Sanders tells us, "It involves being sensitive and responsive as well. These convictions lead the [ open theists] to think of God in relation to the world in dynamic rather than static terms. This conclusion has important consequences. For one thing, it means that God interacts with his creatures. Not only does he influence them, but they also exert an influence on him. As a result, the course of history is not the product of divine action alone_. Thus history is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do."

Is human history a giant gamble on God's part? If the weakest human can wrestle control away from God what might we expect from a creature as powerful as Satan? Can we be assured, if the open scenario is accepted, that God has not wagered the destiny of the universe at the roulette wheel of free will? Certainly, God has promised that all will eventually conform to His plan, but if He cannot either know or control tomorrow how can we be confident He can defeat the devil and deliver eternal paradise? The open God lacks the magnificent attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, sovereignty, immutability and eternality. Can this kind of God be trusted? I believe the answer is obvious.


The supporters of open theism have posited it as a paradigm that offers a real relationship between God and His people. Rather than an all-knowing and all-powerful sovereign God, we are presented with a God of give-and-take. Since this God does not know or control the future, the future is open to both Him and us. The Lord really does not know what will happen until it happens - He is experiencing life in the present along with His creation. As a matter of fact, He, like us, is enduring pain and heartache, frustration and disappointment, in a similar manner as ourselves. The open God can drop the ball too. He can make mistakes, after all He is only human (oops!) divine. But we can be assured He is doing His best and would not lead us astray or into an ambush if He had more information. On the positive side, the open God loves to respond to our prayers and is often influenced by them to the extent of changing His own plans to accommodate ours - even though in His wisdom He knows that our plans may be foolish. And you can't pin evil and tragedy on this God because He is as helpless in the face of catastrophe as we are. God may be weak but at least we can rest assured that He is a God of love. We may not be able to trust Him but at least He cares.

These are some of the issues being served on the table of open theism. It might be asked, however, what has motivated these theologians to trade the classical view of God for this insipid version. Ware's opinion is worth pondering, "The culture in which we live, including much of the Christian subculture, has drunk deeply at the well of self-esteem. Where the Bible enjoins unfettered but deeply humble 'God-esteem,' we have been conditioned to think that we should have some of that esteem for ourselves. So, when a theology comes along that says, 'God often doesn't make up his mind what to do until he hears first from you,' or God and you together chart out your course for the future as both of you learn together what unfolds,' or, 'Sometimes God makes mistakes but we need to realize that he was doing his best,' such a view plays well with many in our culture. We feel like we are almost peers with God."

Perhaps the Psalmist put his finger on the real problem of open theology when, in another context, he penned God's accusation upon a wayward people by saying, You thought I was just like you (Psalm 50:21). This is openism's problem; their God is too human.

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