Is Open Theism Pragmatic?

Over the last couple months, I’ve heard the word pragmatic thrown around to describe open theism and how it has the resources to effectively explain the sovereignty/freewill issue. Some Christians have found open theism to be a pragmatic solution to some of these theological uncertainties. An increased number of people are finding this to be an enlightened approach to a new way of interpreting scripture. Occasionally, some open theists characterize Christians who follow the path of the Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist as uncritically falling in line with the conservative Christians of the past and refuse to treat upcoming unfamiliar ideas with the same respect as they would of traditional theistic ideas. Is this true? Are traditional Christian theists failing to give open theism a fair shake simply because it’s different and unorthodox? To be completely honest, I think it may be a justified criticism.

Why is this? Are we afraid that it has merit or do we recognize a bad idea when we see one? I think it may be a little bit of both. I imagine some are set in their ways and don’t want their beliefs about Christian theism to be untrue after spending their entire Christians lives believing a certain way. Some have heard about open theism and immediately thought the central tenets of open theism were not aligned with scripture. For me, I was in the second camp. However, I didn’t let my surface level understanding keep me from exploring the idea further and allowing the chips to fall where they may. If open theism was the right way to go, then that was where I was going to go. Many are not willing to take this route to exploring Christian theology, which is truly unfortunate. If we are going to have a close relationship with our Lord, we must do our best to be in constant contact with him through all things, even if that means picking up an extra book or two and spending more hours in study.

After countless hours of study, I concluded that my original inclinations of open theism were correct. I did not find open theism to be an accurate reflection of the Biblical message. I did not find the philosophical critiques of the incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and freewill to be persuasive. I wasn’t impressed with the interpretation of scripture that seemed to suggest that God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge. Unless the open theist can present more evidence to support their claim that the future is largely open, I will remain a satisfied Molinist for the time being. However, where was this idea coming from that open theism is somehow pragmatic?

How is Open Theism Pragmatic?

Many people try to use open theism as God’s little theological escape-hatch to avoid any possibility of Him being the author of evil (click here to read my post on this topic). Many contend that if God somehow foreknew any evil in advance and permitted it to occur, then somehow God would be the responsible party. For example, if God knew Hitler would be the individual that would ultimately be the cause of the Holocaust, why would God permit such an evil individual to come into existence when his existence would result in the murder of millions of innocent individuals? While I sympathize with why the open theist (or any Christian or unbeliever) would pose this question because I’ve asked it before too, but there is a voluminous amount of scriptures that reconcile the existence of evil with an all-benevolent God. Our main source of information about God is within His inspired Word to us. To dismiss inspired scripture that affirms divine foreknowledge because we’re uncomfortable with the idea that God knew that evils would occur is not pragmatic at all. Since the definition of ‘pragmatic’ is “dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations”, how ‘sensible’ and ‘realistic’ is it for the open theist to discard the scripture that strongly affirms what they’re deliberately trying to deny? In fact, this way of approaching scripture is the opposite of pragmatic and is ultimately destructive to the integrity of the message.

Next, some open theists have contended that since the future is open to possibilities, our prayers would somehow have more of an affect on God. Open theist Greg Boyd strongly makes this point when he says that we are ‘co-creators’ with God and emphasizes how we can “partner with Him to bring about the creation that He wants” (Click here to read my post on Boyd’s full comments). Are our prayers and actions more persuasive to God under open theism and is God somehow contingent upon us to bring upon the creation He wants? Does a God who gambles on His creation sound like a more pragmatic and Biblical approach? What if we don’t pray like God expected us to? Would God have to intervene and somehow force His creation to do what He wants in order to accomplish His desired end? Under open theism, the future is not settled in any sense, which would require God to personally intervene if His creation didn’t actualize the exact possibility that He expected in order to make His plan work.

In the years that I’ve been studying scripture and theology, I have never come away with an interpretation that our God is a fallible God or dependent on anyone or anything. The idea that our prayers would be ineffectual if God foreknew what they were is not a sound conclusion and has been effectively addressed and abundantly refuted by scholars too numerous to list in one blog post. The approach I find to be the most convincing is the Molinist approach which maintains that God actualized this world of all possible worlds because He knew that this world would bring the greatest number of followers who would freely choose to participate in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. This approach does not impugn God’s sovereignty in the way that open theism does and accounts for the will of God without resorting to theological determinism (i.e. allows for freewill). For a more exhaustive and satisfying explanation of Molinism, I’d recommend Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge & Human Freedom, and On Divine Foreknowledge.

Conclusion

The claim that open theism is pragmatic rings hollow due to an inherent incompatibility with scripture. I want to strongly emphasize that my goal is not to divide Christian brothers and sisters and upset people who may be convinced by this brand of theology. I have a close friend who holds to open theism and he has been the one who has influenced my prolonged studies into this matter. I’ve been deeply enriched by my studies of open theism and it has allowed me to grow in my understanding of God by seeing other people’s interpretations of scripture. To fully understand the spectrum of theological approaches, I’ve read about everything from Calvinism to open theism. In order to truly make a judgment for myself, I had to know what was out there. Without my discussions on open theism, I wouldn’t have the same understanding of these matters as I do today.

So, are all people who reject these newer ideas narrow minded? No and I have illustrated my willingness to do the hard work and investigate the matter for myself. However, there are also those who don’t want to learn about other approaches because they’re stuck in their safe little bubble. For all Christians, including open theists, they need to be open to follow the scripture using sound exegetical principles and let the Word lead them to the truth. We’re not all going to agree and that’s fine. We’re all fallible! Lastly, we shouldn’t be trying to cut ourselves off from people of other theological persuasions. Let these differences build us up through further study, conversation, and prayer. At the same time, if there is an approach that genuinely seems unbiblical to a large degree, then we should studiously examine it and judge it on its own merits. Do all these things with love and a prayerful heart!

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6 responses to “Is Open Theism Pragmatic?

  1. Alan, you have written a very compelling article! As your brother in Christ I appreciate the diligence and effort you put into striving to see all sides of any given topic in your search for understanding God’s truth! I do have a couple thoughts/ questions for you concerning the “open theism” discussion. It certainly makes sense from a Molinist perspective that God has created the best possible world in terms of humanity’s receptivity of their creator. However, could it also be possible that God’s knowledge is not limited to a single path/ single knowledge of one’s temporal and eternal destiny, rather it seems that God could know all possible outcomes of one’s life and not necessarily the exact one which will become reality? It seems that this would offer a perspective of a God who is not surprised by anything, but also allows for his creation to truly experience free will. In reference to the Hitler discussion – from this perspective God would not be surprised by Hitler’s actions and his(Hitler’s) actions would be a result of free will as he could have taken many other paths. It seems according to Scripture that evil is so terrible that most any human would seem to have the capacity to commit a Hitler type atrocity. So the argument would be that God knew it could happen, but also knew many other things could have happened. What are your thoughts on this? It seems to offer a much larger perspective on God’s foreknowledge – than simply defining foreknowledge as knowing an exact outcome.

    As far as being “practical” it seems that it is impossible for humans to define exactly how an eternal and all powerful God works within the confines of His finite and limited creation. I appreciate many open perspectives that allow for the possibility of a God who is all knowing, but also allows himself to be limited within the laws of his created order. He has already set a precedent for this idea with his incarnation. So rather than subscribing to a Calvanist or Molinist perspective(which seems to limit God to our own finite understanding), it seems more pragmatic to have an open perspective on the topic of God’s foreknowledge as it relates to the problem of evil and eternal destiny. This perspective would allow for a God who is all knowing, just not in the traditional sense.

    From this perspective prayer would be a vital part of a believers life as it would have direct impact on aligning one’s life/will with God’s best for them. As we pray and live out the Gospel in our day to day lives we would be responsible along with the work of the Spirit in helping others take the paths in their lives that leads them towards God’s will – that none would perish and that all would know Him!

    I must admit this is such a huge topic that we cannot even really scratch the surface on its complexity…however just wanted to throw out a couple thoughts.

    • I appreciate the tremendously thoughtful response! It’s great to receive these types of comments on my articles! It’s a privilege to give you my insights to your questions.

      Yes, God does know ALL possibilities. Molinism acknowledges God’s recognition of these possibilities (i.e. counterfactuals) as middle knowledge. This is the method that God used by which to actualize a world where the greatest number of individuals would freely choose Jesus rather than rejecting him. Personally, I’m not convinced that God’s omniscience is limited to an exhaustive knowledge of only the past and present as open theists claim. You mentioned that “it seems that God could know all possible outcomes of one’s life and not necessarily the exact one which will become reality”, but this is certainly not substantively suggested by a holistic reading of scripture.

      You suggest that an open view would “allow for Creation to truly experience free will”, but Molinism would also allow for freewill without impugning the sovereignty of God in a meaningful way. That is why I prefer Molinism to open theism because the open view of sovereignty would essentially reduce or necessarily redefine God’s omniscience and require an unreliable hermeneutic of scriptures addressing the sovereignty of God.

      Next – the Hitler discussion. Under open theism, the future is not settled in any way. While God knows all possibilities, and he could make his best guess as to which action would be actualized by his creation, God cannot know anything about the future with 100% certainty. Despite the comprehensive Biblical case that can be made for the exhaustive foreknowledge of God, the open theist would necessarily be required to tie his theological boat to the dock of divine uncertainty. The case the open theist must advance is that there is an inherent incompatibility between the existence of an omniscient (i.e. exhaustive knowledge of the past, present, and future) God and the existence of evil. God is the only being in a position to know the eternal consequences of permitting evils to occur in this world. I don’t find the open view to be a ‘larger perspective’ because it essentially limits His sovereignty unnecessarily.

      I appreciate you describing the ways you find open theism practical. However, I disagree with your assessment that the “Calvinism and Molinist approach….seems to limit God to our own finite understanding”. In fact, I feel the exact opposite is true. Open theism seemingly attempts to bring God down to our level in order to accommodate our own ‘finite understanding’. Honestly, I find it so interesting how two individuals can look at the same material and come to opposite conclusions. I perceive the open theists as making a sincere attempt to understand God in a way that ascribes fallible human characteristics to him, such as reducing the scope of his sovereignty. Open theists don’t see it that way but if you follow the open theistic arguments to their logical ends, it necessarily requires that God’s sovereignty is diminished by a significant degree.

      Lastly, you are absolutely right….this topic is much too big to settle on a blog. I truly appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with me. Like I said in the article, I have a very good friend who holds an open view and we discuss these matters quite frequently. At the end of the day, we worship the same God and we leave as brothers in Christ.

  2. I don’t believe what “Pragmatic Friend” is describing is “open theism.” My understanding of open theism is that God has limited himself to only knowing the present so that the future is a mystery, or at least limits himself to only knowing certain things about the future. I agree with you, in this view, that would significantly diminish the sovereignty of God.
    However in this post, the position is being made that God knows ALL the infinite possible decisions/choices that a person could make and then what those outcomes would be. It’s almost like the “choose your own adventure” books that I would read when I was a child, but of course on a much smaller scale. After reading a few pages, I would be faced with a decision. Whatever I picked would take me to a new part of the book. The author knew all the possible outcomes of my choices, but didn’t necessarily know which one I would pick. When speaking on a much grander scale of God the creator, knowing literally infinite possibilities, this makes God much bigger in my eyes. Much bigger than a God who already knows the paths we will choose before we fully choose them. Which I might add, makes me question if I really have free will to choose them fully on my own.
    Hitler was mentioned as an example. I would have a hard time understanding how God would allow the horrible atrocities to take place if he already knew that this is what would happen. However, is it possible that God believes in his creation enough, that he calls all of us to participate in bringing restoration to his creation, knowing that we have the potential (the free will) to make poor choices, we also have the potential to do great things through him who gives us strength? Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself.”?
    A God who already knows my exact moves, choices, and decisions seems to be a God that is too small. I see God as much bigger than that – who knows all the possibilities and outcomes and still chooses to allow me to have free will, believing I can be all he is calling me to be and if I stray, constantly calling me back to Himself.

    • I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful response concerning this matter. I’ll do my best to be as thoughtful in my response as you were in yours.

      I enjoyed your analogy of ‘adventure books’. Open theism is largely characterized by God’s recognition of all possibilities that could be actualized by His creation without having absolute confidence in which actuality will be chosen, similar to the relationship between the author and the reader in an adventure book. It is hard to devise a perfect analogy demonstrating the relationship between God and his creation but I feel this does a decent job of illustrating how God may relate with his creation under open theism.

      The first primary objection was that God’s foreknowledge would ultimately pervert the concept of free will. I feel this is where your adventure book analogy breaks down. The author is the creator of the book, and the reader is an entirely separate creation. Unlike the author, God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc… and would have the divine resources necessary to create a world where the greatest number of people would freely choose God rather than reject him. Then the question inevitably arises, how do we know our choices are free if God foreknew them? Through God’s middle knowledge of all counterfactuals (i.e. God knew what every individual would freely choose to do under any given circumstance in every possible world because of his exhaustive knowledge of all created individuals), God would know what world to bring into existence that would produce the greatest number of followers who freely choose to accept Christ. In this manner, God’s foreknowledge cannot be shown to be causal (i.e. overriding free will) because his omniscience (exhaustive knowledge of the past, present, and future) necessary grants God the divine resource of knowing how people would freely react under any circumstance. To redefine God’s omniscience would be to unnecessarily reduce God’s sovereignty.

      The second primary objection would be the challenge of understanding how God would permit evil to occur if he foreknew it in advance. As you’ve correctly pointed out, we have the immense potential of making poor choices because of our free will however this is the same free will that grants us the ability to perform miraculous acts of love. 9/11 was an evil event in the history of America but there are hundreds of stories of heroism and love. Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana but it also resulted in thousands of people showing unconditional love and self-sacrifice to the people who were victimized by this act of nature. Are we ever going to realize why God permits seemingly gratuitous evil to occur? Absolutely not, but are we in a position to understand? Absolutely not. Saying that we have a hard time understanding how could God allow such things to happen merely emphasizes our incomprehensible ignorance by comparison to the omniscient knowledge of God. God has the ability to see the long term consequences of each and every person’s decisions, which is why he allows certain evils to occur. God wouldn’t have permitted evil to occur if the evil would ultimately result in a greater amount of people rejecting him than accepting him; despite how bleak and unpromising the evil may appear in our fallible perception. While it’s an awfully difficult and theologically complex matter, I feel that resorting to the “it’s hard for me to believe God would do this…” approach demonstrates how presumptuous we become to think that we know better than God about how to handle evil. We could also make the claim that God should have stopped Hitler the moment Hitler decided to advance the Holocaust or the moment the Islamic terrorists stepped foot into their planes on 9/11. We don’t make those suggestions; not because God isn’t capable of stopping them but because we trust God understands the long term goal of his will.

      You describe God as being ‘too small’ when he’s ascribed omniscience but describe him as being ‘big’ when his knowledge is lessened. Given the strong Biblical case in favor of omniscience (the traditional usage – exhaustive knowledge of past, present, and future), I’m struggling to understand how this description coheres with a reliable reading of scripture.

      I’m very glad you responded and I tremendously enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter! God bless!

      • Thanks for your response. I’ve heard many people (mostly who find reasons why they choose not to believe in the one, true God) say things like… “If God was all loving and all powerful, how could he allow evil in this world.” I hope I am not being misunderstood in my comments. This is not my position at all. I do agree with you, that the potential for good to come out of evil, i.e. people coming together in the wake of Katrina, those who hid Jews during Hitler’s reign, etc… is evident. However, it seems to me that you are saying that God would choose evil to accomplish good. I do not believe this would be his ultimate will. His ultimate will is to bring restoration to his creation. He allows all of us to participate in bringing this restoration. If I understand what you are saying, God pre-ordained sin/evil in this world so that more might know him? Why does God allow evil in the world – because He gives us each free will. He believes in each of us that we have the ability to make the right choices, to bring heaven to earth.
        I agree God does not waste moments, however it seems very clear that our choices dictate how God will use those moments. If God knows exactly what we will do, I have a hard time seeing that as free will, since He is the creator of all. I don’t see His knowledge as lessened if He knows all the possible outcomes as well as all the possible choices. If He was limiting Himself to not know the outcomes, yes, I could see this as lessened knowledge. However that would not be my argument. Your examples seem very Calvinist to me. Does God not pursue us? Is the Holy Spirit not always wooing us? If God already knows who will choose Him and who won’t, why would He still pursue us? Why would He send His son so that all might know Him? If he already knows our choices, there is no free will. If our choices are already known by Him, there is no hope for those who haven’t been “chosen.” There has to be hope that All may know him.

        Thanks again. I enjoy having the conversation!

      • Again, I value your thoughtful response! It is great to hear different opinions on this matter.

        I’d like to refine the points I made in my previous response in order to hopefully bring greater clarity to my position. You perceived my position as one that seems to advance the notion that God somehow ‘chooses’ evil/sin for the purposes of accomplishing the good, essentially resulting in the pre-ordination of evil if God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive. This is certainly not the argument I was advancing. As I said previously, God ‘permits’ evil/sin to occur rather than ‘choosing’ evil/sin to occur. The word ‘permit’ presupposes the existence of human free will. Although it’s incomprehensible for fallen beings to fully grasp this reality, God brought this world into existence with the understanding that evil/sinful transactions would inevitably take place. However, God’s omniscience provides God with the resource to create a world that would permit the least amount of evil and the greatest amount of followers that would freely accept him. If it was possible for God to create a world where all beings would accept Christ freely, God would have actualized that world instead. Since God did not want to actualize a robot world where we are virtual pets in God’s cosmic experiment, it’s theologically reasonable to assume that God actualized a world that would bring the greatest number of followers to him. Since evil does exist, it is also theological reasonable to believe that God actualized a world where the least amount of evil would freely take place. Could God have actualized a world where people couldn’t freely partake in any evil? Not without removing free will or not implementing constant divine coercion.

        As far as the claim that God’s exhaustive foreknowledge overrides the free will of humanity – Below is a quote by William Lane Craig’s that addresses the open theists’ claim that God’s exhaustive knowledge of the past, present, and future is somehow indefensible when compared to a God (of the open persuasion) who knows “all possible outcomes as well as all possible choices”,

        “One curious feature of Boyd’s view is that the God of open theism knows the truth counterfactuals of divine freedom concerning what he [God] would do in any circumstances, but not counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Boyd insists that God knows each and every story line as if it were a certainty. But he does not take God’s freedom to be thereby obviated. If knowing what he would freely do in any set of circumstances is consistent with God’s freedom, it is hard to see why his knowing what we would freely do in any circumstances is inconsistent with our freedom”

        The thrust of the open position is that God has exhaustive knowledge of all possibilities and outcomes along with an exhaustive knowledge of how He would react under any given circumstance because of his intrinsic quality of omniscience. Given this fact, it is curious to see the objection advanced that would give the impression that God’s exhaustive understanding of his own future free actions is somehow incompatible with the claim that he has exhaustive knowledge of the future free actions of his creation. Through God’s omniscience of his own future actions, does he obviate his own free will? Obviously not. In the same way, does God’s omniscience obviate the free will of humanity? Again, obviously not. Simply because something is difficult to comprehend (I personally struggle too!) doesn’t necessarily mean it is logically incoherent. God’s foreknowledge is not a causal mechanism for creaturely choice. As a fallible being, I can predict the future to a small degree. Every morning I wake up at 6:40 AM, I’m always at work at 8:00 AM, I always leave work at 4:30 PM, my wife and I are expecting a baby in July, etc… As an infinitely omniscient God, he would have an exhaustive knowledge of every action that would ever take place because he infinitely knew every aspect of his creation prior to Genesis 1:1. While I have a very limited ability to gather knowledge of the future, my predictions are not causal. Similarly, God’s foreknowledge is not causal even though it is necessarily exhaustive.

        Lastly, the view that you are advancing necessarily requires that God would know outcomes. So, he would necessarily know which individuals would ultimately reject him because that would be their outcome. Would he not bother to woo individuals whose ultimate outcome would result in the rejection of God (that is what you seem to suggest about a God with exhaustive foreknowledge)? In the same way that you criticize God’s alleged intrusion of free will through foreknowledge, God’s knowledge of all outcomes would pervert your goal of advancing an approach that supposedly frees humanity from the divine overreach of an omniscient God. As you say, “if God was limiting himself to not know the outcomes, yes, I would see this as lessened knowledge.” The scriptures that speak of the ‘elect’ and ‘chosen’ (i.e. traditional scriptures that are particularly troublesome for those that hold an ‘open’ leaning view) would fit perfectly in that context because God would ultimately have the knowledge of each individual outcome while not knowing every choice one has taken throughout his or her life. Your objection to my position that ‘there is no hope for those who haven’t been chosen’ would also be applicable to your position because God would have exhaustive knowledge of outcomes, even though I disagree with your description of those who were not ‘chosen’.

        Again, wonderful discussion. It’s exciting to discuss these matters with you!

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