Praying the open view: objections

With the exception that we keep our clothes on, these wrestlers represent the general state of the debate between open theists and their opponents for more than twenty years now. The objections to open theism cover a wide range of issues (including biblical/theological questions, philosophical objections, the question of church tradition, and of course the practical effects), but little new has advanced the practical-existential aspect of the debate since the earliest publications.

Objections on the basis of practical effects generally claim that open theism results in a loss of trust and therefore of hope in God and his word. Consequently our confidence in God with respect to guidance, prayer, and suffering is undermined and faith is eventually shipwrecked. John Piper has been unambiguous in his opposition to open theism, having listed fifteen grounds for dismay, which include claims that open theism undermines the Church’s “common vision of…God,” holds that God “makes mistakes,” attributes ignorance to God, is pastorally harmful, and undermines the believer’s hope.(1) Thomas Ascol has similarly criticized the pastoral implications of open theism, urging that open theism undermines confidence in Scripture, God, faith in Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and confident living.(2) If God does not know what the future holds in every respect, and if God’s will is not always triumphant, then prayer at best is only accidentally efficacious, nothing like a robust biblical portrait of prayer.

There is much such anti-openness rhetoric in the literature, all of which constitutes a contrary existential argument for the religious inadequacy of open theism. I’ll here examine three authors who have offered more sophisticated arguments against open theism based on the perceived adverse effects it has upon petitionary prayer and then respond to them in the following post.

Bruce Ware: Their God is Too Small
Bruce Ware’s 2003 (Their God is Too Small) response to open theism is concerned entirely with the practical implications of the view. Ware lists three difficulties with open theism and its view of prayer.

First, it issues from a modern psychologized culture which encourages an inordinate estimate of personal self-importance. Modern culture caters to what we want and places the “customer” first. Open theism is infected with this consumerism which in turn distorts prayer’s purpose and role. The view has only managed to grow in popularity, Ware insists, because of the immensely low view of God and the unrealistically high view of self that characterizes Christian culture in the West. Second, because God knows the past and all my present thoughts and desires that go into the formation of my petitions, there is no sense in which God can interact with me in them. They cannot represent the sort of reciprocal relationship open theists claim they do. And third, since in open theism God does not know how future contingents will actualize, God lacks the knowledge he needs to know best how to answer our prayers. Ware is here responding to Basinger’s explanation of the general providential contours of open theism. Basinger explained in The Openness of God that divine guidance from an open view perspective cannot mean discovering “exactly what will be best in the long run” but rather a means of determining what is “best for us now,” because within the providential contours of open theism “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.” This is intolerable for Ware, who responds:

On the one hand, because God knows the past and present exhaustively and accurately, he is simply too knowledgeable and wise to learn anything from our prayers. But on the other hand, because he lacks exhaustive definite knowledge of the future, he is not knowledgeable and wise enough to answer our most urgent and pressing prayer in the ways that are, in fact, best.

Ware also offers four points toward understanding prayer more biblically. First, he considers the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6.9-13). Ware believes this prayer assumes God’s mind is “made up” regarding God’s will. We are not asked to pray “Your will be formed,” Ware interprets, but rather “your will be done.” The assumption is that the God-world relationship assumed by Christ here precludes our prayers affecting God in the sense open theists claim they do. God’s will predates our prayers. Thus, “we must never approach prayer,” urges Ware, “or think of God in terms of what we contribute to God.” Second, Jesus teaches us that “your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vv. 7-8). Before we bring our requests to God, Jesus says, God knows what we need. It follows that we can never tell God something God does not already know and did not anticipate. Ware believes this contradicts open theists’ claims. Third, Ware argues from Exodus 32.11-14 (a favorite open theist text used to show that God “changes his mind” regarding destroying Israel in response to Moses’ petitions) that God need not be thought of as having changed his mind. Could Moses have brought God some new insight or perspective that caused God to change his mind? Ware shows that all the points Moses offers to God as reasons for not destroying Israel are believed by open theists to be known by God independently of Moses’ petitions. Ware then inquires:

On which of these points would God have responded to Moses and said, “Say, Moses, good point. I just didn’t understand it that way. Thanks for the insight—and for the reminder! I can hardly believe that I almost forgot about the covenant!”? But isn’t it clear that, to understand this text in a way in which God literally changes his mind, something like this must be envisions?

Fourth, Ware presses in questioning how our prayers might “make a difference” to God. It cannot be that God ever changes his mind in response to human actions or that we “contribute” to God. In what sense then do our prayers make a difference? Ware proposes:

Simply put…God has designed that his good and perfect will be accomplished, in some respects, only as his people pray and first ask for God so to work. The role of prayer, then, becomes necessary to the accomplishing of these certain purposes, and our involvement in prayer, then, actually functions to assist in bringing these purposes to their fulfillment.

Stephen Roy: How Much Does God Foreknow?
Stephen Roy offered a comprehensive engagement (How Much Does God Foreknow?) of the open view that makes a substantive attempt to establish the religious inadequacy of the view based on four problems that result from an open view approach to prayer. The first regards how the God of open theism decides whether he should answer my prayer in the way I ask. Various crucial events in the future that would, Roy supposes, make a particular answer to my prayer wise and loving are unknown to God. Roy cannot see how, given divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, God can know how best to answer our prayers. Second, Roy objects that since there is nothing we can tell God in prayer that he does not already know, our prayers contribute no new information to God, in which case it is difficult to see how our prayers make a genuine contribution to God.

More specifically, it is difficult to see how prayer contributes to a “genuine and mutually responsive relationship between God and his children as open theists claim.” The point is that God knows too much about us for his relationship with us to be genuine and real (presumably in the open theist’s sense of ‘genuine’ or ‘real’). Since what we contribute in prayer is the present product of our past experience and present understanding, and since God knows these infallibly, the sort of “mutually interactive, mutually instructing relationship with God in prayer that is often promoted by open theists would seem to demand not only that God not have exhaustive foreknowledge but also that his knowledge of the present and past be limited as well.”

Third, God’s commitment to respect our libertarian freedom means that with respect to prayers whose answer depends on the free exercise of wills other than God’s, God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer those prayers. This is unacceptable to Roy. Lastly, Roy suggests that open theists who insist God’s love is universal and impartial (admittedly a core value for open theists) have a hard time squaring this with their belief in the efficacy of petitionary prayer. Roy wonders how a God of such love is justified in withholding any good gift simply because he has not been asked to bestow it. If open theists place a high value on the efficacy of petitionary prayer so that God’s actions in maximizing good in the world are sometimes dependent upon our prayers, it becomes difficult, insists Roy, to consistently claim that God’s love is genuinely universal and impartial. On the other hand, if open theists do justice to the universality and impartiality of divine love by insisting that God always actualizes the greatest possible good, then it becomes difficult to consistently maintain an efficacy to petitionary prayer.

David Ciocchi: open theism religiously inadequate
A logically formal argument for the religious inadequacy of open theism is offered by David Ciocchi.(3) Ciocchi challenges the claim that open theism supports a rich religious life. He advances an understanding of ‘religious adequacy’ and then argues that open theism fails to be religiously adequate with regard to petitionary prayer because it fails to honor beliefs implicit in the way ordinary Christian believers pray. Ciocchi first defines religious adequacy. A position is ‘religiously adequate’, Ciocchi suggests, “to the degree that it comports with the common beliefs and practices of ordinary believers.” Religious adequacy is thus, in Ciocchi’s view, a measure of the “intellectual fit” of a position vis-à-vis “the actual lived faith of most believers.”

Ciocchi then makes two central assumptions. First, the implicit belief of common believers that Ciocchi believes open theism fails to honor is the presumption of divine intervention in response to petitionary prayer (PDI). Furthermore, Ciocchi argues, prayers must be ‘appropriate’. Thus PDI is the presumption of divine intervention in response to the petitions of appropriate prayer. In Ciocchi’s view, a position’s religious adequacy requires accommodating PDI. Second, Ciocchi defines “petitioning God” as “mak[ing] a request of an agent who may say ‘no’ but who cannot be blocked from granting the petition if His answer is ‘yes’.” William Hasker, whose response I’ll note in responding to all three authors, terms this second assumption of Ciocchi’s the supplementary requirement, or SR, and formulates it as follows: “(SR) It is impossible for God to be prevented from granting a petition he wants to grant.”

Given PDI and SR, then, Ciocchi’s basic argument follows rather simply: Many (most) ‘appropriate’ petitions depend for their fulfillment upon the free actions of persons other than the pray-er. And since libertarian free will is such a value to open theists, and since open theists allow for the possibility that God may act in view of granting a petition only to have his will frustrated by free agents, open theists cannot affirm PDI, in which case their view fails Ciocchi’s test for religious adequacy. Open theists should acknowledge that their views on prayer diverge dramatically from the beliefs and practices of ordinary believers and that open theism is in fact religiously inadequate.

(Picture here.)


(1) John Piper, “Grounds for Dismay: The Error and Injury of Open Theism,” 371–384 in John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth eds., Beyond the Bounds (2003).

(2) Thomas K. Ascol, “Pastoral Implications of Open Theism,” in Douglas Wilson, ed., Bound Only Once (2001), 173-190.

(3) David Ciocchi, “The religious inadequacy of free-will theism,” Religious Studies 38 (2002): 45-61.