By Paul Kissling
Open theism arose as a system because of dissatisfaction with traditional theological formulations of the doctrine of God, whether Calvinist or Arminian.
Calvinism is known for its consistency in emphasizing the sovereignty of God over all things. With the claim that God has ordained all things, God’s sovereignty is protected. Nothing has ever or will ever happen, according to the Calvinist, that is outside of God’s knowledge, control, and predestination.
This is a consistent position, but it causes a variety of problems. If God predestines all things, it seems as if he is responsible not only for the good things but also for the manifestly evil things that plague the world.
Arminians respond to this problem by saying that while God knows all things, past, present, and future, he does not cause all things to happen because he has given angels and human beings free will. To know something, argues the Arminian, is not the same as causing it. I agree, but I am not sure that solves the problem.
The Problem of Time
The entire discussion of God and time is fraught with philosophical and logical problems. There are three problems when it comes to discussing the relationship of God to time: (1) understanding exactly what we mean by God; (2) understanding exactly what we mean by time; and (3) understanding the relationship between them!
I make no claim to being a philosopher (or a systematic theologian for that matter), but I know philosophers, both Christian and non-Christian, debate these matters intensely. I am not sure limited human beings, bound as we are by the time and space universe, have the ability to talk intelligently about God’s relationship to time.
When we speak of God’s foreknowledge what do we mean? If we say God is outside of time and space, what do we mean? If we say God knows everything, what do we mean? The word knows is in the present tense. If God knows everything in the present tense, isn’t God in time? How could there be a present tense of a verb of which God is the subject if we are not assuming that God is within time? If God knows in the present tense something will happen in the future, that thing is predestined to happen. It cannot not happen. This does not mean that God causes it to happen, but it is predestined to happen. While knowing is not the same as causing, if God knows (present tense) all things, then all things are predestined, even the freewill choices of people to reject God and suffer eternal judgment. When we say God foreknew (past tense) all things, including freewill decisions to accept or reject Christ with their eternal consequences, what do we mean?
The Calvinist says foreknowledge is tantamount to predestination, therefore everything is predestined by God. God is therefore ultimately responsible for all that happens, both good and evil.
Arminians (or at least non-Calvinists who reject open theism) argue in the following way. First, knowing is not the same thing as causing. Second, God’s foreknowledge takes place outside of time. It is not temporally prior to God’s predestination, it is logically prior. In other words the fore in the word foreknow happens outside of, or is independent of, time, and fore is not literal. Third, based on God’s foreknowledge of the freewill decisions of people to accept or reject the gospel, God then predestines them to eternal fellowship or eternal judgment. This makes sense and does not blame God for the freewill decisions for evil that we human beings so often make.
But there are problems. Imagine an occasion (not a time!) when there was no creation. God contemplates creating the universe. He knows that if he creates the universe in a certain way, John Doe will one day accept the gospel and remain faithful to death and receive the crown of life. Based on that knowledge, God predestines it to be so by creating.
But John’s cousin Jedidiah is another matter. God knows he will be a cruel and vindictive person and spend a lifetime hurting the weak and will reject the gospel. This is his free decision. God does not make him make that decision.
Now God must decide whether to create such a world in which John lives in eternal fellowship with God and Jedidiah rejects the gospel and lives in eternal judgment. Despite all the discussion about this taking place outside of time, it seems like God is responsible for the fate of both John and Jedidiah. Knowing how they would exercise their freedom when it is given to them before the creation of the world, he decided to create that world anyway.
If he knew what would happen to Jedidiah before he created and decided to create anyway, isn’t he responsible for his decision just as much as John’s decision? The Calvinist would say “yes” and I think the open theist would say “yes,” but the Arminian would say “no.”
The problem of course is that this description of the situation uses time and space words. The word when is a time word as are the words now and knows (in the present tense). The phrase outside of is a spatial metaphor.
The Problem of Language
But what other language could we use? And that is my point. We don’t have any language other than language that is bound (a space word) by time and space metaphors. The issue ultimately is which we would rather do. Would we rather clear God’s reputation of any suggestion that he is responsible for evil or emphasize his control over everything that happens, including the actions of Adolf Hitler? In more theological terms, would we rather limit God’s sovereignty by making human and angelic freedom responsible for evil in the world, or maintain his sovereignty but risk making God seem to be responsible for the evil in the world?
The Arminian would argue that this is a false choice. We can maintain God’s sovereignty and human and angelic freedom, but coming up with language that allows us to do this is a real challenge. Open theism says it is better to think of God as deliberately choosing to diminish his own right to sovereignty so that genuine freedom is possible. While God predestines certain things, he chooses to neither predestine nor foreknow the freewill decisions of humans and angels.
Open theists argue that knowledge of truly free decisions is not possible. Until the freewill decision is made, the decision does not exist for it to be known. It is something like asking whether God can create a square circle or a rock so big he cannot lift it. God is neither diminished nor limited by the fact that he does not know the future freewill decisions of people.
One way to speak of God’s sovereign control of the future is to recognize that certain things are predestined because God has decided to make them happen. Whether humans freely choose to cooperate or are forced is immaterial. God has decided and he will ensure it happens with or without the willing cooperation of human beings. An example might be the actions of Jewish and Roman authorities in condemning Jesus to death (Acts 2:23). Another is the fact of the second coming, but evidently not its timing.
But other matters are not determined or, if truly free, foreknown. The advantage of this way of understanding God is that the relational nature of God is emphasized. When we pray for something we are not doing something that has been predestined before the foundation of the world. When God answers he genuinely responds to our prayers. God hears and responds to our prayers in a relational way. Petitionary prayer, in which our prayers genuinely influence God to act, is difficult to explain on either a Calvinist or Arminian basis.
The Problem of Understanding
Open theism helps to make sense of certain logical traps in Calvinism and Arminianism, and it helps to explain the common Christian experience of a relationship with God in which he gives us great freedom and responds to us. Like any other system frail humans construct, however, it has its dangers. We must be careful not to so emphasize the relationality of God that we diminish his glory. We must also be careful that when talking about God and time, and his relationship to it, that we not arrogantly claim to have figured out things “too wonderful for us to know.”
Understanding God in some ultimate sense is beyond us. We have no choice but to speak of God in human terms. We must speak anthropomorphically because we need an anthropomorphic God. Open theism may help us to do this more biblically, with divinely inspired language. But it, like any other system, should be held loosely and not dogmatically.
Paul J. Kissling is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at TCM International Institute, Heiligenkreuz, Austria.