After I introduced our guest last week, you posed more than 200 questions about his views on open theism. This is quite the hot topic!
Greg is an internationally recognized theologian, preacher, teacher, apologist and author, who has authored or co-authored more than 18 books and numerous academic articles (among them Letters From a Skeptic, The Myth of a Christian Nation, and Repenting of Religion). Greg is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, speaking to thousands each week. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Charlie Rose Show, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC and numerous other television and radio venues. Greg blogs at ReKnew.org.
I interviewed Greg last year about his most recent book, Benefit of the Doubt, but today I want to invite you to engage Greg around one of his most interesting (and controversial) beliefs—that of “open theism.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s how Greg describes Open Theism:
If I had to define “Open Theism” in one sentence, I would say that it as the view that the future is partly comprised of possibilities and is therefore known by God as partly comprised of possibilities. (By the way, I prefer to refer to this view as “the open view of the future,” since the most distinctive aspect of Open Theism is not its understanding of the nature of God, but its understanding of the nature of the future).
To expound a bit on this definition, the open view of the future holds that God chose to create a cosmos that is populated with free agents – at least humans and angels (though some hold that there is a degree of freedom, however small, in all sentient beings). To have free will means that one has the ability to transition several possible courses of action into one actual course of action. This is precisely why Open Theists hold that the future is partly comprised of possibilities. While God can decide to pre-settle whatever aspects of the future he wishes, to the degree that he has given agents freedom, God has chosen to leave the future open, as a domain of possibilities, for agents to resolve with their free choices. This view obviously conflicts with the understanding of the future that has been espoused by classical theologians, for the traditional view is that God foreknows from all eternity the future exclusively as a domain of exhaustively definite facts.
Greg responded to your questions both thoroughly and personably and I hope you learn as much from this conversation as I did.
From Greg: Let me start by thanking your readers for their interest in open theism and for asking such excellent questions. I apologize up front if I “over-answered” some questions and/or if my responses are longer than was expected. I tried to be succinct, but such good questions require comparable answers. What can I say? In any case, here are my responses to seven excellent questions.
From Ben: Years ago I wrote my master's thesis trying to disprove open theism. (Apparently I didn't do a very good job, because my own views have shifted in the years since.) But I remember well the bitterness and vitriol that sometimes characterized the debate between open theists and classical theists (e.g. classical theists trying to have open theists kicked out of ETS). It seems like this kind of posture has only become more common among Christians of differing views today. So my question is: how did the backlash against open theism shape you, what did you learn from it, and what would you say to those who would dismiss you (and others) as heretics for your views? Thanks.
My first encounter with the “backlash” you mentioned took place in the mid-90’s when John Piper launched a public crusade to get me fired from Bethel University and to have my church kicked out of the Baptist General Conference on the grounds that I was a “heretic.” There were also attempts by some to force publishers to stop publishing my books and for Christians to boycott bookstores that sold them. Hundreds of pastors signed a petition to get me fired, with only one of them taking the time to ask me what I actually believed and why I believed it.
Being the sinner that I am, my initial response was anger mixed with a little fear. But it wasn’t too long before the Lord got my attention and helped me realize that this response was neither Christ-like nor healthy for me. I strongly sensed that the Lord gave me an assignment I was to carry out for a year to help me through this period: Every single day, I was to pray for the well-being of those who were leading this crusade! Initially, this was really hard, but I soon found that this exercise freed me from the cancer of bitterness and even empowered me to genuinely love my “enemy.” This deepened my conviction about the importance of obeying Jesus’ command to love, serve and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44-45; Lk 6:27-35). I encourage anyone who is harboring anger toward someone to engage in this daily exercise.
What would I say to those who dismiss me as a “heretic” for holding to the open view? First, I’d encourage them to make sure they understand the view before they dismiss it. I’ve found that most who make this charge do so out of fear. They think the open view means that God can’t promise to bring good out of the tragedies of their life, and this prospect terrorizes them. But this is based on a caricature of the open view. I’ve found that once I can show people why the open view doesn’t entail this, their fear subsides and, while they may still not agree with the view, they are much less inclined to dismiss it as “heresy.”
I’d also point out that the open view of the future was espoused in the 5th century by a man named Calcidius and has been widely debated from the 17th century up to today. Yet, until the last several decades, no one ever slapped the label of “heresy” on people who espoused this view. I’d also point out that the orthodox Church has always embraced a wide variety of views on a number of topics, including the question of the nature and content of God’s foreknowledge. As Frank Viola and I hope to show in a forthcoming essay, the label of “heresy” was only applied to people who not only denied, but activity worked against the foundational doctrines of orthodoxy, viz. the doctrines espoused by the Nicene and Apostle’s creed. These creeds say nothing about the nature and content of God’s foreknowledge.
From Rachel: Are there passages of Scripture that seem to support an open view of the future? Which do you find most helpful to this discussion?
Greg: In my opinion, the Bible is saturated with passages that reflect the open view of the future. Rather than talk about a handful of verses, I think it might be more helpful to talk about seven themes that reflect the open view.
1) One of most powerful reflections of the open view of the future is found in passages that report God speaking, and even thinking, about the future in terms of what may or may not be. For example, Exodus 13:17 says the Lord didn’t want to lead the Israelites in a way where they might face opponents because he thought “if they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So too, Yahweh told Moses to be prepared to demonstrate three miracles to the elders of the Israelites to convince them that Yahweh had sent him. He told him that if they don’t believe the first, they may believe the second, and if they don’t believe the second, they may believe the third (Ex. 3:18-4:8; cf. Ezek 12:3; 20:5-22; Jer 26:2-3; Matt 26:39). We’ve got to wonder how Yahweh can think and speak in terms of “if,” “might” and “may” if he’s eternally certain of everything that will transpire?
2) Closely related to this, the Lord frequently speaks to people in conditional terms. For example, he told Zedekiah that if he surrendered, the city and his family would be spared, but if he didn’t, both would be destroyed (Jer 38:17-18, 20-23; cf. Jer 7:5-7; 22:4-5; I Kg 9:4-6). Doesn’t this language imply that both options were genuinely open to Zedekiah and thus that the future is, to some degree, a domain of possibilities?
3) There are 39 passages that explicitly state that God changed his mind in response to a new development after he’d already announced his plan to go in a certain direction (e.g. Ex 32:14; Jer. 18:1-12; 1 Chr. 21:15). So too, there are over 200 places in the biblical narrative that reflects a change in God’s plan without explicitly stating it. The question is, how can God change his mind in response to new developments if his mind is eternally certain of all that shall come to pass?
4) God sometimes regrets the way some of his own decisions turn out (e.g. Gen 6:6; I Sam.15:10, 35). We have to wonder, how could God genuinely regret the way his decisions turn out if he was eternally certain that his decisions would turn out the way they did? It seems to me that God can only regret the way things turn out if he had hoped it would have turned out differently. And he could only have hoped things would have turned out differently if God knew it was at least possible that things would have turned out that way and possible they would turn out differently.
5) God is sometimes surprised by the way things unfold. For example, he expected Israel to be fruitful, but they were not (Isa 5:1-5). So too, he thought the Israelites would be faithful to him in response to his loving kindness, but they were not (Jer.3:6-7, 19-20). This doesn’t mean that God was completely caught off guard by the way things transpire, for if God is omniscient, he knows all reality exhaustively. He must therefore know and be prepared for all possibilities. But when events take place that God knew were improbable, it makes sense to say he experiences something like surprise. But we have to wonder, how is it possible for God to ever be surprised by an event he was eternally certain would take place?
6) The Lord sometimes seeks for things he doesn’t find. For example, he told Ezekiel that he “sought for anyone…who repair the wall…but I found no one” (Ez. 22:30-31). We have to wonder, how could God look for someone he was eternally certain was not there?
7) There are dozens of passages that report God testing people to find out what they will do (e.g. Gen 22:12; Ex 16:14; Deut 8:2; 13:1-3). But if God is eternally certain what people will do, how can he be said to test them for this reason? In fact, if God is eternally certain what people will do, isn’t testing them for any reason rather pointless?
There are a host of other passages that indicate a partially open future, but these 7 themes capture the most important ones. If you want a more exhaustive list and a fuller discuss, see my God of the Possible and/or Satan and the Problem of Evil.
From Christina: How do you interpret the Bible verses that are commonly cited to support the idea of a foreknown (or even foreordained) future (e.g. Proverbs 16:9)
Greg: I’ve found that every passage that people appeal to prove the classical view of divine foreknowledge is capable of being translated or interpreted in different ways and/or it fails to support all that these people try to make it support. To begin with the commonly cited passage that you mentioned (Prov 16:9), Calvinists argue that this passage supports their view that God determines everything because they interpret it as teaching that God determines the direction people take regardless of the plans that people come up with in their minds. Now, this is one possible interpretation – though notice, even this interpretation doesn’t fully support Calvinism, for it still grants humans the freedom to come up with their own plans! In any case, there are other interpretations of this passage that are, in my opinion, not only possible, but more probable.
For example, when the author says the Lord “directs” or “establishes” (kuwn) our steps, why should we assume that this means God determines the direction we take? There are several words in Hebrew that can be used to communicate causation or control, but kuwn isn’t one of them. This word rather has the connotation of someone helping another. I’m thus inclined to interpret this passage as teaching that, while God allows us to come up with plans on our own, we have no hope of carrying them out unless we trust God to direct and/or establish (confirm, strength) our steps as we carry them out.
At the same time, it’s important to always remember that Proverbs are frequently hyperbolic. Things are stated in extreme and unqualified ways to emphasize their importance. I thus think we are reading too much into the passage if we conclude that no one can ever succeed at carrying out any plans unless they are trusting God. Were that the case, the plans of evil people could never succeed, which obviously is not the case. There are other possible ways of interpreting this passage as well, but I trust I’ve said enough so you get my point.
A good example of a passage that is frequently appealed to as a way of supporting the classical view of foreknowledge but that falls short is Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times (Mt 26:36). In my view, its quite a leap to go from a prediction about how an individual will respond to a question over the next several hours to the conclusion that God knew every decision of every person who would ever exist before the creation of the world. For God to know how Peter would respond and then communicate this to Jesus, God would only need to know that the character Peter had freely acquired throughout his life had become solidified in a cowardly direction to the point that it was certain he would respond the way he did under these circumstances. Moreover, if God needed to intervene to influence three people to notice Peter and ask this question, that would obviously not be difficult for him to do – though, since Peter had been a very public figure, we have no reason to assume God needed to intervene even this much.
Finally, it’s important to ask: Why did Jesus make this prediction? This wasn’t some parlor trick Jesus was engaging it. There was a divine purpose for it. The answer, I submit, can be found in Jesus’ discussion with Peter after the resurrection in the Gospel of John (Jn 21:15-18). Whereas Peter had denied him three times, now Jesus had Peter tell him he loved him three times. Jesus then offered Peter another prediction. Whereas his earlier prediction was that Peter would deny him, Jesus now informed him that he would glorify God by dying the same way he had died (vs.19).
In this light, I think it’s clear why Jesus gave his first prediction. Throughout Jesus’ ministry Peter was the disciple who most clearly displayed the typical first century Jewish belief in a militant messiah. He was confident that this miracle-working messiah would soon use his power to overthrow the Romans and liberate Israel. This is why Peter always objected so strongly whenever Jesus talked about his need to suffer (e.g. Mt 16: 21-23). The fact that Peter later denied Jesus reveals that Peter was actually a coward whose false bravado was completely dependent on his false conception of the messiah. If Peter was to ever play the leadership role God wanted him to play in the kingdom community, Peter’s cowardly character and false view of the messiah had to be exposed and replaced with a Christ-like character and true view of the messiah. The fact that Peter’s three denials were replaced with three affirmations of love and followed by another prediction of Peter’s Christ-like death indicates that the lesson had been learned. Peter was now ready to be a Christ-like leader in the kingdom community.
I share all this to show how misguided it is to read the classical view of divine foreknowledge into Peter’s denial. Jesus’ prediction was about setting Peter up to learn an important lesson, not to make a point about what God knows about the future. I would argue along similar lines for all those passages that are used to support this view. You can find out my replies to all these verses in God of the Possible, Satan and the Problem of Evil or reknew.org (the Q & A section).
From Sonja: So if I'm understanding open theism right, it sounds like it's similar to--if not the same as--the idea that "omniscience" in God doesn't mean "knows exactly what will happen" but instead means "knows every single permutation of what could happen.” Is that far off?
Greg. No, it’s not off at all! You’re actually stating a philosophical truth that I believe is extremely important. The next few paragraphs might be a little heavy for some readers because I have to use a little bit of philosophical jargon. But its Sonja’s fault because she asked such an important question! I encourage you to hang in there because I believe the point I’ll be making hits on one of the most fundamental mistakes made in the church tradition regarding the nature of omniscience and offers one of the strongest philosophical arguments for the open view:
Philosophers and theologians have often defined “divine omniscience” as “God’s knowledge of the truth value of all meaningful propositions.” I completely agree with this. Unfortunately, they typically assumed that propositions about what “will” and “will not” occur exhaust the field of meaningful propositions about the future. They thus concluded that God eternal knows all that will and will not take place and that there is nothing else for God to know.
This is a mistake, however, because propositions about what “might and might not” take place are also meaningful, and God must therefore know the truth value of these. Moreover, the opposite of “might” is “will not,” and the opposite of “might not” is “will.” So, if a “might and might not” proposition is true, then the corresponding propositions about what “will” and “will not” take place are both false.
For example, if its true that “Greg might and might not buy a blue Honda in 2016,” then its false that “Greg will (certainly) buy a blue Honda in 2016” and false that “Greg will (certainly) not buy a blue Honda in 2016.” So too, if it ever becomes true that “Greg will (certainly) buy a blue Honda in 2016” or true that “Greg will (certainly) not buy a blue Honda in 2016,” then it will be false that “Greg might and might not buy a blue Honda in 2016.” And since God knows the truth value of all propositions, God would know precisely when it is true that I “might and might not” buy this car and when it becomes true that I either “will” or “will not.” God thus faces a partly open future.
The irony is that, while open theists are constantly accused of limiting God’s knowledge, if my analysis is correct, it was the classical tradition that limited God’s knowledge! They overlooked an entire class of propositions the truth value of which an omniscient God must know. And it was right under their noses, for as I just demonstrated, the truth value of “might and might not” propositions is logically entailed by the true value of “will” and “will not” propositions. Hence, if God knows the truth value of “will” and “will not,” he must also know the truth value of “might and might not” propositions.
Of course, God could have created the world such that everything was predetermined and thus all “might and might not” propositions were rendered false. This is precisely what Calvinism teaches. My conviction, however, is that God decided to create a much more interesting and exciting world that was populated by free agents. And insofar as God has given free will to agents, his knowledge of what their future activity can only be expressed in propositions about what “might and might not” come to pass.
And if you now have a headache, blame it on Sonja! ;-)
Stephen: How do you feel that open theism works in relation to the concept of the "Sovereignty" of God? If God has limited himself can he truly "sovereign" over everything? This is the most common area of contention I hear regarding open theism and I struggle with it myself. Thanks! Also (because you asked last time I saw you): I totally agree with your take on 'Gravity.'
I find that people often assume that “sovereignty” means “control.” So if you deny that God controls everything, they assume you’re denying God is “sovereign.” My question is: why attribute this kind of “sovereignty” to God? While this is the kind of sovereignty power-hungry people have always grasped after, it's not the kind of “sovereignty” we admire. In fact, most understand that leaders who lead by trying to control everyone instead of trusting their character and wisdom to win people over are leaders who lack character and wisdom – which is precisely why they try to control others. For my two cents, I think it is insulting to attribute this kind of “sovereignty” to God.
More importantly, I believe we need answer all our questions about God by centering our thinking on Jesus Christ, and even more specifically, on Jesus Christ crucified. (For my arguments to this effect, check out the last several weeks of blogs at Reknew.org). Paul says that the crucified Christ is both “the wisdom and power of God” (I Cor 1:18, 24). So the cross is what God’s power looks like! The cross is what it looks like when God flexes his omnipotent bicep! It means God’s power is synonymous with his love, for John tells us that God is love (1 Jn 4:8) while defining love by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16, cf. Rom.5:8).
In this light, it seems to me that that a cross-centered concept of “sovereignty” is the exact opposite the control based concept. On the cross, God doesn’t control people. Out of his unfathomable love, he rather allows others to control him, to the point of crucifying him. On the cross, God reveals that he wisely rules by displaying the power of self-sacrificial love. It’s this self-giving love that draws people to himself (Jn 12:31). And its this love that has already, in principle, caused evil to self-implode (Col.2:14-15) and that will eventually redeem all creation.
Our task is to trust this kind of power. Fallen creatures that we are, our inclination is to instead trust the power of the sword to control others. This is why so few Christians take seriously Jesus’ instruction to swear off all violence and to instead love and do good to our enemies. Unfortunately, Jesus says we are to love like this “so that you may be called children of your Father in heaven" (Mt. 5:45). For Jesus, this is the precondition for being considered a child of the father. (And remember, when Jesus talks about “enemies,” his Jewish audience is thinking primarily about the Romans who oppress, abuse and sometimes kill innocent people). Precisely because our Father loves and rules like this, we who are his children are to reflect this same character and to trust this same kind of love as we lay down our swords. In other words, we are to submit to this kind of “sovereignty.”
From Karl: In open theism, does the possibility exist that God's ultimate purposes for creation might be thwarted? Why or why not?
God promises his ultimate purpose for creation and humanity will not be thwarted. So, even if I couldn’t explain how that is true, I have warrant for simply trusting that it is true. At the same time, I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to see how it could be true. Consider two things.
First, we can think of free will as a degree of “say so” that God gives agents to affect what comes to pass. By definition, every degree of “say so” that God gives away is a degree of “say so” that God himself no longer possesses. To this degree, God can’t guarantee that he will get all that he wants. Still, if God is all wise – or even just not stupid – he would not give away more “say so” than he retains. If we think of “say so” as a share in a corporation, I’m saying that a non-stupid God would not give away more shares than he owns, for this could result in a corporate takeover. So, while a God who gives away “say so” can no longer guarantee that he will get everything that he wants, he can guarantee that his over-all purposes for the corporation – the creation -- will be achieved.
Second, we must remember that, while the God who gives away “say so” no longer possesses unlimited “say so” over what comes to pass, he nevertheless still possesses unlimited intelligence. This means that God can anticipate each and every one of a virtually infinite number of possibilities as though each and every one was an absolute certainty. See, we humans lose anticipatory power when we face various possibilities rather than a single certainty only because we have a finite amount of intelligence. The more possibilities we have to anticipate, the thinner we have to spread our intelligence to cover them. And when people project this limitation onto God, they assume that a God who faced possibilities rather than a single certainty has much less control over things than the God who faces a single certainty. In his book God’s Lesser Glory, Bruce Ware went so far as to describe the open view of God as a God who “hand wringing deity” who “can do nothing more than hope for the best.” This tells us something about Bruce’s limited view of God, but nothing true about the open view.
The truth is that a God of unlimited intelligence would loses no providential advantage anticipating possibilities rather than a single certainty. To put it otherwise, only a God of limited intelligence would gain a providential advantage knowing a single certain rather than anticipating possibilities.
The God of unlimited intelligence can anticipate each possibility as effectively as if it was an absolute certainty. This is why open theists can say as confidently as any Arminian or Calvinist that God has a plan to bring good out of evil that he’s been preparing from the foundation of the world. It's just that open theists are so confident in God’s intelligence that we don’t think God would have to foreknow an event as a certainty to guarantee this. The God of unlimited intelligence has a virtually infinite amount of contingency plans that will be enacted just in case things unfold a certain way, and each and every one of these contingency plans are just as perfect as they’d have been if God had foreknown as a certainty that things would unfolded this particular way.
This is why I claim that open theists don’t think God knows less than the God of classical theism; he knows more! (And yes, this is related to my earlier point about how classical theism overlooked God’s knowledge of what “might and might not” come to pass). While critics say we deny God knows the future, the truth is we believe God over-knows the future.
In any event, once we understand the unlimited intelligence of God, its apparent that there is no more need to wonder how the God of open theism can promise to achieve his over all purposes for creation than there is to wonder this about the classical view of God.
From Joshua: As someone who has been impacted quite a bit by your work, most importantly, The Myth of a Christian Nation, I have to say, I'm a big fan. As for my question however, as an Open Theist myself, I have to ask: How do you reconcile your beliefs in Open Theism, with catholic Christianity? For the past fifteen hundred years, the majority of the Church Universal has taught and believed that God is omniscient. How do you feel Open Theism can be properly reconciled with orthodox, traditional Christianity?
Thanks for the kind words Joshua! I’ll say four things in response to your question.
First, open theists do not deny that God is omniscient. I grant that when the movement was first getting off the ground, certain open theists talked in ways that gave this impression – claiming, for example, that God “limited” his knowledge or that he “knows all that is knowable.” These were just misguided ways of speaking, for these speakers didn’t realize that they were presupposing the classical view of the future as a domain of settled facts and then denying God knew it. I think most public open theists now understand that the issue has never been about the scope or perfection of God’s knowledge. It’s rather always been about the nature of the future that God perfectly knows. While the classical view says that the future is exhaustively settled, we claim that its partly open. But we both affirm that, whatever the nature of the future is, God knows it exhaustively.
Second, it's important to know that there has always been a lot of debate among theologians about the nature of the future and God’s knowledge of it. Moreover, there have always been new proposals put forward in this on-going debate to rectify certain philosophical conundrums. For example, in the 17th century Molina put forth the proposal that God foreknew counterfactuals as a way to rectify the conundrum of how people can be free and yet God in complete control (a false conundrum if you ask me). So, while the particular view of the future that we espouse is somewhat new, what’s not at all new is that this is a new proposal to rectify a philosophical conundrum pertaining to the nature of the future and of God’s knowledge of it..
Third, open theism is not as novel as most seem to think. Over the last three decades my friend Tom Luckashow has been doing intensive research on this, and he has discovered widespread discussions surrounding open theism going back to 16th century. You can view a copy of a chart he made here: Reknew.org/2013/03/open-theism-timeline/. Plus, as I’ve already mentioned, a monk named Calcidius espoused this view in the 5th century and was not branded a heretic for doing so.
Finally, a foundational principle of Protestantism – and it arguably expresses a conviction that was latent in the earlier Catholic tradition as well -- has been that “the church is always reformed and always reforming” (ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda). Protestants have always believed the Spirit is continually working to reveal news things to the Church, whether they be about biblical truths that have been over looked or about new applications of old truths. Every distinctive aspect of all the variations within the Protestant tradition began as a novelty. So, even to the degree that the open view is novel, it is a novelty that stands in a long tradition of novelties. And for this reason, the question of whether this view is correct or not shouldn’t be argued on the basis of conformity with the church tradition but on the basis of Scripture, reason and experience.
Thanks again for your interest in open theism and for all the excellent questions. It’s been fun!
Thanks, Greg, for making all our brains simultaneously explode.
Check out the other interviews in our “Ask a…” series here.
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