Closing the Door on Open Theism
Theism’s Assault on God’s Attributes
Omniscience vs. Predictability
Omnipotence and Sovereignty vs. Omnicompetence
Immutability vs. Flexibility
Repentance and Other Anthropomorphisms
Impassibility vs. Vulnerability
Theism’s Foundation: Libertarian Freewill
Theism’s Questionable Genealogy
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
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
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
[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
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
[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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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"
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
[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
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
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
Pinnock teaches what can only be described as a kind
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
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
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
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
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
A God who sovereignly decrees to lay aside His
sovereignty is an oxymoron. Frame expresses what every Reformed
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
God presents Himself as repenting, therefore, not
because He is ignorant but as a teaching aid to finite, mortal
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open
View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), pp. 15-16; italics
Sanders, The God who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers
Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), p. 194.
H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), p. 101.
Helm, The Providence of God: Contours of Christian Theology
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), p. 45.
Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany
House, 2003), p. 195; italics mine.
Risks, p. 131.
8 Boyd, Possible,
Possible, p. 35.
Possible, pp. 35-37.
Possible, pp. 37-39.
Possible, p. 49; italics mine.
M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg,
NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), p. 8.
Possible, p. 57.
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.
Mover, p. 101.
17 Pinnock in
Openness, p. 123.
18 Pinnock, in
Openness, p. 122.
Possible, pp. 128-129.
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.
L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith
(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 190.
G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, Classic reprint edition, 1888), p. 347.
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.
Possible, p. 30; italics Boyd’s.
Possible, p. 34.
28 Bruce A. Ware,
God’s Lesser Glory: the Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL:
Crossway Books, 2000), p. 110.
Risks, p. 46.
Mover, p. 37.
Risks, p. 100; italics mine.
Risks, p. 102.
33 Ware in
Beyond the Bounds, p. 333.
34 Ware in
Beyond the Bounds, p. 319.
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.
Possible, pp. 127-128.
Risks, p. 115.
Risks, pp. 128-129.
Risks, p. 162.
43 Pinnock, Mover,
Risks, p. 88.
45 Pinnock, Mover,
46 Pinnock, Mover,
47 Pinnock, Mover,
48 Frame, No
Other God, p. 112.
in Openness, p. 115.
Risks, p. 208.
Risks, p. 208.
Mover, p. 42.
Mover, p. 53; italics mine.
in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and
Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), p. 45.
in Openness, p. 16.
in Openness, p. 7.
Possible, p. 31; italics Boyd’s.
Possible, p. 149.
Mover, p. 5.
Mover, p. 28.
Mover, p. 41.
Possible, p. 40.
63 Rice in
Openness, p. 55
Risks, p. 92.
K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong
With Freewill Theism? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), p. 191.
No Other God, pp. 130-131.
Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 201.
Possible, p. 109.
Risks, p. 187.
Mover, p. 72.
Mover, p. 7.
Mover, p. 87.
73 Rice in
Openness, p. 80.
74 Pinnock, Mover,
Possible, p. 78; italics mine.
Risks, p. 53.
Risks, p. 64.
Mover, p. 42.
Mover, p. 135.
Dogmatics, vol. 3, pp. 317-318.
M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and
Readable Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, rev. 1986), p. 142.
Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson
Publishers Inc., repr. 2008), p. 391.
Risks, p. 69.
84 Pinnock, Mover,
Risks, p. 52.
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.
Possible, p. 59
93 See Ware,
Lesser Glory, pp. 76ff.; Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol.
1, p. 194.
Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 401.
Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 401.
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.
in Openness, p. 82.
in Foreknowledge, p. 39.
Lesser Glory, p. 94.
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.
Possible, p. 7.
103 Herman Hanko,
When You Pray (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 2006), p. 52.
104 Ware, Lesser
Glory, pp. 95-96.
Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 49.
Lesser Glory, pp. 168-170.
in Beyond the Bounds, p. 194.
Lesser Glory, p. 79.
Fuller in Beyond the Bounds, p. 41.
Risks, p. 229.
Risks, p. 230.
Risks, p. 49.
Mover, p. 46.
Mover, p. 47.
Mover, p. 54.
Mover, p. 81.
Mover, p. 88.
Mover, p. 88.
Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 310.
Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 310.
Possible, p. 46
Possible, p. 74.
Risks, pp. 239-240; italics mine.
R. Talbot in Beyond the Bounds, p. 108.
No Other God, p. 119.
No Other God, p. 121.
Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, Scotland, UK: Banner of
Truth, repr. 2003), p. 68.
New Systematic Theology, p. 353.
129 Frame, No
Other God, p. 125.
130 Frame, No
Other God, p. 126.
131 Pinnock, Mover,
132 Pinnock, Mover,
Risks, pp. 164-165.
No Other God, p. 34.
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.
K. McGregor Wright, No Place, pp. 227-228.
in Beyond the Bounds, pp. 151-152.
in Beyond the Bounds, p. 137.
139 Davis in
Beyond the Bounds, p. 138.
140 Davis in
Beyond the Bounds, p. 138.