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 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.