Responding to Open Theism in Fourteen Words image

Responding to Open Theism in Fourteen Words

Because of the controversy over open theism twenty years ago, there is a huge range of books and articles out there, both critiquing it and defending it. Greg Boyd’s website is a fount of free resources in defence; Crossway’s generosity means that in many ways the most significant critique, Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, is also free to download or read online. But when theological debates hit the person in the pew, there is a place for keeping things simple. So here are fourteen common sense objections to open theism, framed around thirteen words and one number. Here’s hoping they help.

Orthodoxy. Even the most sympathetic advocates of open theism admit that it is all-but-impossible to find in the first eighteen centuries of the Church’s history. (The Trinitarian heretic Faustus Socinus is the somewhat uncomfortable exception that proves the rule.) For those committed to historic orthodoxy, that is a massive problem—and the common open theist response, that we have only recently learned how to read the Bible without being skewed by Platonism, founders on the evidence from the (decidedly non-Platonic) Rabbis, among other things.

139. If you type “Greg Boyd Psalm” into Google, it immediately suggests “139,” and it’s easy to see why. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (139:4). “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Despite their best efforts, texts like these continue to pose an enormous problem for open theists.

Babies. If love is not love unless it is freely chosen—which is pretty central for many open theists—then how can babies go to heaven? (This is a problem for Arminians as well, of course.)

Exceptions. One of the difficulties of engaging with open theism is that, whenever a specific example of God knowing about a future human decision is under discussion—Pharaoh’s hardening, most of the things foretold by the prophets, Peter’s denial, Judas’s betrayal, and so on—it can be waved away as an exception: “ah, but that’s one of the things that God does know.” This makes it look suspiciously like a claim that is immune to being falsified. (It’s like Tom Wright’s comment on a Dominican theologian: “Schillebeeckx first sweeps all the evidence under the carpet, and then exclaims, ‘Look! No evidence!’”)

Miracles. As soon as you have a God who can work miracles, you also have a God who could work all sorts of miracles to prevent evil, and yet chooses not to. Why raise Lazarus and not John the Baptist? Why calm one storm and not another? Why provide manna for Israel and not Sudan? Why strike down Herod and not Hitler? Why destroy all the non-Jews in Egypt, but not Auschwitz? If X is evil, and God could stop X miraculously but chooses not to, is he not somehow choosing to allow X? If not, why not?

Sustinence. It’s actually worse than that, because God is not only choosing not to stop Auschwitz; he is sustaining it. He upholds the universe by the word of his power. He provides rain and sunshine for it. He causes the heart of the Oberst-Gruppenführer to keep beating. He sustains the whole cosmos, including the Zyklon B. By choosing to continue doing these things, God is just as implicated in the ongoing existence of evil as he would be in a more orthodox view. Isn’t he?

Names. If, as is often said, God knows what he is going to do but not what we are going to do, how did he know, centuries in advance, what the parents of the Persian king Cyrus were going to name their son (Isa 44:28; 45:1)? I choose this example because the parents’ choice of name clearly has no bearing whatsoever on the history of redemption, so we cannot put it in a special category of its own. If God knows a human decision as apparently trivial as that, why should we think there are any human decisions he does not know about?

Comfort. If you are Reformed or Arminian, and you face a situation of intense difficulty, you can be comforted with the truth that God knew this was going to happen, and it has not caught him by surprise. (I’m speaking from experience here, obviously, as many can.) If you are an open theist, you cannot say that; in fact, you will probably assume that he has only just found out, just like you. Somehow that is far less reassuring.

Providence. Again, faced with suffering or opposition, a Reformed person will say some version of what Joseph said to his brothers—“You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, that many lives should be saved”—and then go and read the Heidelberg Catechism. An open theist will have to say: no, God didn’t mean it for good. In fact, he didn’t “mean” it at all.

Agency. If God in no sense wills the evil that is brought about by Satan and/or wicked human beings, then how do we make sense of the fact that both God and Satan incited David to take a census? Or that both God and Satan are said to be behind Job’s sufferings? Or that both God and Satan moved Judas to betray Jesus? Or that Paul’s thorn was a messenger of Satan, yet was given in order to make Paul depend on grace? What do we do with those texts (Ex 5-10; Isa 10; 45; Lam 3; Acts 4; etc) which explicitly attribute actions both to wicked human beings and to God?

Trinity. If love is necessarily risky (this claim is one of Boyd’s central propositions in his “Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy”), then how can the Father, Son and Spirit all love one another?

Hell. Why are advocates of open theism so frequently drawn to either annihilationism or purgatory, or both? (This isn’t a mere ad hominem; views on hell and openness are explicitly connected in the works of a number of open theist writers.) Is the traditional view of hell incompatible with open theism?

Paul. In a number of places, Paul presents a picture of divine and human action that looks very different to open theism, a point which I encountered regularly in my PhD studies. Not only does God know what we will choose to do; he is himself somehow active in what we choose to do (1 Cor 10:12-13; 15:10; Gal 2:20; Phil 2:13-14; and so on). John Barclay coins the term “energism” to reflect Paul’s thought here: God is active within the human subject. So if we try to rescue God from being aware of (or active in) free human choices in advance, we may find ourselves also rescuing God from Paul’s theology.

Lewis. If you can stretch from fourteen words to twenty, then C. S. Lewis put it best in his Mere Christianity: “Everyone who believes in God at all believes that he knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow.” Sometimes a dose of good old-fashioned English common sense is what you need.

As I said at the start, there is far, far more that could be (and has been) said about all this, so this is very much a brief introduction to a whole range of issues associated with open theism. But since it is coming up a bit more in my immediate experience, I thought a sketch like this might be helpful to others. And if not: God knows. Or does he?

← Prev article
Next article →