What is Open Theism?

Open Theism is attributed to a theology in which God does not know the future, and Calvinists often assert that Open Theism is the inevitable consequence of all Arminianism, which Calvinists thus use as a “Poison the Well” tactic. In other words, unless you believe like us, you are one of them, and one of them is bad. Calvinists also frequently invoke Universalism, Pelagianism, Romanism, Liberalism, and literally any other teaching which can get the job done. Its a debate trick, and Calvinists are not adverse to using it, whenever deemed necessary. However, for Arminians to accuse Calvinists of being the living legacy of Gnosticism, is actually fair, since both have the common bond of denying Free Will, while affirming Determinism. If on the other hand, the Calvinist wishes to cite any common bond between Arminianism and Pelagianism, such as God ultimately forcing the individual to make a choice, then that is a fair comparison, though it would be illegitimate to suggest a common bond that otherwise doesnt exist, such as asserting that Arminians reject any gracious enablement by God:

Calvinist, James White: “Why should we give thanks to God upon hearing of the faith of fellow believers, if in fact having faith in Christ is something that every person is capable of having without any gracious enablement by God?” (Debating Calvinism, p.20, emphasis mine)

That would be a good example of the error. Obviously Arminians teach the doctrine of Prevenient Grace.

As far as Open Theism goes, it is built on a premise that free-will logically requires that any free decision cannot be infallibly known (or else is logically unknowable), until a choice is made, because the very premise of free-will implies that one may have a change-of-mind. The problem with such a view is that it also suggests that free-will is absent of any “cause and effect” relationship, whatsoever, which I would argue is opposed to the everyday experience of free-will, and also would otherwise negate biblical texts, which speak of God’s knowledge of cause & effect. There are a couple of texts that bear this out, as will be explored, notably including: Jeremiah 38:17-23, Matthew 11:21-24 and Revelation 20:7-10.

​Open Theism = God didn’t decree the future and thus cannot know what is undetermined.
Calvinism = God did decree everything and thus necessarily knows what He decreed.
Arminianism = God didn’t decree everything and yet still knows everything.

Let’s restate the chart, in order to highlight the consequences of Calvinism:

​Open Theism = God can’t know the future because He didn’t preordain it.
Calvinism = God couldn’t otherwise know the future, so He does preordain it.
Arminianism = God knows the future with or without preordaining it.

One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “Open Theists have the same understanding of God’s character as Arminians do. Open Theists believe that God is good, and that for His part, He genuinely wants everyone to be saved. But Open Theists agree with Calvinists that God can’t know the future unless He ordains it. Open Theists conflate certainty with necessity, just as the Calvinists do, but they take it the opposite way. Open Theists believe that if God knows the future, then humanity can’t make genuine decisions. But, from the Arminian view, if God can know the future without ordaining it, then Open Theism becomes unnecessary.

Arminian, Daniel Whedon: “There is a class of thinkers who avoid the difficulty of reconciling foreknowledge with free agency by denying the existence or the possibility of the foreknowledge of a free or contingent event. They affirm that a free act is, previous to its existence, a nothing, and so not an object of knowledge. The knowing it, therefore, supposes a contradiction.” (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, p.229, emphasis mine)

Notice the similarity of Open Theism to Calvinism:

James White: “If you think about it, if God really knows what man’s going to do, is man really free?, and that’s why the Open Theists go the direction that they do.” (Arminianism: It Robs the Gospel of its Personal Nature)

James White: How God can know future events, for example, and yet not determine them, is an important point….” (Debating Calvinism, p.163, emphasis mine)

According to Calvinism, God cannot know the future unless He has predetermined the future. Thus, the glaring problem of Calvinism is that God must predetermine everything in order to know anything. But why should we assume that God lacks the capacity to know an uncaused event? Doesnt God transcend all time and space? This is what distinguishes Arminians from both Calvinists and Open Theists. Arminians affirm that God knows the undetermined and uncaused choices of free agents, by virtue of His eternal nature. In this way, Arminians believe that God can know the future, self-determined choices of free agents because God is already there, present in what we call “the future,” and interacting with them. This is what is often referred to as the “Eternal Now” perspective.

One of the biggest contentions with Open Theists is the principle of God’s knowledge being linear, rather than the “Eternal Now” perspective of Arminians. To an Open Theist, God cannot infallibly know a thing until the thing happens, or else something different could happen. But to an Arminian, God knows what a person will choose (not because God determines it for him), but because God is independent of time, as an eternal Being, and knows what a person will self-determinately decide. Thus God’s knowledge does not determine a person’s choice, but capture its reflection like a mirror. A mirror, for instance, does not cause an image, but captures an image. One’s own eyes do not cause an image, but captures the image before him.  

​As an example of a non-linear view of time, set in human terms (in order to render it more understandable), consider an illustration whereby God provides a time machine for an individual to embark on a course into the future (without ever leaving the vehicle), and returning to present time, but being prevented from all interaction, until the future time arrives. This would be necessary for illustration purposes, so as not to change the outcome. In this non-linear view of time, such a person would be given a glimpse of the future, in which the advanced knowledge cannot cause what occurs in the future, and since all interaction is prevented, the future will not change. Such an illustration would eliminate all linear models of time and knowledge. In such an occurrence, one’s knowledge does not cause the future event. As for God (since He is ultimately the true subject), if He is eternal and independent of time, while yet being able to interact in time, His knowledge would also be non-linear, though obviously different from the aforementioned human illustration. In such a case, it could be maintained that God’s knowledge of the future, would not determine the future. However, often times in Scripture, we find that God actually tells people the future, so as to intentionally effect a change in the future. One perfect example is Jeremiah 38:17-23, in which Jeremiah is shown alternative futures, and is sent to motivate king Zedekiah to make the right choices, so as not to be destroyed. Each time Zedekiah makes the wrong choice, a new set of alternatives is presented to Zedekiah, progressively worsening.

One Open Theist objects: “This is also problematic, because traveling forward in time and then returning doesnt ensure that all choices will be made in the same way when we move through that time period. Every time we go back, it could be different. Thats the nature of free will. Youve voided free will by saying that we MUST make the same choices every time we encounter a given circumstance.”

However, my analogy should have avoided this problem, by ensuring that no tampering had taken place, which make otherwise change the outcome.

One Open Theist replies: “No, even with your principle of non-interaction, free will would dictate that a different set of choices would likely result, because free will isnt determined by circumstances. Free will is determined by the intent of the free will agent, and that may be different every time we went back in time.”

However, freedom itself is not a catalyst for changing what a person would have done.

The Open Theist continues: “Theres certainly nothing preventing an individual from self-determining differently, if they have free will, and given the number of choices that happen over time, it is likely pushing on to certainty, that some will, in fact, do something differently.”

However, I would point to cause & effect. If such hypothetical individuals would have changed what they would otherwise have freely done, then what is the cause & effect, which would be the impetus and catalyst for something else to occur? To say that mere freedom is the cause & effect, I wouldnt accept that.

The Open Theist continues: “If you say that all decisions are a part of a chain of cause and effect, then they cannot be free, because they are determined by the conditions. Free will, by its nature, is ‘free’ from the law of cause and effect. That’s why we call it ‘free will.’ Thus, yes, it could be different because the individual making the choice is conscious, can form intent, and does so without the determination of circumstances.”

I wouldn’t say that the conditions determine the results, but a combination of the individual’s character (which progressively develops throughout a lifetime), together with a dynamic set of conditions, determines the results, as being the self-determination of the individual. In a given instant of time, the combination of an individual’s character, and the situation that he is in, should always produce the same result, unless there is a definite catalyst in order to do otherwise. Since a person’s character and environment are dynamic, each progressive element of time could produce a different result, but all instances of one particular element of time, should be static, absent of a dynamic element. In other words, if the situation is changed, then the person might choose differently. Freedom does not necessarily equate with randomness. 

Next consider the biblical texts will otherwise would refute the Open Theist perspective.

Revelation 20:7-10: “When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” 

For an Open Theist, it is quite possible that none of these things will happen, as it is logically unknowable for God to say, with certainty, that these people will do as described. In contrast, according to Arminians, God can tell you what those in the Book of Revelation will do, of their own free will, and He can tell you what He will do in response, and He, logically speaking, doesn’t have to predetermine or cause any of it, in order for all of it to be true, because God is witnessing in the future what they have determined themselves, as God’s foreknowledge is simply the perspective of an eternal Being who dwells “outside of time.” 

Matthew 11:21-24: “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.

That sounds fairly certain. There is no ambiguity. There is no indecision. God is stating what He knows would have happened, and in no uncertain terms. Additionally, this is not merely divine speculation, or else it would be completely inadmissable evidence on Judgment Day, in which some nations will utilize this information in their own defense, in order to mitigate against their own damages, for a lesser punishment (compare with Luke 12:48), in which they will rise up against Capernaum and Bethsaida. (Compare with Luke 11:29-32.) However, to an Open Theist, God’s knowledge of undetermined counter-factuals is “logically unknowable.” Hence, you should expect that an Open Theist will be entirely dismissive of the text. To an Open Theist, this is merely just hyperbole, and nothing to be taken literally. However, it should be pointed out that sin is not the only factor for judgment, but also correlating to a measure of the grace that one has received, as per Luke 12:48. If immorality was the only measure of judgment, then it would be wrong for the more immoral nations of Sodom and Gomorrah to be held in less contempt than Capernaum and Bethsaida. Only the concept of spurned-grace would make sense of the greater condemnation of Capernaum and Bethsaida. Now if Jesus was merely engaging in hyperbole, then it would be wrong to positively affirm a greater condemnation of the unbelieving Jewish cities, based upon knowledge that is logically unknowable. Otherwise, those cities could say, “What you are alleging is logically unknowable. There is no proof of Your opinion. Those other cities might not only have done the same as us, in similar circumstance, but even have done worse!” So only the certainly of Jesus’ knowledge could guarantee the just nature of His judgment, all of which being “logically unknowable”
 to the Open Theist.

Jeremiah 38:17-23: “Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, “If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. But if you will not go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand.”’ Then King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, ‘I dread the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans, for they may give me over into their hand and they will abuse me.’ But Jeremiah said, ‘They will not give you over. Please obey the LORD in what I am saying to you, that it may go well with you and you may live. But if you keep refusing to go out, this is the word which the LORD has shown me: “Then behold, all of the women who have been left in the palace of the king of Judah are going to be brought out to the officers of the king of Babylon; and those women will say, ‘Your close friends have misled and overpowered you; while your feet were sunk in the mire, they turned back.’ They will also bring out all your wives and your sons to the Chaldeans, and you yourself will not escape from their hand, but will be seized by the hand of the king of Babylon, and this city will be burned with fire.”’

Whole conversations are being presented, which would not occur in the actual world, if Zedekiah would only obey God’s warning. This is unmistakable. If Zedekiah does X, then the Babylonians will do Y, and in fact, Jeremiah assures Zedekiah that his fears of what the Jews would otherwise do to him, are completely false. Now, how any of this could be harmonized with Open Theism, is beyond me, and therefore I would expect that an Open Theist would take a thousand foot view of the text, and be entirely dismissive of it, through an alegorical approach, perhaps.

​Disclaimer: I consider Open Theists as fellow Arminians/Provisionists because we merely have a difference on God’s knowledge of time, and perhaps a nuanced difference in our understanding of free will, but there is nothing morally repugnant about Open Theism, whereas there is absolutely a sense of moral repugnance of Calvinism, and how it utterly maligns God’s character.

For additional discussion on this topic, see here.

Question:  What is Open Theism?

Answer:  It is the belief that the future is open, in the sense of being undetermined, that is, in the sense that the undetermined future is logically unknowable, even for God, and that what God knows, in terms of what He plans to do, can still change, since the future remains open for even Him, too.