The Doctrine of Open Theism

By Wayne Jackson

Perhaps one of the most confusing ideas to intrude into the world of “Christendom” over the past twenty years or so is an ideology commonly known as Open Theism. It also is designated as Free Will Theism, and Neotheism. Advocates of this theory claim that its goal is to rescue a distorted view of God that has resulted from a flawed interpretation of Scripture, combined with certain ideas long ago borrowed from Greek philosophers.

In addition, it almost certainly is a radical reaction to a theory of rigid determinism, namely the idea that before the foundation of the world, God “unchangeably ordain[ed] whatever comes to pass” (Westminster Confession III), so that true free will does not exist.

It is difficult to get a firm grasp on this novel dogma for two reasons. First, there are different varieties (levels) of Open Theism, and a generalization is scarcely possible. One size does not fit all. Second, the vocabulary sometimes employed in reflecting the ideology is so intentionally technical (hence obscure) that only those initiated in the “code” jargon can grasp fully the ideas being advanced. A couple of examples should suffice.

One source has segmented the Open Theists (i.e., their ideas regarding the foreknowledge of God) into the following categories: Voluntary Nescience, Involuntary Nescience, Non-Bivalentist Omniscience, and Bivalentist Omniscience.

Try to fathom this statement from John Sanders, one of the leading advocates of the New Theism: “God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal” (http://www.opentheism.info/). If this statement does not conflict with the biblical doctrine of the eternality of God (cf. Psalm 90:2), I would not know what to make of it. In the same article Sanders says, “[T]he future is not entirely knowable, even for God” (emphasis added).

One of the key issues in the Open Theism controversy has to do with whether God is omniscient, i.e., does he know all things—past, present, and future? Some allege that he knows nothing of the future. The future has not happened, thus is not "real.” Consequently, according to this view, not even God knows the future! Sanders asserts:

Though God’s knowledge is coextensive with reality in that God knows all that can be known, the future actions of free creatures are not yet reality, and so there is nothing to be known (1998, 198-199).

Elsewhere in the same volume the author concedes that this view “does leave open the possibility that God might be mistaken about some points, as the biblical record acknowledges” (132; emphasis added).

Others allege that God’s knowledge of the future is select. Boyd says that God “foreknows that certain things are going to take place” (2000, 30), but other things he does not know. Let us briefly respond to the idea that God does not know the future—to whatever degree that limitation supposedly is.

Omniscience

The Bible plainly teaches that God is omniscient, i.e., as the eternal “I AM” (Exodus 3:14) he knows all there is to know—past, present, and future. “His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5b). The Hebrew term suggests that which cannot be defined by any number, i.e., limitless. It is the equivalent of our word “omniscient” (Rawlinson 1950, 399).

The Lord declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10). In this respect he stands in vivid contrast to the idols of the ancient world (Isaiah 41:21-24).

As Israel prepared to enter Canaan, Jehovah declared precisely what their plight would be (Deuteronomy 31:20-21). God foretold the providential use of Cyrus the Persian—two centuries before the ruler came to the throne (Isaiah 44:24-45:6).

With scores of precision prophecies, the coming Messiah was described by the prophets who were moved by the Spirit of the omniscient God (Luke 24:44; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 1 John 3:20).

The so-called Openness doctrine undermines the very integrity of the Bible as the inspired word of God!

Free Will

God’s foreknowledge does not nullify human free will or man’s ultimate accountability. To know what will happen does not make one responsible for what does happen. Foreknowledge is not causative; God knew that humanity would stray even “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8), but personal sin is a choice of the human will (Matthew 23:37; John 5:40; 7:17; Revelation 22:17; see also Ephesians 2:1 [note “your” ASV; cf. Salmond 1956, 283]).

On the day of Pentecost Peter declared that Christ’s death was according to “the foreknowledge of God,” yet those instrumental in the Lord’s death were held morally culpable for the heinous deed (Acts 2:23; cf. 4:27-28; see 2:38).

Figurative Language

A fundamental problem with the Open Theism theory is a failure to recognize a common biblical mode of expression that is designed to facilitate heavenly concepts to a respectable level of human comprehension. Scripture figuratively applies physical traits to God in a variety of settings. Jehovah is said to have hands, eyes, ears, etc., though he does not have a material body (Isaiah 59:1; John 4:24; Luke 24:39). Similarly, when the Lord says certain atrocities “never entered [his] mind” (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5), he was emphasizing the horror of Israel’s bloody deeds, not confessing his own ignorance!

When Moses wrote that it “repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth” (Genesis 6:6), does this suggest that God did not anticipate human rebellion, hence was sorry for the mistake he had made? It absolutely does not. This text, and numerous others of similar import, reflect a common biblical figure of speech called anthropopathism, from anthropos (man) and pathos (feelings). “This figure is used of the ascription of human passions, actions, or attributes to God” (Bullinger 1968, 871). With reference to Genesis 6:6, Gleason Archer has noted:

[T]he element of surprise by the unexpected or unlooked for is impossible for one who is omniscient, but His response to humanity was a necessary adjustment to the change in humanity’s feeling about Him. Because they had stubbornly rejected and flouted Him, it was necessary for Him to reject them. The shift in their attitude required a corresponding shift in His attitude toward them, and it is the shift that is expressed by the Hebrew niham [repent] (1982, 81).

Concluding Observations

I had not been formally introduced to this unusual teaching until a few years back when the mother of a student in one of our most respected universities contacted me. She complained that a certain young professor in the Bible department had “ruined” her son by his teaching of Open Theism (among other doctrinal aberrations). It is clear that this aberrant doctrine is making some inroads among our youth.

One of the better refutations of this teaching has been done by Norman Geisler, Wayne House, and Max Hurrera in The Battle for God – Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism. Also see volume two of Geisler’s Systematic Theology.

At the 2001 conference of the Evangelical Theological Society, the following statement was approved by a significant majority of the voting members.

We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate, and infallible knowledge of all events past, present, and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.

This was a clear condemnation of the Open Theism theory.

John MacArthur has argued that some Open Theists teach ideas regarding the atoning work of Christ, namely that “the cross was not a judicial payment” for human sin, that plainly conflicts with New Testament teaching (see Romans 3:24ff. For a consideration of this material, see Sources below.

T. W. Brents (1823-1905) was a Christian physician who also became a respectable Bible teacher. In 1874 he published his book, The Gospel Plan of Salvation, in which there was a chapter on “The Foreknowledge of God” (1957, 92-108). Therein the author argued that whereas God intrinsically possesses the attribute of omniscience, out of respect for mankind’s free will, the Lord chose “to limit the exercise of His own attributes” and thus “not know” that man would violate his law (96). He felt this somehow solved the problem presented by such texts as Genesis 6:5-6 (see above). Apparently, however, this respected gentleman did not anticipate other problems.

For example a thousand years before the birth of Christ David prophesied concerning the treachery of Judas and his removal from the apostolic office (Psalm 69:25; 109:8; cf. Acts 1:16-20). In spite of the Holy Spirit’s foreknowledge (v. 16b), the free will of Judas was not compromised, as he himself conceded when he confessed, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4). Though we respect Brents, this view was both unnecessary and at times not well reasoned. Perhaps, however, it was not so egregious as the theory of Open Theism, which contends that God from the very nature of the case cannot know the future.

Christians should reject the false philosophy of Open Theism, and such teaching ought not to be tolerated in Christian schools.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Archer, Gleason L. 1982. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Boyd, Gregory. 2000. God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Brents, T. W. 1957. The Gospel Plan of Salvation. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
  • Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Geisler, Norman. 2003. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. Ada, MI: Bethany House.
  • Geisler, Norman, Wayne House, and Max Hurrera. 2001. The Battle for God – Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • MacArthur, John. 2001. Open Theism’s Attack on the Atonement. http://www.tms.edu/tmsj/tmsj12a.pdf.
  • Rawlinson, George. 1950. Psalms. The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. 3. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Salmond, S. D. F. 1956. Ephesians. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Sanders, John. 1998. The God Who Risks. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.