Openness Theology and Divine Omniscience
Openness theology, a modern theological movement that is essentially a resurgence of the Socinian heresy condemned by the church in the 16th century, denies the orthodox doctrine of God’s omniscience, the belief that God knows all things exhaustively before they happen.
Scripture teaches God’s omniscience, that is, that God knows himself and all things in creation exhaustively and from eternity past. This is a function of God’s lordship over all things. God’s knowledge of all things extends to the past, present, and future, encompassing even the actions of free agents. This does not destroy the freedom of humanity, but instead defines it more carefully as a compatibilist freedom rather than a libertarian freedom. Humans are not free to do anything without constraint but are constrained by their desires, circumstances, natures, and, ultimately, God. Openness theology denies all of this; where Arminian theology only denies that we have compatibilist freedom in favor of libertarian freedom, Openness theology denies that God even knows what we will do. Openness theologians argue that it is logically inconsistent to say that God knows in advance what someone would freely do in a libertarian sense. Openness theology is not new but is essentially a relabeled Socianism, a heresy that was condemned in the 16th century.
Scripture affirms that God’s knowledge of himself and of the world is exhaustive:
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. (Ps. 147:5)
(Peter) said to (Jesus), “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb. 4:12–13)
For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20)
God knows all about the starry heavens (Gen. 15:5; Ps. 147:4; Isa. 40:26; Jer. 33:22) and the tiniest details of the natural world (Pss. 50:10–11; 56:8; Matt. 10:30). God’s knowledge is absolute knowledge, and so it elicits religious praise (Ps. 139:17–18; Isa. 40:28; Rom. 11:33–36). Wicked people often think that God will not notice what they do, but they will find that God does know, and that he will certainly condemn their sin (Ps. 10:11; 11:4; 73:11; 94:7; Isa. 29:15, 40:27; 47:10; Jer. 16:17–18; Ezek. 8:12). To the righteous, however, God’s knowledge is a blessing of the covenant (Exod. 2:23–25; 3:7–9; 1 Kgs. 18:27; 2 Chron. 16:9; Pss. 33:18–20; 34:15–16; 38:9; 145:20; Matt. 6:32). He knows what is happening to them, he hears their prayer, and he will certainly answer.
God knows everything because he is the Lord of all. He made the heavens and the earth, and he knows his own plan for its history (Eph. 1:11). He has control over all things (Rom. 11:36), his judgments of truth have ultimate authority (John 17:17), and he is present everywhere to observe what is happening (Ps. 139). The theological term omniscience refers to God’s exhaustive knowledge of himself and of the creation.
God’s Knowledge of the Future
His omniscience includes knowledge of the past, present, and future. His knowledge of the past and present is clear from the texts cited above. Scripture is equally clear in teaching God’s knowledge of the future. Note, for example, this part of the definition of prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:21–22:
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’ – when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
In this passage, part of the work of the prophet (appointed by God to bring his word to the people) is to foretell the future. If he claims to foretell the future, and that prophecy fails, then the people may conclude that he is a false prophet. The assumption behind this provision is that God knows the future, and therefore any true prophet will predict the future accurately.
Knowledge of the future is not only the test of a true prophet. It is also the test of a true God. In the contest between Yahweh, Israel’s lord, and the false gods of the ancient Near East, a major issue is which God knows the future. This is a frequent theme in Isaiah 40–49, a passage that focuses on the sovereignty of Yahweh over against the absurd pretensions of the false gods:
Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. (Isa. 41:– 23)
True prophets announce the future: not only momentous events like the coming of the Messiah (Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1-9), but also very concrete and specific events of the near future (1 Sam. 10:1–11). These passages indicate that God has a knowledge in advance, even of free human decisions. That is also true of prophecies that indicate the broad structure of human history. An example is God’s promise to Abraham:
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen. 15:13–16)
This general prediction presupposes an indefinite number of more specific future facts: that Abraham will have many descendants, that they will migrate to lands with unfriendly rulers, that the rulers of the nations will afflict them, that these afflictions will end after four hundred years, and so on. These events result from many free human decisions: by the rulers, by Abraham’s offspring, by the Amorites, and so on. This prophecy of great redemptive-historical events is also a prediction of many free actions by many people. The biblical picture here is that God knows the future exhaustively, meticulously, in every detail.
The prophetic prediction of free human actions is found in many other passages (see Gen. 27:27–29, 39–40; 49:11; Num. 23–24; Deut. 32:1–43; 33:1-29; 1 Sam. 23:11; 1 Kings 13:1–4; 2 Kings 8:12). God knows everything we will say or do, before we say or do it (Ps 139:4, 16). He knew the prophet Jeremiah before his conception (Jer. 1:5). That implies that he knew in advance who would marry whom in Israel, and all the various combinations of sperm and egg that would lead to the conception of this one individual. Many free human decisions led to Jeremiah’s conception, and the lord knew them all.
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches that his Father knows the day and hour of his return (Mark 13:32). But that day will not come until after other events have taken place—events that depend on free human decisions (13:1–30). Jesus also predicted that Judas would betray him (John 6:64; 13:18–19), though Judas certainly made his wicked decision freely and responsibly.
The view of divine omniscience summarized above has been the traditional view of orthodox Christianity—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. But some within the church have questioned it. Among these were Lelio (1525-62) and Fausto (1539-1604) Socinus. Robert Strimple describes their view as follows, contrasting it with Arminianism:
Arminianism denies that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass but wishes nevertheless to affirm God’s foreknowledge of whatever comes to pass. Against the Arminians, the Socinians insisted that logically the Calvinists were quite correct in insisting that the only real basis for believing that God knows what you are going to do next is to believe that he has foreordained what you are going to do next. How else could God know ahead of time what your decision will be? Like the Arminians, however, the Socinians insisted that it was a contradiction of human freedom to believe in the sovereign foreordination of God. So they went “all the way” (logically) and denied not only that God had foreordained the free decisions of free agents but also that God foreknows what those decisions will be (see “What Does God Know?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, 140-41).
In the later part of the twentieth century, a movement sprung up, associated with Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, Gregory Boyd, John Sanders and others, called by such names as “open theism,” “free will theism,” and “openness theology.” Strimple compares their teaching to that of the Socinians:
(The Socinian doctrine) is precisely the teaching of the “free will theism” of Pinnock, Rice, and other like-minded “new model evangelicals.” They want their doctrine of God to sound very “new,” very modern, by dressing it up with references to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics and to the insights of process theology (although they reject process theology as a whole…). But it is just the old Socinian heresy rejected by the church centuries ago.
As Strimple suggests, openness theology sees itself primarily as a defense of human free will. There are various understandings of human freedom in theological discussion. One view, called “compatibilism,” asserts that we are free whenever we can do what we want to do. To be free is to act according to what you desire. On this view, it doesn’t matter whether your decision is caused or necessitated. The term “compatibilism,” in fact, indicates that freedom is compatible with causes and constraints. As long as you can choose to do what you want to do, your choice is free.
The other meaning of freedom commonly discussed in theology is “libertarian” freedom. On a libertarian basis, your decisions are free only insofar as they are not caused or constrained by anything at all. If your choice is made necessary—by your own desire, your nature, your inclinations, someone else’s power over you, or even God—your decision is not free. Libertarian freedom is sometimes called “incompatibilism,” because it is incompatible with any kind of causation.
Now in ordinary life, our usual concept of freedom is compatibilist. As long as we can do what we want to do, we believe that we are free. It would never occur to us to think that being compelled by our own desires removes our freedom (except, perhaps, in cases where our desires are obsessive). That is also the concept of freedom taught in Calvinist theology and, as this author believes, in Scripture. In Scripture, we can be free even when our actions are determined by our own desires, our nature (significantly, our heart: Matt. 15:18–20; Luke 6:45), our circumstances, or by God. God’s sovereign determinations are, of course, all important. According to the Bible, God controls everything that happens (Rom. 11:36; Eph. 1:11), but that fact does not detract from our freedom and responsibility. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to oppress the Israelites (Rom. 9:17–18), but that divine judgment did not take away Pharaoh’s freedom and responsibility.
Openness theology, however, denies that compatibilist freedom is “real” freedom. It insists that libertarian freedom, freedom from all causation, is the only freedom worthy of the name, and therefore the only possible basis of moral responsibility. Arminian theology also champions libertarian freedom. But Arminianism tries to combine libertarian freedom with a strong view of God’s omniscience. In particular, Arminians, like Calvinists, believe that God knows the future exhaustively.
But open theists, like the Socinians, point out that if God knows the future in all its details, then the future is certain. And if the future is certain, then there can be no libertarian freedom. All of our actions are constrained, if God knows them in advance. So openness theology takes a step beyond Arminianism. It not only affirms libertarian freedom as Arminianism does, but it denies that God knows in advance all the details of the future. In open theism, the (libertarian) free actions of human beings are inherently unknowable, because nothing makes them happen, not even God. So God cannot be omniscient in the traditional orthodox sense. He is ignorant of what any free agent will do in the future.
This is a startling view in a Christian context. Open theists try to relieve some of the sharpness of it by emphasizing that God, like human pundits, has the ability to project present trends in the future, so as to make a good guess as to what will happen next week, or years from now. But it is hard to imagine how such celestial punditry could explain the detailed predictions of biblical prophets, centuries before their fulfillment. And it is hard to imagine how we can fully trust a God who is ignorant of the course of our lives. A God who is ignorant of the world he has made is certainly less than the Lord of the Bible.
Advocates of Open Theism
- Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, and William Hasker, The Openness of God
- David Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism: a Philosophical Assessment
- Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible
- John B. Cobb and Clark Pinnock, eds., Searching for an Adequate God: a Dialogue Between Process and Free Will Theists
- John Sanders, The God Who Risks
- Richard Rice, God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will
Critiques of Open Theism; Advocates of Traditional Divine Omniscience
- Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism. See book summary here.
- Bruce Ware, Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God
- Douglas Wilson, ed., Bound Only Once: the Openness of God as a Failure of Imagination, Nerve, and Reason
- John Frame, No Other God: a Response to Open Theism
- John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 21–79, 469–12.
- John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds., Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity
- Paul Helm, The Providence of God
- R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism
- Roger Nicole, “A Review Article: God of the Possible?”
- Robert Strimple, “What Does God Know?” in Armstrong, J., ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis