What God Knows: The Debate on 'Open Theism'

By Smith, James K. A. | The Christian Century, July 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

What God Knows: The Debate on 'Open Theism'


Smith, James K. A., The Christian Century


THEOLOGIAN JOHN SANDERS lost his college teaching job recently because of his endorsement of 'open theism"--the view that the future is not determined by God. His ouster from Huntington College in Indiana followed three years of nasty debate within the Evangelical Theological Society, a significant faction of which wanted to expel Sanders (along with Clark Pinnock) on the grounds that his position with respect to God's foreknowledge was inconsistent with ETS's adherence to biblical inerrancy.

Just what is open theism? What is at stake in the debate about it? And why has the topic elicited such passion in evangelical circles?

Open theism is grounded in a deeply pastoral concern about evil and suffering. Sanders begins The God Who Risks by recounting the death of his brother. Gregory Boyd, another proponent of open theism, closes God of the Possible with an extensive treatment of the pastoral implications of open theism in the face of tragedy. Open theism offers an answer to a longstanding question: If God is all-powerful and perfectly good and has complete knowledge of the future, how can God permit the evil and suffering we see on both global and personal levels?

If God knows that such suffering will occur, the open theist reasons, then there must be some sense in which God is responsible for such evil--which would compromise God's goodness. Since such a conclusion would be clearly contrary to scripture and Christian tradition, the open theist offers another account: God didn't know.

Open theism, then, is a retooling of our understanding of God's foreknowledge. Open theism does not, however, reject the claim that God is omniscient. Boyd states this very clearly: "The issue is not whether God's knowledge is perfect. It is. The issue is about the nature of the reality that God perfectly knows." The question concerns what we might call the "ontological status" of the future: is the future something that exists to be known? More specifically, can the future actions of free moral agents be known before such free decisions are made?

Open theists contend that God cannot know the future of free moral agents not because God lacks the knowledge or power or cognitive ability, but because the future of such free agents does not exist as an object to be known. God does not know the sufferings that a dictator will inflict upon his people not because God's power to know is impoverished, but simply because what such a free agent will do in the future is open, and therefore does not exist to be known. The future is blank and filled in only after choices are made.

One can anticipate an objection at this point: if God's knowledge entails knowing that evil and suffering are at least possible, then why did God create the world? Why create a world of free moral agents if one of the possible outcomes is a world of domestic abuse and genocide?

At the heart of the open view of God is a picture of God as a risk-taker. For God, evil and suffering are necessary risks that attend the creation of free moral agents who can relate to God in love. Unlike process theologians, open theists continue to assert creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Creation is not a necessary emanation that God "needs" to be complete; rather, creation is a gratuitous act done primarily out of love and for love. God freely decided to create beings capable of loving relationships, and the necessary condition of such love is freedom. And the necessary risk of such freedom is evil.

Evil and suffering, then, are contingent future possibilities, but precisely insofar as they are the effects of decisions made by free moral agents, they are part of a future that does not exist. In other words, they do not exist to be known, even by God. There are thus limits to God's foreknowledge; these limits are not internal to God but rather stem from the nature of what there is to be known.

DESPITE THE complaints of some evangelicals, open theism does seem to fall within the purview of catholic orthodoxy insofar as it maintains God's omniscience and asserts that creation occurred ex nihilo. …

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