The Openness of God

23 July 2008

Those interested in the contemporary theological and philosophical discussion of God’s foreknowledge and providential control of the world cannot afford to miss a fascinating development known as the open view of God. According to this view, God does not have comprehensive foreknowledge of the future. Namely, He does not know with certainty the free choices His creatures will make. Thus, the future is partially open- depending upon the decisions of free creatures. Since He chose to create a world with free agents, God is necessarily limited in His foreknowledge.

While the openness view does represent a rather radical break with traditional understandings of divine foreknowledge and providence, it does not deny that God is omniscient. God is omniscient just in case He knows all facts which can be logically known. Since, according to the advocates of this view, it is not logically possible to know the future free choices of agents (indeed, there simply aren’t any facts to be known!), it is no limit on God’s omniscience to say that God does not know them.

This view of God’s foreknowledge and providential control has been described and defended in detail in The Openness of God by some of the foremost defenders of the controversial view. Each author adds a contribution in his own area of specialty to provide a compelling cumulative case for the open view of God.

In chapter 1, Richard Rice looks at the biblical evidence for the open model. He points out that a consistent theme of God changing his mind in response to human actions reappears all throughout the Bible. For example, God repeatedly changes His mind when dialoguing with Abraham, who continually tries to persuade God to give him more lenient requirements for the salvation of the city of Sodom in Genesis 18. There is also the famous passage in Genesis 6 where God ‘repents’ of making man in the first place. These are but two examples that demonstrate a persistent biblical theme.

Rice also contends that the open view gains some support from the Biblical theme of God’s love. While other views (such as Calvinism) stress the power of God, the open view stresses the love and relational character of God. Rice argues that love is the more central feature of God’s character. First, there is a contrast between God’s anger and love in Scripture. While anger is temporary, love is eternal, and while God is reluctant to get angry, He is eager to show mercy. Secondly, the direct Johannine statement “God is love” is one of the most direct descriptions of God’s nature in the Scriptures.

Perhaps the most significant Biblical area of struggle for this account is to be found in prophecy. Here, Rice’s exposition is a bit weak. Though he legitimately points out that there are different types of prophecies, some of which are indeed conditional, he is still unable to find a solid metaphysical grounding for God’s prophetic pronouncements in order to make sense of the Biblical data.

In chapter 2, John Sanders attempts to argue that the early Christian church was unduly influenced by Greek thought. The melding of Greek philosophical categories and expectations with the Biblical God led to the untenable hybrid that is often upheld in traditional theology today. This chapter offers a fascinating historical review both of the development of Greek philosophy and the development of Christian theology. While some may differ with Sanders about the degree to which the Church Fathers were influenced by Hellenistic thought, Sander’s contribution provides some great food for thought and a fascinating recounting of history that will be of benefit to any reader.

In chapter 3, Clark Pinnock offers a brief look at systematic theology from the openness perspective. Pinnock is an interesting figure because he is a famous convert from Calvinism. Pinnock looks at some of the traditional characteristics ascribed to God by traditional theology and attempts to reinterpret them in light of what he considers a more balanced Biblical view. Some attributes Pinnock considers are immanence, transcendence, immutability, eternity, and, of course, omniscience. Much of Pinnock’s treatment is actually quite compatible with the view that God has perfect foreknowledge of the future, but Pinnock contends that a balanced Biblical perspective favors the open view.

In chapter 4, William Hasker offers some philosophical considerations relevant to the debate. He analyzes five competing theories of God’s knowledge and power, ranking them on a continuum from most controlling to least controlling. These perspectives include, in order, theological determinism, Molinism, simple foreknowledge, open theism, and process theology. Hasker then argues that the open view offers the most consistent and compelling philosophical account of Christian theism.

In the final chapter, David Basinger looks at some practical implications of the open view. He looks at five areas of concern- petitionary prayer, divine guidance, human suffering, social responsibility, and evangelistic responsibility. Basinger argues that, collectively, the open view of God is actually the most satisfying account of divine foreknowledge and providence. It makes sense of petitionary prayer- since our praying for things can actually change the outcomes of the future. It increases our sense and awareness of social and evangelistic responsibility by reminding us that the future is partially up to us. And it helps us understand human suffering. Rather than conceive of evil as directly created or permitted by God, on the open view we can acknowledge that some evil really is gratuitous.

Since this book is authored by some of the foremost defenders of the open view of God, it is highly recommended for any reader interested in the topic of divine foreknowledge and providence. Moreover, a number of peripheral issues are discussed. Even those who are not enchanted by the open view of God may find the discussions about divine transcendence, eternality, immutability, and simplicity very rewarding. And, since each author analyzes the view from a different perspective, The Openness of God offers a great overview of the pertinent issues concerning this debate.

Personally, I hold some serious reservations about the open view of God. It seems to me that several serious problems plague the theory. I think openness theology is particularly weak at explaining prophecy and providence. Moreover, the view seems to be disconfirmed by numerous Biblical texts that imply or teach God’s foreknowledge of future free events. As a matter of fact, I agree with the authors that many points of traditional theology have been unduly influenced by Greek thought and ought to be dispensed with. For example, the doctrine of impassibility teaches that God cannot suffer. But this view seems to be contradicted by many passages describing God’s frustration and disappointment with sin. Even if these could be brushed off as anthropomorphisms, certainly the suffering of Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry seems to contradict this doctrine. I also think that we ought to view God as existing in time (though always existing), rather than timelessly. Likewise, the doctrine of divine simplicity is rather dubious, particularly considering the fundamental fact that God is in fact a Trinity of three persons in one substance. In all of these cases, I think that the Biblical testimony strongly favors rejecting many of the attributes of classical theology.

Nevertheless, I lack such an inclination with regards to God’s absolute foreknowledge. That God has such foreknowledge seems to be taught repeatedly and forcefully in Scripture. Even if other classical theological doctrines came about via the influence of Greek philosophy, the view that God has foreknowledge about the future- even about future free choices- seems to be solidly based in the Bible. Although I grant that many passages seem to call this view into question (such as the ‘repenting’ passages cited by Rice), I think that the interpretative dilemma facing open theologians is even more severe.

That being said, I would like to offer a brief line of defense for open theists. Contrary to many authors, I do not consider advocates of open theism to be outside the pale of Orthodoxy. Although their view of God does differ significantly from the view offered by traditional theology, I find no reason to deem them heretical. Open theists still affirm that God is omniscient. Thus, the main difference between open theists and their antagonists is their view about whether there really are facts about future free choices. It is true that denying the possibility of facts about future free choices leads to some fairly serious theological consequences, but this fact alone should not lead us to condemn open theism. I think openness theology remains a live option for the Biblical Christian.

Nevertheless, regardless of your view on the matter, The Openness of God is an important work that I recommend.


  1. Not being an inerrantist, I don’t feel the need to wrangle with all these dilemmas about how to stitch every verse in the Bible together. But I do enjoy the fruits of others doing it! Thanks for the great review.

    Josh Foreman    Sep 2, 06:24 PM    #
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