Ask ten people what open theism is and you’re likely to get ten slightly different answers. That’s not an encouraging fact. A lot gets associated with open theism that isn’t properly essential to it, and it’s not uncommon to find those who think open theists all share the same views regarding divine vulnerability and suffering, non-violence and pacifism, theories regarding the atonement, inspiration and inerrancy, universalism, and more. But there is no unique ‘open theist’ view on any of these issues. There are a few key theological commitments behind the claim that God foreknows a partly open future, but it’s not the case that open theism entails its own unique perspective on every doctrinal question.
In this first of a series of posts we’d like to summarize open theism’s defining claim and core convictions. In a second (Tom’s) and a third (Dwayne’s) we’ll summarize our interest in Orthodoxy and what we find especially appealing about it. And in a fourth we’ll lay out what we think are the paths along which a conversation between the two could profitably be pursued and ways in which we think open theists could deepen and enrich their own theological vision.
Open Theism’s defining claim: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents.
The defining claim of open theism is pretty simple: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents. Now, that’s a mouthful, so break it down. Some aspects of the future are presently ‘settled’; that is, given everything at present which has anything to do with influencing or bringing about the future, some things about the future are determined to be. The causes and influences (divine and created) that presently exist limit the future to a single possibility with respect to some particular event.
To say the future is ‘open’, on the other hand, is to say that some things about the future are contingent, which we take here to mean that what occurs freely or contingently isn’t inevitable or otherwise determined or entailed by the past. It’s rather to say that some event ‘might and might not’ happen. One way to imagine this is to think of the future in terms of a tree that branches out as you move up the trunk. We’re essentially saying there are a number of ways the future could turn out. Where the future is closed we face a single branch or path the future will take in some respect. Where the future is open we face multiple paths any one of which the future might and might not take.
Saying the future is partly open and partly closed isn’t itself a uniquely open theist claim or an especially controversial claim. Non-open theists of the free-will or Arminian persuasion (even the Orthodox) would agree the future is open in this sense. The controversial claim we open theists make is our insisting that God’s knowledge of the future reflects this openness, i.e., God knows the truth regarding the future’s being closed or open (whichever the case might be).
What doesn’t often get explained is that this defining claim is the conclusion and not the premise of a set of core convictions which open theists share. That is, we don’t start with God’s knowing a partly open future. We end there. Where we start is with three core convictions that we believe lead to the conclusion of divine epistemic openness regarding future free acts. Let’s take a look at these.
Core Conviction One: Love with respect to divine purpose.
First, it’s no exaggeration to say that at the heart of open theists’ understanding of God is the belief that God is love. He doesn’t love sometimes and not others. He ‘is’ love. Open theists have been severely criticized for this belief, but as we’ll see, viewing the triune God as love (in the sense open theists need to maintain) is hardly modern or unorthodox.
We might say that all the distinct attributes of God we discuss (truthfulness, justice, holiness, etc.) are merely the ‘differentiated truth of love’. Like the colors of light that are split into an observable spectrum when dispersed through a prism, so the attributes of God are essentially just the observable acts of a single reality at work in the world and that reality is ‘love’. The triune God is essentially (i.e., apart from any created order whatsoever) the eternal act of self-giving-and-receiving love the fullness of which is the fullness of God’s own being and existence, and it is this God who has purposed us to know and reflect his love in the fullness of our created capacities.
Core Conviction Two: Freedom with respect to creation.
Second, God has created us to become loving participants in God’s life and responsible partners in fulfilling his intentions for the universe. We become so through the free and responsible exercise of our will. With a view to our becoming persons who love unfailingly, then, God endowed us with the capacity to determine ourselves through responsible choice.
Core Conviction Three: Risk with respect to providence.
By ‘providence’ we mean God’s administration and maintenance of the universe in the pursuit of his purposes. This is where things get complicated because though many will agree that ‘God is love’ and that because God has purposed us for loving ends he gave us the capacity to decide whether or not we conform to such ends, only open theists embrace the conviction that in endowing us with such freedom God takes a certain ‘risk’, namely, that we would misuse our freedom and corrupt ourselves in ways God neither decreed nor especially permits. Traditional views of providence are ‘risk-free’ in the sense that whatever evils occur they are precisely what God decided (by ordaining or specifically permitting) in order to bring about some good God is after.
It is reimagining the world to be in some respects a ‘risky’ venture (risky even for God in terms of his always getting the outcomes he wants) which is perhaps the thing that makes open theism most unlike the traditional understanding of God we Protestants grew up with. It means essentially that God doesn’t always get what God wants, nor is it the case that every particular evil represents the ‘necessary means’ to some specific good that God wills.
Once we accept that our universe is a sometimes risky place of intersecting and often competing divine, angelic, and human wills where much of the good God desires to achieve is by God’s own loving plans conditional upon our partnering with God, we gain a new and sobering appreciation for all those acts of devotion and obedience to which we are called by God and by which we partner with God in bringing the universe to consummation.
To summarize, then. God is love, and he creates for benevolent purposes which include creation’s coming to participate in and reflect the love that he is. This glorifies God, and this glory is the end for which all things are created. To fulfill this end, God endowed us with a certain freedom, and this freedom in turn entails certain risks. Open theists reason from these three core convictions — divine love and a free and risky creation — to the conclusion that God knows the open future as a branching out of possible ways or paths the world might and might not take. But from the open theist’s point of view, these core convictions are the heart and soul of the view. The conclusion that God doesn’t eternally foreknow in every conceivable detail precisely how the world’s possibilities will unfold (which claim has received all the attention) is — to put it surprisingly but perhaps more accurately — the most uninteresting thing about the view. For us it’s not particularly about foreknowledge; it’s about freely becoming what God purposed us to be. It’s about theosis. The foreknowledge piece turns out to be just the most consistent way we know to express it.
excellent. Two thoughts: 1. In future posts, can you distinguish between “Orthodoxy” as in the particular tradition, and “orthodoxy” as the realm of truly Christian belief? Or is that what Eastern Orthodoxy claims to be? It might be helpful to make that explicit.
2. Under defining claim #3 “risk”… Why can’t a ‘simple foreknowledge,’ Molinist, etc. views make the claim for “risk”?
Thanks Kurt! Yes, big ‘O’ is Eastern Orthodoxy. Little ‘o’ is what is generally agreed to by Christian tradition.
Regarding ‘risk’, I don’t think an advocate of simple foreknowledge (or a Molinist for that matter), can claim to have a risky view of providence because each claims that God selects precisely the outcomes God wants based on either simple foreknowledge or middle knowledge. There’s no risk of things turning out as God hasn’t planned.
Hi, Tom. I’m delighted to see your first substantive article now up. Congratulations!
My first question: How does your preaching of the gospel differ, say, from Arminian or Orthodox preachers? I understand how it might differ from an Augustinian or Calvinist; but in what ways might it be different from the Methodist pastor down the road? What things do you find yourself needing to say from the pulpit that the Arminian would never want to say?
I ask this in this way, because I’d like to understand why open theism is important to you and your collaborator. Every preacher has idiosyncratic views (at least I do); but I rarely shared them with my congregation from the pulpit. I was too concerned to preach the essentials of the faith. Why is open theism essential rather than idiosyncratic?
Fr Aidan, thanks for the questions. Love them. In a very real sense, the ultimate question to put to any theology or doctrine is—What difference does it make? So what?
If you’ll let me widen your reference to “preaching the gospel” to include not just what’s said from the pulpit, but what’s said in counseling sessions, in prayer meetings, and in worship to God, then there are a couple of things worth mentioning that distinguish how an open theist approaches the giving and living of the gospel from a Methodist non-open theist. But it’s true, the differences are much less here than between an open theist and a Calvinist.
One thing an open theist would say that the Methodist down the road wouldn’t say is that the particular evil you’re suffering wasn’t permitted on the basis of foreknowing it. So it’s not the case that each evil that strikes us is related to as the necessary means to some specific good God desires. It’s not a difference in the essentials of the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ per se, but it’s a difference in what one believes the fuller implications of the gospel are for life as a whole. I often here Arminians say when tragedy strikes, “God foreknew this an allowed it, so it must be necessary to something God wants to accomplish in the world.” That’s a very different application of the gospel than an open theist’s.
Another difference that often emerges between open theists and non-open theist Arminians is that where the latter assumes there’s a single path your life is to take (one vocation you’re intended to pursue, one wife you’re meant to marry, etc.), the open theist takes a more qualitative approach to human fulfillment, so that there may be any number of equally profitable ways your life can fulfill your destiny (your ‘logos’!). So open theists approach counseling those who suffer and giving advice to those needing direction differently.
But where a Methodist would agree with an open theist that there really are equally grand paths one’s life can take, and that evil is (as David Hart argues) gratuitous to God’s purposes, then I’d suggest that the Methodist is essentially living as an open theist and his doctrine of foreknowledge is what’s idiosyncratic. So in a real sense, the only thing that separates an open theist from a traditional Arminian (depending on where the Arminian stands on divine love, providence and evil, and the possibility of diverse ways in which a person’s destiny can be fulfilled) is logical consistency. Your traditional Arminian essentially believes in pre-recorded open theism.
Hmmm. I don’t think that accurately describes the Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics I have known over the years. I suppose it’s possible that some of them might have invoked, and invoke, divine foreknowledge in the midst of tragedy, but I hope not. But I guess it’s hard not to try to engage in unfortunate theodicy when confronted with suffering and grief. I can see where open theism might encourage a pastor to appropriately keep his mouth shut.
Where I think divine foreknowledge does come into play for Orthodox, though, is when discussing the roles played by the central saints (the Theotokos, John the Forerunner) in the history of salvation. I don’t think any Orthodox would want to say that God got lucky with them. And that is probably why open theism won’t fly in Eastern Orthodoxy.
I agree that to the extent someone affirms divine love and human freedom but doesn’t sense a problem with the traditional view on foreknowledge, open theism won’t have any appeal, and that’s OK. No one makes big changes in their worldview without being motivated to do so. But where the traditional (Arminian) view fails to provide a framework for securing assurance and hope, some have found in open theism a more consistent way to affirm a loving providence in a world that’s free and as fallen as ours is.
Fr Aidan, I take it an Orthodox person wouldn’t have objections to the first two of our core convictions (that God is love and that we are free in what we call the libertarian sense—i.e., we’re not compatibilistically determined by God like the Calvinists claim). The third conviction (re: a risky providence) might appear novel or unorthodox, but I recall Fr Behr saying he had run across a comment or two in the Fathers that sounded very much like talk of divine risk-taking.
The convictions aside for the moment, then, it’s just the open theist’s claim that God doesn’t eternally know every detail about how the world’s history actually unfolds that’s the objectionable part, or the part that you see as idiosyncratic, because you don’t know of any of your Anglican, Lutheran or Catholic friends who invoke God’s foreknowledge in the midst of tragedy.
Here’s a very interesting and surprising work by St. Gregory of Nyssa called On Infants’ Early Deaths. It’s precisely the sort of invoking of foreknowledge that I often hear coming from my Evangelical friends in the midst of tragedy.
A question I have regarding the notion of the future being partly closed: Since God is omnipotent, and free to change his mind, is the future not technically completely open? We can say that for all practical purposes God’s trustworthiness and reliability mean that some things are, for all intents and purposes, improbable to the point of being impossible, but do we want to say that these things are impossible in an absolute metaphysical sense? Would that not in some sense imply that God always has to always do whatever action he believes will promote the greatest good, and thus is not actually free to do otherwise when it comes to any given act? Just wondering if you had any thoughts on this.
Nathan, if one thinks God makes no unconditional promises, I suppose it’s all open. But if God makes genuinely unconditional promises or commitments regarding creation (not due to metaphysical necessity), that would entail at least a future that’s closed with respect to those promises (I should think). I mean, for God to make what he considers an unconditional covenant or promise, that would have to includes all God knows about Godself, right? It would have to be an expression of his freedom to do so. So I don’t think divine freedom means God can never resolve upon a course of action that ‘closes’ the future. What d’ya think?
Bravo gentlemen and may God’s blessing be upon you. I look forward to reading the posts as well as the reply’s for years to come.
Delighted to find you here although I’m new to this subject.
Can we revisit Fr Aidan’s question and compare the OT preaching of the gospel to that of the Calvinist.
Peter! What up? (Peter’s a long time friend of mine from FL.)
I think articulating the gospel is most obviously different between open theism and Calvinism. Like Fr Aidan noted, Calvinism has a much different view of things (namely, its determinism). That’s something the Orthodox would object to as passionately as open theists would. So there’s agreement there.
What do you think?
“We might say that all the distinct attributes of God we discuss (truthfulness, justice, holiness, etc.) are just the ‘differentiated truth of love’. Like the colors of light that are split into an observable order when dispersed through a prism, so the attributes of God are essentially just the observable acts of a single reality at work in the world and that reality is ‘love’. The triune God is essentially (i.e., apart from any created order whatsoever) the eternal act of self-giving-and-receiving love the fullness of which is the fullness of God’s own being and existence, and it is this God who has purposed us to know and reflect his love in the fullness of all our created capacities”. – this is powerful!!! Thank you
Thanks for sharing Vladimir. I hope we continue to learn and go deeper!
Welcome to the blogosphere! It looks like you are going to have a fantastic blog and I look forward to reading what you write. I have added you to Feedly!
[…] in this post), I am intending a non-specific sense. 2. The folks over at An Open Orthodoxy believe that perfect benevolence must be articulated as an essential of Open Theism. John Sanders believes […]
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While I like the article, I go from the nature of the future, that it does not exist yet. And if it already existed, God would have already made the decisions. 🙂
My view can be viewed here:
Hi Tom! Yes, we do the same. It’s there in the ‘defining claim’. Future indeterminacy is real. What’s that then mean? Yep.
Oh I thought you started with or at least came to (like many Open Theists) “the future is partly settled, partly open” (Open Theist cliché)
Oh, I see. Well, yes, I do think some things about the future are settled and other aspects of it are open. I’m not sure its possible to live in such a way as to demonstrate one’s belief that absolutely everything about the future is indeterminate.
I think Judgment day is determined but by far the biggest part is not determined 🙂
[…] that happens in the world. But I’m not Orthodox. I’m Evangelical. And worse still, I’m an open theist. Quite the fish out of water over here! And I’m well aware of the complexities involved in the […]