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The Heresy of Open-Theism

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A few months ago I finished reading the book Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. This book is a discussion of the views on how God’s foreknowledge works and how that fits in with human freedom and the problem of evil. The book is pretty complicated in terms of its material but I recommend it to any Christian that has questions in this area of theology.

One view in particular is called open-theism. Gregory Boyd, a contributor to the book and proponent of open-theism, says that “the debate over God’s foreknowledge is rather a debate over the content of reality that God perfectly knows. It has more to do with the doctrine of creation than it does with the doctrine of God” (13). Open-theism basically states that God has foreknowledge of only the past and present world. He only knows what actually exists in reality. Since the future does not exist in reality God does not know the future. He knows the future as a set of maybes or possibilities but He does not know the future exhaustively. Also, under this view, God can change His mind, express frustration, experience regret, and confronts the unexpected (24-34). The future is open and not “set” and this view is thus called open-theism.

Theologians have generally defined God’s foreknowledge as being exhaustive. This means that God knows the future completely and wholly. God knows all truths and cannot hold any false beliefs.

Open-theism is based on the presupposition of process theology. Process theology derives from the thought of the English philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the American philosopher-ornithologist Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) (Process). Process theology believes that humans are in a sense “growing” with God in knowledge and power as time progresses. This theology has been rejected by the vast majority of theologians and has been declared a heresy.

The first big problem with open-theism is that it is based of a literal interpretation of anthropomorphic verses. There are verses in Scripture that says God changed His mind or that God experiences regret (such as the flood in Gen. 8:21). Boyd makes the case that these verses are literal and that God actually did something wrong or that He did change His mind. William Lane Craig, defender of the middle-knowledge view, lands some heavy blows on this literal view on Scripture.

“First, a consistent application of Boyd’s hermeneutic leads to a defective concept of God. It is striking how similar Boyd’s literalistic hermeneutic is to that of Mormon theologians, who employ it to justify their belief in a God who is not only ignorant of future contingents but is a physical being with a human form. Like Boyd, the Mormon theologian insists on taking the biblical descriptions of God at face value. “Look here” he says, ‘the Scripture says that God was walking in the cool of the garden. Walking necessitates having legs. God says He has eyes and ears and arms and hands. If God can’t convince us by explicitly saying that He can and does have bodily parts, how could He convince us if He wanted to?’ It is difficult to see how one can adopt Boyd’s naïve literalism with respect to divine knowledge and yet reject it with respect to divine corporeality” (58).

Craig goes on and says that the “flaw of this hermeneutic is its failure to appreciate that the Bible is not a textbook in systematic theology or philosophy of religion but that it is largely a collection of stories about God’s dealings with men. These stories are told from the human perspective and evince all the liveliness of the storyteller’s art” (59). Boyd’s hermeneutic applied to the verses that he wants it applied to is a horrible literalistic approach to the text. Boyd applies it to only the verses that support his view and not to the ones that say God has arms or legs.

Another problem with the open-theism view is that it tries to answer the problem of evil and human freedom in a wrong way. Boyd supposes that if God knows everything fully then God would be responsible for all the moral evils and natural evils in the world. The problem of the omniscient bystander would come into play here. If God knows everything then He is a bystander to all the evils. But this is not necessary to solve this problem as others who hold to the classical view of foreknowledge have solved the problem of evil. (See Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense)

The ontological argument can act as an argument against the open-view. The ontological argument states that God is the greatest Being. That being said, is the God of the open-view that great? It seems like His power and knowledge is limited and undermined. But God can be conceived as being even greater than that and thus would destroy the open-view’s interpretation of God.

Lastly, the open-theism view tries to shift the debate over the doctrine of creation rather than foreknowledge. This is an utter red herring. The book which Boyd is writing for is about foreknowledge and God not about creation and God. Although this objection is terrible it still has a defeater. It is true that past, present, and future are separate parts of time. This means that the past does not exist anymore and the future does not exist only the present exists (See A-Theory of Time). But if before creation God is atemporal is it not possible that God can know all aspects and truths about time whether they exist or not? Boyd does not answer this question it seems.

Open-theism does more harm to Scripture and the doctrine of God. It seems to create more problems for the theist than to answer the objections directed towards God. Christians should reject this view entirely and not fall for its supposed rescue from the problem of evil.

Works Cited

Beilby, James K., and Paul R. Eddy. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001. Print.
“Process Theism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/process-theism/&gt;.

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10 Comments

  1. Leo says:

    It is simply an attempt to misinform those that might not know any better to say that Open Theism has its roots in Process theology. You either don’t know what you are talking about or you are intentionally trying to misrepresent the truth.

    – Leo

    • Jesse Roach says:

      How so? I’ve heard from various Christians that it is rooted in process theology. Even the cited site agrees (plato.standford.edu) Heck, even in my History to Early Philosophy class my agnostic atheist teacher said that process theology is similar to open theism.

  2. Tim says:

    Agree with Leo’s comments about Process Theology and Open Theism. Because there are some similarities doesn’t mean one was dependent on the other. There are some similarities between Calvinism and Islam (God determining everything) but Calvinism wasn’t derived from Islam. I suspect the sources you are quoting are making this kind of logical mistake.

    Regarding God’s greatness “The ontological argument states that God is the greatest Being. That being said, is the God of the open-view that great? It seems like His power and knowledge is limited and undermined.”. But this akin to someone saying, my Lawyer is 9 foot tall and me saying no actually he is 6ft tall. And the first person then saying, you are diminishing his greatness. Surely the point is, how tall is the Lawyer in fact? It doesn’t diminish him if he is indeed 6ft tall, because he wasn’t 9ft tall to start with. You have to argue the facts of the case, what actually is the truth. Just because your conception of God has more in the knowledge box (and I would argue it actually doesn’t), does nothing to establish whether that view is indeed true or not.

    Bless you.

  3. I agree with Leo too that open theology doesn’t necessarily spawn from process theology. Some open theists, like Thomas Jay Oord, were influenced heavily by process theology, but many others, like Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, were influenced more by Arminianism/Wesleyianism.

    Also, I think you misunderstand what open theists say about anthropomorphisms. An anthropomorphism is a description of God that entails His having human physical characteristics to portray some truth metaphorically. So God’s having eyes and ears and hands is obviously anthropomorphic language, but on what grounds should we say that God’s changing his mind or relenting is anthropomorphic?

    The debate is (or should be) about the doctrine of creation, and the nature of reality and the future. Both open theists and non-open theists affirm that God is omniscient.

    • Jesse Roach says:

      Well, even if it doesn’t spawn from process theology (if it was formulated independently of process theology), it still accepts a basic presupposition that process theology holds. And I still think it is not about the doctrine of creation but rather God’s foreknowledge.

      Also, on a side note, I would assume you’re going to Biola? I’m headed there after CSUN for graduate school (getting a degree in philosophy).

      • Indeed, open theology holds common ground with process theology, but it does so also with Arminianism on many issues, and also with Calvinism on a few (very rare) other issues. For instance, open theists agree with Calvinists that God can only know a future event with certainty if He has preordained it. And to prevent a debate about the debate, I’ll not comment further on the doctrine of creation/doctrine of foreknowledge issue.

        And yes, I do go to Biola! How does everyone in the blogosphere seem to know this? I don’t think I advertise it. Anyway, that’s great your coming here for philosophy grad school. I am thinking about a philosophy minor.

      • Jesse Roach says:

        I see foreknowledge = foreordination an extreme category error. Knowledge of something does not make something real. If I hold a true belief about anything, does my belief make reality true? No, I derive my knowledge from reality (as I’m typing this I can see how the doctrine of creation could tie in). I personally hold to the Molinist view of foreknowledge and I’ll write about it sometime in the near future.

        Also, I knew you were from biola because of your email. And also, do you yourself hold the open-theism view? (just wondering)

      • I think knowledge presupposes that something is real. A true belief is one that is justifiably believed based on evidence from reality. Your belief does not make it true, but you hold that belief because you view it as true.

        Foreknowledge may not equal foreordination in all areas, but I think it certainly does when it comes to human decisions. God can influence or unilaterally control human decisions, but He prefers them to be free choices, say the open theists. And there is a difference between “knowledge” and “beliefs” or “predictions.” God may expect something to happen long before it happens without knowing with absolute certainty that it will happen.

        Molinism is an interesting view that I’m still struggling to understand. Alot of the professors at Biola are Molinists (including the research professor William Craig).

        I would consider myself an open theist, though for me it was a very long evolution from Arminianism to open theology. I have several posts on my blog defending open theism, if you want to check them out.

  4. T. C. says:

    Reading one article in a Four Views book on Open theism is not enough to render a judgment on the view. Boyd has written a full-length introduction to Openness called _God of the Possible_ in which many of his arguments are fleshed out in greater detail along with responses to common objections (like the one’s you raise here.)

    • Jesse Roach says:

      It’s much much longer than what is deemed as “an article” Each view had about 40 pages to give a defense of their view and each response was about 5 pages in length from each respective view. I’ll probably read more on it in the future, but right now I’m content with what I’ve already read.

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