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Does God know the future?
An overview of open theism

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following series of articles by theologian Mark Rathel of The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Fla., summarizes the tenets of open theism, which denies God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future. Although not currently a major issue among Southern Baptists, open theism is gaining ground among some evangelicals.

Rathel’s theological essays, while irenic and fair, should leave no doubt with Baptist Press readers that open theism is a theology that must be rejected as unbiblical and harmful to believers.

This series originally ran in the Florida Baptist Witness.

GRACEVILLE, Fla. (BP)–“Open theism” is an energetic, controversial topic in evangelicalism today that has captured the appeal of a significant segment of the evangelical culture to the point that major evangelical publishers enthusiastically publish books authored by open theists.

This growing movement affirms some aspects of the classical view of God, such as God’s independence, the Trinity, creation and relational capability. Open theism, however, rejects some of the classical views of God’s attributes, specifically the changelessness of God and the divine foreknowledge of human choices.

The name “open theism” derives from the affirmation that God Himself is open to new experiences, including the experience of learning the progressive events of world history as the events unfold.

Throughout Christian history, orthodox believers expressed a common understanding of the nature of God labeled “classical theism.” The last 15 years witnessed the development of a reformation of the evangelical understanding of the doctrine of God. In calling the movement a reformation, I suggest that the movement represents a major paradigm shift in the understanding of God by some evangelicals.

The leaders of open theism are articulate, well-educated evangelicals affirming the inerrancy of Scripture. The “great triumvirate” of open theism includes Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd and John Sanders. Pinnock, recently retired professor of theology at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, Canada, is a British scholar who began his North American teaching career at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1960s. Gregory Boyd formerly taught at Bethel College, associated with the Baptist General Conference, in St. Paul, Minn. John Sanders teaches at Huntington College in Huntington, Ind., a Brethren in Christ school.

Classical theism affirms that God is unchanging in His being, character, purposes and promises. Open theists delight when misinformed individuals assume that the historic theological debate between Calvinism and Arminianism drives the current debate about God’s foreknowledge. Such an assumption neglects the strong emphasis on God’s foreknowledge within the Arminian tradition. James Arminius, for example, wrote, “God knows all things from eternity. He knows all things immeasurably. He knows all things immutable, his knowledge not being varied.”

Thomas Oden, professor of theology at Drew University and perhaps the leading Arminian theologian in the Methodist tradition today, strongly disagrees with the openness position. In a Feb. 9, 1998, Christianity Today article, Oden wrote, “The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds.”

Historically, Baptist confessional statements and theological writings reveal that Arminian and Calvinistic or Particular Baptists consistently affirmed God’s foreknowledge of all events, including the choices of human beings. Southern Baptists addressed the challenge of open theism in the 1994 report of the Presidential Theological Study Committee, a 1999 resolution and the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message. Open theism, however, is making inroads into Southern Baptist life. In its June 24, 2002, issue, the Baptist Standard newspaper in Texas published a series of articles generally favorable to the openness position.

Although advocates of open theism do not agree among themselves on every aspect of their revision of the historic doctrine of God, five key elements characterize the understanding of God in open theism.

First, open theists affirm a qualified divine omniscience (all-knowing). God possesses exhaustive knowledge about proper subjects of knowledge. Since the future does not exist to know, God cannot know the future free choices of His creatures. God possesses present knowledge, that is, perfect knowledge of the past and present. Open theists do not regard this qualification as compromising God’s omniscience. To buttress their case, open theists note, for example, God’s omnipotence (all-powerful), does not mean that God possesses the power to do anything whatsoever. God cannot do the illogical (make round squares) or the immoral.

Second, open theists reject a monarchial metaphor of God’s sovereignty in favor of a parental “at-risk” sovereignty. They argue the metaphor of a sovereign king depicts the tyrannical control of an insecure, weak and sick being. In God’s “sovereignty over His sovereignty,” He chose to grant His creatures genuine freedom — God created mankind in His image, which means that humanity participates with God in creating an open future. This risk-taking God has a goal for His creation, yet His free creatures can thwart and even frustrate the purposes of God. Rather than emphasizing God’s omnipotence, open theists affirm God’s omnicompetency (all-ability) to adapt to surprises and unexpected situations.

Third, open theists highlight God as a relational being. Love is the preeminent attribute of God. The dynamic God of open theism creatively interacts and responds in a vulnerable, loving fashion. God exercises control through persuasion, not coercion.

Fourth, the central component of the open theist’s position is human libertarian freedom. According to Pinnock, humans have the ability to make free-choices without the coercion of “nature, nurture or God.” In line with the “at-risk” model of providence, God does not generally intervene in human affairs. Humanity, therefore, bears the primary responsibility for the developing future.

Fifth, open theists conceive of their viewpoint as a solution to the problem of evil and some forms of human suffering. Human libertarian freedom and an open future entail the possibility of great evil. God knows neither the content nor the consequences of His creatures’ future free choices. God, therefore, cannot prevent evil. God is responsible for the potentiality of evil, but He is not responsible for the reality of evil.
Used by permission of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: OPEN THEISM.

    About the Author

  • Mark Rathel