Open Theism

In this post I will try to explain in a concise and simple way some of the main elements of the theological movement known as Open Theism. Most of my knowledge on this subject comes from Internet articles and YouTube debates featuring leading theologians in this field. I will aim to represent the tenets of Open Theism accurately and will offer some criticisms of Openist theology based on my own beliefs about free will and the nature of God.

Open Theists (or ‘Openists’) use scripture to illustrate the idea that God can change His mind. For instance, I have heard Openists site the Biblical passage 2 Kings 20: 1-4 to illustrate this. In the passage God tells Hezekiah to get his house in order as he is going to die. Hezekiah protests and pleads with God, and in response God agrees to let him live for another fifteen years.

The question here is whether God had decreed these events from eternity past (as Calvinists would claim), or whether God was responding to Hezekiah within time at the moment he pleaded. Openists assert that we have free will, and therefore that God can change His mind in response to actions freely undertaken by human beings.

I would have to take issue with the Openist position on the grounds that I do not believe human beings have free will. Omnipresence is an attribute of God, and this being so, He is in control of all action in existence. God would have been in control of every aspect of Hezekiah’s life, including his illness, his pleading, and his subsequent recovery following the apparent change of mind from God.

What we need to understand is that God did not create the universe and then sit back and watch it unfold in an automatic way, but rather He actively animates the universe and all its parts in this single eternal present moment. God is living. There is no atom in existence which is not under the direct control of God. So when we read this Biblical story about God changing His mind, we have to remember that Hezekiah is just a puppet in God’s great plan, which He unfolds in accordance with His divine will as the centuries go by.

You see, existence is like a game. In Hinduism they have a term called ‘lila’ which doesn’t really have a parallel in English, but the term loosely describes life as God’s ‘play’. God is glorifying Himself through His creation and He is the sole agent that creates, sustains, and acts, in order to express some of the infinite possibilities that are contained within His nature.

Throughout the Bible events are presented as though human beings have free will to which God responds. I believe this free will is illusory. There is a certain mode of thought that human beings have which is like a veil that prevents us from being aware of God, but this veil is part of the way God has created humans to be. God reveals Himself to some people during our earthly lives (we could say He ‘lifts the veil’), and to others He remains veiled; this is all part of the ‘lila’ and God’s plan for mankind.

We can only understand the Bible and the Hezekiah story in this context. The ‘play’ that goes on between God and Hezekiah is completely within God’s control, and all of the many instances where there is rebellion against God in the Bible are also part of this divine play.

Keeping all of this in mind, let us look at a few other features of Open Theism. In this YouTube video, using scriptural references to back up his position, Openist Greg Boyd asserts the following things about God:

  • God regrets (Genesis 6:6-7)
  • God confronts improbabilities (Isaiah 5:1-5)
  • God gets frustrated (Ezekiel 22:30-31)
  • God tests people (e.g. Abraham in Genesis 22:12)
  • God speaks of the future using subjunctive terms, e.g. ‘if’ or ‘may’ (Exodus 13:17)

All of the above statements are intended to defend the view that God’s will changes as time unfolds. I would agree with the idea that God can change His mind, for He is all-powerful and sovereign and in control of everything that happens. Why shouldn’t He make changes to His plans at any time if He wills to do so?

The Openist belief in free will raises the further question of how God’s will and human wills interact. It is important to ask, ‘What is God doing, and what are humans doing?’. To me it is obvious that God is sustaining me in every moment; He is flowing my blood, beating my heart, blinking my eyelids, controlling my breath, digesting food in my stomach, bringing thoughts to my mind, and yes, even typing these words through me. He is also working in your body and mind as you read, converting markings on a screen into meaningful impressions in your mind. If you consider this deeply, isn’t it obvious that God is making you be? Can’t you see that He is in control?

We do not have free will.

For the Openist, the future is not eternally settled, but is at least partly open to possibilities. God knows all things, including the past, present, and some of the future. God knows all possibilities, but we still have freedom. God is both stable and flexible. God is stable in every respect in which it is virtuous to be stable, but God is flexible in every respect in which it is virtuous to be flexible (the idea here is that free will is a gift given to us by God in order that we may choose to enter into a loving relationship with Him).

This perspective allows the Openist to maintain that God is perfectly loving, in contrast with a Calvinistic worldview, for instance, in which God is in control of suffering. My own view, of course, is that God is indeed in control of all suffering (see this article), but Calvinists affirm we do have free will (see this article), which is why I’m not a Calvinist.

The Openist view is that in any given moment the future consists of many ‘possibilities’. God is infinitely wise and therefore knows every possibility. My problem here is that the Openists seem to divide all activity into events, and seemingly a finite number of possible events. It would be difficult for anyone to assert that God knows infinite possible courses of action in every possible situation, as that gives us infinite infinities, which is a concept that doesn’t really make sense, even if God is omnipotent. In reality, of course, there are no separate events, as so-called events flow into one another. There is only really one eternal event without beginning or end; the eternal now which is not ontologically distinct from God.

So in summary, the Openists defend a belief in human free will and say that God changes His mind in response to human action. There are clearly scriptures that can be used to back up such a belief, but I believe this perspective fails to take into account the true nature of God as omnipresent and therefore in control of all so-called ‘events’.

Feel free to share your thoughts on Open Theism in the comments below. Thank you for reading.

4 comments

  1. Hi Stephen!

    For myself, I do not see that being omnipresent; everywhere at the same time, means being in control of our lives all of the time…or rather God ‘choosing’ to be which WOULD mean we have no free will.

    In previous of your posts, I found no hint from you to suggest a belief that God has a real adversary…satan and his many demon soldiers/ followers. If you truly believe in God you must also believe in satan. It is satan who deceitfully attempts; and in many, many cases succeeds, in robbing us of the freedom /free will God so mercifully gifted to us.

    Drugs, gambling, alcoholism, smoking, unnatural sexual practices, occultism etc are all undesireable, potentially fatal addictions/ obsessions that were never part of God’s plan for us at Creation but part of satan’s plan to trap and ENSLAVE us into doing his will in opposition to God’s will; thereby robbing us of our own ‘God-given’ free will. We have the choice!

    If God ‘chose to’ control every aspect of our lives; even our thoughts; as you believe, there would be no such thing as addiction or undesireable obsession…would there?

    God’s Laws; the Ten Commandments …and every single one of them still applicable today…show us how we can become more like God in thought, word and deed and win salvation if we keep those laws, but how many of us ‘choose’ to?

    I know very few people; even professing Christians, who keep even 5 of them! If God controlled our every thought, word and deed, God would have had no need in giving the Ten Commandments to us in the first place…because in your view, we would be already programmed to carry out God’s will exactly as He wishes.

    You are also overlooking the oportunity given to us for repentance (Yet another of God’s merciful gifts) in changing OUR mindset and subsequently our ungodly behaviour when we truly repent before God of some former sin. God would not encourage us to repent of previous sins, if He had predestined for us a sinful life in the first place.

    Unless you are saying that, God’s nature is perverse in that he gives to some a sinful nature in order to amuse Himself (‘Play’ being your descriptive word) by watching the devastating results unfold!
    That is satan’s evil game, Stephen; not God’s!

    You would do well to look at the new video on line showing the opening ceremony of the new tunnel in Switzerland to see ‘who’ is leading who! God most certainly is not leading the minds of ‘that lot’…far from it!!!

    No offence meant but, your ‘theory’ on us having no free will just doesn’t hold water, Steven.

    God will create certain circumstances detrimental to us personally for a while or withold certain good things from us for a time in order to encourage us to wake up (shock tactics if you like) to His ABSOLUTE truth before it’s too late because He loves us so much. But even then we are free to choose to ignore Him.

    All the best to you

    Jan

    1. Hi Jan!

      Many thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking comment.

      Regarding omnipresence, I believe everywhere means everywhere! There is no atom in the universe in which God is not present. So every cell in our bodies is a part of God. How can you then say we are free? There is a contradiction here which doesn’t make sense. Or would you like to offer a different definition of omnipresence?

      If God is not in control, why do you pray to Him?

      You said “If you truly believe in God you must also believe in Satan”. I completely disagree of course, but I would be interested to learn more about your belief in Satan. What is Satan? A creature? And if so where does he dwell, and how to he interact with us? How do you know what is Satan acting and what is God acting? Please explain some of the attributes of Satan so I can begin to understand your conception of who or what he is. For my own views about Satan, see this article: https://perfectchaos.org/2015/08/01/the-devil-doesnt-exist/

      Does God have the power to defeat Satan, and if so, why does He not do so to avoid our suffering?

      You wrote, “If God ‘chose to’ control every aspect of our lives; even our thoughts; as you believe, there would be no such thing as addiction or undesirable obsession…would there?”. Where we differ here is that I believe God creates all experiences, good and bad, and you believe God does all good and Satan does all evil. I have explained my side of the argument in these posts:

      https://perfectchaos.org/2012/03/04/the-reason-why-we-suffer/
      https://perfectchaos.org/2012/08/12/the-agony-of-god/

      It is illogical to argue both that God is omnipresent and not in control of all things. So the important question is not ‘if’ God creates suffering (or addiction or obsessions), but ‘why?’.

      Just to clarify, I don’t believe God ‘predestined’ events; as I explained in the post I believe God is living and active right now and controlling all things. We are much like puppets in a puppet show. What exactly do you believe God is doing in this very moment?

      Best wishes,

      Steven

  2. Hi Steven!

    Your post is very interesting, especially your views on free will – that it does not exist and that God is orchestrating everything.

    My view on free will is that there are several possible ways to explain it but, like you, I’m not convinced that God gave us this as a gift, or even as a curse. What kind of omnipotent God requires worship of any kind? I think that we worship Him for our own benefit, not for His.

    Anyone who thinks about the nature of God in a rational way is drawn to question how a Being, said to have the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience (knowing all, past, present and future), omnipresence or panentheism (everything, including the universe, contained within God), and goodness itself, can create sentient beings like us, but is somehow unable to prevent, or is causing our suffering? This is not goodness itself.

    Free will is hardly an answer as it suggests that our God created us knowing that some of us would do bad deeds to others, or, He is somehow unaware of what we will do because we are completely free. If He did grant us such a freedom then it suggests that He is not omniscient, or, we are some kind of experiment, and He renders Himself unaware of what we will do until after we do it!

    Also, you have to ask why a person who is abused as a child is much more likely to become an adult who abuses children than one who is treated with respect? What happened to that person’s free will? If it always requires a bad choice to do bad things and a good choice to do good things, then we should not be designed to learn bad behavior!

    My view is that God is not orchestrating everything that happens but is fully aware because it all happens within Him, and that we should not assign all the attributes to Him that we do. It’s as though we thought of all the things God should be then made those attributes part of the definition of God. Maybe God has limitations and He has some, but not all the attributes?

    Unlike most people, I believe that we are only free when we are fully engaged in God’s goodness and then we are doing what we were designed to do – to be good to one another. In my view we are free when we do God’s will. When we do bad things to others we are trespassing on their well-being and going against God, which ultimately means that we are trespassing against ourselves too. I can easily imagine that soldiers who follow orders feel badly about killing other people or maltreating their prisoners, even if they do not say so at the time. It has been made clear in documentaries about WW2, that a significant number of soldiers from both sides did not aim to kill, unless they were in mortal danger of being killed!

    Every blessing,

    Dinos

    1. Hello Dinos!

      Many thanks for your thoughts on the subjects of free will and suffering. I think your perspective is well-articulated and clear, and I have dealt with my own views on these subjects at length on this blog so I don’t feel the need to reiterate them here in response to your comment. I will simply point other readers to a few articles that discuss these problems in more depth from my own perspective:

      https://perfectchaos.org/2012/02/05/free-will/
      https://perfectchaos.org/2013/09/11/truth-beyond-christianity-there-is-no-free-will/
      https://perfectchaos.org/2012/03/04/the-reason-why-we-suffer/
      https://perfectchaos.org/2012/08/12/the-agony-of-god/

      I hope readers will not feel bombarded by this list of links! They are all relatively short articles.

      Best wishes,

      Steven

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