Open Theism Simplified

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What I’d like to do here is lay out the basic beliefs of Open Theism (sometimes called, “the Open View”) in as much non-technical language as possible, so that it’s more accessible to folks not familiar with some of the complex language that gets used in theological and philosophical studies.  Doubtlessly, something might be lost for those who would prefer more technical language, and probably some of the things I say about Open Theism may not appeal to every-single Open Theist, but since accessibility and the hope of understanding for a broader audience is the goal here, I’ll have to sacrifice some variations of the view and some jargon.

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First off, as the name suggests, “Open Theism” is for “theists” …those who believe in a God.  Secondly, “Open” describes possibilities.  Put them together and you have possibilities (Open) and a God (Theism), therefore, “Open Theism.”

Ok, let’s go a little deeper into what is meant by “Open.”  Possibilities are about what might and might not come to pass.  If God is all-knowing, then it must also be the fact that God knows all of the future.  Open Theists agree that God is all-knowing and that God knows all of the future, and like others, they think that some of that future is possibilities, but what sets Open Theism apart is the belief that God knows possibilities as possibilities.  So, Open Theism then denies that God faces a future of only settled facts about what will or will not be, and insists that God knows the future as partly settled (or ‘closed’) and partly unsettled (or ‘open’).  Only God knows all that is ‘closed’ or ‘open’ about the future.

Ok, let’s stop right there and break this down a little bit…  Why would Open Theists think that God knows the future as partly composed of possibilities, and not only a future of settled facts in the mind of God?

First, “partly”… then “possibilities”

Partly…

The future as only partly composed of possibilities, because Open Theists believe that some of future will definitely to come to pass.  For example, a Christian Open Theist might say that a “new heavens and new earth,” as described in the book of Revelation, is something that will definitely come to pass, and therefore is not ‘open’ to change, or in other words, it’s not possible for it to turn out otherwise.  This aspect of the future is settled and therefore God (being all-knowing) knows it as settled.  But Open Theists don’t think that all of the future is settled in this way…

Now, “possibilities”…

Open Theists believe that God has made beings (humans, at least, & probably angels) with a free-will.  They believe that God has created us with the ability to choose.  They don’t think that we are always freely choosing, but when we are freely choosing, we could have done other than we did. (Read that last sentence one more time.)  This is what Open Theists mean for us to have a free-will.  It’s a will that is truly free to go one way or another.  (This is a view of free-will that is shared by most Arminians and is called a libertarian view of free-will.)

What does this have to do with possibilities?  Well, Open Theists believe that if there is this kind of a free-will, then this is a big part of what makes for a future with possibilities.  The fact that we might do *this* but we might do *that* means that the future is neither definitely *this* nor *that* and if the future is neither, definitely *this* nor definitely *that* then this is the kind of future that God knows.  God knows a future that is full of *this* or *that* coming to pass, depending on what free-will beings do… a future comprised of possibilities dependent on the actions of free-will beings.

Christian Open Theists also make an appeal to scripture passages that seem to describe God as facing a future of possibilities.  See some of those scriptures here and some responses to some of the most common objections.

That’s the basics of Open Theism, as I understand it.

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A quick response to a common objection:

Some may object to Open Theism on the grounds that, “I think that humans can have free-will and that God knows everything we will or will not do.”  Open Theists contend that, if free-will is the kind of free-will being described here, God knowing precisely what we will do, and our being able to do otherwise is a contradiction.  Not a paradox but a contradiction.  Now to be clear, Open Theists do not believe that God knowing what we will do, keeps us from acting freely.  That can’t be emphasized enough.  What Open Theists contend is, if the truth about how we will act, comes prior to the act (<- and this is the truth that God knows), this shows us it cannot be true that we are the ones who make that truth.  We can’t rewrite that truth that God knew prior as, what will be.

//Kirk out

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About kurtkjohnson

Husband to Abbey Johnson, avid history & theology reader, student, aspiring writer, irregular blogger, guitar hack, RN, & pescetarian. View all posts by kurtkjohnson

12 responses to “Open Theism Simplified

  • Christopher-And Brenda Cobb

    Where Can I get this shirt?! It is great!

  • rcrs

    thanks for doing the heavy lifting. interested to read more!

  • Tim Schwartz

    On a related note, I was posed a question the other day, Genesis 3:21-12; “Gods original plan was for Adam to live in peace and harmony with Him in the Garden of Eden. Did God have an alternate plan after Adam fell from grace in the Garden of Eden?”

    I have a half baked position, just curious on all of yours?

  • kurtkjohnson

    Hey Tim, good question. My response is probably half baked too. :) I tend to think that God went into creation intending divine incarnation, and also anticipating redemption through it. So, I wouldn’t think of incarnation and redemption as the “alternate plan” but instead the primary plan. In fact, if you look at the first Adam’s God-given mission to enlarge Eden over the whole earth, you might say that redemption, in some sense, actually started prior to the “fall.” Something to think about.

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  • Chris Donato (@ChrisDonato)

    Actualist possiblism? Eyes bleeding. There’s a better way: http://books.google.com/books?id=o23u9U_JU30C

    Or maybe the Molinists really did have this figured out a while ago . . .

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  • Jeff

    Kurt,

    Taking your definition of free-will as “… when we are freely choosing, we could have done other than we did,” and contending, seemingly, that God can’t foreknow freely-caused events defined thus, would you agree that if God chooses to love freely per that same definition “free choice” that God can’t foreknow whether He will love in the future? I’m not seeing how we could contend the one and not the other consistently.

  • kurtkjohnson

    Hey Jeff! I’d say from the outset that is important to hold in mind that what I’m describing as open theism is not a question about the extent of God’s knowledge but instead, the ‘content’ of that knowledge. I contend that God’s knowledge is coextensive with reality, so that whatever is true about the world is true about God’s knowledge of it. For me, open theism is, at bottom, a theory on ontology not a revision of divine omniscience. I see that this gets missed in most critiques of the view. So, it’s not that God doesn’t “foreknow,” it’s that God foreknows whatever of the future dependent on libertarian free will as possibilities (what might and might not obtain).

    On God’s freedom… When we’re talking about God’s freedom, I’m not sure we can speak of that in same kind of creaturely catagories of libertarian or compatibilistic freedom. I tend to think of God’s freedom as fundamentally ‘other than’ our freedoms, but in a way that is still inclusive of our modes of freedom, since any sense in which we are free must be ultimately grounded in divine Being from which we come.

    That being said, “does God foreknow that He will love in the future”? Whether or not God loves now or in the future is grounded in Him, so if it’s true about God, that God will always love, then that’s what God knows about Godself.

  • Jeff

    First, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m an open theist. But if God’s freedom is such that “… when [God is] freely choosing, [God] could” do otherwise, then it would seem that that particular defense of open theism implies that God can’t foreknow whatever God will choose freely in the future, however different God’s freedom is or isn’t from ours in other respects. And if God isn’t free in that sense, then it would seem that creation was not a free act by that definition of “free.”

    It seems to me that the very power of open theism is it’s logical consistency with the very definition of free-will you give, which seems to be the only common-sensical one. Take that away from God, and God doesn’t seem to be free in any sense humans can conceive of.

    I am compelled, therefore, to suppose that God’s benevolence is not voluntary in the only sense of voluntary we can conceive of and that therefore the only obviously free act God has performed was the intention to create.

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