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.