Does God Know the Word ‘Perhaps’? (Part 2)

By Patrick Nullens


We opened our inquiry and first article with the simple question of a child: “Does God know the word perhaps?” According to open theism, God is all-wise but does not have meticulous foreknowledge. Based on a full knowledge of the past and present, God can only make an astute guess about our responses.

According to classical theists, God also knows perhaps, but it is essentially different from our understanding. God does not know uncertainties as we do. He knows exactly everything that will happen, including our own free choices.

Whatever one might believe about classical theism or open theism, it is good that the teaching of God is again in the forefront. Open theism challenges many traditional ideas and forces us to a deeper understanding of the biblical text. Indeed God is personal and relational. The abstractions of classical theology end up with a God of the philosophers and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

However there are some serious flaws in the open theism model, and we need not leave the classical model to perceive God as a loving person. I mention six issues that for me personally are decisive to finally refute open theism.

1. Open theism has put itself outside the boundaries of traditional faith.

The first argument comes from tradition, the consensus of the believers through the ages (consensus fidelium).1 As demonstrated in Part 1 last week, classical theism has the oldest papers and is supported by a wide consensus. Not only Calvinists, but also Arminians, Roman Catholics2, and Orthodox3 believers subscribe to the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge. The opinions diverge only on how God foresees future actions (especially in relation to God and time) and how divine foreknowledge relates to human freedom. The fact of extensive foreknowledge was never doubted in Christian tradition.

2. The Bible attests to God’s meticulous foreknowledge.

Almost every passage of Scripture can be explained differently, but in general, open theists face serious exegetical problems and have to be very creative in interpreting some traditional proof texts about God’s foreknowledge. About Jeremiah he says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).

God knows not only what will occur, but also what could occur (Jeremiah 38:17-23; Matthew 11:21). A deeper study of the book of Daniel will undoubtedly bring us to awe about God’s specific foreknowledge. But most astonishing are the detailed prophecies about Christ. His virgin birth was predicted (Isaiah 7:14) as was its exact location (Micah 5:2). In short, Christ’s coming and death were foreknown and foreordained by God (1 Peter 1:20; Acts 2:23).

3. Open theism diminishes God’s sovereignty and providence.

Open theism is biased and overlooks or minimizes several texts about God’s infinite power. I am not defending here a Calvinistic idea of predestination and determinism. But it is a biblical notion that our sovereign God is in control of everything. God is steering all natural elements (Psalm 104). He can employ coercive power (Isaiah 25:1, 2). In Christ all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). Not even a sparrow dies apart from God’s will (Matthew 10:29). All our plans should be evaluated against God’s plans (James 4:13-15).

Yet control is not the same as causation. Things that happen are either caused or permitted by God. God can permit people to carry out their plans or he can intervene. Jack Cottrell rightly refers to God’s foreknowledge of human free choices, which enables him to monitor people’s plans. God cannot be taken by surprise.4 Without his foreknowledge he cannot maintain sovereign control.

The idea of God’s self-limitation seems to be theologically and biblically sound. It is a concept that was widely used before open theism.5 Indeed, God limited himself by creating a world with free moral agents. The question, however, is how far this limitation goes. Open theism stretches this concept too far by almost changing God’s nature. God’s knowledge is not limited to time and space.

4. Open theism makes a similar logical flaw as Calvinism.

According to classical Arminianism, God foreknows our truly free decisions and this foreknowledge forms the basis of predestination (Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1). According to open theists, and in this they agree with Calvinists, this type of detailed foreknowledge automatically entangles predestination. If God’s foreknowledge is infallible and what he sees will happen, and our freedom is merely an illusion, the future must be closed.

We have to cut some logical knots now. Certainty of the future is not the same as necessity. No fact of the future is fixed by the knowledge of it. What “shall be” is not equal to what “must be.” God knowing the future does not necessarily mean that the future is not a result of several free options.

The church fathers stated that God’s foreknowledge imposes as little compulsion on future acts as human remembering does on the past.6 We can know for certain that something happened, but this doesn’t necessarily mean nothing else could have happened. This simple reasoning about certainty and necessity of the past can be extrapolated to the future. God knows if I decide to drink a cup of tea instead of coffee, but this does not mean I can’t decide to drink coffee. The fact that God knows in advance does not limit my choices. In that sense the future is both open and certain. It is open as far as my future decisions are concerned, but it is certain in God’s infinite knowledge of the future. Both are two sides of the same truth.

5. Open theism is too rationalistic and too limited in its interpretation of God.

Open theism criticizes classic theists for being too rationalistic and too much influenced by pagan philosophy. But the same is true for its own model. They have changed the static view of a medieval lord for a dynamic view of a contemporary father. Greek philosophy is replaced by the newer process philosophy. God’s independence is now replaced by community and vulnerability.

Open theists tend to use many arguments from human experience and logic. Donald Bloesch sees it as part of the legacy of evangelical rationalism.7 It tends to look only at God as he relates to his creation. The essential otherness of God disappears in the background. I appreciate the Lutheran distinction between the revealed God (Deus revelatus) and the hidden God (Deus absconditus). We must be very careful with philosophical speculations. Even now in Christ, we are still sinners and we can see only the backside of God, as did Moses (Exodus 33).

6. Open theism is not very pastorally comforting.

The main theological question that keeps all of us busy is: Why does God allow suffering in the world? Why did he allow humanity to fall in sin? Open theists present a God who does not know future events or master the future. So he cannot be accused for all evil in the world. They take a clear side in this enigma. But the net result is that the God who helps us is not the Almighty. Since God cooperates he can only help us to a certain limit. The question remains, as it is the case for classical theism: Why did God allow the mass destruction of innocent people, not only before it happened, but also as it happened?

According to open theists, our petitionary prayers can make all the difference. But this also has the side effect that we can be very uncertain when something bad happens to us. Did we pray enough? Prayer is not causal but it is instrumental. God will always act freely, according to his plan. He foreknows our prayers. Prayer is about fellowship and contains the words “Thy will be done.”

His will is void of any form of perhaps. What he wills, will be done.


1 This line of reasoning may surprise some readers. However, it is wise to evaluate each theological novelty against the light of Christian tradition. Many insightful teachers dealt with similar issues and we should not always try to reinvent doctrine; instead, we should rediscover our faith.

2 In teaching of the First Vatican Council, Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (St. Louis: B. Herder Book, 1954), 40-43.

3 Dumitru Stæaniloae, The Experience of God, translated by Ionita Ioan and Robert Barringer (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), 209-15.

4 Jack W. Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty” in Clark H. Pinnock’s The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1989), 111. See also Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (Joplin: College Press, 2002), 115-18.

5 Heinrich Emil Brunner, Dogmatik Vol. 1 (Zürich: Zwingli, 1950), 267-73. Brunner, however, did not go so far to limit God’s foreknowledge. It is typical for God that he can not only foreknow things with a clear causality in the present, something we can even do, but also the decisions of free moral agents. His foreknowledge is different from ours since it is not based on the present. Brunner follows the reasoning of Augustine that God’s foreknowledge does not exclude our freedom. Brunner, 281, 282.

6 For instance, Augustine in De libero Arbitrio Book III (On Free Choice of the Will), 4, 11.

7 Donald G. Bloesch, God, the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 259.



Patrick Nullens is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at TCM International Institute, Heiligenkreuz, Austria. He and his family live in Leuven, Belgium.

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