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It began quietly, with the publication in 1980 of The Openness of God by Richard Rice. Only in 1994, when Rice joined Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and others in writing The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, did the theological stance known as open theism burst into the spotlight.

As the subtitle of the latter book hints, open theists like to cast their teaching about God as new, fresh, up to date, and in touch with modern sensibilities and concerns, as opposed to “traditional” or “classical” views. Pinnock has written that “for most of us today … [the traditional view of God] is by no means attractive.” He goes on to say that “the modern world invites us to restore the positive assessment of history and change and in so doing draw closer to biblical teaching. Let no one say that modernity always lures us away and never beckons us toward the truth.” In a similar vein, the cover of Sanders’ book The God Who Risks said readers would find “new, courageous thinking” inside.

Granted, no evangelical could have predicted the rise of open theism 25 years ago. But is this school of thought really something totally new, a heretofore unfathomed way of thinking about God? Thankfully, as controversy over open theism has grown in recent years, a number of evangelical scholars have steppedforward to challenge it, including Dr. Bruce Ware of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in God’s Lesser Glory; Rev. John M. Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary in No Other God; and others. They set out to defend the “traditional” understanding of God’s nature, and in so doing they have established beyond question that some of the key underlying ideas of open theism are not new at all but can be traced far into history—sometimes even to ideas that were condemned by the church.

Most open theists stand in the theological tradition known as Arminianism, which arose in opposition to Calvinism. Arminians traditionally hold that God has not predetermined everything that comes to pass but has left His creatures free to choose as they will. Nevertheless, according to the Arminian view, God is aware of everything that will occur, for He stands outside of time and therefore knows the future exhaustively, including the choices His creatures will make.

Open theists agree with their Arminian cousins that God has left His creatures free to choose as they please. One of their chief concerns is the belief that human beings have true freedom and must never be seen as “puppets” of a sovereign God. But they deny the Arminian contention that God knows the future even though He has not predetermined it. In the view of open theists, “omniscience” simply means “knowledge of what can be known,” and the future does not qualify because it has not yet occurred. They perceive, as do Calvinists, that God can know the future exhaustively only if He has predetermined it completely, including the choices His creatures will make. However, this disagreement with Arminianism does not drive open theists to accept the Calvinist position that God has predetermined all things. Rather, they deny both God’s foreordination and foreknowledge.

Thus, open theism appears to be a new position, a third way that avoids the perceived “harshness” of Calvinism and the inconsistency of Arminianism. But in actuality, the view of human freedom espoused by open theism and its denial of divine foreknowledge are ideas that long have enticed human beings.

Libertarian Freedom

Open theism espouses the view of human freedom known as libertarianism. It essentially equates to autonomy, arguing that human choices are completely uninfluenced, that any person is absolutely able to choose from any of the available options when making any decision.

Even Sanders admits that this is an ancient notion. He writes that the idea was espoused by Philo, a Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, as well as by such early Christian stalwarts as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and even Augustine in his early years. But Frame shows that the libertarian concept of human freedom is far older still. He finds elements of it in the philosophical formulations of Plato and Aristotle, and even earlier Greek philosophers.

But he goes on to show that the libertarian view of freedom is not just a Greek idea—it is a human idea. He notes that the Serpent’s lie to Adam and Eve was that human beings are autonomous—a lie they willingly accepted. All fallen human beings since then have been just as eager to believe in their own absolute freedom. “Non-Christian thought, throughout its history, has been implicitly libertarian,” Frame writes. “Open theism … draws on some ideas that have been in the world since Eden.”

Divine Foreknowledge

As noted above, open theists deny that God knows the future. This notion also is ages old. The Psalmist observed this denial among people he characterized as “the ungodly,” noting that they ask: “How does God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?” (Ps. 73:11–12).

It is their zeal to guard human freedom that drives open theists to insist that God must be blind to the future. Ware writes: “Philosophically, open theists argue that true human freedom is possible only if the future is open. If God knows all that will occur in the future, then we are not free to do differently than what God knows, and hence we are not truly free.” But Frame zeroes in on their deeper motive when he writes: “Just as unbelief gravitates toward libertarianism … so it tends to deny God’s knowledge of the future. The reason is the same in both cases. Unbelievers want to live autonomously, and a God who controls the world and knows the future is a barrier to autonomy.”

Divine foreknowledge was clearly rejected by a sixteenth-century movement known as Socinianism. Its founders, Italians Lelio Socinus and his nephew, Fausto Socinus, denied a number of essential Christian doctrines, including the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and justification by the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness. And, like open theists, they denied divine foreordination and foreknowledge. Interestingly, Lelio Socinus wrote to John Calvin and Philip Melancthon to espouse his views, but the Reformers rejected them categorically.

Contemporary Reformed believers should do the same in regards to open theism. Though it promotes itself as new and exciting, its tenets are, as Frame notes, “largely ancient.” The church has been down this road before, and has rejected the key ideas of open theism on Scriptural grounds. We should give no consideration to this new expression of the Serpent’s question of old: “Hath God said …?”

Tolerating the Intolerable

Searching for an Adequate God

Keep Reading Made in Man's Image: Open Theism

From the February 2003 Issue
Feb 2003 Issue