Friday, February 28, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Open Just A Bit Too Far

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We’ve talked a lot about Calvinism here over the past two years. We have not talked very much about Open Theism, also referred to as Dynamic Omniscience, which might be said to be Calvinism’s very near-opposite.

By the time the Evangelical Theological Society adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 2006, their decade-long internal debate over Dynamic Omniscience had pretty much petered out. ETS president Tom Schreiner says that for the ETS at least, the debate has “simmered down”.

And yet today the Global Christian Center still lists what it calls the “Open Theism Controversy” among its nine most important issues facing the evangelical church.

Tom: This particular idea about God is clearly not going away. In a nutshell, Immanuel Can, what is Open Theism?

Why Open Theism?

Immanuel Can: Big topic! Well, first you’ve got to know why Open Theism is being advanced today. And the answer to that is the suffocating determinism of Calvinism. Open Theism is an alternative to believing that God has only one possible “will” for anything and that all matters have been settled from before the foundation of the world by what the Calvinists call “the sovereign will of God”.

Tom: Okay, I get that, because it seems to me that Calvinism is more popular than ever. So then, Open Theism is a reaction to Calvinism, and one that’s heavy on free will and light on sovereignty?

But Open Theists do acknowledge the sovereignty of God, at least in principle. Greg Boyd, for instance, is quoted as saying that passages like Isaiah 48:3-5 “demonstrate that God is perfectly able to predestine and foreknow as much of the future as he chooses. Indeed, free agents are only free, and the future is only open, to the extent that God graciously decides it should be.” They just don’t equate sovereignty with the rigid sort of determinism you mention, which presumably takes in the micromanagement of the universe down to the last atom and precludes genuine human choice.

IC: No, no ... Open Theism is not light on sovereignty. But they do reject the way Calvinists use the word “sovereignty”, because Calvinist sovereignty is a perfect synonym for predetermination. You’re right to say Calvinist sovereignty would absolutely preclude all human freedom and choice (as well as distinct human identity, I might add): but the word itself does not mean or imply what Calvinists want to take from it — it simply means “kingship”, a thing which no Christian would deny. So as a starting point, we need utterly to reject the definition of sovereignty peculiar to those indoctrinated by Calvinism.

Ironically, it is Calvinist obstinacy and narrowness that has caused Open Theism to exist. Calvinism’s determinism has radicalized many who simply want to believe God loves them and gives them choices. You might say that Open Theism is really the misbegotten rebel progeny of its iron-fisted, controlling parent, Calvinism.

Too Far In the Opposite Direction

Tom: Perhaps, but it seems to me Open Theism is an overreaction. So you’re saying it’s possible for God to remain “sovereign” without eliminating all human choice, and with that I heartily agree. It seems to me one error of Open Theism is confusion over the biblical terms “predestination” and “foreknowledge”. They agree that God “predestines” some things and demonstrates his sovereignty in so doing. For instance, Boyd says:
“[God] eternally knows all possibilities, he is never caught by surprise, and he is perpetually involved in human affairs as much as he needs to be in order to steer history to his desired end (Eph. 1:11).”
There is the “predestination” or “sovereignty” Boyd refers to: he leaves God “perpetually involved”. He also credits God with knowing “all possibilities”, which is certainly the case. But I think Boyd would go on to say God does not know all actual outcomes, and I have a problem with that.

IC: Absolutely.

You see, Calvinism and Open Theism share a basic wrong assumption. Both assume that for God to “foreknow” a thing entails that he must also have fated, forced or “predetermined” it. Calvinism sees this as wonderful and “sovereign”, and Open Theism sees it as problematic. But that is the error from which the controversy springs and is also the source of the mistakes in their respective theologies.

Foreknowledge and Predestination

Tom: Well, however you may define them, if you’re going to be biblical, you have to acknowledge that the New Testament distinguishes between the two concepts. Ignoring for the moment what (or whom) God foreknew, and whom he predestined (both of which are vital questions that I think both Calvinism and Open Theism largely ignore), it is clear that when Paul says “those whom he foreknew he also predestined”, the statement is meaningless if the two concepts are substantially identical. They are not synonyms.

IC: Well, and again, the Calvinist understanding of “predestined” isn’t the biblical one either, so you have to be careful with that word. That’s why I prefer “predetermined”: it better reflects what Calvinists actually believe. They’re a kind of fatalist, really … but they replace the “fate” concept with the word “God”. Other than that, they, like all fatalists, believe there is no reality to human freedom or choice. The fatalistic Calvinist god doesn’t respect human identity or seek love on a free will basis: he forces people to love or hate him, and then judges them, even though they have no choice.

That’s what Open Theists find so horrible about Calvinism. And I agree with them on that. But their solution is wrong, because it rests on the same wrong assumption the Calvinists make.

Foreknowledge does not entail determinism. One can “foreknow” something without being responsible for making it happen.

Reflecting the Teaching of Scripture

Tom: Quite so. I’m interested in this notion the Open Theists have that limiting the scope of God’s foreknowledge somehow improves the situation or, in their words, better reflects the teaching of scripture. I don’t see how it can.

I think of the prayer of Abraham’s servant about Rebekah. It was spoken in his heart, not out loud. But God heard every word and answered it before he was finished thinking it. I think of Hannah, taken for a drunk by Eli because only her lips moved when she prayed. But God heard every word and answered. I think of Paul saying, “I have been fully known”. If this is the extent of God’s knowledge of us, on what basis do we imagine that he cannot predict the specific outcomes of any human choice?

IC: I think they only do that because they think it’s the only option they’ve got. See, both Calvinists and Open Theists think God knows all of the knowable things there are in reality. They also both believe that if he truly foreknows everything it means he would also have to have predetermined all outcomes.

So the Open Theists simply change the concept of “the knowable”.

Tom: Ouch.

Some of the Outcomes ...

IC: They say that God knows all of the facts in the past and all of the variables in the present. He also knows human nature, and has strong predictive abilities about many scenarios in the future. He knows some of the outcomes that are possible — but not all, they insist. The nature of futurity is that it is unsettled — “open”, if you will — and even God can only make educated guesses as to how it will all play out, because it hasn’t happened yet, and there is an element of chance — they like to say “risk” — in the way God deals with the future. Sometimes God wins what he wants, but sometimes things don’t turn out as he planned, they say, because human freedom means God can’t know what genuinely free people will choose to do.

Tom: Again, I don’t see how such a view can be said to be “more in keeping with scripture” when it does not account for the level of knowledge we actually see God displaying in scripture.

IC: Both Calvinists and Open Theists insist that God knows all that can be known, and is sovereign over everything that can be known and controlled, but the Open Theists insist that what can be fully known and controlled does not include the future, as the nature of the future is such that it simply cannot be known exhaustively, and so God can only probabilistically guess about that.

Their real argument, then, is over what the true nature of reality is.

The Foreknowledge of Free Will

Tom: And I’m having a real problem with the theology on two levels. One is that they are making a problem out of something that really isn’t a problem.

IC: Right. They are worried about nothing, because their basic assumption, the thing that worries them about Calvinism, is just wrong: foreknowing a thing simply does not imply that one has caused that thing to happen — not even on the most basic human level.

Here’s my illustration: Some weeks ago, I predicted that Qman would respond to a reply I made. Shortly thereafter, he did, proving my foreknowledge of his choice was dead accurate. But Qman would be the first to tell you that I didn’t make him reply: he freely chose to do it. In fact, if I remember correctly, we don’t even live in the same country; in any case, we’ve never even met, so I certainly can’t be blamed for making him do what he did. He could have chosen otherwise; I knew he would not.

So my foreknowing his action did not make it happen. He had genuine freedom, though I accurately foreknew his action.

Tom: I see what you’re saying, but your example is necessarily probabilistic. You made a well-educated guess about Qman and happened to be correct. This time.

IC: My guess may have been probabilistic but in this case it was correct. And even if I, like God, were correct 100% of the time, and even if my basis were full foreknowledge and not probability guesses, these changes in my circumstances would do nothing to alter the question of whether or not Qman himself was making free decisions. They are quite separate issues. I think you can see that.

Tom: Oh, certainly. I certainly see that. And I don’t think God’s knowledge of the future has to be probabilistic to solve the dilemma created by Calvinism (nor do I see a good reason from scripture to believe that it is), but even if it were, since God’s knowledge of any future outcomes having to do with free choice is based on a perfect assessment of human beings, the probability of him being correct in his educated guesses is so near 100% as to be indistinguishable from full and complete knowledge of all possible contingencies.

IC: Quite. The Open Theist fears of predetermination are unnecessary, and can be dispatched in the way you suggest. Their whole reason for supposing that human free will would need God not to know some things is because of their fear that the only alternative is hard, fatalistic determinism of the Calvinist sort. That now is revealed as an unnecessary worry, so what need have we any longer of limiting divine foreknowledge? I see neither need nor biblical warrant.

That Day and Hour

Tom: Are we then back to non-free choice related future events, like “Concerning that day and hour no one knows”?

IC: I think I’m missing your question here. Can you clarify?

Tom: Sure. I’ve pointed out that God’s perfect understanding of the heart of man and demonstrated ability to hear our thought processes, as described in scripture, is such that it guarantees he always has full knowledge of any future consequences that might arise in the universe as a result of any choices made by men. So there’s no issue that we as created beings could ever do, say, or think something God might not have already anticipated.

What I’m asking is: Do the Open Theists go further than simply alleging that God doesn’t know all the consequences of man’s choices? Do they postulate that statements like Matthew 24:36 (where the Lord Jesus says that only the Father knows the day and the hour of the coming of the Son of Man) are also evidence of Dynamic Omniscience?

The Lord Regretted ...

IC: I can’t remember hearing them use that one, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised. I do know that they refer to things like God “being sorry” for having made man as evidence that God got something he wasn’t expecting. But again, their affinity to these passages is not exegetical but ideological, I think. They care about such things only because they can be co-opted to defeat Calvinist determinism and assert free will, not because they are worried that Genesis is not getting its fair shake.

Tom: Yes, I’ve seen that one too. But if you’re going to go there, you’re going to be doing it a fair bit. The Old Testament is full of what I call the language of accommodation (and somebody else may have coined that).

IC: I’ve heard “anthropomorphisms”. The Bible uses human-style metaphors, like “the hand of God”, because we know what “hands” are ... not because God the Father has a physical body like ours. To make dogmatic theology out of such figurative idioms is extremely shaky.

Theory and Experience

Tom: But there is also the vast difference between theory and experience, even for God. God knew before he ever created Adam that around the time of Noah, mankind would get pretty awful. Now it’s possible to know that with 100% certainty if you’re God, but that’s still different from being there when man hits rock bottom morally and actually watching it take place. There’s no absence of knowledge in that, but there is experience.

IC: Tease that thought out for me.

Tom: If we don’t make that distinction between theoretical knowledge and visceral knowledge, how do we deal with things like what Hebrews says of the Lord Jesus: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Wow. That’s stunning, isn’t it? Of course the Lord knew what obedience was. But now he was feeling that cost in a very personal way. Or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew precisely why he was forsaken. But the statement tells of his experience, not his theoretical awareness of the reality of looming death, the weight of the sin of the world and the necessary absence — in some sense — of the ubiquitous fellowship with his Father experienced since the foundation of the world.

Experience is just different.

IC: I see. You’re pointing out that experiential knowledge is not quantitatively different (not a lesser or less perfect knowledge) but is qualitatively and categorically distinct from the merely theoretical.

Tom: Thank you, that’s it exactly.

Foreknowledge That Is Not Fragmentary

IC: And I suppose that’s true: if for no other reason than that you cannot say “I’ve experienced that” until you actually have. But admitting that distinction does not imply we also think that God’s foreknowledge has to be limited or fragmentary, does it?

Tom: Oh, not at all. There’s nothing fragmentary about God’s foreknowledge. Experience of an event adds no new information to the mix. (And we can easily think of many things we can be fairly sure God has not experienced.) But it is the fact that God knows everything about the past, present and future that matters in sustaining a biblical sovereignty, not whether he has experienced the event. The content of experiential and theoretical knowledge is identical. It’s the feeling about the content that changes with experiential knowledge, not the content itself.

IC: Is it the feeling that changes, or the fact of having experienced? I’d be inclined to favor the latter. The fact of having experienced some things is a prerequisite for certain roles, such as High Priest, Savior or Intercessor. I would be less comfortable affirming that the experience increased the Lord’s capacity to understand or empathize. I’m sure he had the raw facts, and I’m sure he was always empathetic; but I’m not sure we’d have known he was, except that he underwent suffering as a man. But we can leave that undecided, I guess.

Sorting Out Tightly Defined Theological Niceties

Tom: Certainly it is sharing in our human experience that qualifies the Lord Jesus to these particular roles. No argument there.

Really, all I’m wanting to point out that is that when scripture records reactions to sin on the part of God that may lead us to think he has been surprised or somehow caught off guard by the magnitude of human depredation he has encountered (like being “sorry that he had made man”), what we are seeing is not an indication of any lack of Divine knowledge with respect to mankind’s potential for failure and depravity. Rather, it is an expression of visceral disgust engendered by having actually experienced it. Like Abraham’s faith, a thing is only theoretical until it actually happens.

IC: Well, the important thing is this: the Open Theist worry that (as Jesse Morrell puts it) “foreknown with certainty” must entail determinism or fatalism is simply wrong. It doesn’t. Human freedom and possibilities can be (pace Greg Boyd) “real” without denying that God has perfect knowledge of the future. But so long as Calvinists keep promoting their error, it seems very likely to me that Open Theism will keep having an appeal. People have a challenge sorting out tightly defined theological niceties like this for themselves. Lacking either time or ability, most will just trust the “nicest" theologian or leader they happen to know, and Open Theism tends to put on a “kind” face. That will win them converts.

If the Calvinists would stop their barking, perhaps we could get past both errors.


  1. It occurs to me that there's an important footnote here. It's the well-known axiom from logic, that states: "Correlation does not imply causation".

    God's foreknowledge correlates with human free choice. That is, what God foreknows is exactly what people end up doing. But that does not imply it must cause free choice. That is, nothing about God's foreknowing entails that He must therefore have forced it to happen.

    That's the basic logical error that both Calvinists and Open Theists are making. It's a routine error, an error many make in many causal attributions; but still an error.

  2. Hmm, actually, IC, I am not sure it was free will since that's not exactly as it happened. I all of a sudden felt this strange compulsion to hammer away at my keyboard and respond to your previous blog, almost like I was under remote control. So what really happened here? Well, maybe I was just imagining it :-S.

    Pertaining to this blog, I agree with your conclusion "Their real argument, then, is over what the true nature of reality is."

    Except I would modify it by saying "... what the true nature of our (human) reality is."
    God specifically created a reality with ground rules just for us in our space-time continuum.
    I therefore think you/we are arguing necessarily from a perspective within that reality and cannot understand a perspective that is outside ours and in control of other realities as well.

    We know however that God is a benign God in love with even his lowly creation and that he would therefore create a reality based on his love for the better purpose of his creation. For example, the fact that God takes delight in our making the right choices (or in some other positive quality we exhibit) that obviously implies that we are free to choose. The difficulty arises in that it would also imply he was not certain of our choice or there would be no reason for delight (since he would have known our choice beforehand). But I am suggesting that in a super reality not limited by time you can have both, know how your handiwork works and delight in it if it works, or learns to work, in conformance to your will (which desires your creation's good). We almost have the same in our reality, e.g., if you design and build an excellent car and you know how it will work but then delight in seeing that happen.

    Predetermination is also negated by the exhortation to pray since that implies that God can decide to influence outcomes to respond to our prayers within any time frame (for example, he can even respond in the past knowing our future prayers). Prayer alone signifies that our lifes are not written in stone but are amenable to change based on our free will and God's will. Why else would you pray? Our reality therefore is a combination of the one provided by God with the modifications we create for ourselves with our free will. That compound reality is evidently completely visible to God in its totality but its outcome is nevertheless dependent on a cooperative endeavor and as such can delight or disappoint God.

    If I had to visualize it, I would compare man's existence to swimming in a wide river with many small and large eddies and currents and various floating attractions (desirable to repulsive). God, observing man, knows the entire river layout, where all the currents, items, and events are. He can see and knows man's moves based on his free will to swim, stay afloat, fight against currents, go with currents, being attracted to the flotsam. Being familiar with the river he knows if man gets himself into trouble, is too weak to fight a current alone, puts himself in danger, etc.. He will intervene depending on the river's local and wider condition, swimmer's actions, prayers, cries for help, with man's free will and choice (perhaps not choosing a safe harbor or raft) having to determine the final outcome.

    1. If you think about it further, Q, I think you'll recognize what so many of the prophets, from Job to Isaiah to Habakkuk all found: that in this world there's no straight line between doing the right thing or making the right choice and getting a guaranteed right outcome. The just suffer, and the wicked prosper, in many cases.

      Now, that's necessary. After all, free will, if it's genuinely free, can only be experienced in a world of this sort, with no clear reward-and-punishment relationships. If virtue met instant reward, and vice met instant punishment, there would be no free will, since no one could afford to make anything but the virtuous choice. But here, virtue is hard, and sometimes evil is easy, isn't it?

      Now, for those who still like to think there's a straight line between virtue and outcome, a hideous consequence follows: it must follow that anyone who has experienced a bad outcome deserves it; and likewise, anyone who prospers must prosper righteously. So really, that belief would be a recipe for praising the evil when they flourish and condemning the righteous in their moment of suffering.

      But I think we both know that's just not how it works on this planet. The cross is the most eloquent testimony of that.

      That does not mean God is unrighteous; but he clearly allows us a lot of latitude at the moment. But the question of justice cannot be put off forever. That's why there's a Judgment: because here and now, we are not guaranteed any tidy relationship between outcome and will. That's for later.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. Thanks for your thoughts IC. What you describe is something we tend to forget and yet it is so true. In a way it is a consolation but can be a bitter one for those affected.

      I would parse what you said a little bit though because it is also clear that we encourage each other, at least within civil society, to create such a linear relationship as much as possible. By that I mean, we reward our children for doing right, for showing respect, being industrious, and to grow into productive and hopefully compassionate adulthood where there are rewards for doing the right thing. What you point out is that that is a very imperfect process because of wrong choices due to free will giving us the world and it's difficulties we all know.

      I think that most people strive to have ideals along those lines but do not necessarily understand or appreciate the fact, or may even resent it, that what you are suggesting not only applies to human society but to the very fabric of the universe itself due to the fall. Hence the biblical tears and sorrow for victims of natural disasters, disease and accidents as well. Hence your suggestion that for the sake of free will no overt correlation can exist outside our own attempts to establish such a correlation as much as possible for ourselves (because it is a desirable thing for us even if flawed). Now what follows is that our attempt to establish such a correlation must be based on a taught sense of right and wrong with the Christian message being the preponderant tool for that. If we therefore even partially succeed to establish such a correlation I believe that to be due to the fact that there is indeed also a divinely inspired correlation in place for reward and punishment even though not overt. This was discussed in previous blogs concerning the statistics of active church going people to non-believers with regard to crime and other social parameters.

    3. Well, I think that's generally right, Q. All our attempts to be just people are really approximations or attempts to mimic (closer or farther, better or worse) objective morality as reflected by the Divine standard of justice. Unfortunately, being sinners in a fallen world, we often misjudge -- and sometimes very badly -- the result being that liberal civil society today calls many massive evils 'good,' and creates quite a lot of horrid injustices in the name of things like "freedom of choice" and "equality."

      It is as Shakespeare said: "virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied..." All too often, we trumpet liberal values, but act like little Nazis, and pillory or persecute anyone who challenges the liberal PC narrative. I think we've all seen that in abundance in the press lately.

      The scales will not be set right until the Just One comes and sets them right. Fortunately, we know He will.