The disappearing open theist

disappear-from-search-enginesOK, look, I embrace the open view of the future. Let me get that out of the way. I embrace it because I think it makes best sense of things existentially, philosophically, and yes, overall biblically speaking. But I gotta tell ya, I don’t think any of the biblical authors were open theists in the sense that they held to the sine qua non of the view today, that is, divine epistemic openness (regarding future contingencies). Let’s abbreviate that as DEO to save me typing.

When I say there’s biblical evidence for the open view, I mean I think there are examples of biblical authors conceiving of the future in open terms, that is, they believed human beings were responsibly free, faced genuine options, weren’t victims of fate, and that their lives, choices and prayers made a genuine difference to the course the world took. And they believed God truly related to them and engaged the world in such terms, all convictions which form the basis upon which modern-day open theists argue for DEO. And yes, I do agree that DEO makes better sense of these convictions, just the way I think the doctrines of the Trinity (later conceived) and of Christ’s two-natures (later conceived) best explain the Bible’s overall narratives.

But the more I ponder things, the idea that the biblical authors, Old or New Testament, actually espoused DEO seems nearly impossible to imagine. In the end I think they were all substantially Arminian (obviously an older term, but let me use it here) on these questions. That is, they believed in pre-recorded open theism, you might say. They affirmed freedom and contingency, the genuine relatedness of God and the world, and the consequential nature of prayer that motivate open theists to adopt their unique view in the first place.

Yes, the biblical texts do sometimes describe God as contemplating an open future. I don’t at all think these are explainable either as God accommodating himself to our ignorance by presenting himself as contemplating an open future or as human authors presenting God in such terms while actually believing otherwise. If biblical authors very occasionally stumbled into a way of thinking about God’s knowledge and engagement of creaturely affairs in terms of DEO (and I can hardly imagine it) it is far from being the established “biblical” view of things. I simply think the biblical authors never reflected philosophically along the lines of the particular questions (compatibilism/incompatibilism) that overwhelm the conversation today.

If cornered on the specific question of DEO, I think Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul or any other biblical figures would’ve said, “Well, of course God knows what’s going to happen.” Perhaps—perhaps—Paul, given some of his arguments and his philosophical training and disposition, might have cared enough about the matter to contemplate the problem.

Here’s the thing. I simply don’t know how to account for the absolute disappearance of DEO from biblical faith on the assumption that it was an intentional, studied, contemplated belief of biblical authors. If as open theist authors have argued, the Old Testament authors, and Jesus, and all the Apostles and the Apostolic church all held to the core open view doctrine of DEO, then the obvious question is ‘What happened?’ because in no time at all the Church and its leading thinkers had no abiding commitment to such a belief, not even the memory of anything like DEO having been the belief of former generations. Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciples of St. John himself) holds to the traditional (Arminian) view and never even hints that St. John taught DEO to Polycarp. Come on. That doesn’t seem remotely suspicious to my open theist friends? True, by Origen’s day the question of prayer’s relevancy in light of divine foreknowledge had become enough of a philosophical-existential issue that Origen wrote a book on it. But he shows zero awareness that anything like DEO was ever believed by any Christian, anywhere, of any generation. There’s just no good explanation for the disappearance of DEO on the assumption that the Apostles and their churches explicitly held such a belief.

disappearing-cycleway2It will be claimed (by Greg Boyd and other key open theist writers) that Hellenism is to blame, that in virtually no time at all pagan Greek philosophy corrupted biblical faith and DEO was among the first beliefs to go. All this damage occurred within St. John’s lifetime  and his supposed belief in DEO never makes it to Irenaeus, not even as an academic interest in what former generations believed. And the effects of Greek philosophy upon Christian belief were so thorough and universal that not a single mention by any Christian thinker of even the memory of previous Christians having held a view on foreknowledge different than the traditional view, appears anywhere on the horizon even though the problem of foreknowledge does appear early (in Origen). This strains credibility.

I’m open to seeing the evidence for the universal disappearance of DEO and its very memory from Christian thought by the opening of the 2nd century under the influence of pagan Greek philosophy, but this better bey good (Greg). My own sense is that DEO does cohere best with the biblical themes of personal freedom, responsibility, the efficacy of petitionary prayer, divine-human synergy, etc., but that it simply was not explicitly held to by any biblical authors, though their texts make perfect sense in light of DEO. They were less than consistent. So what? But—to anticipate a certain reply—wouldn’t the actual beliefs of biblical authors be normative for us today? The short answer, for me anyhow, is ‘No’. I think it’s obvious that their beliefs—as they held them—are not all automatically normative for us simply because those beliefs appear in the text. But that’s another subject.

Just to be clear, and to forestall misunderstandings—I do hold to DEO, and I do believe it makes best sense of things. But I don’t believe any biblical author held to it. That is, I don’t think any biblical author was an ‘open theist’.


4 comments on “The disappearing open theist

  1. Awesome post Tom. Here are my thoughts.

    To say that no Biblical authors held explicitly to “open theism” is not to say that they therefore AFFIRMED “non-open theism.” To fail to affirm A is not to therefore affirm not-A. If I am not walking around in a Donald Trump shirt that does not mean I am supporting Hilary Clinton.

    Plus, like you said, if the existential/philosophical questions never even arose it wouldn’t follow that they positively affirmed a non-open theist understanding of God. They simply may have never given thought to the particular questions we are asking or distinctions we are making. The authors likewise never positively espoused belief in young earth creationism, but that does not therefore mean they held to a form of old earth-ism. It may be that, in the VERY few writings we have which make up the New Testament, there simply never was an occasion in the author’s mind while writing to get philosophical. (How I WISH we had records of Paul’s debating on Mars Hill!)

    Also, I think we need to be very careful not to generalize here. “Open theism” is a term WE have coined which is a combination of various other beliefs. It is a sort of package deal for believing that a) the future is not settled, b) God really relates to the world; and c) God does not know future free actions of agents. The only part of open theism then that is not explicitly taught in the New Testament and by the early church fathers is c) – though one could argue Paul implicitly assumes that God does not know all the future in various passages (see Romans 8:20 where God is said to “hope” his enterprise will succeed.) So at any rate it seems quite reasonable to agree that the early church WAS doctrinally at least 2/3rd’s open theist. (But is this so odd? Was it even 3/3rd’s Arminian?)

    Now, with all that said I do agree with you that it seems most of the early church fathers – when they wrote about this topic – did positively think that God knew future free actions of agents. (Although to be honest I think this largely because I have heard other people SAY so. I have no independent research/reading of my own to back this up.) Anyway, if this is correct it seems to me all that would follow is that there was an inconsistency in one APPLICATION in their doctrine of God, rather than that their doctrine of God’s nature AS SUCH was mistaken. For it is far more fundamental – and they wrote far more about – God’s love and relationship to creation than his absolute and perfect foreknowledge. And if we wanted we could simply point to the fact that, while you’re right that there is no proof text which says that “the future is a realm of possibilities which God knows only as possible” there are also no texts which say “God knows absolutely every future event that will ever occur.”

    There are far more verses which say that God loves, responds to, is really related to the world than that talk about to dividing issue between Arminianism and Open Theism (whether God knows the future as possible or as certain.) As such the debate or opinions about the kind of KNOWLEDGE God has is really only an attempt to extrapolate out a necessary consequence of the more fundamental issue at hand – which is God’s nature. Maybe we could simply claim that, when the early church fathers spoke regarding this idea of God’s foreknowledge (an idea which is not clearly spelled out in the Bible) they got God’s NATURE right but erred in their understanding of how that nature was expressed in terms of God’s ATTRIBUTE of knowledge?


  2. But I DO agree with you Tom – it is a bit disappointing that you have no POSITIVE affirmation in the early church fathers of God not knowing future free choices of agents. That would give some vindication to our belief for sure. And would make us feel better too – like the old school guys actually SAW the metaphysical problems in assuming God knew the future exhaustively in advance.

    But hey – you could also say that they WOULD have seen these problems if they weren’t so wrapped up in Christology!


    • Tom says:

      Thanks Malcolm,

      I agree that (logically speaking) to say no biblical author held explicitly to DEO is not necessarily to say they affirmed its contradiction. I’m just not sure the absence of any explicit mention of a belief for or against DEO in this case justifies a policy of neutrality. In other words, given what we do have, even in the absence of any explicit mention of the issue I still think it’s next to impossible to deny a certain assumption of not-DEO is at work. So for me affirming DEO today (and I do affirm it) involves disagreeing with the biblical authors and not (as open theist authors have thus far argued) merely expositing biblical faith as it’s presented in the texts.

      Are there passages which in themselves describe the future in open terms and God as contemplating the future in open terms? Yes. The words are right there. I just don’t see this turning into a commitment that filters or influences the development of their theology….(and I’m describing this poorly).

      It might be that Israel did hold overall to the traditional view on foreknowledge but that they were less then consistent when they described the future in open terms because they simply didn’t perceive “the problem” and the philosophical question never got onto their radar (though I don’t take any generation of ancient Jews to be philosophical simpletons—Job is a very mature meditation on ultimate questions). That’s why I think it’s more honest to say, “Look, no biblical author operates even implicitly under the influence of DEO.” They most likely hold to the traditional view of foreknowledge even if at times they’re less than consistent.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. It also seems to me that not every philosophical or theological issue was held or dealt with by the early church when their focus was survival and growth. I also find it hard to picture some of the fishermen apostles philosophizing about all of these issues. The Church did respond to heretical attacks over time and formalized and grew in their understanding of things such as the trinity (they were more experiential than technical with the view originally). So, just because all eschatological issues or philosophical sovereignty/free will/providential issues did not exist in a monolithic form does not mean centuries of further thinking have not embraced truth consistent with Scripture and sound thinking. It is a logical fallacy to say pre-trib or Open Theism is not true because it is not explicit in the early church. I imagine there were pagan thinkers who did wrestle with these things (certainly Aristotle, Plato, etc. did have views on time/eternity/soul, etc. that influenced Augustine, Aquinas, etc.). These are the things Boyd rightly is concerned about. Thx for the thought provoking article.


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