Concise Theological Critique of Open Theism

Open Theism asserts that God’s knowledge is limited  knowledge and that he is unable to anticipate free human actions. However, the Bible teaches that God is omniscient and knows the heart, the innermost thoughts, desires and intentions of man.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Ps. 139:1-4).

“I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer. 17:10).

“‘And you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought’” (1 Chron. 28:9a).

“O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind …” (Jer. 20:12).

“And they prayed, and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen” (Acts 1:24).

Reading 1: Critique of Open Theism

Open Theism’s Major Claims
Open theists argue that the Christian doctrine of God was influenced by Greek thought. Theology became philosophical rather than biblical. God was seen to be impassible (incapable of suffering) and immutable. Lost was the dynamic interaction between God and the creature. In the Bible, so the argument runs, God responds to human actions and is even said to repent of what he planned. In the book of Jonah, God warns Nineveh of its impending destruction, whereupon he repents and relents once the city abandoned its ungodliness. In contrast, the doctrine of omniscience reduces humans to robots, so open theists claim. Genuine relationships entail mutuality, give and take, which is missing if God is seen as the almighty, all-knowing ruler. Instead of a loving God who feels human suffering, the church has taught that he is remote and aloof.

Clark Pinnock, one of open theism’s leading exponents, wrote that his former Calvinism was nonsense:

To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so—such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense./47/

Instead, God is love. This implies reciprocity and mutuality, since these are inherent in all personal interaction.

Hence, God does not have certain knowledge of future events. His eternity is not timelessness. He may be taken by surprise by events in the world. He knows a lot, but it is impossible for him to know everything that will happen in the future. He is very resourceful, but there is no guarantee his plans will succeed. Like a chess grandmaster, he is able to respond to unusual moves by his creatures, but there is always the possibility that he will be taken by surprise. This is seen as an immense stimulus for us, since we can have real interaction with God and contribute to the relationship.

Evaluating Open Theism
Open theism rejects the historic teaching of the church. This is the hallmark of sects and cults down through the ages. In rejecting the insistence of the church—Rome, Orthodoxy, and Protestant alike—on the immutability and omniscience of God, open theists value their own exegesis of the Bible above that of the church of the last fifty generations.

Open theism takes a radical approach to the Bible. This is particularly clear with prophecy. The prophetic writings, and prophetic utterances in general, indicate that God does have comprehensive knowledge of the future. If he were ignorant of the future, prophecy in its predictive mode could not exist. The interpretive problem surfaces also with language in which God is said to have human emotions. Open theists make much of statements that God regretted this or that, or repented of what he had intended to do. In this, he is said to display emotions and changeableness. However, open theists do not apply such a strategy to statements attributing human body parts to God. It is generally recognized that these statements are anthropomorphisms. Yet the psychological, emotional, and physical are so closely related in humans that it is arbitrary for open theists to stress one aspect but ignore another.

Open theist scholarship is outdated. The idea that the church was overcome by Greek philosophy was popularized by Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) but has been debunked many times over. Scholars such as Aloys Grillmeier, J. N. D. Kelly, and Jaroslav Pelikan, among others, have undermined it./48/ Recent work on Augustine has brought about a major reassessment of the extent to which he was influenced by Neoplatonism./49/ Even Origen has been enjoying a posthumous rehabilitation (I hope he is enjoying it)./50/ The Greek fathers were forced to reply to the heretics’ use of the Bible by recourse to Greek philosophical terms. However, they adapted the language to make it an effective vehicle for the communication of biblical truth, stretching it to accommodate new meaning that expressed what had always been believed./51/ Moreover, it was the Christian theology of the fathers that came up with the concept of personhood that open theists are so keen on using. Furthermore, the exponents of open theism seem unaware that they have resuscitated the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century aberration of Socinianism./52/

Open theism’s knowledge of the Fathers is inadequate. This surfaces in the treatment of the impassibility of God. They argue—in common with much recent theology, following Moltmann—that only a God who suffers can be of help to us in our predicaments. In contrast, the fathers, so they say, presented a God who was detached from suffering. Thomas Weinandy has refuted these claims. The fathers did not support such ideas at all, he indicates. Instead, in affirming that God could not suffer, they meant that he could not be constrained from outside, but they held that in the incarnation the Son took our humanity and in our flesh experienced human suffering. As such, God is able to help us, since he is impregnable and qualified to help us since he has suffered as man./53/

Open theism has a distorted view of God. Its focus is on God as suffering love (Moltmann) but not on his justice or holiness. Thus, the simplicity of God is threatened, as one attribute is extracted at the expense of others. Sin is downplayed. Biblical statements about the love of God are taken out of context. Richard Rice, in The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) ignores developments in linguistics relating to ἀγαπάω, propounding a special agapē love that God exercises in distinction from phileō love, an idea undermined by the work of Robert Joly, who had long demonstrated that by the first century the verbs were used interchangeably.54 Rice’s view of reconciliation also proceeds without reference to the work of Leon Morris, who established that God is the primary one to be reconciled in the atoning death of Christ./55/

Moreover, to say that God does not change is to affirm that he does not change in himself, not that his relationships ad extra with his creatures do not change. Since creatures change in themselves, such changes bring them into new and potentially differing relationships with God. Bray indicates that true statements about God can be false or meaningless if taken outside their proper context, the context of his covenant. God’s love toward his covenant people is of a different order than his love toward the creation in general./56/

Open theism has striking similarities to process theology. God is in a mutually dependent relationship with his creation, one of dynamic change and development. It has a decided similarity to panentheism in this regard.

Open theism implies that God’s plans could be endlessly frustrated. The implication of open theism is that the incarnation and atonement were reactions to an unforeseen emergency. Indeed, God has no certain knowledge that his purposes will succeed; neither have we. This uncertainty could even extend to the eschaton. Since he does not have exhaustive knowledge of future events, how can even God be sure that there will not be a sinful rebellion of his people in heaven?

Open theists’ claims that their theology enables a dynamic and exciting view of prayer are untenable. The claim is that this interactive relationship enables us to play an integral role in the unfolding of events in the world. But since God’s plans are merely provisional, how can this be? Basinger writes that God has no certain knowledge of how the economy will perform over the next five to ten years; he thinks this makes prayer a dynamic and exciting spiritual journey./57/

Open theism is an example of postmodernism. It is simply a perspective that some may find more helpful. Basinger thinks one should choose the conceptualization of God that one finds most appealing. So, he says, “I personally find [the open theism model] to be the most . . . appealing conceptualization of this relationship.”/58/ One basically pays one’s money and takes one’s choice. This is a matter of reimagining God in one’s own image, the very essence of idolatry./59/

An even more radical proposal, advanced by Thomas Jay Oord, oversteps the bounds of the Christian faith. Oord proposes that God is essentially and preeminently uncontrolling love. Oord’s focus is on the problem of evil, which we will address in chapter 10. It is based on an understanding of Philippians 2, in which Christ’s self-emptying is not restricted to the incarnation but is definitive of the nature of God. God is inherently and necessarily self-emptying love, which empowers others, the kenosis involving self-emptying so as to be powerless to prevent evil actions or events. These cannot be attributed to him, since he is love. Moreover, he is uncontrolling love, so he does not and cannot coerce anyone.

By elevating love over all other attributes, Oord has disrupted the unity of God. The authority for Oord is not Scripture but human culture and experience. In positing an autonomous evil, he allows a deep ontological dualism at the heart of his view of the creation. Moreover, if God is powerless to prevent evil, how can that be loving? Such a view of God is radically opposed to the Bible and to the belief of the entire church, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant./60/

Related Posts
The Immutable God Who Cares. Part 3 – Divine Simplicity & Immutability of God
The Limited god of Open Theism is Not the Almighty God of the Bible
Critique of Open Theism “Risky Providence.”
Open Theism Risky Providence is More Blameworthy than Classical Theism Risk-Free Providence

47. In Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 115n33.
48. Aloys Grillmeier, SJ, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), 2nd ed., trans. John Bowden (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975); J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968); Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).
49. Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, trans. Matthias Westerhoff, ed. Andrew Louth (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1993), 167–85; Studer, The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or Theocentrism? (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1997), 104–9; Michel René Barnes, “Rereading Augustine on the Trinity,” in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 145–53; Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
50. Cf. Henry Crouzel, Origen, trans. A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989). Scholars are divided over whether this is possible.
51. Letham, The Holy Trinity, 146–83.
52. See “Socinianism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4:83–87.
53. See Weinandy, Does God Suffer?
54. Robert Joly, Le vocabulaire Chrétien de l’amour est-il original? Filein et agapan dans le Grec antique (Bruxelles: Presses Universitaires de Bruxelles, 1968).
55. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (London: Tyndale Press, 1955), 214–50.
56. Gerald Bray, The Personal God (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 45.
57. Pinnock et al., Openness, 161–65.
58. Pinnock et al., Openness, 76.
59. For a later work on similar lines, see John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007).
60. Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).

Source: Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Crossway, 2019), pp. 178-180.


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