Essentials of Philosophy and Christian Thought - Lesson 6

The Case Against Open Theism

Open theism is the belief that God does not know the future; otherwise, we would not be free in our decisions. Nash discusses the teachings of God's omniscience and human free will, and the logical implications of this teaching.

Ronald Nash
Essentials of Philosophy and Christian Thought
Lesson 6
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The Case Against Open Theism

The Case Against Open Theism

I. Open Theism

II. Omniscience and Free Will

III. Open Theism and God’s Knowledge of the Future

A. Five leading advocates

B. Clark Pinnock

C. Relevance of Aristotle

D. Millard Erickson

IV. Logical Implications

  • Dr. Nash covers the objectives to the lectures, reading material, and discusses the five major beliefs that make up a worldview

  • A discussion of naturalism, what it teaches, two major exponents of naturalism (Lamont, Russell), and why it is wrong

  • Theories opposed by Plato ("Hermman"), his significance, his three forms of dualism, and Plato's basic teaching on "forms"

  • Plato's doctrine of the immortality of the soul, his understanding of knowledge (argued against by Augustine and Plotinus), and a discussion of rationalism vs. empiricism

  • The contributions of Aristotle (the law of non-contradiction; the difference between essential and non-essential properties), Plotinus, and Aquinas

  • Open theism is the belief that God does not know the future; otherwise, we would not be free in our decisions. Nash discusses the teachings of God's omniscience and human free will, and the logical implications of this teaching.

A seminary-level version of this class is available in our Institute Program.

Dr. Ronald Nash

Essentials of Philosophy and Christian Thought


The Case Against Open Theism

Lesson Transcript


Well, we have finished our very quick and brief look at the six worldview systems from the ancient and medieval world. I hope you understand again that we’ve just hit some of the highlights. We’ve had to omit far more material but this is of course just a very short summary. There are literally hundreds of other things we could do in this short course; among those we could talk about postmodernism. I’ve decided not to do that. There’s plenty of material in the textbook. I could talk about a very fascinating collection of ideas called the doctrine of possible worlds.  But I go into great detail about that in the tape and also in the textbook. We could talk about later theories of knowledge, such as those advanced by David Hume and Immanuel Kant. We could talk about certain interesting ideas about the existence of God.

What I’ve decided to do among all these other subjects in bringing this tape to a close is to talk about the contemporary Christian debate over open theism. This is interesting to me because it brings us back to some of the ideas from ancient philosophy that we have already discussed. Among the people who are the supporters of what we call open theism are people who love to point the finger at Bible-believing, orthodox Christians, and accuse us of submitting, surrendering to certain Greek ideas. Ideas borrowed from people like Plato and Aristotle. But the truth is that the advocates of what we call open theism who are now descending like a plague of locusts upon the church are the real Hellenistic thinkers among us. The doctrine of God’s inability to know the future that these people are dropping upon the church is really just a revival of one of Aristotle’s own teachings. And I refer here to Aristotle’s belief that not even a god can know the future—at least, the future insofar as it’s related to human free actions.

So, this is a way of fighting back. What I’m going to do here is offer you a way of answering this very dangerous revival of ideas from Aristotle’s philosophy. So let’s get started.

Theologically conservative Christians have always assumed that God has perfect knowledge about the past and the present and the future. The technical world for such knowledge is omniscience. Suddenly, things have changed. In the last ten years or so a number of thinkers in the Christian church have begun to deny God’s perfect knowledge about the future. My objective in this section of this tape is to examine this new development and determine whether this new way of thinking about the Christian God is defensible.

First, let me set up the problem about God’s knowledge of the future. Divine omniscience means that God knows all true propositions and believes no false propositions. The range of God’s knowledge is total—he knows all truth propositions. When any person knows something, a proposition, at least two conditions must be present. First, the person must believe the proposition in question, and second, the believed proposition must be true. If my grandson Andrew knows that today is my granddaughter Amanda’s birthday, then Andy believes that today is Amanda’s birthday. Believing a proposition is a necessary condition for knowing it. If Andy doesn’t believe that today is Amanda’s birthday he clearly cannot know it. Does knowing a proposition implies believing it. But just as clearly my grandson cannot have knowledge of some proposition unless that proposition is true. If Andy thinks he knows P, any proposition, and P is false, then Andrew’s claim to knowledge is mistaken. He may think he knows today is Amanda’s birthday, but he is wrong. He does not have knowledge.

If the body of true propositions known by an omniscient being includes all true propositions about what human beings will in the future, a serious consequence for human freedom seems to arise. It is impossible for any omniscient being to hold even one false belief. Since God foreknows what Andy will do at 8pm tomorrow, it appears as though Andy must do whatever God knows he will do. In what sense, then, can Andy’s action be free? If God foreknows what Andy will do in the future, does Andy have the ability to do anything other than what God knows he will do? It seems highly unlikely. If Andy had the power to something other than what God foreknows, then God could have been mistaken. God would then have held a false belief, in which case God’s foreknowledge would actually have been fore-ignorance. But this is impossible. If God has true foreknowledge of what human beings will do in the future, it seems that these actions are determined. But if those actions are not determined, then human beings have the power either to do something or not, then it seems to follow that God lacks omniscience. This is kind of technical stuff, but I think you follow that.

In the rest of this discussion, I am primarily interested in those religious thinkers who are so anxious to protect their view of free will that they will place constraints upon the power and the knowledge of God. In their view of things, if God cannot know future contingents, that is, actions that flow from human decisions, human free choice, then the supposed threat divine omniscience poses to human freedom disappears. See, if God has perfect knowledge of the future, then human free will is non-existent. But if God doesn’t know the future, then—isn’t this wonderful?—we have protected, if God doesn’t know the future, then human beings can still exercise their free will, and this is what is called open theism.

Now, comment about open theism’s attack on God’s knowledge of the future. Five of the philosophers and theologians who seek to limit God’s knowledge of certain kinds of future events are, in order: Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. All of them contributors to a book called The Openness of God. These authors believe it is necessary to eliminate God’s knowledge of future human actions in order to preserve the sphere of human free will. Often it seems this belief constitutes their only reason for holding this position. Such a belief would not follow from an argument, but is sheer dogmatism.

Clark Pinnock, the leader of open theism, does his best to make the limited God of his worldview look good. There’s a quote from Pinnock: “If choices are real and freedom significant, future decisions cannot be exhaustively foreknowns. This is because the future is not determinate but shaped in part by human choices. The future is not fixed like the past, which can be known completely. The future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated even by God. Future decisions cannot in every way be foreknown because they have not yet been made. God knows everything that can be known, but God’s foreknowledge does not include the undecided.” In Pinnock’s view, if God had perfect knowledge of all future human decisions, they would lose significance. This is a fundamental presupposition of this open theistic worldview. And Pinnock reiterates the mantra of open theism that divine knowledge “would make the future fixed and certain and render illusory the sense of our making the choices between real options.” Pinnock’s open theism requires its adherents to alter significantly their view of God. See, what’s going on here? We want to protect human free will. How are we going to do that? We are going to change totally our Christian concept of God. Here’s what Pinnock says: “God created a dynamic and changing world and enjoys getting to know it. It is a world of freedom capable of genuine novelty, inexhaustible creativity, and real surprises. I believe that God takes the light and the spontaneity of the universe and enjoys continuing to get to know it in a love that never changes.” Pinnock is assuming that a sovereign God who might have perfect knowledge of and perfect control over the world cannot love and enjoy his creation. Pinnock shows no interest in drawing out the logical implications of God who is capable of being surprised.

Proponents of open theism attempt to gain support for their dramatic revision of Christian thinking by claiming that their reinterpretation of divine omniscience is no more serious than the recognition that divine omnipotence must be disengaged from logical impossibility. If the claim that God cannot do the logically impossible does not violate God’s omnipotence, then their claim that God cannot know what does not yet exist does not violate God’s omniscience. Just as it is no constraint upon God’s power to say that he cannot do the logically impossible, so too it is no constraint upon God’s knowledge to say that he cannot know what cannot be known. Unfortunately for the open theist the analogy fails. There are major differences in the two cases. Even if the future does not exist for humans, it hardly follows that it does not exist for God, who is an eternal being who transcends time as humans know it. Moreover, while God’s creating a square circle is logically impossible, God’s knowing the future is not.

I am unwilling to give open theists a victory by default on issues this important. We must ask them for some arguments. We can’t just let them say something dogmatically. Give us some arguments. What we have instead is an unsupported claim that if God’s knowledge included future human choices, then future human actions cannot be free. But throughout the history of Christianity many Christian thinkers have rejected this entailment. There have been several attempts to show that even if God has perfect knowledge about future contingents, the human conduct in question might still be free in some sense. Perhaps these attempts are unsuccessful, but until the open theist demonstrates those failures, we have to judge that he is begging one or more questions. And perhaps among the questions he is begging is the issue of human freedom. Let us not rush to judgment in all this and think that something important has been established when nothing has.

Now here’s my comment about Aristotle. Many open theists follow a line of thinking first proposed by Aristotle. Aristotle was the first to claim, so far as we know, that propositions about the future are neither nor false. In chapter 9 of his work on interpretation, Aristotle said that any proposition about the future can be neither true or false. Take the proposition: ‘There will be a sea fight tomorrow’. If this proposition about the future already has a truth value, that is, if it is either true or false today, that there will be a sea fight tomorrow, then it seems to follow that the future is fixed, is determinate. If the proposition ‘there will be a sea fight tomorrow’ were true today, then it would be impossible for there not to be a sea fight tomorrow. For if the sea fight did not occur then our proposition could not have been true, but since it is true, the sea fight is inevitable.

The theory in question seriously limits the knowledge of God and conflicts with the Bible’s account of God’s ability to predict the future. If propositions about the future are neither true nor false, it is logically impossible for God to predict the future. The belief that God does predict the future presumes that God knows what he is talking about. But since God does not know what cannot know, it follows that God cannot predict the future. The most God might be able to do on Aristotle’s view is make a good guess, an epistemological liability when compared with the historic Christian view about God’s knowledge. The denial of truth-values to propositions about future contingents, that is, future human free actions, has not received a sympathetic hearing from many traditional Christians. It is an extreme position that is difficult to reconcile with much that Scripture and orthodox theology affirms about God’s knowledge of the future. This situation is significantly different from the logical constraint upon an exaggerated notion of divine power, since in the case of omnipotence, Scripture itself recognizes the constraint.

Advocates of open theism often criticize traditional Christian thinking about God for its alleged dependence upon pagan Greek thinking. But note the irony. The accusations of a Greek influence come from people whose rejection of God’s perfect knowledge of the future is based on theories borrowed from a Greek thinker, namely Aristotle. When open theists deny God’s future knowledge, they are not saying God is ignorant about everything in the future—God still knows that multiplication tables will be true in the future, just as he knows the law of gravity will continue to obtain. God knows what will happen if any human being steps out of a ten story window. He doesn’t happen to know now before the event which human being might choose to take that walk. While I will concede these points, save the last, there are other issues where open theists attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

Conservative Christian theologian, who’s ordinarily on target with his comments, Millard Erickson, who is also a frequent critic of open theists, sometimes gives them a free ride. Summarizing beliefs advanced by Richard Rice, a leader of open theism, Millard Erickson explains that some in this group believe that the future is partially definite, not totally indefinite. Many of the things that will occur in the future are the result of past and present causes. Since God knows the past and present exhaustively, he can know the things that result, or so Richard Rice says. While this seems acceptable, Erickson continues his summation of open theism by saying: “In addition, God knows what he is going to do in the future.” This claim is much more complicated than Erickson seems to realize. How can God know what he is going to do in the future when God’s own future acts are a response to future human free actions that God cannot know? In all of the open theist rhetoric, the fact that there is nothing about the future for God to know has been lost or obscured. The fact that propositions about future contingents have no truth-value has been forgotten. The open theist closes the door to divine foreknowledge but then proceeds to act as though God can know things about the future after all.

Still summarizing the views of Rice, Millard Erickson writes: “Thus, the fact that God does not know the future in detail does not mean he is completely ignorant of it.” Something is wrong here. The detailed future about which God can have no knowledge is far more extensive than Rice and other open theists are willing to admit. The facts are these. According to open theists, God can have no knowledge about future human contingents. Why? Because any alleged proposition about such human choices possesses no truth-value. It can be neither true nor false. God cannot know these things because there is nothing to know. There is something seriously wrong, then, when an open theist begins to suggest that his constraints upon divine knowledge are not as severe as some might think. Either God knows future contingents or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, then any part of the future resulting from human free choices is also closed to God. Either God knows future contingents, or he doesn’t. If he knows as few as one future contingent, then the door is open for him to know more. Perhaps it is open wide enough for God to know all future contingents. My advice to open theists is please don’t cheat and talk in ways that suggest God can know some future contingents.

Millard Erickson continues his summary of Rice’s views: “In addition, God knows the range of possibilities of a person’s actions and what will be the consequences of each of these possibilities.” I am not confident that the God of open theism can know the possibilities of future human actions along with the consequences of those actions. Now let me explain why. Keep in mind we are dealing with a theological system that says future human free actions cannot be the object of God’s knowledge. It is not my fault that open theists cannot or do not wish to see the logical implications of their position. So let us do their job for them. Reflect just a bit upon the act of human procreation. Most of us tend to believe that participation in the act of procreation within marriage includes some decision making, some acts of free will. Since this is so, then all future instances of human procreation count as future contingencies. This means that propositions about those future acts of procreation must be, on open theist grounds, neither true nor false, and this means that no one—including God—can have any knowledge about either these future activities or their consequences. Even the God of open theism knows that if a man and a woman have sex at the right time a child will be conceived. But open theists concede that God does not and cannot know which women will marry which men—God can guess, especially in the case of a wedding that is occurring in God’s present experience.

As support for my claims in this part of my argument, consider the following statements by open theist David Basinger: “God does know all that will follow, determinalistically, from what has occurred past and can, as the ultimate psychologist, predict with great accuracy what we as humans will freely choose to do in various contexts.” Continuing, Basinger says, “God, for instance, might well be able to predict with great accuracy whether a couple would have a successful marriage. But since we believe that God can know only what can be known, and that what humans will freely do in the future cannot be known beforehand, we believe that God can never know with certainty what will happen in any context involving freedom of choice. We believe, for example, that to the extent that freedom of choice would be involved, God would not necessarily know beforehand what would happen if a couple were to marry. Accordingly, we must acknowledge, that divine guidance, from our perspective, cannot be considered a means of discovering exactly what will be best in the long run as a means of discovering the very best long-term option. Divine guidance, rather, must be viewed primarily as a means of determining what is best for us now in the present.” And Basinger then concludes by saying that even his God can be “positively wrong.”

Now here’s an evangelical thinker who takers his Aristotelian position to the ultimate step of saying God can be positively wrong. Notice what I’m doing—I’m simply taking the statements of open theists and I’m going to follow them through to their logical conclusion. Because putative knowledge of future humans is an example of future contingency, and since the God of open theism cannot have knowledge about future contingents and their consequences, it follows that God can have no present knowledge of which human beings will come into existence in the future. Because putative knowledge of future humans is an example of future contingency, which open theists say God cannot know, and since the God of open theism cannot have knowledge about future contingents and their consequences, it follow that God can have no present knowledge of which human beings will come into existence in the future. This is just a logical entailment of Basinger’s position.

According to this line of thinking, it is impossible for the God of open theism to know the existence or the identity of any future human beings. Before you and I were conceived, God had no knowledge of our future existence, nor could he have. For an open theist to deny this entailment is to repudiate the entire foundation for his rejection of divine foreknowledge.

Also embarrassing at this point is this entailment of open theism is contradicted by the Christian Scriptures that open theists profess as their ultimate authority in faith and practice. Take 1 Peter 2:9, which says: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” The apostle Paul teaches that God “chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined, according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will.” That’s Ephesians chapter 1. According to Paul, God not only knew us before we existed, but also knew us and chose us before the creation of the world. This doesn’t sound like the God of open theism, does it?

Returning to open theism’s implied claim that God could not know that future human beings like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and the people who invented television and computers and airplanes would exist, we have another embarrassing consequence: Since God could not know these individuals would exist, he also could not know the consequences of their free activity, namely, the future existence of planes, trains, automobiles, computers, television sets, and so on and so forth. Is this absurd? I think so. Do such absurdities flow from the premises of open theism? They do. Is this so absurd as to suggest the importance of repudiating open theism’s idea of a finite God? I think so.

But there are other implications that may be even worse. Just as the God of open theism cannot know which future human beings will exist, neither can he know which future humans will become Christian believers, will receive his salvation, and will be blessed with eternal life. In other words, this kind of God is still waiting to learn the final composition of his church.

And finally, think back to this God’s conundrum at the time his Son was dying on the cross. At that moment the finite God of open theism had no way of knowing if even one human being would accept his Son as Savior. This poor, impotent deity faced the possibility that the suffering of his Son upon the cross would bring about the salvation of no one. William Hasker says this much when he admits the possibility that there could have been “no church, and a key element in God’s plan would be frustrated. As things stand, to be sure, this has not happened, but it could have happened, and that it has not is attributable to nothing but God’s luck.” Compare Hasker’s sad statement about the existence of God’s church being a product of luck or chance with the words of 1 Peter 2:9 and Ephesians 1.

As a final consequence it seems obvious that a God who cannot know the future cannot control the future and cannot bring his will to pass in the future. As Millard Erickson observes: “If God does not coerce humans but allows them to exercise their free wills, even to contravene his will, what assurance is there that God’s cause will ultimately triumph?” Hasker seems to suggest that, if necessary, to ensure the victory of God, God can intervene to override the human will; but if this is the case, however, then the difference between their view, the open theist view, and the classical view, that God has perfect knowledge of the future, is not one of kind but of degree. It is not whether God coerces but how frequently he coerces, and presumably, on their terms, either is undesirable.

At what point in 1992, for example, could we say that God knew that Bill Clinton would win the presidential election? Note that God could not have foreknowledge of this event because it was a collocation of the supposedly free decisions of many millions of people in the privacy of the voting booth. Perhaps we could say that God finally knew the outcome by 10pm on election night. Can the God of open theism know in March of any year which American and National League baseball teams will meet in the World Series seven months later? The answer must be no. How can such a finite God know this in the case of thousands of games the outcome of which are dependent upon millions of situations affected by human free choices such as the decision to throw a curveball at a particular target at a particular speed? Without wishing to appear irreverent, at what point in the course of a single baseball game could the God of open theism even know the final score? The answer is only when the fat lady sings. Even with two outs and two strikes and the batter there would always be the possibility of this God beings surprised by a homerun. Let me be frank. When I think about this view of God I often find myself in a situation wanting to pray for this God. I would probably do that, except, under the circumstances, I’m not sure who I should pray to. Can one lay out a scenario faithful to the Bible that explains how a God who is essentially ignorant about future contingent events can control the future? Is it surprising to learn that no open theist has ever attempted to produce such a scenario? Is it surprising to learn that no open theist has considered the problem?

William Hasker has made an interesting admission: “To be sure,” he writes, “God could have created a world in which he would have full foreknowledge of every detail simply by creating a world in which everything that happens is fully controlled by his sovereign decrees. But it seems to us open theists that God found such a world less desirable, less appealing to his creative goodness than a world that contains genuinely free creatures.” What an incredible thing to say, after all we have learned about the theological implications of open theists, denial of diving foreknowledge, in lieu of any arguments for their position they advance their views simply because they like it better than the alternative. This is a horrible ground on which to develop or try to develop a theological system.

Well, our little journey is over. I wished it could have been longer. We began at the beginning of philosophy. We began by talking to you about what worldview thinking is. We then explored, briefly, incompletely, six major worldviews—the six major worldviews—from the ancient world, two of them interpretations of Christianity. In this last segment we’ve jumped to the 21st century and we have shown how a grasp of philosophy can help you better understand what I believe theologically confused people are trying to do with the doctrine of God, how their own misunderstanding of ancient Greek philosophy has led them to do this, and how a proper understanding of the rules of logic and argumentation help us understand that what they’ve been offering is not only bad philosophy but it is also bad theology.

Well, for some of you, I welcome you to the study of philosophy. Others of you began your journey earlier. I think you’ll enjoy it. I think you’ll enjoy the books you read. I think you’ll enjoy the additional hours of taping that you will hear. And maybe someday we can meet and we can talk about some of these issues in person in more detail.