Open theism, also called free will theism and openness theology, is the belief that God does not exercise meticulous control of the universe but leaves it "open" for humans to make significant choices (free will) that impact their relationships with God and others. A corollary of this is that God has not predetermined the future. Open Theists further believe that this would imply that God does not know the future exhaustively. Proponents affirm that God is omniscient, but deny that this means that God knows everything that will happen.

"Our rejection of divine timelessness and our affirmation of dynamic omniscience are the most controversial elements in our proposal and the view of foreknowledge receives the most attention. However the watershed issue in the debate is not whether God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) but whether God is ever affected by and responds to what we do. This is the same watershed that divides Calvinism from Arminianism"[1]

Open Theists argue that people are created to be in meaningful relationships with God and others and as moral beings must have the ability to make real, responsible choices in their lives. Open Theists argue that this cannot be accomplished as long as God exercises exhaustive control of the universe or predetermines the future because this would remove humanity's free will. The counterpoint to this is that critics of Open Theism say that if God is not exercising meticulous control of the universe, or does not exhaustively know the future, then this would imply that He is not in control and we are not able to completely trust in God's sovereignty. Furthermore, the question remains, will God actually be able to triumph over evil? Open Theists answer these critiques by noting that while God does not exercise meticulous control, he is "ultimately" in control.

There are two primary motivations for Open Theism. The first is to express a relationship with God that Christians experience devotional. God, Open Theism says, because He desires relationship, has given us real freedom to respond to Him relationally.[2] Secondly, Open Theism focuses on the issue of theodicy. In this Open Theists claim that God's omnipotence does not mean that He is the author of every evil, but that God will ultimately triumph over evil.[3]




Basic beliefs

Open Theists believe that God seeks to be in a reciprocal relationship with mankind. Because of this, God does not exercise "meticulous control" of the universe, but leaves it "open" for mankind to make significant choices (freewill) that impact their relationships with Him and others. They argue that this is both what the Scripture says about God, and is the experience of Christians. People pray expecting that God will answer their prayers not that the outcome was predetermined and therefore meaningless to pray. Therefore, Open Theists argue that Christians in practice treat God as if He will respond to them and act themselves as if their moral choices are real and have real impact.

Open Theists argue that the belief in meticulous control is not based on the Bible but instead on Greek/Hellenistic Philosophical ideas of what they imagines a God must be like. Rather than seeing the passion and intimacy of a relational God both in the Old and New Testaments who is concerned with justice, holiness, and love and intimately involved with His creation - the Greek Philosophers viewed God as an immovable detached All-Controlling force. This view, Open Theists argue, influenced later Christian thought. Open Theists argue that in contrast with this detached view of God as the "unmoved mover" that the Prophets who pictures God as grieving over Israel, as well as of the Incarnation which shows God being intimately involved in the lives of his creation.

The conflict with Open Theism comes from proponents wanting to stress that God desires to be in a relationship with us and involve himself, to take risks, to "open" Himself up to that. As seen in the following section, critics of Open Theism on the other hand invariably do not object to this so much as they do to the implication that God may not exercise meticulous control or may not exhaustively know the future which becomes the central focus of their criticism.


Libertarian free will

One can understand libertarian freedom according to such: "Given choices A and B, one can literally choose to do either one. No circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine one's choice; a person's choice is up to him, and if he does one of them, he could have done otherwise, or at least he could have refrained from acting at all" (Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 240). Hasker takes us a little further: "Notice that the definition claims that free actions have no sufficient cause, not that they lack causes and conditions altogether.[4]

"Probably the most common definition says free will is the ability to make choices without any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition."[5]

God does not know the future exhaustively

Open theism generally begins from the assumption that there are no truths about future contingents. A contingent truth is something that is true but didn't have to be. A contingent falsehood is something that is false but could have been true if things had been different. Contingent truths about the future are truths about what will happen that aren't necessary truths. Just as there are truths about the past that didn't have to be true, most philosophers take there to be truths about the future that are indeed true but didn't have to be true. Things could have gone differently in the process of what will lead up to them. As it happens, or rather as it will happen, that's not the path things will take. So there are truths about what we will do that aren't necessary truths but are rather contingent truths. This is the standard view among philosophers about future contingents.

Open theism revises this view in one way. It accepts the possibility that things could go one way or the other in the future, as the standard view does. It allows that there are some necessary truths about the future. It accepts that there are contingent things about the future. It just won't allow those contingent things to be true or false. If it's not necessary, they say, it must not be true either, even though truth is much weaker than necessity. Something can be true but not necessary. But for open theists, nothing about the future can be true but not necessary. The future is special somehow.

That forms the basis of the open theist's argument against foreknowledge. Once you deny that statements about future contingents can be true or false, then there simply are no truths about what free creatures will do unless those actions are necessary. There are no truths about my future except what's true of me in every possible future. With a robust sense of libertarian free will, many of our actions are free and thus could have been otherwise. Therefore, there are very few truths about my future. If there aren't such truths to know, then God cannot know them. Therefore, God only knows a very few truths about the future, things that are true in every possible future.

Open theists claim they do not deny God's omniscience, just God's foreknowledge. The argumentation appears as such: Just as it doesn't threaten God's omnipotence to deny that God can make a contradiction true (because omnipotence only means being able to do anything possible), it doesn't threaten God's omniscience if his knowledge is limited to what's true (because omniscience only means knowing everything true). This is not the kind of exhaustive knowledge that most theists believe in, but technically-speaking it is still omniscience. It's just that much of what traditional theists have considered to be included in omniscience isn't even true and thus isn't available for God to know.

Implications for the doctrine of God

Open theism's beliefs concerning the foreknowledge of God implies many things about the character of God. God literally changes his mind, continues to learn, and is even said to take risks (hence John Sanders' book The God Who Risks). Gregory Boyd, an open theist, notes that "In a cosmos populated by free agents, the outcome of things -- even divine decisions -- is often uncertain.".[6] He states in another place that "God's call to covenantal faithfulness has involved testing. God is seeking to find out whether or not the people he calls will lovingly choose him above all else." [7]

Implications for the Christian life

Gregory Boyd assures readers that according to Open Theism there is no assurance:

"It is true that according to the open view things can happen in our lives that God didn't plan or even foreknow with certainty (though he always foreknew they were possible). This means that in the open view things can happen to us that have no overarching divine purpose. In this view, "trusting in God" provides no assurance that everything that happens to us will reflect his divine purposes, for there are other agents who also have power to affect us, just as we have power to affect others. This, it must be admitted, can for some be a scary thought." [8]

Interpretive methods

The open theist generally applies a very literal interpretation of scripture, at least when it comes to passages about God's engagement with people in time. For instance, when it says that God relents or changes his mind, this is taken literally. The traditional view is that such statements are told from within the perspective of time as experienced by humans. Particularly if God is outside time, it can't mean what the open theist takes it to mean. Even if God knows what he will do in the future, as some more limited open theists would say (still leaving open what people will choose to do), God doesn't change his own mind, not literally.

On the other hand, open theists cannot take too literally any passage that speaks of God not changing his mind as humans do or any statements about God knowing all of our days from before we even existed. Since taking both statements literally would lead to a contradiction, open theists opt to go with the literal reading of the statements about human experience of God in narratives, while traditional theists emphasize the literal meaning of direct prophecies from God or statements in the psalms. Either view has to resolve the conflict, and each favors one variety of statement as non-literal or less literal. Open theists see the narrative statements as straightforward telling of what God does, while the prophecies and psalms are poetry, which often contains metaphor and exaggeration. On the other hand, traditional theists see the narrative statements as told from a human perspective due to their being recountings of human interactions with God in time, and if God doesn't experience those interactions the same way due to having a plan for how it would turn out, it's not surprising for it to read the way it does. Furthermore, they see the psalmic and prophetic statements as direct revelation, and most such statements are not metaphor, even if they are often expressed in poetic form. Not all such statements are poetic, either, because the prophet Samuel delivers a statement to Saul that God does not change his mind (and this in a passage that explicitly declares God to have changed his mind in the narrative portion).

Popular proponents

Gregory Boyd

See main page: Gregory Boyd

John Sanders

"The overarching structures of creation are purposed by God, but not every single detail that occurs within them. Within general providence it makes sense to say that God intends an overall purpose for the creation and that God does not specifically intend each and every action within the creation. Thus God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil. The "greater good" of establishing the conditions of fellowship between God and creatures does not mean that gratuitous evil has a point. Rather, the possibility of gratuitous evil has a point but its actuality does not. ... When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. .. God does not have a specific purpose in mind of these occurrences." [9]
See main page: John Sanders

Clark Pinnock

See main page on Clark Pinnock.

Bob Enyart

The pastor of Denver Bible Church has debated Knox Theological Seminary's Associate Professor of New Testament, Sam Lamerson, on Open Theism, moderated, in ten rounds online. Also a Christian radio talk show host for 17 years, Bob Enyart has produced a 3 DVD Seminar on Open Theism, a first of its kind.

"The future is open because God is free and God is creative. The settled view of God denies God's own freedom and the ability to create, do something new, etc. God was, is and always will be free. God was, is and always will be a creative God." [10]

Popular opponents

Taking Open Theism seriously

"If 'reformists' insist on keeping the boundaries of heresy open, however, then they must be resisted with charity. The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds ('I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come'; Isa. 46:10a; cf. Job 28; Ps. 90; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1), as it has been in the history of the exegesis of relevant passages. This issue was thoroughly discussed by patristic exegetes as early as Origen's Against Celsus. Keeping the boundaries of faith undefined is a demonic temptation that evangelicals within the mainline have learned all too well and have been burned by all too painfully."[11]

See also

References & Notes

  1. John Sanders
  2. see the introductory preface for The Openness of God, Ed. Clark Pinnock p.7
  3. This is the central thesis of Greg Boyd's Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy
  4. Hasker, Metaphysics, p. 32.
  5. R.C. Sproul, Chosen By God, p. 51
  6. Boyd, God of the Possible, p. 58.
  7. ibid., p. 64 (emphasis in the original).
  8. Boyd, God of the Possible, p. 153.
  9. John Sanders, The God Who Risks, pp. 261-262.
  10. Bob Enyart, Is the Future Settled or Open?
  11. Thomas Oden, "The Real Reformers and the Traditionalists," Christianity Today, Feb. 9, 1998, p. 46. emphasis added



  • God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, by Gregory Boyd
  • God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, by Gregory Boyd
  • The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, by John Sanders
  • Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness (The Didsbury Lectures), by Clark Pinnock
  • The Grace of God and the Will of Man, by Clark Pinnock
  • The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, by Clark Pinnock
  • God, Time and Knowledge, by William Hasker
  • Open Theism: A Seminar with Bob Enyart, by Bob Enyart (Video seminar on 3 DVDs)


  • What Does God Know, and When Does He Know It?, by Millard Erickson, Zondervan, 2003 ISBN 0-310-24685-7
  • No Other God, by John Frame
  • The Battle For God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism, by Norman Geisler and Wayne House
  • Consuming Glory: A Classical Defense of Divine-Human Relationality Against Open Theism, by Gannon Murphy, Wipf & Stock, forthcoming, ISBN 1-59752-843-9
  • Beyond the Bounds, by John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth. Crossway, 2003, ISBN 1581344627
  • Untamed God, by Jay Wesley Richards
  • God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism, by Bruce Ware, Crossway, 2000, ISBN 1581342292
  • Their God is Too Small, by Bruce Ware, 2003, ISBN 1581344813
  • God's Greater Glory, by Bruce Ware
  • Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, edited by Douglas Wilson
  • The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom, by William Lane Craig

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