Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Open Theism: Against God's Omniscience

Hank Hanegraaff writes, “It’s not too surprising to hear non-Christians and even cultists deny that God is omniscient.[1] But what is surprising is that a growing number of theologians today who profess to be evangelicals also deny it.” Open Theism posits a view of God’s knowledge in which there are things which are unknowable to God. This is the big difference between Open Theism and more traditional views of God. Christians have usually professed that God knows all things.[2] Open Theism attempts to reconcile God’s knowledge, man’s free will and the “problem” of evil (while embracing some verses which appear to say that God did not know something). Like any other theological view, all points of Open Theism are not agreed even among those who hold the view. The consistent thread seems to be: God does not know the future exhaustively because the future depends on human libertarian free will choices – which do not exist until man makes them.

The Bible teaches that God is omniscient or all-knowing: 1 John 3:20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. His omniscience extends throughout eternity, embracing past, present and future.

In the past

  • “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
  • “Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.” (John 1:48)
  • “for thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.” (John 4:18)

In the present

  • “For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven;” (Job 28:24)
  • “And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?” (Matthew 9:4) 
  • “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:29-30)

In the future

  • “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)
  • “that saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid. Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;” (Isaiah 44:28-45:1)
  • “Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” (Matthew 26:34)

Man knows something of the past and the present, but only partially. He knows the future only as a possibility. God knows all things – past, present and future. The truth of his omniscience is seen in declarative statements of the Bible. He knows everything that will occur from the beginning to the end of human history (Isaiah 46:9-10). He knows our thoughts and words, even before we think or speak them (Psalm 139:4), knows our prayers before we ask (Matthew 6:8) and knows our hearts and their secrets (1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 44:21). His eyes are in every place (Proverbs 15:3), and his understanding is infinite or unlimited (Psalm 147:5). There is nothing that escapes God’s knowledge or notice (Psalm 19:6, Psalm 139:7-12; Proverbs 5:21). His knowledge of what’s going to happen in the future is seen in fulfilled prophecies (Isaiah 41:21-24; 42:9; 44:7), whether fulfilled shortly (1 Kings 22:28-38; Matthew 26:34) or many years later (1 Kings 21:23; cf. 2 Kings 9:36; Matthew 24:2).

Isaiah 46:9-11 Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.

Other verses to consider include: Psalm 115:3; Ecclesiastes 3:14; Isaiah 48:3-6; Jeremiah 1:5; John 16:30; John 18:4; John 21:17; Hebrews 4:13; 2 Peter 3:8.

Throughout the Bible, its writers in distinct ways regularly tell us that God knows everything. There are some verses and incidents that seem to contradict this. But when understood rightly in their context these cases are clarified and fit the overarching biblical theme of God’s omniscience. Let’s look at some of those tomorrow.

Open Theism: What is It?

[1] Omniscient – “having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.” (
[2] While there are variations of belief – such as debating about contingencies – orthodox Christians consistently maintain that God knows all things. Matthew 11:21-23 indicates that God knows what people would have done if he had put them in different circumstances (“...if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes...if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”).


Will Fitzgerald said...

Dear Robert,

I hope you'll go back and read the whole of Greg Boyd's post on Evans's page about Open Theism. For example, he believes in omniscience (just a different kind of omniscience than it's _classical_ understanding). Just like God's being omnipotent doesn't allow God to do impossible things (you know, can God make an object which even God cannot move?), God's being omniscient doesn't allow God to know impossible things.

It's really important to be careful to avoid declaring that classical understandings are the same as _othrodox_ understandings; and it's important not to lightly use 'unorthodox' especially when dealing with infinities (infinity is weird, and our finite minds just might to humbly acknowledge our limits).

I think that I can prove that the infinity of knowledge required by Open Theism is greater than the infinity of knowledge required by classical theism (in the Cantorian senses of the cardinality of infinities), since the classical view is something like a infinitely large set of (timestamped) facts, which could be mapped to the integers, and the open theism view assigns possible future states a probability (so it seems to me that, at every point in time, an infinite number of possible states could obtain); This would be at least as big as the reals, which is a larger infinity that the integers. That's the case for infinitely extending universes, but the same would obtain if the universe is not infinitely extending (i.e, has a definite end).

R. L. Vaughn said...

Hi, Will.

Thanks for your comments. It's always good to be challenged by your perspective. I realize that Greg Boyd (and probably any Open Theist) asserts that he believes in omniscience in his own way (as you note, "a different kind of omniscience"). On the other hand, I am asserting that I don't recognize this as a biblical understanding of omniscience. In one of the (I suppose) "classical" understandings of omniscience (which I was taught) God knows any number of endless future possibilities based on whether man chooses A,B,C,D,E,F or G. He foreknows and foresees what he would do regardless of the case of, say, choice A or choice B. I don't now understand omniscience that way either, and so in a sense could agree that God's being omniscient doesn't cause God to know impossible things (i.e., in my understanding, there are things he doesn't know because he knows there won't be all these endless possibilities to need to know).* There would be big differences between me and an Open Theist on the issue of libertarian free will and other such things. For example, if God knew President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, he doesn't really need to know what John F. Kennedy would be doing on November 30, 1963. I believe he foreknew this. An Open Theist would have to believe, I think, that it was impossible for God to know until the moment Lee Harvey Oswald decided to fatefully pull the trigger. In Open Theory, the future of John F. Kennedy is open and unknown until about 12:30 p.m. on November 22. In my theory, the future of John F. Kennedy is known from eternity.

I agree with you that our finite minds cannot know infinity. We have very limited faculty in understanding God. But what of what he has revealed to us in his word? But for that we could know nothing definitively of God. When we start "philosophizing" we all can be equally wrong. When I or an Open Theist start "philosophizing" on open details about John F. Kennedy we may both be wrong. But when God says he knows the end from the beginning, I must think that the future is not as open as Open Theists believe!

Your discussion of the infinity of knowledge required by Open Theism and classical theism, time-stamped facts and integers, etc., goes over my head. I'm sure it helps you in your understanding, but it doesn't really help me. On the other hand, what you said about orthodoxy and unorthodoxy cause me to do a little rethinking and (future) rewriting. Using the terms orthodox (and classical) may be distracting and also not reflect what I essentially mean. To many folks orthodox will direct their thinking toward doctrine that conforms to the creeds of the early churches. I am only trying to discuss what I believe to be the biblical truth, regardless of what the fathers and creeds say about it – whether "orthodox" or not. (Nevertheless, I think that Open Theism is a view that has recently gained a lot of traction and has not historically been widely accepted as "orthodox". But I could be wrong about that.)

* I mentioned Matthew 11:21-23. I differ from the contingencies view, I think, in that I approach this from a more predestinarian standpoint. IOW, not that God is talking about everything throughout time that might have possibly happened, but that God could have, by his choice, provided different circumstances and something would have been transpired differently.
** I have no problem agreeing with you that God can't make an object which even God cannot move. But it he said he did, who would I be to question it?

Will Fitzgerald said...

Dear Robert,

I think the philosophizing started when you used the word "omniscience" which is a word not found in Scripture. What I really mean is this: it is a question of (human) theology and philosophy to try to answer the question, "How much does God know?" It's a perfectly valid question for humans to attempt an answer, even though it is not a question Scripture asks us to attempt to answer. Our Christian virtues remind us to ask this question in deep humility and to increase our love of God (indeed, although I don't know whether I subscribe to open theism, it has increased my awe to think of such a great God).

To answer your question who you would be to question God's doing something he couldn't do, if God say he could do so: first, it's a counter-factual; God doesn't ask any such thing of us. But even if God did, I would question my own understanding of impossibility or logicality or my understanding of the thing itself.

To use your other example, Scripture tells us that God knows the end from the beginning. For all practical purposes (I think) the open theist and the classical understanding allows us to trust God, to magnify God, etc., in the same way. (Practical here means for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness).

I'm not being very clear, but I really must get back to work ... but I'm mostly responding because I want you to consider, as you consider open theism, not to throw out your brotherly relationships to those who hold to a open theism view as you come to dispute their theology as some have done.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Dear Will,

Thanks for following up. You may be right about the word "omniscience". Of course you are right that it is a word not found in Scripture. But I mean re its usage -- it may have a lot of collected baggage that means different things to different people. On the other hand, the Bible does say, for example, "...And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things" (John 21:17). "Knowest all things" is a biblical description of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. I don't think the question is exactly "How much does God know" so much as it is "What does it mean that he knows all things?" Possibly this is the same question when boiled down to its essence. I say it that way, though, because the Bible does tell us how much he knows -- all things. So the debate seems to be what "all things" means.

You are right that my comment about "God making a rock so big he couldn't lift it" is a counterfactual. Isn't that the whole point? What we can know of God is what he reveals of himself, and he hasn't revealed anything about such a thing. So does it really matter? On the other hand, he has revealed some things he cannot do. For example, he cannot lie (Titus 1:2) and cannot be tempted with evil (James 1:13).

You may be right that for practical purposes this position may not make much difference to the average person. But I have seen some folks move in ways that are not only theological but also practical when holding this position. This is not that everybody does, or is it always possible to tell what is causal and what is correlation. Evangelical leader Clark Pinnock moved along a trajectory that one person described as from a form of predestinarianism, to neo-Pentecostalism, to Arminianism, to Open Theism. He advanced the proposition that God has a body, adopted an annihilationist view of hell, accepted the possibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ, and even alleged that Jesus was wrong in his prophesy concerning the destruction of the temple. Some of this, to some people, might just be interesting theoretical discussions. On the other hand, one's belief in hell and salvation apart from faith in Christ can have a definite practical effect on one's practices (I guess, according to one's perspective, for good or ill).

As far as brotherly relationships to those who hold to a open theism, I guess in our tradition we tend to "compartmentalize" these relationships -- for example, in some case where we might have a personal and brotherly relationship even though we could not have a church covenant relationship.

Hope this clears up a few things, rather than muddying up.

R. L. Vaughn said...

The following quotes from Clark Pinnock on Open Theism indicate some of the problem in my understanding just what Open Theism means.

“Everyone agrees that God is omniscient and knows everything that any being could know. He knows everything that has existed, everything that now exists, and everything that could exist in the future.”

“Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God. They are potential—yet to be realized but not yet actual. God can predict a great deal of what we will choose to do, but not all of it, because some of it remains hidden in the mystery of human freedom...The God of the Bible displays an openness to the future (i.e. ignorance of the future) that the traditional view of omniscience simply cannot accommodate.”

The first quote seems to agree with classic views of omniscience, while the second statement seems to contradict the first. John 6:64 says that "Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him." Under Open theory, how could he know from the beginning who would not believe if their belief is part of the mystery of their human freedom, and how could he know Judas would betray him before Judas made that decision?