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Closing the Door on Open Theism

Martyn McGeown

 

Contents

I. Introduction
II. Open Theism’s Assault on God’s Attributes

A. Omniscience vs. Predictability
B. God’s Omniscience Defended
C. Omnipotence and Sovereignty vs. Omnicompetence
D. God’s Sovereignty Defended
E. Immutability vs. Flexibility
F. God’s Immutability Defended
G. God’s Repentance and Other Anthropomorphisms
H. Impassibility vs. Vulnerability
III. Open Theism’s Foundation: Libertarian Freewill
IV. Open Theism’s Questionable Genealogy
V. Conclusion
Endnotes

 

I. Introduction

Christians have traditionally understood God in terms of three classic perfections, each with the prefix "omni" or "all": omnipresent (everywhere present), omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). These three attributes were until recently accepted by all orthodox theists. Today, theologians can take nothing for granted. God’s most fundamental perfections are under attack. One such assault on God’s perfections calls itself "open theism," a movement within evangelicalism which denies that God knows the future choices of His creatures. God, according to open theism, has exhaustive knowledge of the past and of the present, but He does not know with certainty what will happen in the future. The future is "open" because history is not, as has traditionally been understood, the outworking in time of what God has decreed in eternity, but an historical "project" in which God and men decide together what the future will be. God has determined the general parameters of history, but He has left much of the future open to allow men to exercise their freewill. Because men often choose in ways which disappoint, frustrate, sadden, thwart or even surprise God, He is forced to deviate from what He previously planned to do; but God is flexible and resourceful, and despite many setbacks, we are told, He will accomplish His final goal. Open theism is a radical denial of God’s sovereignty in favour of man’s so-called "libertarian freewill."

Open theism is not a lunatic fringe in Christendom. Leading evangelicals espouse this heresy. Its main proponents are Gregory Boyd, Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, whose books we will critique in this paper. A. B. Caneday laments the way in which the open theism movement has spread: "Open theism quietly crossed evangelicalism’s threshold in 1986, took up residence, and now sues for squatter’s rights."1

We shall see that open theism is a fundamental denial of the omniscience, the sovereignty and the immutability of God, and therefore a denial of the God of Scripture, and the worship of a strange god who has been created in man’s image. As such it must be condemned as idolatry.

 

II. Open Theism’s Assault on God’s Attributes

A. Omniscience vs. Predictability

The traditional definition of omniscience is that God knows everything. Open theism claims to believe in God’s omniscience by redefining it as God’s knowledge of everything that it is possible to know. The argument is subtle. Since we define God’s omnipotence, not as God’s ability to do everything (such as to make square circles or to create rocks heavier than He can lift, etc.), but His ability to do everything which it is possible to do, so, the open theists argue, it is legitimate to redefine omniscience in a similar way. Boyd writes,

Though open theists are often accused of denying God’s omniscience because they deny the classical view of foreknowledge, this criticism is unfounded. Open theists affirm God’s omniscience as emphatically as anybody does. The issue is not whether God’s knowledge is perfect. It is. The issue is about the reality that God perfectly knows. More specifically, what is the content of the reality of the future? Whatever it is, we all agree that God perfectly knows it ... If God does not foreknow future free actions, it is not because his knowledge of the future is in any sense incomplete. It’s because there is, in this view, nothing definite there for God to know!2

John Sanders and Clark Pinnock agree: "Omniscience may be defined as knowing all there is to know such that God’s knowledge is co-extensive with reality."3

God knows all there is to be known and the fact that some things cannot be known does not diminish the perfection of his knowledge. God knows the past, which is unalterable, the entire present, which is accessible, and a great deal about the future, so far as it can be foreseen.4

Paul Helm, a traditional theist, illustrates it this way:

[An omniscient being would know] what the state of any remote forest, physically inaccessible to human interference, will be tomorrow. What he will not know today is anything whatever about tomorrow which depends upon non-physically necessitated choices, particularly human decisions. Thus, if I have not yet made up my mind whether or not, by a free action, to chop down my cherry tree tomorrow, then God cannot yet know what the state of that tree will be tomorrow. He would of course otherwise know what its state tomorrow will be, since its state tomorrow (freely decided-upon interference apart) is physically necessitated by its state today.5

Norman Geisler, another traditional theist, rightly complains about the dishonesty of this approach:

If they [i.e, open theists] want to speak of God as infinite, or as omniscient, but infinite in His knowledge of only certain portions of the future, then they are fudging the meaning of "omniscient."6

Open theists are dissatisfied with the traditional Arminian understanding of foreknowledge. The Arminian argues that God knows exactly what shall happen in the future, not because He has foreordained every detail of history, but simply because He foresees what will happen. It is as if God has a video recording of history in advance and therefore knows the plot of history. But having the video recording does not mean that He causes the events in the video to occur. He simply knows what man by freewill will choose to do. The open theist sees the inadequacy of this. Let us imagine that God foresees that next week an airplane will crash killing one hundred people. He knows that this event will occur. The Arminian believes that, since God has the advantage of advance knowledge of this event, He can prevent it from happening. He has not foreordained the crash. He simply knows about it beforehand. The open theists point out that such a position is untenable. If God knows that the crash will occur, it must occur. Otherwise God could conceivably be mistaken about what He "knows" will happen, which is impossible if God has perfect foreknowledge. This objection by the open theist to the traditional freewill theism position is valid. If God accurately and infallibly knows the future He must have determined it. Open theism, the denial that God knows the future, is the logical development of the Arminian denial that God foreordains the future.

Open theism tries to present God’s lack of omniscience as something positive. We let Sanders explain:

Given the depth and breadth of God’s knowledge of the present situation, God forecasts what he thinks will happen. In this regard God is the consummate social scientist predicting what will happen. God’s ability to predict the future in this way is far more accurate than any human forecaster’s, however, since God has exhaustive access to all past and present knowledge.7

Boyd agrees:

It should not be difficult to understand how God could predestine the crucifixion without predestining or foreknowing who, specifically, would carry it out. To put the matter crudely, God would simply have to possess a perfect version of what insurance and advertising agencies possess. He would have to know that a certain percentage of people (and perhaps fallen angels, see Luke 22:3; John 13:27; I Cor. 2:8) in authoritative positions would act in certain ways under certain circumstances.8

God can make astute guesses based on His knowledge of someone’s character, writes Boyd,

Sometimes we may understand the Lord’s foreknowledge of a person’s behavior simply by supposing that the person’s character, combined with the Lord’s perfect knowledge of all future variables, makes a person’s future behavior certain.9

This is how Boyd explains Christ’s prediction that Peter will deny Him10 and Judas will betray Him.11

This predictability of character applies even to Satan:

[The open theism position] simply assumes that God knows the character of Satan well enough to predict some of his strategy at the end of the age when he releases his fury one final time.12

The problem of this position, as Frame rightly explains, is this: "If God has really left the future completely open, he has left open the possibility of Satan’s victory."13

Notwithstanding the astuteness of God’s predicting powers, God sometimes fails in His prognostications. In reference to King Saul, Boyd writes,

God made a wise decision because it had the greatest possibility of yielding the best results. God’s decision was not the only variable in this matter, however; there was also the variable of Saul’s will.14

In this case, God’s skills in predicting Saul’s behaviour based on His knowledge of his present character failed.

Richard Rice writes that God’s foreknowledge is not infallible: "The fact that God foreknows or predestines something does not guarantee that it will happen."15 Pinnock even goes so far as to assert that God is "cognitively dependent" on the world. Nevertheless, Pinnock urges us to embrace this "attractive" picture of God for it offers to us and to God great advantages:

It is time to reconsider the alternative which is very attractive. Imagine the delight of genuine interactions and loving relationships and the elements of novelty and surprise that a world with an open future would offer God! Why not think of God as cognitively dependent on the world and his knowledge changing as history changes? True, there would be a degree of uncertainty as God faces a partly unsettled future because genuinely free decisions cannot be entirely predicted prior to being taken, but what a beautiful context. Instead of a future that is totally fixed and foreknown, there is one that stretches before us. It is a future that is full of opportunity and promise as we go forward with God.16

In fact, open theism mocks the truth that God exhaustively knows the future. Pinnock expresses it this way:

We do not limit God by saying that he can be surprised by what his creatures do. It would be a serious limitation if God could not experience surprise and delight. The world would be a boring place without anything unexpected ever happening.17

And he adds,

Total foreknowledge would jeopardize the genuineness of the divine-human relationship. What kind of dialogue is it where one party already knows what the other will say or do? I would not call this a personal relationship.18

Boyd writes,

Consider that in the classical view of foreknowledge God never experiences novelty, adventure, spontaneity or creativity. He exists in an eternally static state of unchanging facts … What is admirable about this portrait? Why would this eternally static view of divine knowledge be greater than a view of God enjoying novelty, adventure, spontaneity, creativity and moment-by-moment personal relationships?19

B. God’s Omniscience Defended

 

The orthodox have always confessed God’s omniscience and have included in their confession His infallible and exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events. Herman Bavinck is representative:

Scripture nowhere even hints that anything could be unknown to [God]. True, the manner in which he obtains knowledge is sometimes stated in striking anthropomorphic language … but he nevertheless knows everything. The notion that something should be unknown to him is dismissed as absurd … God’s knowledge both of himself and the universe is so decisively and clearly taught in Scripture that it has at all times been recognized within the Christian church.20

Robert L. Dabney writes,

If [God] could not foreknow and control [the world] He would be the most baffled, confused and harassed of all beings; and His government one of perpetual expedients … the impiety of early Socinians in denying God even a universal scientia media is to be utterly repudiated.21

If God simply makes astute predictions concerning likely future scenarios, writes Robert L. Reymond, "this ranks God with idols and makes him no better than a fortune-teller or a soothsayer, and his prophecies, at best, wishful thinking."22  

William Shedd contrasts the perfect omniscience of the Creator with the vacillating knowledge of the creature:

A creature increases in knowledge in certain directions and loses knowledge in others. He acquires information and he forgets. The Creator has infinite knowledge at every instant and neither learns nor forgets.23

Norman Geisler rejects the guessing god of open theism:

Without infallible foreknowledge [God] is at best only making good guesses and no one can be right all the time when he is guessing most of the time. Only predictions coming from an omniscient mind will always come to pass.24

Richard Muller demonstrates that Reformed orthodoxy is unanimous in defending God’s omniscience against all heretics, especially the Socinians:

Against Socinianism, therefore, the Reformed maintain the absolute omniscience of God, presenting a battery of scriptural proofs and several arguments based on Scripture—God in Scripture predicts contingent events in the future: therefore he knows them and knows them infallibly, for otherwise he could not predict them certainly. As, for example, the prediction of King Ahab’s death "by an arrow shot at random," an event by all standards contingent (I Kings 22:17-18, 34); or the bondage and deliverance of Israel foretold four hundred years previously, or the divine prediction to Moses of Pharaoh’s obstinacy (Gen. 25:13-14; Exod. 3:19-20).25

With this every orthodox Christian must agree. A god who does not know the future is not the God of Scripture, but the figment of the imagination of vain men. God throws down the gauntlet to all pretended deities:

Produce your cause, saith the LORD; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring them forth, and shew us what shall happen: let them show the former things, and what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare us things for to come. Shew the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods: yea, do good or do evil, that we may be dismayed and behold it together. Behold ye are of nothing and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you (Isa. 41:21-24).

It is striking that God Himself names the test for determining deity: foreknowledge. God possesses foreknowledge and the idols do not. God abominates any god who does not know the future and abominates anyone who worships such a god. Let the open theists beware! The whole section of Isaiah 40-48 contains many striking references to God’s foreknowledge based on His counsel to bring events about. Boyd, who does not deal with Isaiah 41, makes a lame attempt (in reference to Isaiah 46:11-12) to circumvent this argument:

The Lord is not appealing to information about the future he happens to possess; instead he is appealing to his own intentions about the future. He foreknows that certain things are going to take place because he knows his own purpose and intention to bring these events about. As sovereign Lord of history, he has decided to settle this much about the future.26

Remember that the open theists’ contention is that man is free and therefore God cannot know man’s future free choices. Here Boyd wants to have it both ways. God sometimes determines to bring about events and to this extent man supposedly is no longer free. For this reason Boyd is forced to concede that God restricted the freedom of Cyrus’ parents: "This decree obviously set strict parameters around the freedom of the parents in naming these individuals."27

As Bruce Ware points out in his excellent refutation of open theism, Boyd’s solution simply will not work:

Consider the vast array of attending circumstances God must know about in advance for this prediction to be given. At the time Isaiah prophesies this, God must already know about the fall of Assyria, the rise and fall of Babylon, the rise of Medo-Persia, the fall of Israel, the fall of Judah, the birth and naming of Cyrus, the life and growth of this particular king, his ongoing life into adulthood, his selection as king, his willingness to consider helping the Israelites, his decision to assist in rebuilding Jerusalem, and on and on. This list hits a very few of the most significant items. Within each of these items is hidden a multitude of freewill choices that would affect everything about the outcome for that particular piece of human history. It simply is incredible that God can say through Isaiah such a long time prior to Cyrus’s reign, "It is I who says of Cyrus, He is my shepherd! And he will perform all my desire."28

It simply will not do for the open theists to claim that God "tweaks" man’s freewill occasionally to accomplish specific purposes. The example of Cyrus (Isa. 44:28) alone shows that open theism’s entire thesis collapses like a house of cards.

If God does not know what will happen in the future there are serious consequences for the church of Jesus Christ. In that case, the central event of world history, the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, was neither pre-planned or foreknown by God. First of all, the fall of man into sin was unexpected, or to use Sanders’ word, "implausible."29 Then God’s project with Israel failed, forcing Him down a different avenue:

The whole nation of Israel failed in its covenant relationship with God according to the prophets. This required a new initiative on God’s part and led to the unique role of Jesus.30

According to Sanders, not even the cross was settled beforehand. He appeals to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:

The Son is not following a script but is living in dynamic relationship with the Father. Together they determine what the will of God is for this historical situation. Although Scripture attests that the incarnation was planned from the creation of the world, this is not so with the cross. The path of the cross comes about only through God’s interaction with humans in history. Until this moment in history other routes were, perhaps, open.31

This is astounding. The incarnation was determined but not the cross? Sanders admits that Revelation 13:8 is "a bit more problematic" for his position and offers the following tenuous exegesis:

Perhaps God knew the possible outcomes (what might happen if sin came about or did not come about) and planned a different course of action in each case. Each one included the incarnation but it took on a different rationale depending on which case came about. Hence it could be said that God planned from before the foundation of the world that the Son would become incarnate. But God did not know which of the rationales for the incarnation would be actualized until after sin came on the scene. In any event it is not necessary to conclude that God was caught off guard.32

Sanders misses the point that the only reason why the Son became incarnate was to save the church. If there had been no fall, there would have been no need for the incarnation. And if the cross was not settled until Gethsemane why did Jesus repeatedly prophesy His death and even the means whereby He would die (Matt. 16:21; 20:18-19; John 3:14; 6:51; 10:11; 12:32-33; etc.) and what are we to make of passages such as Isaiah 53 which the New Testament insist were fulfilled at Calvary? God knew exactly, because He had planned exactly, how His Son would lay down His life for His elect (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).

In addition, open theism makes nonsense of the atonement. A universal atonement which does not save everyone is not a true substitutionary atonement. That is the blasphemy of Arminianism, which brings again out of hell the Pelagian error (Canons II:R:3). Open theism goes a step farther. The Christ of open theism did not know for whom he was dying or for what sins he was suffering God’s wrath. The deity of open theism did not even know two thousand years ago who would exist since our existence depends on myriads of freewill choices of which a god who has no definite foreknowledge must be ignorant. For example, two thousand years ago the open theist god did not know whether the country in which I was born would exist, who my parents and grandparents would be, or anything else that has happened in my life up to this point. God could not know which sins I would commit either. So, when Christ hung on the cross, He could not say, "I know my sheep" (John 10:14). He could possibly say that He knew some of His sheep, such as Peter, John, Philip and others who were alive at that time, but He certainly could not say that He knew any believer alive today. The implications of this are monstrous. Ware spells them out:

Not only would it be impossible for God to know whether and who would come to exist in the future (so that he could not actually substitute for them in his death), in addition, God would also be clueless regarding what sin(s) would be committed in the future. Therefore there could be no actual imputation of our sin to Christ … In fact, Christ would have had reason to wonder, as he hung on that cross, whether for any, or for how many, and for what sins, he was now giving his life. The sin paid for could only be sin in principle, and not sin by imputation, and the people died for was a blurry, impersonal, faceless, nameless, and numberless potential grouping.33

Consider, too, the plight of the Old Testament saints. If God did not know the future, there was no guarantee that the Christ would even come and if He did, in fact, come, that He would accomplish salvation for sin. Ware explains the implications with devastating effect:

Since God cannot have known whether His Son would freely offer himself as the once-for-all atonement for sin, God’s institution of the sacrificial system was, strictly speaking, a legal fiction … What massive gospel harm is done in the Old Testament period when it is denied of God that he can know the future free choices and actions of moral beings! Neither those free choices and actions of Abraham, Sarah, Abraham’s line over 2,000 years, nor of Christ himself, could be known; and hence, no promise of salvation or any saving activity itself could be grounded and secured.34

Boyd, while he does not agree with Sanders that the cross was unplanned, agrees in his rejection of unconditional election that the members of the church were unknown to God:

In Romans 8:29 Paul is saying that the church as a corporate whole was in God’s heart long before the church was birthed. But this doesn’t imply that he knew who would and would not be in this church ahead of time. He predestined that all who choose to receive Christ would grow to be in the image of his Son. But whether particular individuals receive Christ and thus acquire this predestined image depends on their free will.35

In addition, a god who cannot predict the future cannot give us an infallible Bible, especially one replete with prophecies of future events. Stephen Wellum writes:

If God is ignorant of vast stretches of forthcoming history, then how can any of the predictive prophecies in Scripture be anything more than mere probabilities?36

Francis Turretin states it none too strongly:

The examples of prediction occur everywhere in the Scriptures. What do our adversaries reply here? That those predictions are probabilities only, as they impiously speak. But who can stand the blasphemous expression that the infallible knowledge of God is merely conjectural?37

Finally, in this connection, Pinnock asks, "what kind of dialogue is it where one party already knows what the other will say or do?" He needs to consider David, who enjoyed close covenantal communion with the Most High, and yet could confess, "For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether," and then he exclaims, as no open theist, who reduces God to the consummate social scientist, can, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is high, I cannot attain unto it" (Ps. 139:4, 6). Such must be the response of every child of God: awe and wonder at God’s unsearchable knowledge. "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God" (Rom. 11:33)!

C. Omnipotence and Sovereignty vs. Omnicompetence

Just as open theism robs God of His perfect knowledge, especially His infallible foreknowledge, so it subverts God’s almighty power. The open theist cannot confess the first line of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." Consider this revisionist definition of omnipotence by Pinnock: "We must not define omnipotence as the power to determine everything but rather as the power that enables God to deal with any situation that arises."38

Open theism rejects God’s omnipotence and replaces it with something called "omnicompetence." In an ironic move from men, who decry Calvinistic determinism as God creating pre-programmed automatons, the open theists are quite comfortable with the figure of God as a chess master who is able by his "omnicompetence" to outmanoeuvre his opponents and so, despite setbacks along the way, finally checkmate his adversaries and accomplish his goals. Boyd is representative:

God’s perfect knowledge would allow him to anticipate every possible move and every possible combination of moves, together with every possible response which he might make to each of them, for every possible agent throughout history … Isn’t a God who perfectly anticipates and wisely responds to everything a free agent might do more intelligent than a God who simply knows what a free agent will do? Anticipating and responding to possibilities takes problem-solving intelligence. Simply possessing a crystal-ball vision of what’s coming requires none.39

However much Boyd wants to spin it, the fact is that his god does not "perfectly anticipate" the moves of his creatures. Sometimes, as we have seen with Saul and others, he fails to anticipate what his creatures will do.

The omnicompetent god of open theism has the added attribute of resourcefulness. "Sometimes the desires of God are stymied," writes Sanders, "but God is resourceful and faithfully works to bring good even out of evil situations."40 Sanders goes on:

Although God is not succeeding with everyone, the biblical witness is clear that God has made substantial progress … though the Spirit may not get everything he desires we have reason to hope because we have a God with a proven track record of successfully navigating the vicissitudes of human history and redeeming it.41

[God] enters into genuine give-and-take relationships with his creatures and is resourceful, creative and omnicompetent instead of all-determining and completely unconditioned by creatures.42

Pinnock assures us that God is

wise, resourceful, and can cope with all contingencies. Our assurance is based, not on a rational system, but on God’s promise and on his track record. God does not promise things he cannot deliver. He is not an insecure deity who needs to control everything and foreknow everything in order to accomplish anything!43

Since God is resourceful, rather than sovereign, it will come as no surprise that open theism rejects the idea of God’s decrees. There is no room in the open theist model of God for His eternal, unchangeable, all-comprehensive counsel, in which He has eternally purposed what He will do in time. We allow Sanders to explain:

God’s activity does not unfold according to some heavenly blueprint whereby all goes according to plan. God is involved in a historical project, not an eternal plan. The project does not proceed in a smooth, monolithic way but takes surprising twists and turns because the divine human relationship involves a genuine give-and-take dynamic for both humanity and God.44

Statements from Pinnock reveal similar sentiments:

How history will go is not a foregone conclusion, even to God because he is free to strike in new directions as may be appropriate. If we take divine repentance language seriously, it suggests that God does not work with a plan fixed in every detail but with general goals that can be fulfilled in different ways. God is faithful to these goals but flexible as to how to fulfill them.45

[History] is not the situation of omnicausalism where even the input of the creature is predetermined. The open view of God celebrates the real relationships that obtain between God and his people. Real drama, real interactions and real learning are possible because history is not scripted and freedom is not illusory.46

In fact, the open theist god is not even in control of all things. Pinnock boldly asserts that his god is restrained in his power. After conceding that "coercive power is available to God, even if he uses it sparingly," he adds,

At the same time we should not exaggerate how easy it is for God to intervene. There are constraints upon God’s acting, as I have suggested, such as he cannot just do anything, anytime, anywhere as is so often supposed. God interacts with the givens of the situation.47

Thus the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth is stripped of His royal scepter and made dependent upon His own creatures!

John Frame in his critique of open theism demonstrates that Sanders denies that God has complete control even over the non-rational creation:

Sanders denies that all weather comes from God. So evidently for Sanders human libertarian freedom is not the only limit on God’s control of the world. He also believes that the natural world itself has a kind of autonomy, so that events in nature, as well as human free choices, sometimes take God by surprise.48

Pinnock teaches what can only be described as a kind of dualism:

At present God’s will is resisted by powers of darkness but the day will come when his will shall triumph. At present evil is mounting a challenge to God’s rule with considerable effect. The powers of darkness put up stiff resistance and to a degree block God’s plans; that is, they can resist God’s ability to respond to a given crisis.49

So much for Pinnock’s definition of omnipotence as God’s ability to deal with any situation that arises when Satan’s minions can resist "God’s ability to respond to a given crisis!"

Indeed, God, according to open theism, sovereignly limits His own sovereignty. This is the view of Sanders who writes, "God has sovereignly decided to enter into a project in which he desires reciprocal loving relationships and so does not control everything that happens."50 He is aware of the objections of "decretal theologians" but dismisses them, complaining that such theologians (i.e., Calvinists) "co-opt the term sovereignty for themselves, saying it can have only one meaning – theirs – and thus disqualifying from the discussion any position but their own."51 Far from being sovereign, insists Pinnock, God shares power with the creatures He has made: "In creating Adam God showed himself willing to share power. He does not insist on being the only power."52 He continues with another statement that sounds suspiciously dualistic:

God is not the only power in the universe; he created other powers. Not only does God have to rule with them in mind, he may even have to contend with them. The point is that God is not viewed as being completely in control and exercising exhaustive sovereignty. Though no other power can match God’s power, each has a degree of influence that it can exercise. The situation is pluralistic: there is no single and all-determining divine will that calls all the shots.53

Boyd, too, contends that God shares power:

Despite the various claims made by some today that we must protect the sovereignty of God by emphasizing his absolute control over creation and denouncing the openness view, I submit that we ought to denounce the view that God exercises total control over everything, for a truly sovereign God is powerful enough to share power and face a partly open future.54

Richard Rice agrees with his fellow openness theologians when he defines history as "the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do,"55 and adds,

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.56

Moreover, the open theists pour scorn upon the concept of a sovereign God and try to decorate their idol in an effort to pawn him off on an unsuspecting Christian public. Boyd contends that

God can and does predetermine and foreknow whatever he wants to about the future. Indeed, God is so confident in his sovereignty, we hold, he does not need to micromanage everything. He could if he wanted to, but this would demean his sovereignty … It takes a greater God to steer a world populated with free agents than it does to steer a world of preprogrammed automatons.57

Later in the same work he writes, "To simply control others so that you always get your way is the surest sign of insecurity and weakness."58 Pinnock writes, "God’s perfection is not to be all-controlling or to exist in majestic solitude or to be infinitely egocentric."59 Later he adds, "God is not a supreme monad that exists in eternal solitude."60 Finally, in pejorative language Pinnock writes, "God is not a cosmic stuffed shirt who is always thinking of himself. Rather he is open to the world and responsive to developments in history."61

Since God does not have an eternal and immutable counsel He had to hope that His creatures would cooperate with Him but He is always resourceful enough to think of alternative avenues if He needs to. For example, Boyd is bold to assert that Jeremiah (foreknown and ordained to be a prophet from his mother’s womb, Jer. 1:5) and Paul (a chosen vessel to preach to the Gentiles, Acts 9:15) could have resisted God’s call and God would have found somebody else: "The fact that God intended a course of action for Jeremiah and Paul didn’t guarantee that it would come about."62 To this Rice adds the example of Moses, who apparently could also have refused to do what God intended.63 Sanders adds Mary and Moses’ mother to the list: "If Mary had declined or if Moses’ mother had let her son drown, then God would have sought out other avenues."64

McGregor Wright gives the following tongue-in-cheek analysis:

I will not repeat here the difficulties facing a believer in free will who contemplates what would have happened if Joseph had decided to leave Mary with Elizabeth and go on to Bethlehem alone with the required information for the census. In this example, free will becomes the Grinch that stole Christmas from Bethlehem.65

D. God’s Sovereignty Defended

Scripture knows nothing of a god who is infinitely resourceful because the unanticipated free choices of his creatures cause him to seek alternative routes to accomplish his ever changing purposes.

A God who sovereignly decrees to lay aside His sovereignty is an oxymoron. Frame expresses what every Reformed Christian knows:

Scripture contains no hint that God has limited his sovereignty in any degree. God is the Lord, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. He is always completely sovereign. He does whatever pleases him (Ps. 115:3). He works everything according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). Furthermore, God’s very nature is to be sovereign. Sovereignty is his name, the very meaning of the name Yahweh, in terms of both control and authority. If God limited his sovereignty, he would become something less than Lord of all, something less than God. And if he became something less than God, he would destroy himself. He would no longer exist.66

God can no more limit His sovereignty than He can limit or voluntarily divest Himself of His holiness, His omnipresence or His love. God is one simple being and all His attributes are one. Furthermore, the texts Frame cites are important. They do not teach that God could, if He so chose, do all His good pleasure and accomplish His will, but they teach that God actually does fulfil all His will, at all times, and in all places. Never is God’s will thwarted in the slightest degree: "He doeth [not merely "He can do"] according to his will" (Dan. 4:35); "Our God is in the heavens: he hath done [not, simply "He is able to do"] whatsoever he hath pleased" (Ps. 115:3); "Whatever the LORD pleased, that did he [not "that He could do"] in heaven, and in earth, in the seas and in all deep places" (Ps. 135:6); "My counsel shall stand and I shall do all [not "some of"] my pleasure" (Isa. 46:10) and "He worketh [not merely "is able to work if He so chooses"] all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph. 1:11).

Bavinck is not impressed by the infinitely resourceful god of the advocates of middle knowledge. How much more disdain would he pour upon the god of open theism?

[According to the theory of middle knowledge, and, by extension, of open theism] the creature is now creator, autonomous, sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision … What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates?67

E. Immutability vs. Flexibility

Another one of God’s perfections is His immutability. Since God is perfect He cannot change, neither for the better, nor for the worse. Open theists offer limited assent to the doctrine of divine immutability but only as regards God’s being, not His will which changes times innumerable in response to man’s free actions. Open theists do not emphasize God’s immutability because they see that as a product of the influence of Greek philosophy. Boyd writes,

The view of God as eternally unchanging in every respect (and thus possessing an eternal, unchanging foreknowledge of all of world history) owes more to Plato than it does to the Bible.68

Sanders writes, "The essence of God does not change but God does change in experience, knowledge, emotions and actions."69 Pinnock expresses it this way, "If God is personal and enters into relationships God cannot be immutable in every respect, timelessly eternal, impassible or meticulously sovereign."70 "It requires us to decide whether God is perfect by virtue of unchangeability, as the philosopher says, or perfect by virtue of relationality, as the Bible indicates."71 Later he writes, "God is immutable in his essence but flexible in his dealings."72

Rice complains that Augustine influenced the church to believe in an unchangeable God:

God’s immutability implies that neither his knowledge nor his will ever change. Augustine made God’s immunity to time, change and responsiveness to his creatures axiomatic for Western theology.73

Just as the open theists put a positive spin on the limited knowledge and limited power of God, so they extol God’s alleged changeableness. Pinnock writes, "A static and immobile God is not more perfect than our heavenly Father."74 Boyd adds,

When a person is in a genuine relationship with another, willingness to adjust to them is always considered a virtue. Why should this apply to people but not to God? On the contrary, since God is the epitome of everything we deem praiseworthy, and since we ordinarily consider responsiveness to be praiseworthy, should we not be inclined to view God as the most responsive being imaginable?75

God’s flexibility is seen especially, argue the open theists, in His response to our prayers. According to Sanders, God invited Abraham "into the decision-making process" before He decided what to do with Sodom.76 Moses, too, could prevail upon God:

Being in relationship to Moses, God is willing to allow him to influence the path he will take. God permits human input into the divine future. One of the most remarkable features in the Old Testament is that people can argue with God and win.77

Pinnock writes, "God does not will to rule the world alone but wants to bring the creature into his decisions. Prayer highlights the fact that God does not choose to rule the world without our input."78 Later he states,

God may want to move but may be prevented because, though he has the power, he wants to work hand-in-hand with the covenant partners with whom he shares dominion over the world. Without openness to God, there is no power.79

F. God’s Immutability Defended

The Bible is clear that God is immutable (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17). In addition, God’s counsel is immutable (Heb. 6:17). The context of Hebrews 6 shows that God’s counsel concerning the blessing of Abraham, and thus the realization of salvation by Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, is unalterable. Richard Muller summarizes the Reformed orthodox consensus on the immutability of the divine counsel:

The eternal decree is utterly free but, once decreed, immutable. The Reformed insist that God in his eternity "could have determined himself to other objects than those he has decreed" but pointedly deny that the decree, once willed can be rescinded.80

God’s immutability, rightly understood, is not a philosophical abstraction. James Montgomery Boice compares the immutability taught in Scripture with the philosophical concept:

The immutability of God as presented in Scripture, however, is not the same thing as the immutability of "god" talked about by the Greek philosophers. In Greek thought immutability meant not only unchangeability but also the inability to be affected in any way.81

Charles Hodge makes the same careful distinction:

Theologians in their attempts to state, in philosophical language, the doctrine of the Bible on the unchangeableness of God, are apt to confound immutability with immobility … We know that God is immutable in his being, his perfections and his purposes; and we know that he is perpetually active. And, therefore, activity and immutability must be compatible; and no explanation of the latter inconsistent with the former ought to be admitted.82

G. God’s Repentance and Other Anthropomorphisms

The entire edifice of open theism is built upon two rocks. The first is libertarian freewill and the second is an appeal to God’s repentance. We will consider the latter here and treat the former later.

Orthodox Christianity has traditionally understood texts which teach that God repents or changes His mind as anthropomorphisms or anthropopathisms, figures of speech according to which God accommodates His speech to human beings and presents Himself as He seems to us, not what He actually is. Open theism rejects such an interpretation. "Classical theists are left with the problem of misleading biblical texts, or at best, meaningless metaphors regarding the nature of God," complains Sanders.83 Some open theists will concede that there are anthropomorphisms in Scripture, especially when Scripture ascribes physical characteristics to God who is spiritual (John 4:24), but Pinnock is prepared to make room even for the possibility that God is corporeal! He writes,

It seems to me that the Bible does not think of God as formless. Rather, it thinks of him as possessing a form that these divine appearances (Exod. 24:10-11, 33:23; Is. 6:1; Ezek. 1:28) reflect … Most people, I suspect, think that God chooses to be associated with a body, while being himself formless. That may be so, but it is also possible that God has a body in some way we cannot imagine and, therefore, that it is natural for him to seek out forms of embodiment. I do not feel obligated to assume that God is a purely spiritual being when his self-revelation does not suggest it. It is true that from a Platonic standpoint, the idea is absurd, but this is not a biblical standpoint. And how unreasonable is it anyway? The only persons we encounter are embodied persons and, if God is not embodied, it may prove difficult to understand how God is a person. What kind of actions could a disembodied God perform?84

At least Pinnock is consistent in rejecting anthropomorphisms. The Bible is clear that God is spiritual (John 4:24) and that a spirit is by definition not embodied (Luke 24:39). Moreover, who is Clark Pinnock to limit what the invisible, infinite and spiritual God can do? God’s hand, although not made of flesh, blood and bones as ours is, is the true hand, of which our hand is but a dim reflection. By that hand He stretched forth the heavens and by that hand, His fatherly hand, He governs all things (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10, Q. & A. 27-28). His is the true power. His spirituality does not limit Him in the least. In addition, the souls of the dead are disembodied in the intermediate state. Does Pinnock imagine that because they have been "unclothed" (II Cor. 5:4) the souls of the dead do nothing?

There are three main types of passages, which have traditionally been interpreted as figurative, to which the open theists appeal: passages where God "learns" or seems to be ignorant; passages where God "repents" in response to human actions; and passages where God expresses "regret" over what has happened. We will consider these three in turn.

God tested Abraham’s faithfulness by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Just when Abraham was on the point of plunging the knife into his son, God said, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him, for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thy only son, from me" (Gen. 22:12). Concerning this text Sanders writes, "God’s statement, ‘now I know,’ raises serious theological problems regarding divine immutability and foreknowledge."85 He adds,

God needed to know if Abraham is the sort of person on whom God can count for collaboration toward the fulfillment of the divine project. Will he be faithful or must God find someone else through whom to achieve his purpose?86

Ware’s explanation of this passage is compelling.87 First, Abraham had a proven record of faith and had shown himself to be a God-fearing man (Heb. 11:8-12, 17-19; Gen. 19:18-19; Rom. 4:1-3, 18-22). Second, God had promised unconditionally more than once that He would make of Abraham a great nation, so Sanders’ suggestion that God might conceivably have to find someone else is impossible. Third, God knew exactly what was in Abraham’s heart as he trekked up that mountain, and Abraham even expressed his faith that he and Isaac would return (Gen. 22:5). Ware summarizes it this way,

If Abraham was praying, reflecting and contemplating in his own heart and mind, trusting that God would be able even to raise Isaac from the dead, if Abraham was even planning to return with Isaac, and if Abraham was doing this prior to raising his knife, then does this not demonstrate that Abraham truly has a heart that fears God, and that he has this God-fearing heart before (and as) he lifts the knife? Yes, and clearly God knows this about Abraham.88

In addition, what has the openness god "learned" from this test? Simply this, that in this one instance, Abraham fears God. Now this god can compile the data and make astute predictions about the probability of future faithfulness on Abraham’s part. Nevertheless, the openness god has no guarantee that Abraham will be faithful in the future. After all, the Scripture is not silent concerning Abraham’s sins (Gen. 12:10-20; 16:1-4; 20:1-18). Ware expresses it this way,

But since Abraham possesses libertarian freedom, and since even God can be taken aback by improbable and implausible human actions, what assurances could God have that Abraham would remain faithful in the future? One realizes how transient the "now I know" is for God. As soon as the test is over, another test would seemingly be required.89

The howls of protest from open theists notwithstanding, we must interpret Genesis 22:12 as a figure of speech. However, the question remains, what does the text mean? "It simply will not do," writes Ware, "to say … that when Genesis 22:12 says, ‘for now I know’ it means, for I have eternally known … something takes place in relation to God when Abraham lifts his knife."90 The answer Ware finds in a distinction between God’s eternal and unchangeable counsel, what He has eternally decreed shall occur in time, and the realization of the eternally decreed actions as they actually unfold in time:

God literally sees and experiences in this moment what he has known from eternity. When the angel of the LORD utters the statement, "for now I know that you fear God," this expresses the idea that "in the experience of this action, I (God) am witnessing Abraham demonstrate dramatically and afresh that he fears me, and I find this both pleasing and acceptable in my sight." Through Abraham’s action of faith and fear of God, God sees and enters into the experience of this action of obedience, which action and heart of faith he has previously known fully and perfectly.91

In this way, we see how God takes pleasure in something which He knew infallibility would occur without being surprised by it.

Open theists are inconsistent in their denials of anthropomorphisms. They confess that God has exhaustive knowledge of the present and the past, yet they do not deal with passages where God seems to be ignorant of more than just future actions of free human beings. Boyd concedes that God’s question in Genesis 3:9 ("Where art thou?") is rhetorical,92 but neither he, Sanders, nor Pinnock address Genesis 18:21 ("I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me: and if not, I will know"). A literal interpretation would lead to the conclusion that God knows neither the past sins of Sodom, nor the present state of that city, and is not omnipresent!93

Richard Muller sums up the Reformed orthodox response to such texts:

When therefore such passages of Scripture seem to attribute ignorance to God, these refer, not to God’s actual knowledge, but to his use of that knowledge and the relation of that knowledge to his will and justice. The literal reading of such texts by the Socinians, as actually attributing ignorance to God, was viewed by the orthodox, not only as an error in exegesis – failing to take a figure of speech as a figure – but as fundamentally abhorrent to Christian theism. As when God vowed to "go down" to Sodom to see what went on there.94

Then Muller quotes Pictet:

God thus expresses himself, 1) in order to display his justice that he might not appear hurried on to vengeance by a blind fury; 2) to set forth his longsuffering, whereby he is not in haste to punish, though provoked by the obstinate wickedness of man; and 3) to set an example to magistrates in the administration of justice.95

The second group of passages to which the open theists appeal is the divine repentance passages. The Bible does indeed state that God repents, that is, changes His mind. The open theists insist that God literally does it. Traditional theism views these statements of divine repentance as something which God only appears to do. Calvin is representative:

Concerning repentance we ought so to hold that it is no more chargeable against God than is ignorance, or error, or powerlessness. For if no one wittingly or willingly puts himself under the necessity of repentance, we shall not attribute repentance to God without saying either that he is ignorant of what is going to happen, or cannot escape it, or hastily and rashly rushes into a decision of which he immediately has to repent … Now the mode of accommodation [of speech] is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us.96

The open theists complain that Calvin was influenced by Augustine who "filtered the biblical message" according to his (i.e., Augustine’s) understanding of what was fitting for God.97 Boyd complains, "If God in fact never changes his mind, saying he does so doesn’t communicate anything truthful: it is simply inaccurate."98

Let us examine two classical passages where God appears to change His mind, Jonah 3:9-10 (God’s repentance occasioned by Nineveh’s repentance) and Isaiah 38:1-8 (God’s adding fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life).

The Reformed interpretation of Jonah is that God brought the Ninevites to repentance in the way of threatening judgment upon them. Ware writes,

God’s secret intention was to show mercy to Nineveh (which Jonah suspected) and God accomplished this intention exactly as he had purposed, but he accomplished it through Jonah’s warning of the Ninevites and the repentance that the warning elicited.99

Shedd demonstrates that God’s apparent repentance is actually a testimony to His immutability:

If God had treated the Ninevites after their repentance as he had threatened to treat them before their repentance, this would have proved him to be mutable. It would have shown him to be at one time displeased with impenitence, and at another with penitence.100

James Oliver Buswell argues that the Ninevites understood that God’s threat of punishment was not an irrevocable decree of damnation. Therefore they did not respond with despair:

Both children and grown people recognize the distinction between a warning and a pronouncement of a sentence when a final decision has been reached. This is true even though the conditions attached to the warning are not expressed but only understood.101

God uses the language of repentance because from our perspective God appears to have changed His mind, to have repented. In reality He has not. In the way of threatening judgment upon Nineveh God brought His elect in Nineveh to their knees. His fierce anger against their sins was real. He was not pretending to be angry. God does not play games. God’s anger against the sins of the elect Ninevites was so real that He poured that wrath upon Jesus Christ centuries later. Only on the basis of the cross which was central to God’s immutable counsel could God turn His fierce anger away from His elect people in Nineveh. God had never intended to destroy Nineveh at that time. In his eternal counsel, He had decreed the salvation of the Ninevites by means of the preaching of Jonah. God threatens His elect with judgment, not because He intends to destroy them, but as a means to drive them to the cross. From our perspective God changed His mind. The idea of repentance is simply a figure of speech, an anthropomorphism, whereby God comes to us and condescends to speak in our language. In the same way we read of God’s hands, His nostrils, or even His feathers. God does not have these physical characteristics. Neither does He repent.

The same solution presents itself with respect to Hezekiah. God sent Isaiah to tell Hezekiah that he would die, whereupon Hezekiah betakes himself to prayer and earnestly beseeches God to spare his life. Open theists conclude from this that Hezekiah prevailed upon God to change His mind and that the length of Hezekiah’s life was open, and not fixed in God’s plan (contrary to Acts 17:26). Boyd testifies that a consideration of this narrative in particular led him to reconsider God’s attributes of immutability and omniscience.102 Herman Hanko points us to the historical context of this account. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, stood in the Davidic line from which line Christ according to the flesh must come. But Hezekiah had no heir. If, therefore, he had died at this time, the covenant promises of God would have failed and the Davidic line would have been extinguished. Therefore, from the perspective of God’s covenant, it was impossible that Hezekiah could die at this point. Was God playing with Hezekiah? Absolutely not! God was teaching Hezekiah his utter dependence upon Him: "Evidently it was God’s purpose to bring Hezekiah to the awareness of his need for a child."103 To this can be added the penetrating insights of Bruce Ware:

Is it not entirely conceivable that God’s purpose behind these words was in fact to elicit from him such earnest, heartfelt dependence on God in prayer? … God granted to Hezekiah fifteen years of extended life – not two, not twenty, and certainly not, "we’ll both see how long you live," but fifteen years exactly. Does it not seem a bit odd that this favorite text of open theists, which purportedly demonstrates that God does not know the future and so changes his mind when Hezekiah prays, also shows that God knows precisely and exactly how much longer Hezekiah will live? On openness grounds, how could God know this? Over a fifteen-year time span, the contingencies are staggering! The number of future freewill choices, made by Hezekiah and innumerable others, that relate directly to Hezekiah’s life and well being, none of which God knows (in the openness view) is enormous.104

God presents Himself as repenting, therefore, not because He is ignorant but as a teaching aid to finite, mortal creatures.

In this connection we insist that intercessory prayer never changes God’s mind. God knows exactly what we will ask for and in His eternal counsel he has determined the prayers of His people as one important means to accomplish His immutable purpose. Buswell explains,

God has anticipated our prayers before the foundation of the world. He has built the answer to our prayers into the very structure of the universe. He knows that we will pray and that we will pray in a spontaneous manner as a child cries to his father.105

Therefore it is the height of folly, not to mention arrogance, to think that God enters into dialogue with us before He decides what to do in the world. Ware writes,

Because God’s knowledge and wisdom are vastly superior to ours, we would be utter and absolute fools to want God to wait to "hear from us" before he decides what is best to do … The presupposition of all healthy, humble, God-honoring, petitionary prayer is not, "Your will be formed," but "Your will be done"106

This is in full harmony with Romans 11:34, "For who hath known the mind of the Lord and who hath been his counsellor?" It would appear that open theists want to be God’s counsellors!

The third type of texts concern God’s "regret" over past decisions. Genesis 6:6 reads, "And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him at his heart." Such passages do not teach that God is shocked by what has occurred as if He did not anticipate the wickedness of man. The language underlines God’s abhorrence at sin in a very striking way. Referring to a similar passage (Jeremiah 7:31, etc, where God says through the prophet that "it never entered my mind" that His people could be so wicked as to sacrifice their own children to a pagan deity), Caneday writes,

Hyper-scrupulous minds may not use the expression "it never entered my mind" lest they lie, but this only betrays ignorance of the idiom’s meaning. It is an intensive idiom to express what is unthinkable.

He adds in a footnote,

Open theists fail to recognize the idiomatic nature of this expression. If they insist that we must take the expression literally, then they have a problem, because they also claim that God knows all possibilities, yet here is something that did not enter God’s mind. If that is the case, then he did not know this even as a possibility. Caird cleverly observes, "No doubt in every community there will be someone who takes everything literally, someone whose leg you dare not pull for fear that it will come away in your hands."107

Besides, it did enter God’s mind, for as Ware demonstrates God warned against the practice of child sacrifice centuries before it happened.108 It is interesting to note the fruit of Russell Fuller’s research that the traditional Rabbinical interpretation of these kinds of texts was also to treat them as anthropomorphisms. Open theism, then, "requires us to believe that Christians and Jews have misunderstood history, theology and exegesis for thousands of years."109

H. Impassibility vs. Vulnerability

The god of open theism is vulnerable. He takes risks in creating and in giving his creatures freewill. Having given his creatures the gift of freewill he does not know how they will use it and therefore risks disappointment. This is Sanders’ thesis in The God Who Risks. This vulnerability is something to which God "sovereignly" decided to subject himself:

If in some cases God does not get what he wants it is ultimately because of the decision God made to create the sort of world in which God does not get everything he wants.110

The results of this risky project into which God entered have been less than satisfactory. "Creation has miscarried."111 "God is extremely disappointed at how things are turning out."112 We are able "to hurt God by refusing his offer and by working at cross purposes to him."113 "God did not want [wars] to happen … Rapes and murders are tragedies that make God weep."114 "God does not get everything he wants in every given situation: that is the plight of a lover."115 "Love is precarious and makes even God vulnerable because it may not be reciprocated."116 "God feels the pain of rejection."117 "The world affects God emotionally and he is moved by the sufferings of his creation."118

This vulnerable god is not the God of traditional and especially Reformed Christianity. Orthodoxy has confessed that God is impassible, that is, unable to suffer. Open theism abominates this view of God as pagan Stoicism. Impassibility is not the teaching that God has no emotions but means that God cannot feel pain or suffer as we human beings do. Richard Muller demonstrates that impassibility and relationality are not incompatible. Impassibility, he writes,

in no way implies an absence of relatedness, love, longsuffering, compassion, mercy and so forth. Impassibility, when attributed to God in the Christian tradition and, specifically in medieval and Protestant scholastic thought, indicates, not a Stoic notion of apatheia, but an absence of mutation, distress, or any other sort of negative passiones.119

Thus Muller’s humorous conclusion:

The modern writers who argue against the doctrine of divine impassibility as if it were little more than the uncritical importation of a Stoic concept are beating, not a dead, but a nonexistent horse.120

The reason that open theists portray God as suffering is because of their heresy of a universal love of God. Since God earnestly desires the salvation of all men head for head, He suffers terribly at the prospect of seeing many of the objects of His love damned for all eternity. "Scripture," avers Boyd, "elsewhere tells us that if it were up to God alone, he would save everyone."121 "[God] genuinely strives to win everyone."122 Scripture denies that God desires to save everyone. He loves and desires to save His elect only, and He actually saves them. This is the good news of the Gospel. The gospel of open theism is good news, neither for sinners, nor for open theism’s eternally sad god.

 

III. Open Theism’s Foundation: Libertarian Freewill

As indicated earlier, open theism is built upon the shaky foundation of God’s "repentance," which we have already discussed, and man’s alleged libertarian freewill, to which we now turn. The contention of the open theists is that genuine relationships and true love are only possible if man is free to choose or to reject God’s love. Sanders expresses this in very strong terms:

Irresistible grace may be thought of positively as divine liberation from an invincible prison. But it may also be seen negatively as divine rape because it involves nonconsensual control; the will of one is forced on the will of the other. Of course, the desire God forces on the elect is a beneficent one - for their own good – but it is rape nonetheless. Love cannot be forced because it involves the consent of persons.123

Such a statement is outrageous. Mark Talbot answers Sanders’ wicked slur,

Sometimes nonconsensual, unilateral action is necessary if there is to be any possibility of interpersonal love and personal freedom. Suppose I find my wife unconscious and in cardiac arrest. In that condition, she will never love or exercise any kind of personal freedom if I do not work to revive her without her consent. Indeed, my love for her drives me to act without obtaining her consent. Whether love must act without the beloved’s consent depends on the condition that the beloved is in. Compatibilists believe that Scripture asserts – and deeper Christian experience corroborates – that, until God regenerates us, all human beings are not merely spiritually sick but actually spiritually dead in our sin (Eph. 2:1).124

Frame notes that the concept of libertarian freewill is assumed by open theists without being carefully scrutinized in the light of Scripture, and that it is "a kind of grid, through which all other theological assertions must pass."125 Libertarian freewillism is the teaching that man’s will is completely free, so that he can choose or not choose on every occasion, that nothing or no one can cause man to choose one thing over another thing, and that not even his own nature can determine his free choices. Compatabilism, on the other hand teaches that man is free to choose in agreement with his own nature. Because man is totally depraved, he freely but in agreement with his own wicked heart, always chooses sin and never good. Frame explains,

If our decisions are caused by anything or anyone (including our own desires), they are not properly our decisions, and we cannot be held responsible for them. To be responsible, we must be able to do otherwise.126

Libertarian freewill is an unbiblical concept. Reformed thinkers demonstrate that an uncaused human will does not even exist. Louis Berkhof writes,

The will of man is not something altogether indeterminate, something hanging in the air that can be swung arbitrarily in either direction. It is rather something rooted in our very nature, connected with our deepest instincts and emotions, and determined by our intellectual considerations and by our very character.127

Reymond concurs,

There simply is no such thing as a will which is detached from and totally independent of the person making the choice – suspended, so to speak, in mid-air, and enjoying some "extra personal vantage point from which to determine itself."128

Frame asserts that "Scripture never suggests that God honours causeless choice in any way or even recognizes its existence."129 In fact, argues Frame, "libertarian freedom is never assumed to be a condition of moral responsibility" and if a man can be shown to have committed an entirely motiveless crime, he would be judged as insane!130 Man is free to choose whatever he desires, but since he is by nature fallen, his desires are always evil (John 8:44; Eph. 2:3), so he is not forced against his will to be wicked (James 1:13-15). He acts in accordance with his own nature (Jer. 13:23), and he enjoys sinning, like a pig enjoys mud (Job 15:16). For this reason no sinner, without irresistible grace (John 6:44), can choose to come to Jesus Christ for salvation (John 3:19-21) and is judged for his own wickedness in refusing to believe in Him.

 

IV. Open Theism’s Questionable Genealogy

Open theism does not have a venerable pedigree. We allow the open theists themselves to trace their theological genealogy. Pinnock writes, "The open view of God grows out of the ideological, if not the ecclesiastical, soul of Wesleyan Arminianism,"131 and, "our Calvinist critics call it ‘consistent’ Arminianism, a judgment I am not inclined to reject."132 Sanders shows where his views find favour:

Whereas the early fathers, Eastern Orthodoxy, Arminius, Wesley, Pentecostalism and a good number of contemporary theologians and philosophers provide a place for divine conditionality, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin either reject any conditionality in God or are inconsistent on the subject.133

In a chapter entitled, "Socinianism: the Missing Link in Open Theism’s Genealogy," Frame points out the Socinian skeleton in the open theism closet. Frame finds it curious that this link is rarely, if ever mentioned by open theists. "My point," he writes,

is not to charge the open theists with all the heresies of Socinianism, or even to imply that they have been concealing something about their heritage. Perhaps they have been unaware of the Socinian connection, although such ignorance would not reflect well on the quality of their scholarship.134

Many dogmatic works and systematic theologies make reference to Socinianism’s denial of God’s foreknowledge.135 McGregor gives the following prognosis of open theism based on its kinship to Socinianism:

The broad attempt to modify what Reformed theology calls the incommunicable attributes of God represents a radical departure from orthodox theology closely parallel to Socinianism. As far as I know, the freewill theists have not begun to deconstruct the Trinity or the Incarnation yet, but they are already trying to empty hell (see Clark Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy [Grand Rapids: MI, Zondervan, 1992]). The Incarnation and such concomitant doctrines as Christ’s impeccability cannot logically survive the autonomist view of humanness, as the Socinians demonstrated in the 1600s.136

 

V. Conclusion

In Psalm 50, the mighty God (v. 1) speaks to the wicked, "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself" (v. 21). This, to my mind, is the root problem of the open theists. They think that God is like they are. This seems to be their presupposition when they ask foolish questions like these: "We experience novelty and surprise. Why wouldn’t God experience novelty and surprise? Wouldn’t God be bored if He was in control of all things? Isn’t it a virtue in us to change? Why would we imagine God to be unchangeable?" This goes hand in hand with their insistence on taking (some) anthropomorphisms literally.

Caneday suggests that open theists have reinvented God for the modern American culture: "[Open theists] readily characterize God with categories drawn from our modern therapeutic culture that prizes ‘self esteem’ and regards vulnerability as virtuous."137 William C. Davis argues that "the God of open theism is conveniently consistent with the deity that American evangelicals will find comfortable."138 He continues,

Open theism appeals to the American distaste for mystery on a range of issues. How can we be truly free and God majestically sovereign? No problem: God’s sovereignty is limited by our freedom. Why is there so much evil in the world? God wasn’t able to prevent it without violating human autonomy. Why would God have us pray if he already knows what we’ll ask? He only knows generally what we’re likely to ask. The future is undetermined until we make our choices. Until we pray, there is nothing for God to know about our specific requests; so God can’t decide until then how to respond. He can know what we’ll ask before we ask it only in a general way. Open theism claims to resolve one classic mystery after another.139

He adds, "This is a long way from the God of Ephesians 1, who accomplishes everything according to the counsel of his own will."140 This is certainly true. The god of open theism is nothing but an idol. Since he has not done whatsoever he hath pleased, he is not our God who is in the heavens (Ps. 115:3). The open theist must beware, because the same God who rebukes those who think He is altogether like they are, warns the wicked that He will reprove them and set their sins before their eyes (Ps. 50:21), adding this chilling warning, "Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces and there be none to deliver" (v. 22).

Is open theism a temptation for Reformed churches? Probably not. Let us beware, however, for the slippery slope of apostasy which leads to open theism, begins with a denial of the sovereignty of God and an embracing of Arminianism. This is the case with Clark Pinnock whose spiritual pilgrimage is the tragic departure from the truth of Calvinism, via the false gospel of Arminianism, to the idolatry of open theism. It is true that not all Arminians have become open theists. Nevertheless, open theism is consistent Arminianism. By continuing to combat Arminianism in all its forms the Reformed churches will be protected from open theism.

The Reformed Confessions, as a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture, will, if faithfully believed and defended, guard Reformed churches from Arminianism and open theism. Let us continue to confess that "all creatures are in His [our heavenly Father’s] hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move" (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 10, Q. & A. 28) and that "nothing in this world happens without [God’s] appointment" (Belgic Confession 13); let us believe in God who is "immutable, infinite, invisible, [and] perfectly wise" (Belgic Confession 1) and who does all things according to "His eternal and unchangeable counsel" (Belgic Confession 16). Let us especially be faithful to the Canons of Dordt, by which our Reformed forefathers opposed the heresy of Arminianism.

One who believes that God elects some according to His "unchangeable purpose" (Canons I:7) and grounds this in the fact that God Himself is "most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent" (Canons I:11) can never be an open theist. One who is faithful to the Canons will repudiate any gross error which makes God changeable (Canons I:R:6) and will see that a god who sends Christ to the cross without a decree to save certain people is a god who lacks wisdom (Canons II:R:1). One who finds comfort in the glorious truth of the perseverance and preservation of the saints, which truth is grounded in the "unchangeable purpose of election" (Canons V:6) can never embrace open theism.

Let us, then, as Reformed Christians cling to the sovereign, unchangeable, omniscient God of Scripture as set forth in the Reformed creeds and we will keep our churches free from Arminianism. Then by God’s grace open theism will never become a temptation for us.


Endnotes

1 A. B. Caneday in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, eds. John Piper, Justin Taylor and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), p. 150.
2 Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), pp. 15-16; italics Boyd’s.
3 John Sanders, The God who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), p. 194.
4 Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), p. 101.
5 Paul Helm, The Providence of God: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), p. 45.
6 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003), p. 195; italics mine.
7 Sanders, Risks, p. 131.
8 Boyd, Possible, p, 46.
9 Boyd, Possible, p. 35.
10 Boyd, Possible, pp. 35-37.
11 Boyd, Possible, pp. 37-39.
12 Boyd, Possible, p. 49; italics mine.
13 John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), p. 8.
14 Boyd, Possible, p. 57.
15Richard Rice in The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, eds. Richard Rice, John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, William Hasker and David Basinger (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), pp. 55-56.
16 Pinnock, Mover, p. 101.
17 Pinnock in Openness, p. 123.
18 Pinnock, in Openness, p. 122.
19 Boyd, Possible, pp. 128-129.
20 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 192.
21 Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, repr. 1972), p. 157.
22 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 190.
23 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, Classic reprint edition, 1888), p. 347.
24 Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 183.
25 Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 426.
26 Boyd, Possible, p. 30; italics Boyd’s.
27 Boyd, Possible, p. 34.
28 Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: the Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), p. 110.
29 Sanders, Risks, p. 46.
30 Pinnock, Mover, p. 37.
31 Sanders, Risks, p. 100; italics mine.
32 Sanders, Risks, p. 102.
33 Ware in Beyond the Bounds, p. 333.
34 Ware in Beyond the Bounds, p. 319.
35 Boyd, Possible, p. 48.
36 Stephen J. Wellum in Beyond the Bounds, p. 267.
37 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), p. 209.
38 Pinnock in Openness, p. 121; italics mine.
39 Boyd, Possible, pp. 127-128.
40 Sanders, Risks, p. 115.
41 Sanders, Risks, pp. 128-129.
42 Sanders, Risks, p. 162.
43 Pinnock, Mover, p. 53.
44 Sanders, Risks, p. 88.
45 Pinnock, Mover, p. 43.
46 Pinnock, Mover, p. 36.
47 Pinnock, Mover, p. 148.
48 Frame, No Other God, p. 112.
49 Pinnock in Openness, p. 115.
50 Sanders, Risks, p. 208.
51 Sanders, Risks, p. 208.
52 Pinnock, Mover, p. 42.
53 Pinnock, Mover, p. 53; italics mine.
54 Boyd in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), p. 45.
55 Rice in Openness, p. 16.
56 Rice in Openness, p. 7.
57 Boyd, Possible, p. 31; italics Boyd’s.
58 Boyd, Possible, p. 149.
59 Pinnock, Mover, p. 5.
60 Pinnock, Mover, p. 28.
61 Pinnock, Mover, p. 41.
62 Boyd, Possible, p. 40.
63 Rice in Openness, p. 55
64 Sanders, Risks, p. 92.
65 R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong With Freewill Theism? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), p. 191.
66 Frame, No Other God, pp. 130-131.
67 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 201.
68 Boyd, Possible, p. 109.
69 Sanders, Risks, p. 187.
70 Pinnock, Mover, p. 72.
71 Pinnock, Mover, p. 7.
72 Pinnock, Mover, p. 87.
73 Rice in Openness, p. 80.
74 Pinnock, Mover, p. 88.
75 Boyd, Possible, p. 78; italics mine.
76 Sanders, Risks, p. 53.
77 Sanders, Risks, p. 64.
78 Pinnock, Mover, p. 42.
79 Pinnock, Mover, p. 135.
80 Muller, Dogmatics, vol. 3, pp. 317-318.
81 James M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, rev. 1986), p. 142.
82 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., repr. 2008), p. 391.
83 Sanders, Risks, p. 69.
84 Pinnock, Mover, p. 34.
85 Sanders, Risks, p. 52.
86 Sanders, Risks, pp. 52-53.
87 Ware, Lesser Glory, pp. 67-74.
88 Ware, Lesser Glory, p. 71; italics Ware’s.
89 Ware, Lesser Glory, p. 72.
90 Ware, Lesser Glory, p. 73.
91 Ware, Lesser Glory, pp. 73-74; italics Ware’s.
92 Boyd, Possible, p. 59
93 See Ware, Lesser Glory, pp. 76ff.; Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 194.
94 Muller, Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 401.
95 Muller, Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 401.
96 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (USA & GB: The Westminster Press and S. C. M. Press, 1960), 1.17.12-13, pp. 226-227.
97 Rice in Openness, p. 82.
98 Boyd in Foreknowledge, p. 39.
99 Ware, Lesser Glory, p. 94.
100 Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1, p. 352.
101 James Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, repr. 1975), p. 49.
102 Boyd, Possible, p. 7.
103 Herman Hanko, When You Pray (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 2006), p. 52.
104 Ware, Lesser Glory, pp. 95-96.
105 Buswell, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 49.
106 Ware, Lesser Glory, pp. 168-170.
107 Caneday in Beyond the Bounds, p. 194.
108 Ware, Lesser Glory, p. 79.
109 Russell Fuller in Beyond the Bounds, p. 41.
110 Sanders, Risks, p. 229.
111 Sanders, Risks, p. 230.
112 Sanders, Risks, p. 49.
113 Pinnock, Mover, p. 46.
114 Pinnock, Mover, p. 47.
115 Pinnock, Mover, p. 54.
116 Pinnock, Mover, p. 81.
117 Pinnock, Mover, p. 88.
118 Pinnock, Mover, p. 88.
119 Muller, Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 310.
120 Muller, Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 310.
121 Boyd, Possible, p. 46
122 Boyd, Possible, p. 74.
123 Sanders, Risks, pp. 239-240; italics mine.
124 Mark R. Talbot in Beyond the Bounds, p. 108.
125 Frame, No Other God, p. 119.
126 Frame, No Other God, p. 121.
127 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, Scotland, UK: Banner of Truth, repr. 2003), p. 68.
128 Reymond, New Systematic Theology, p. 353.
129 Frame, No Other God, p. 125.
130 Frame, No Other God, p. 126.
131 Pinnock, Mover, p. 106.
132 Pinnock, Mover, p. 12.
133 Sanders, Risks, pp. 164-165.
134 Frame, No Other God, p. 34.
135 See Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 197; Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, p. 208; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 400-401; Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, pp. 356-357; Muller, Dogmatics, vol. 3, pp. 318, 395, 401-401, 426.
136 R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place, pp. 227-228.
137 Caneday in Beyond the Bounds, pp. 151-152.
138 Davis in Beyond the Bounds, p. 137.
139 Davis in Beyond the Bounds, p. 138.
140 Davis in Beyond the Bounds, p. 138.