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Tag: Open Theism

God, Free Will, and the Future: Gregory Boyd’s Open Theism

God, Free Will, and the Future

Introduction

The twentieth century witnessed a variety of significant developments across the theological spectrum. One recent development that has made considerable waves in evangelical theology and continues to spark much discussion today is open theism.[1] Fundamentally, open theism is a re-visioning of the classical theist idea that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events. Instead, openness theologians argue that although the future is partly known by God, it is also partly “open” in the sense that what transpires genuinely depends on the decisions made by free agents, and that God does not know exactly what will occur until these decisions are made.

There are many scholars associated with the open theist perspective, but perhaps the best known and most influential is Gregory Boyd, a theologian, author, college professor, and church pastor who has written extensively on the subject.[2] This paper will seek to present the salient features of Boyd’s open theism and then critically interact with his views and also suggest how he might respond to the criticisms presented.

An Outline of Gregory Boyd’s Open Theism

Boyd first referenced his open theist views somewhat in passing in his popular Letters From a Skeptic, which consisted of a series of correspondence between himself and his initially unbelieving father.[3] Since then, Boyd has written more about open theism, and although he upholds the basic framework of the openness model, he has also produced substantive developments to it. First, Boyd has tried to move the openness discussion away from strictly philosophical and theological grounds by examining the testimony of scripture in detail.[4] Second, he emphasizes the ways that Satan and his demons have rebelled against God and thus, limit his control of the world.[5] Third and most recently, Boyd has brought a distinctly christocentric focus to the open theism debate, arguing that models seeking to explain the interaction between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom should accurately reflect his character as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.[6]

Boyd questions the classical theist position, arguing that the notion that God possesses exhaustive knowledge of future events is influenced more by Greek philosophy than by the teachings of scripture.[7] As noted above, he goes to great pains to establish the biblical basis for his viewpoint, but it is undeniable that his theological and philosophical commitments play a dominant role in his views. In addition to these three categories, Boyd also makes pastoral and scientific arguments for the open perspective. Boyd’s views will be examined according to these five categories.

Theologically, Boyd begins with the conviction that God is love and this fundamental characteristic lies behind his purposes for creation:

“Throughout its narrative the Bible shows us that God created the world out of his triune love with the goal of acquiring for himself a people who would participate in and reflect the splendor of his triune love. More specifically, God’s goal from the dawn of history has been to have a church, a bride, who would say yes to his love, who would fully receive this love, embody this love, and beautifully reflect this triune love back to himself.”[8]

However, if love is the goal of creation, Boyd argues that creation must include free moral agents who have the ability to freely choose whether they will love God or not: “had God created us such that we had to love, our love could not be genuine.”[9] Certainly an all-powerful God could have created humans in such a way that they would automatically feel and act in loving ways toward him and one another, but such humans would be nothing more than puppets. Genuine love is only possible if people have the capacity to choose to love or not.[10] To this point, Boyd is largely in line with Arminians and other free will theists, but open theism departs from these other perspectives by insisting that human freedom necessitates a future that is undetermined and partly open, the full details of which even God is unaware. For Boyd and other open theists, if God knows what a particular person is going to do in the future, then that person is not truly free to make self-determining choices; God’s foreknowledge is held to be at odds with human freedom.[11] Thus, from a theological perspective, Boyd concludes that God cannot possess exhaustive foreknowledge of the future because if he did, it would compromise human freedom, and without human freedom, the love that lies at the center of God’s entire project of creation would be compromised as well.

This conclusion poses problems for the classical understanding of God’s omniscience, which holds that God knows every detail of what will happen in the future, but on philosophical grounds, Boyd argues that this classical conception of the future is mistaken. For Boyd and other open theists, the future simply has no ontological existence until God and free creatures make choices that bring it into existence:

“…To assume [God] knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act assumes that each person’s free activity is already there to know—even before he freely does it! But it’s not. If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don’t exist. Thus, in my view at least, there simply isn’t anything to know until we make it there to know.”[12]

In light of this understanding of the nature of the future, Boyd argues that God is still omniscient in that he knows everything that there is to know: in addition to perfectly knowing the past and the present, God knows what he will do in the future, and he also knows all the possibilities of what free creatures may do in the future.[13] Moreover, based on his perfect knowledge of the nature of human beings, God knows what people are most likely to do in a given situation based on the solidified character they have developed via the decisions they have made throughout their lives.[14] Boyd argues that God possesses perfect knowledge and infinite intelligence and is thus never caught off guard by what creatures freely choose to do.[15] He likens his view of God’s providence with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s book, where the author determines the overall structure of the story along with the possible story lines and different endings, but allows the readers to make choices that truly impact what happens next.[16] As the architect of the story who predetermines certain aspects and knows all the possibilities and probabilities of how free creatures may act, God can be relied upon to achieve his ultimate goal for creation.[17]

In his discussion of the biblical support for the open view, Boyd emphasizes that scripture presents two types of passages, or motifs, that are important for understanding God’s relationship to the future. He labels them the “motif of future determinism” and the “motif of future openness.”[18] Boyd believes that both types of passages are equally descriptive of the way that God and the future actually are, and that attention thus needs to be paid to both. First, in discussing the scriptural motif of future determinism, Boyd admits that there are many passages which indicate that God does in fact have foreknowledge of certain future events.[19] These passages describe God’s knowledge of a variety of future occurrences, including circumstances that would befall Israel, events in the ministry of Christ, particular choices that would be made by specific individuals, and the consummation of God’s eschatological plans. Boyd in no way denies that the Bible teaches that the future is indeed settled and known by God in these respects, but he does argue that these texts do not require the belief that everything that will ever occur has been settled by God ahead of time.[20] Naturally, in addition to these scriptures, Boyd focuses even more on biblical passages that emphasize the motif of future openness.[21] These passages appear to describe a God who regrets the actions of humans and even the results of decisions that he himself has made, who is surprised by unexpected events, who tests people to see what they will do, who speaks in terms of what may or may not occur, and who changes his mind about certain things and reverses his intentions. Holding onto the validity of both of these biblical motifs, Boyd concludes that the future is partly settled but partly open as well.[22]

As mentioned earlier, Boyd serves as the pastor of a church, and thus, it makes sense that he also argues for the validity of the openness viewpoint on pastoral grounds. Simply put, this argument states that the open perspective helps people to better live out their faith, and Boyd believes this is true for multiple reasons. First, he argues that the open perspective is valuable because it makes more intellectual sense than the classical view, and reflects the way that people actually live on a daily basis.[23] Every day, people weigh options about a host of things—which clothes they will wear, which route they will drive to work, which television show they will watch after dinner—in a way that implies that the content of their future is partially open and that they actually have some control over what comes to pass. Second, Boyd claims that open theism helps believers to make better sense of God’s Word because it enables them to coherently reconcile certain aspects of scripture that seem to be in tension with one another.[24] We have previously discussed Boyd’s scriptural motifs of future determinism and future openness; Boyd argues that a perspective that considers the future to be partly settled and partly open allows the believer to take both sets of scripture seriously and make sense of them. Third, the open view places great urgency on prayer.[25] Regardless of scripture’s teaching on the importance of prayer, many Christians believe that the future is exhaustively settled and that therefore, prayer cannot truly change anything. They might continue to pray out of a sense of obedience, but their fatalistic outlook has deprived them of any urgency that might otherwise be associated with prayer. On the other hand, the open view holds that some of the future genuinely depends on prayer, and that God truly allows people to have spiritual input in what comes to pass. Fourth, and most significantly for Boyd, he argues that open theism provides a robust response to the problem of evil.[26] Boyd finds the response of those who explain horrific evil as being a part of God’s mysterious plan to be entirely unsatisfactory. Instead, he argues that evil occurs because free creatures such as humans and especially Satan and his demons abuse the freedom that God gives them and rebel against him. The evil choices these free agents make are not a part of God’s plan; indeed, he does all that he can—within the parameters of freedom that he has set—to influence people for good, fight against evil, and bring about good from evil.

Finally, Boyd presents scientific support for the openness perspective. This is a more peripheral means of support than the other four categories, but Boyd does claim that recent scientific advancements in quantum mechanics underscore the idea that the world is unpredictable and indeterministic to some degree.[27]

Boyd knows that the open theist perspective on the future is not traditional,[28] but he combines all of these different categories of supporting arguments in an attempt to present open theism as a valid evangelical explanation for the interaction between God’s foreknowledge of the future and the freedom of individuals. Furthermore, at different times he emphasizes similarities between open theism, Arminianism, and Molinism, in an effort to borrow credibility from these accepted evangelical perspectives.[29] Despite this, open theism in general and the work of Boyd in particular have met with harsh responses, with different reviewers deeming Boyd’s views to be incompatible with biblical inerrancy,[30] incompatible with historic evangelicalism,[31] and even heresy.[32]

A Critical Evaluation of Boyd’s Views

Although there are significant problems with Gregory Boyd’s open perspective, there are also aspects of his views that are compelling and worth defending. First, it is seems excessive to declare Boyd’s views to be heretical or incompatible with evangelical theology. Although Boyd does nuance traditional conceptions of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, he is adamant that open theism is supportive of both characteristics. God is perfectly omniscient because he knows all that there is to be known: he knows the past and present in full detail, he knows those aspects of the future that have already been settled, and he also knows all possibilities of what free creatures might choose to do.[33] In regard to omnipotence, God originally possessed all power, but freely chose to delegate a degree of his power to enable free creatures to make genuinely free decisions.[34] Regardless of this, God is still in control and is assured to win the cosmic battle with Satan and achieve his ultimate purposes in that he “determines the parameters of our freedom within the flow of history which He directs.”[35] In this sense, Boyd argues that the open view of God actually ascribes more power to God than the Calvinist perspective, which assumes that God “can be assured of ultimate victory only if he controls all the variables.”[36] Instead, the open perspective emphasizes that even when limiting himself by granting true freedom to created beings, God is still powerful enough to bring about his ultimate victory. Still, Boyd clearly redefines the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience and omnipotence,[37] and it may be true that the open perspective minimizes these attributes in some sense for the sake of emphasizing God’s love and the freedom he bestows as a result of that love. However, this is arguably more defensible than extreme versions of Calvinism that emphasize God’s omniscience and predetermination at the expense of his love for all people. If Calvinism is given a seat of prominence at the evangelical table, then surely there is room for open theism as well.

A second strength of Boyd’s perspective is his emphasis on the love of God and his desire for genuine, non-coercive relationships with humans. This serves as a helpful corrective to extreme views that picture God as exalted and distant, proclaiming irrevocable eternal decrees according to his purposes and unaffected by the problems and petitions of his people. Instead, openness thought argues that God empowers humans to genuinely affect him, and that God is so grieved by evil and suffering that he enters into the world through Jesus Christ and “suffered out of love at the hands of those for whom he died.”[38]

Third, Boyd emphasizes that out of his love, God created humanity with genuine freedom. This freedom allows humans to have real say-so over future events and the nature of their lives, and has compelling implications. Rather than feeling resignation at an inevitable future that has been settled from eternity past, believers share responsibility for what happens in the world, knowing that their choices genuinely influence the way things turn out. Boyd writes compellingly about how the open perspective empowers believers to fight against evil and injustice, knowing that their efforts truly matter, and also lends urgency to prayer, as prayer is a means of influencing God to actually change things in the world.[39]

Despite the strengths of various aspects of Boyd’s openness perspective, there are also numerous problems with his presentation; we will examine the three most significant. The greatest problem stems from Boyd’s insistence that it is impossible for a creature to genuinely have freedom if God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of future events. In other words, if God knows that a specific event will come to pass, then he must necessarily be the cause of that event. This is a long-standing claim,[40] but one that Arminians have always claimed is unnecessary and logically confused. Simply knowing about an event in the past or the present does not imply that that knowledge caused the event in question; why then should knowledge of a future event imply causation? Instead, Arminans argue that “everything that God knows about the future, he knows only because it will happen, not vice-versa.” [41] God simply finds out about future events before they happen.[42] Of course, Boyd knows all of these arguments. It is unfortunate that he rejects them, because the classic Arminian view possesses the same strengths as the open theist perspective, without having many of the inconsistencies and problems from which it suffers.

A second problem with Boyd’s perspective stems from his discussion of the scriptural motif of future openness. It will be remembered that this group of passages represent God regretting certain decisions that he makes, being frustrated by the way things turn out, and even changing his mind and reversing his plans at times. Boyd takes these scriptures as conclusive evidence that God is unaware of certain aspects of the future. As multiple scholars have pointed out, however, Boyd reads these passages literally and does not seem to take into account that they are actually examples of anthropomorphism—divine accommodation where God uses analogy to human emotions to tell us something about himself.[43] Boyd rejects this criticism, however, arguing that the openness passages do not seem to be anthropomorphic, and that those who want to use anthropomorphism to explain them are doing so because they are uncomfortable with the implications that stem from reading the texts literally as open theists do.[44] Furthermore, Boyd argues that reading these scriptures anthropomorphically undermines the integrity of scripture: if a passage says God is frustrated by what his people do, how can that be the case if he knew all along what they were going to do? How can God be said to change his mind if he knew all along what he was going to do?[45] Based on these responses, it seems that Boyd does not truly appreciate that scripture uses anthropomorphic analogies to portray God as both similar and dissimilar to us, showing us that God genuinely experiences emotions, but not precisely in the same way that humans do.[46] Furthermore, Boyd’s claims that scripture is disingenuous if it depicts God as asking questions he already knows the answers to or being frustrated by events that he knew would come about do not account for texts where God asks questions about past or present events:

“God asks Adam, “Where are you?” and “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen 3:9, 11). The Lord asks Satan, “Where have you come from?” and “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 1:7-8). If God knew the answers, was he disingenuous to ask? …Does Boyd’s God know the past or present fully?”[47]

Of course, Boyd would readily affirm that God does know the past and present fully, and would likely respond that the questions asked by God above were likely rhetorical in nature.[48] Still, this raises questions about Boyd’s interpretation of these sorts of passages, and indicates that he is not as consistent in his literal reading of both deterministic and openness scriptures as he claims.

Third, Boyd’s approach is problematic because it seems uncertain—if not impossible—that the God of open theism can actually bring about his goal for creation. If God’s goal for creation was to have a church that would say yes to his love, and humans are only able to love God if they are free to choose to love him or not, and God is unaware of genuinely free choices until they occur, then it seems impossible for God to know for certain that he will be victorious and achieve his goal for creation in the end.[49] Additionally, since God’s engagement with evil and his ultimate victory over it is an integral part of Boyd’s response to the problem of evil, uncertainty regarding God’s ability to bring about his eschatological purposes for creation is a major problem for his theodicy as well. Boyd responds to this objection with two different arguments. First, he suggests that even though God does not know whether or not particular individuals will accept his love when he creates them, he did know from creation that “a certain percentage range of people would, through faith and by means of his grace, accept his saving love.”[50] Second, Boyd argues that God “predestines whatever aspects of history need to be predestined to accomplish his objectives.”[51] However, both of these responses seem like impossible claims for an open theist to make. If God can foreknow with surety that a certain percentage of people would accept his love, then according to the open perspective, that means that God has determined those responses, and such determination is incompatible with the entire open theist program.[52] The argument that God sometimes intervenes in the lives of moral agents to ensure that his purposes are achieved is even more problematic, as it overtly suggests that “God cannot accomplish His ultimate purpose without violating a significant component of that purpose (namely, human freedom).”[53] If Boyd’s ultimate confidence in God’s ability to realize his eschatological goals relies on God’s occasional removal of freedom from supposedly “free” creatures, what is the point of basing an entire theological construct on freedom? Ultimately, this contradiction seems to be an insurmountable problem.

Conclusion

Since first writing on open theism over twenty years ago, Gregory Boyd has spent considerable time expanding upon his views of God’s knowledge of the future and the freedom he grants to his creation, and trying to present a case for the open perspective that is both compelling and coherent. As I have argued in this paper, Boyd succeeds at the former but not the latter. Boyd’s firm insistence on the omniscience and omnipotence of God help to establish open theism as a valid evangelical perspective, and he is to be commended for his emphasis on the love of God and the freedom he grants to individuals which empowers them to live truly meaningful lives. However, Boyd’s understanding of the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom is problematic, as is his reading of various scriptures which present God in anthropomorphic ways. Most problematic though, is the fact that Boyd’s open theism is fundamentally incoherent in that it holds that God at times violates or overrides human freedom in order to guarantee that things turn out according to his plan. This contradiction renders the entire premise of the open perspective meaningless.

As noted previously, Arminianism can lay claim to the same advantages as the open view without being marred by its problems and inconsistencies. If nothing else, Boyd’s thoughtful and extensive work should encourage theologians from the Arminian camp to present the practical benefits of a free will theism that upholds God’s exhaustive foreknowledge in similarly compelling ways.


[1] It is difficult to pinpoint the exact beginnings of the modern open theist movement, but one particularly significant early work that initiated the use of “open” language was Clark Pinnock, et al, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[2] Corin Mihaila, “The Ignorant God of Open Theism,” Faith and Mission 19, no. 3 (2002): 27-29, is representative of many scholars who, when examining open theism, focus on the unofficial triumvirate of Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and John Sanders.

[3] Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1994).

[4] Boyd interacts with scripture in much of his writings, but for two earlier works with extensive scriptural focus, see Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 21-87; 157-69, and Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 13-37.

[5] See Gregory A. Boyd, God At War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), and Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

[6] See Gregory A. Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 183-208.

[7] A good representation of this argument is made in Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, 33-34: “The view of God as knowing and controlling the whole future from the beginning is in my estimation more the product of Aristotelian philosophy than it is the Bible.” Boyd makes similar claims in other places, but he always simply states this conclusion rather than presenting an argument. See Boyd, God at War, 47, and Boyd, God of the Possible, 17, 130-31. For an argument that rejects the premise that classical theism was unduly influenced by Hellentistic thought, see Michael S. Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 2 (June 2002): 317-41.

[8] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 51.

[9] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 188. Importantly, this freedom to choose whether or not to respond to love is not limited to humans, but is also extended to spiritual beings like angels. The abuse of this freedom and the subsequent (and ongoing) rebellion of Satan and his minions figures prominently into Boyd’s response to the problem of evil.

[10] Ibid., 189; Boyd, God of the Possible, 134-35.

[11] Boyd, God at War, 49-50: “Unless the future really consists (at least in part) in possibilities among which free creatures choose, and thus unless the future is known by God as being (at least in part) a realm of open possibilities (for God’s knowledge always perfectly corresponds with reality), then self-determining freedom, it seems, cannot be consistently maintained.” To be sure, open theism is not the only perspective that finds it impossible to reconcile God’s sovereign foreknowledge with genuine human freedom: somewhat ironically, Calvinism holds the same conviction, but reaches the opposite conclusion, ultimately minimizing or sacrificing human freedom in order to preserve God’s foreknowledge. See Horton, 335-36.

[12] Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 30

[13] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 117.

[14] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 193-94: “We begin by making our choices, but in the end, our choices make us. We are gradually but inevitably becoming the decisions we make.” Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 20-21, uses Peter’s denial of Jesus as an example of this kind of foreknowledge. Jesus was able to predict what Peter would do when given the opportunity to deny him because he knew Peter’s character perfectly, as someone who was outwardly bold but cowardly when faced with a difficult situation. This would seem to be a very poor example, however, since Peter’s character was clearly not solidified based on the drastic character change he experienced after the resurrection. See Douglas S. Huffman, “Some Logical Difficulties in Open Theism,” Criswell Theological Review 1, no. 2 (2004): 183; Paul Kjoss Helseth, “Response to Gregory A. Boyd,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 219. Furthermore, this line of argumentation does not seem to be able to account for the level of specificity of Jesus’ prediction, that Peter would deny him three times before the crow of a rooster.

[15] Boyd, God of the Possible, 150.

[16] Ibid., 42-43; Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 199-201. Boyd, God of the Possible, 127-28, also uses the example of the “Infinitely Intelligent Chess Master” who knows all possible future moves of an opponent and can thus always be prepared to respond in such a way that his ultimate victory is guaranteed.

[17] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 155-58; Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 45-46.

[18] Boyd, God of the Possible, 13-15.

[19] Ibid., 21-51; Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 14-23. For a sampling of such passages, see Gen. 15:13; 1 Kings 13:1-2; Isa. 45:1, 46:9-11, 48:3-5; Matt. 26:34; John 6:64.

[20] Boyd, God of the Possible, 30.

[21] Ibid., 53-89; Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 23-37. For examples of this category of scriptures, see Gen. 6:6, 22:12; Exod. 4:1-9, 13:17; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; 2 Kings 20:1-6; 1 Chron. 21:15; Isa. 5:2-4; Jer. 3:6-7, 19-20, 18:4-11; Ezek. 12:3, 22:30-31; Matt. 26:39; 2 Pet. 3:9.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Boyd, God of the Possible, 90-91.

[24] Ibid., 91-92.

[25] Ibid., 95-98.

[26] In God of the Possible, 7-8, Boyd states that he first started to reflect on the openness of God after reading about God changing his mind and adding 15 years to Hezekiah’s life following Hezekiah’s fervent prayer. Even with that in mind, it is evident that responding to the problem of evil is a central concern for Boyd, and lies at the heart of his advocacy for the open perspective. In addition to addressing this issue in other writings, God At War and Satan and the Problem of Evil form a two-volume effort to construct a theodicy using open theism.

[27] Boyd, God of the Possible, 107-11.

[28] Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 30.

[29] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 87: “The question of the openness of the future, then, is an in-house Arminian discussion on how to render the freewill defense most coherent, biblical and credible.” At times, Boyd also refers to his own view as “neo-Molinism.” See Satan and the Problem of Evil, 127-28. Many Arminians and Molinists do not affirm any close ties between themselves and open theism, however.

[30] Charles L. Quarles, “Was Jesus an Open Theist? A Brief Examination of Greg Boyd’s Exegesis of Jesus’ Prayer in Gethsemane,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8, no. 3 (September 2004): 109.

[31] Michael D. Stallard, “A Dispensational Critique of Open Theism’s View of Prophecy,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161 (January-March 2004): 41.

[32] Richard L. Mayhue, “The Impossibility of God of the Possible,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 12, no. 2 (September 2001): 220. Understandably, Boyd is somewhat defensive about some of these responses, as can be seen in the discussion in Bruce A. Ware, “Rejoinder to Replies by Clark H. Pinnock, John Sanders, and Gregory A. Boyd,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 2 (June 2002): 245. Ultimately, although Boyd believes open theism to be the correct perspective and that it has important implications, he insists that it is not a doctrine that should be a source of division among Christians, and that “the love with which believers debate issues is more important to God than the sides we take,” God of the Possible, 9.

[33] In Boyd’s language, the debate is not really over God’s omniscience or his foreknowledge, but is rather a debate over “the content of reality that God knows.” Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 13.

[34] Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 45-46.

[35] Ibid., 46.

[36] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 129.

[37] Ware, 252.

[38] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 186.

[39] Boyd, God of the Possible, 8, 92-98.

[40] As noted above, it is a claim that, somewhat ironically, both open theists and Calvinists share.

[41] Robert E. Picirilli, “An Arminian Response to John Sanders’s The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence,Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 3 (September 2001): 473. See also William Lane Craig and David P. Hunt, “Perils of the Open Road. Faith and Philosophy 30, no. 1 (January 2013): 49-53.

[42] David Hunt, “A Simple-Foreknowledge Response,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 49.

[43] Mihaila, 29-33; Horton, 328-41; A. B. Caneday, “Critical Comments on an Open Theism Manifesto,” Trinity Journal 23, no. 1 (2002): 104-07.

[44] Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 37-40.

[45] See Boyd, God of the Possible, 62, for an example of this repeated argument. On a practical level, this line of thought does not really make sense: I can be frustrated by an unfortunate event, even if it was something that I expected would happen.

[46] Mihaila, 30. Later, Mihaila, 32, states: “Thus, while one must accept the fact that in such passages the Bible speaks truthfully about God (i.e. God genuinely repents and regrets), it does not follow that the Bible speaks univocally about God in such passages (i.e., God repents and regrets in every way man does).”

[47] Caneday, 106-07. Caneday also points out that biblical passages where God tests to know whether or not his people love him actually suggest that God is unaware of present conditions rather than future conditions.

[48] In fact, he does assume that God is asking rhetorical questions in Gen. 3:8-9, Boyd, God of the Possible, 59. Boyd argues that the context of Gen. 3 demands that they be rhetorical questions while denying that the contexts of his “motif of future openness” passages similarly require a rhetorical interpretation. This inconsistency seems to stem from Boyd’s prior philosophical commitments to a God who knows the past and present exhaustively but does not exhaustively know future events, rather than from the texts themselves.

[49] Johannes Grössl and Leigh Vicens, “Closing the Door on Limited-Risk Open Theism.” Faith and Philosophy 31, no. 4 (October 2014): 476: “Since it is possible for every human being God could create to freely refuse to share in his love, God cannot guarantee, at creation, that His central purpose for the world will be fulfilled.”

[50] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 156.

[51] Ibid., 115. Going back to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel metaphor, Boyd argues that God sets the overall parameters for the story in a way that guarantees that things ultimately work out according to his goals.

[52] Grössl and Vicens, 483.

[53] Mihaila, 37.

Suffering and God’s Knowledge of the Future

Theological Suffering

This is the first post in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering.

As a grad student, I do a lot of fairly technical theological reading and study. As a minister, one of the things I try to do is talk about theology in an understandable way. Because, after all, no one really likes trying to wade through technical jargon, but anything that helps us to understand God better is a good thing.

When it comes to looking at suffering from a theological perspective, and specifically what God’s role in suffering is, it is important that we first have some understanding of how God interacts with the world. Put in a different way, does God determine all of the “bad” things that happen to us, or does He simply allow them? Or, is God surprised by some of the things which happen to us and unable to do anything about them ahead of time?

All of these questions are related to the nature of God’s providence, or how He interacts with the world. In this post, I want to look specifically at the issue of foreknowledge, or, God’s relationship to the future. To what extent does God possess knowledge of the future? Is His foreknowledge exhaustive, or does He only possess knowledge of those particular events which have been settled as part of His divine plan? And, does God know the events of the future because they will happen, or will they happen because God has determined they will happen?

These questions help to introduce some of the differences between the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives on God’s foreknowledge.[1] To be clear, thousands upon thousands of pages of ink have been spilt on this topic, so this post will, by necessity, abbreviate and oversimplify at times. But my hope is that I will still be able to do an adequate job of summarizing the different perspectives.[2]

Calvinist/Reformed

The Calvinist/Reformed perspective of God’s foreknowledge suggests that God himself determines everything that will happen, decrees every event, and thus, is the cause of all things. In other words, nothing that happens in life happens without God explicitly determining that it will happen. He directly causes all things by virtue of his decrees.

From this perspective, God’s exhaustive knowledge of future events is grounded in his determination of what those events will be. God knows everything that will happen in the future, not because He “observes” those events ahead of time; rather what will happen only happens because God has determined that it be so. As part of this idea, God specifically chooses which individuals will be saved and which will be lost.

Reformed thinkers generally acknowledge that there is tension between God’s foreknowledge and human free will, but ultimately hold that the relationship between these two things is mysterious, and they subordinate the idea of free will to the (in their minds) clear biblical teaching on God’s exhaustive foreknowledge based on His determination of all things.

Calvinist thinkers hold that this view of God’s foreknowledge provides great comfort for the sufferer: we may not know why God chooses the tragic events which unfold during life, but because He causes all things, we can trust that there is some divine purpose which is being worked out. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think the Calvinist suggestion that God decrees every single event which happens is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily make God the author of all evil in the world. God doesn’t just allow evil actions to occur; he actively causes them to happen. To be sure, the scriptures present God as someone who uses events which cause great suffering (the flood, for example) to bring about His purposes, but a Calvinist understanding of God’s determinism goes beyond this, and even places God as the cause for the evil actions of individual humans. To me, this raises serious questions about God’s love.

Secondly, the New Testament repeatedly depicts the results of final judgment being contingent upon the things we do (or don’t do) in this life. If ultimately we have no ability to choose what we do because God has ordained every single event of our lives, then the judgment is a sham. Why should we be held accountable for decisions we did not make? So, the Calvinist perspective also seems to raise serious questions about God’s justice.

Open Theism

On the opposite side of the debate is the Open Theist perspective, which holds that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. Two key arguments lie beneath this perspective.

First, as opposed to Calvinism, Open Theism affirms the reality and importance of human freedom. For Open Theists, God created out of love, and the only way that human beings could genuinely love God in return was for that love to be freely chosen. So, out of his love, God gives humans the ability to choose for themselves, and He honors those choices which we make. One popular Open Theist metaphor is that God’s providence is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the future is partly settled and partly open: God determines the overall structure of the story, the different possible story lines, and even certain events which will follow if certain human choices are made. But within this framework, humans are given the ability to make choices which drastically effect the story. Compared to the Calvinist perspective, in Open Theism, God determines very little, as much of what happens occurs because of the choices of free creatures.

This leads to the second key argument, which is that divine foreknowledge inherently involves a determinism which undermines human freedom. In other words, Open Theists argue that if God were to know ahead of time which choices you would make, then you wouldn’t really be free to choose something else. Thus, Open Theists deny that God knows which free will choices we will make until we make them.

This might seem to undercut God’s omniscience, but Open Theists argue that God is omniscient in that he knows all things that can be known; God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present, and knows those parts of the future which are settled. What He does not know are those parts of the future which are still open, because they are inherently unknowable. Unlike Back to the Future or all of those crazy Star Trek time-traveling episodes suggest, Open Theists argue that the unsettled future has no true existence; until free creatures make choices which bring the future into existence, there is simply nothing to know. Interesting stuff, right?

I should mention that the Open Theist perspective was largely developed as a response to the Problem of Evil (How can God be powerful and good and permit the existence of evil in the world?). From an Open perspective, suffering occurs because of the evil choices that people make from their own free will, and God does not know that these things will happen until they do. He is disappointed in them just as we are.

There are aspects of the Open Theist perspective which are appealing to me: I appreciate the emphasis on God’s love and the freedom of humans. I find the Open Theist understanding of the future (it is not a “thing” which exists) and the resulting understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience to be interesting, and even possible.

But ultimately, I think Open Theism fails to take seriously the degree to which the bible indicates that God does, in fact, know the events of the future (think for example, of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal). And in many ways, this seems to me to be indicative of the entire Open Theist approach: rather than starting with the text of Scripture and then determining how God acts providentially in the world, it begins with the desire to save God from the blame for suffering in the world and tries to shoehorn that desire into Scripture. For sure, that is questionable biblical interpretation but more than that, I’m not sure it works, either: if God is limited to the point that He is surprised by the bad choices we make and legitimately cannot do anything about them, how can we be certain that He will ultimately “win” in the end and defeat evil and death?

Arminian

Between the Calvinist and Open Theist points of view is the Arminian perspective, which upholds both the foreknowledge of God (unlike Open Theism) and the ability of humanity to make free moral decisions (unlike Calvinism). Arminians hold that God does possess exhaustive foreknowledge, but that God knows the future because it will happen. God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of people does not somehow mean that He causes those things to happen. For Arminians, God is not bound by time, and is simply able to see the future decisions that humans will freely make without determining those decisions in any way.

Reformed, Open, Arminian

Related to the issue of suffering, Arminians (like Open Theists) emphasize the importance of human freedom and argue that much of the suffering which occurs in our world is related to the bad choices that people make. However, since Arminians (like Calvinists) believe that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that He is not caught off guard by the decisions we make, they can also believe that God can plan around the bad decisions that people make and work through those things to bring out good (Romans 8.28 comes to mind).

I think that the Arminian idea of simple foreknowledge makes the most sense and also best reconciles the biblical tension between God’s omniscience and human freedom. I struggle to understand the arguments which suggest that God’s foreknowledge necessarily implies determinism. In my own very limited foreknowledge, I can occasionally predict future events without somehow determining that those events take place. If I see a child take an egg out of a carton and drop it on the concrete floor, I can be confident that the egg will break without that “foreknowledge” somehow causing the egg to break. Based on my limited knowledge and experience, I can almost “see” it happen. How much more would an omniscient God who is not bound by time be able to look into the future and see the events which free creatures freely choose without that knowledge somehow determining the choice?

There are some questions which we simply cannot answer this side of eternity, and each of these perspectives have their weak points, but to me, Arminianism supplies the best response to God’s knowledge of the future, and also His relationship with suffering. God does not specifically cause every bad thing which happens (but certainly He causes some: the Flood), but He knows that they will happen, and is thus, best equipped to work through those things in order to bring about our good and His glory.

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[1]To be clear, the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives are not the only options, and we could talk about the ideas of Deism or Process Theology as well. Generally speaking though, those last two options are considered to be outside the confines of orthodox Christianity, and are not covered here.

[2]If you are interested in reading more, a couple of good resources are Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, edited by Bruce A. Ware, and Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers. The essays presented in those books largely comprised the sources for the material I present in this post.

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