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The Case for Open Theism

This short book introduces what is usually called ‘Open Theism’. It questions the traditional view that God knows everything that will ever happen before it happens (and if you are a Calvinist, that he also causes it to happen). Instead, it maintains, the future is partly settled and partly open. God has settled certain developments in advance, but he has also made his creatures free agents and they can make decisions that God has to adjust to.

Since Open Theism is now becoming widely accepted, you should acquaint yourself with it, and there’s no better way than by reading this concise, direct and gracious introduction. It is God Of The Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God by Gregory A. Boyd (Baker Books, 2000. ISBN: 978-0801062902).  

The introduction sets out the basic thesis: thatthe future is to some degree settled and known by God as such, and to some degree open and known by God as such. To some extent, God knows the future as definitely this way and definitely not that way. To some extent, however, he knows it as possibly this way and possibly not that way. This is the “open view of God” or, as I prefer, the “open view of the future.”’

Boyd exposes the difficulties raised by the classical view—which is a product chiefly of Greek philosophy. Why, for example, did God create Adolf Hitler if he knew from all eternity what atrocities he would commit? Even worse, why does he create people who he knows will end up in hell? Boyd also forestalls some of the standard objections to Open Theism. It does not, for instance, cast doubt upon God’s omniscience. The debate is not about the nature of God but the nature of the future.

After the introduction there are four chapters.  In the first, the author examines the classical view, in which God directly controls everything that happens. He looks at the arguments for it, both biblical and philosophical, and gently shows them to be open to serious criticism.

Chapter Two looks at some of the many scriptures where God is said to change his mind, to regret having done certain things, or to respond to the prayers of his people. These Bible passages become the basis for his setting out of the Open view in some detail.

The third chapter is practical and pastoral. It shows how embracing the Open View can have profoundly beneficial effects on how we live the Christian life. Then the final chapter provides a Q&A session in which Boyd deals with the commonest objections to this view. An appendix comments briefly on further Bible passages that support the Open View.

I admit to coming to this book having already moved a long way towards the Open View in my own journey of faith. Boyd has dispelled any remaining doubts. My main hesitation had been that I felt that this view of the future somehow diminished God. The book helped me see that the very opposite is in fact true!

[I read the book in Logos Bible Software format, but it is also available in hard copy and Kindle format.]


Next to the central doctrines of the Christian faith, the issue of whether the future is exhaustively settled or partially open is relatively unimportant. It certainly is not a doctrine Christians should ever divide over.  (p8)

If hell is worse than never being born, as Jesus suggests (Matt. 26:24), wouldn’t an all-loving God refrain from creating people he is certain will end up there? If God truly doesn’t want “any to perish” (2 Peter 3:9), why does he create people he is certain will do just that?  (p10)

The classical view of divine foreknowledge interprets the first motif [future determinism] as speaking about God as he truly is and the second motif [future openness] as speaking about God only as he appears to be or as figures of speech.  (p14)

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.  (p16)

My fundamental thesis is that the classical theological tradition became misguided when, under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, it defined God’s perfection in static, timeless terms. All change was considered an imperfection and thus not applicable to God.  (p17)

Practically, a God of eternally static certainties is incapable of interacting with humans in a relevant way.  (p18)

The future is settled to whatever extent the sovereign Creator decides to settle it. God is not at the mercy of chance or free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty contrasts sharply with a popular liberal theological movement called “process theology.” Some evangelical authors have wrongly accused open theists of being close to process thought, but in truth the two views have little in common.  (p31)

It takes a greater God to steer a world populated with free agents than it does to steer a world of preprogrammed automatons.  (p31)

Far from being contradictory, or even just unusual, the view that the future is partly open and partly settled is the view we all assume unconsciously every time we make a decision.  (p32)

Scripture says that Jesus knew “from the first” that Judas would betray him (John 6:64). This word (archē) does not imply that Jesus knew who would betray him from a time before the person decided in his heart to betray him (let alone from all eternity, as the classical view of foreknowledge requires). As in Philippians 4:15, the word can mean “early on.” This verse thus suggests that Jesus knew who would betray him from the moment this person resolved to betray him, or from the time Jesus chose him to be a disciple.  (p37)

Our argument has been that the future is partly settled and partly open. The extent to which it is one way or another at any given moment is ultimately decided by God.  (p39)

Scripture is filled with examples of people who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:30).  (p40)

The notion that what God ordains is necessarily unalterable is foreign to the Hebrew mind.  (p42)

While Scripture portrays the crucifixion as a predestined event, it never suggests that the individuals who participated in this event were predestined to do so or foreknown as doing so. It was certain that Jesus would be crucified, but it was not certain from eternity that Pilot, Herod, or Caiaphas would play the roles they played in the crucifixion. They participated in Christ’s death of their own free wills.  (p45)

This balance between predictable and unpredictable aspects of reality is illustrated in many areas of our everyday lives. For example, though insurance and advertising agencies make money by utilizing statistics to predict general group behavior, they are still incapable of predicting individual behavior.  (p45)

[Re Eph 1:4]  Note, Paul does not say that we were individually predestined to be “in Christ” (or not). Scripture elsewhere tells us that if it were up to God alone, he would save everyone (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). But it is not up to God alone; God gave humans free will.  (p46)

In Romans 8:29 Paul is saying that the church as a corporate whole was in God’s heart long before the church was birthed. But this doesn’t imply that he knew who would and would not be in this church ahead of time. He predestined that all who choose to receive Christ would grow to be in the image of his Son. But whether particular individuals receive Christ and thus acquire this predestined image depends on their free will.  (p48)

The open view concludes that the future is literally settled to whatever degree God wants to settle it, and literally open to the extent that God desires to leave it open to be resolved by the decisions of his creations. This view, open theists argue, is truer to the whole counsel of Scripture, truer to our experience, and offers a number of theological and practical advantages as well.  (p54)

Saul had gotten so wicked that the Lord said, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me” (1 Sam. 15:10). The point is reiterated for emphasis several verses later, when Scripture says, “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:35).  (p56)

If God says he regretted a decision, and if Scripture elsewhere tells us that God is perfectly wise, then we should simply conclude that one can be perfectly wise and still regret a decision.  (p57)

Don’t we normally regard someone who refuses to take risks as being insecure? Don’t we ordinarily regard a compulsion to meticulously control everything as evidencing weakness, not strength? Of course we do.  (p57)

If God is truly “above” taking risks, then we must accept that things such as sin, child mutilations, and people going to hell are all in accordance with God’s will.  (p58)

If God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18) and yet tells us he thought something would occur that did not occur, doesn’t this imply that the future contains possibilities as well as certainties?  (p60)

[Re Ezekiel 22:30-31]  It is difficult to understand how God could have sincerely “sought for” someone to intercede if he was eternally certain that there would be no one. Could you genuinely look for a coin in your house that you always knew was not there? The fact that God tried to raise up an intercessor suggests that he knew it was possible that an intercessor would have responded. But this requires us to believe that it was not certain to God that there would be no intercessor when he sought one. And this means that the future must partly be composed of possibilities, not certainties.  (p63)

Defenders of the classical view argue that the purpose of divine testing wasn’t for God to find out how his covenant partners would behave, but for the covenant partners to find out something about themselves. Unfortunately for this view, this is not at all how Scripture describes the matter.  (p64)

The motif of future openness is expressed by the way the Lord often talks about the future in Scripture. If everything was settled in God’s mind from all eternity as the classical view holds, you would expect God to speak of the future in absolute terms. There would be no “maybes” for God. Remarkably, however, the Bible records numerous examples of God speaking in terms of what might or might not happen.  (p66)

If we simply allow biblical texts to say what they seem to say, we are led to embrace the conclusion that God is so wise, resourceful, and sovereign over history that he doesn’t need or want to have everything in the future settled ahead of time. He is so confident in his power and wisdom that he is willing to grant an appropriate degree of freedom to humans (and angels) to determine their own futures.  (p68)

The normal human way of thinking about sovereignty only as control is misguided (see Matt. 20:25–28). God is so sovereign, he chooses to save the world by allowing himself to become weak.  (p69)

What is the point of talking about God’s delay due to his patience or encouraging believers to speed up Christ’s return by how they live if in reality the exact time has been settled from all eternity?  (p72)

[Re the ‘potter and clay’ imagery]  In Jeremiah 28 (the passage Paul is alluding to in Romans 9:21-23), the analogy is used to make the exact opposite point [of the unilateral control interpretation]. As the potter was willing to revise his vessel once the first plan was “spoiled,” so God is willing to revise his initial plan when circumstances call for it. He is not a unilaterally controlling God; he is a graciously flexible God.  (p76)

It is only meaningful for God to say he will not change his mind if it is true that he could change his mind if he wanted to, and if it is true that many times he does want to (see Jer. 18:7–10; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:12–13).  (p80)

[Re Jeremiah 26:2–3]  The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings” (v. 3). If in truth God never changes his mind, is he not lying when he tells the Israelites that he might do so? Is there not something odd going on in evangelicalism today when certain believers (open theists) are labeled heretical for taking God’s promise (“I may change my mind”) literally?  (p84)

[The open view] is the only view that allows us to affirm that the way things appear is basically the way things actually are.  (p90)

Knowing that what transpires in the future is not a foregone conclusion but is significantly up to us to decide, we will be more inclined to assume responsibility for our future.  (p94)

My conviction is that many Christians do not pray as passionately as they could because they don’t see how it could make any significant difference.  (p95)

Because it holds that the future is not entirely settled and that God’s plans can change, the open view is able to render the purpose and urgency of prayer intelligible in a way that neither classical Arminianism nor classical Calvinism can. The open view is able to declare, without qualification or inconsistency, that some of the future genuinely depends on prayer. On a practical level, this translates into people who are more inclined to pray with passion and urgency.  (p95)

I believe [the open view] offers the most plausible way out of the dilemma of assuming God has a purpose for allowing particular evils. True, God must have a purpose for giving free agents the potential to make evil choices. In my view, he could not give them the potential to choose love without also giving them the potential to choose against it. Hence, the potential for evil lies in the nature of free will. Once God gave people this freedom, however, the purpose for their actions lies in them, not God. Since it was not settled ahead of time how people would use the freedom God gave them, God cannot be blamed for how they use it.  (p99)

Whenever the Bible speaks of God’s foreknowledge, it is to emphasize his ability to control what comes to pass, not to declare that he knows a future he can’t control.  (p101)

We are to pray that the Father’s will would be done (Matt. 6:10), not accept things as though his will was already being done!  (p102)

The “God of the possible” always has a plan B and a plan C. He’s also wise enough to know how to weave our failed plan A’s into these alternative plans so beautifully that looking back, it may look like B or C was his original plan all along. This isn’t a testimony to his exhaustive definite foreknowledge; it’s a testimony to his unfathomable wisdom.  (p106)

The view of God as eternally unchanging in every respect (and thus as possessing an eternal unchanging knowledge of all of world history) owes more to Plato than it does the Bible. (p109)

Even on a quantum level the future is partly open and partly settled. It seems that the balance between openness and settledness permeates reality. The world at every level seems to be constituted as a marvelous dance that exemplifies both form and freedom. There is structure and spontaneity, predictability and unpredictability, everywhere we look.  (p110)

We should seriously question the assumption that a God who exhaustively foreknows what is definitely going to happen is “wiser” than a God who does not.  (p126)

Isn’t a God who perfectly anticipates and wisely responds to everything a free agent might do more intelligent than a God who simply knows what a free agent will do? Anticipating and responding to possibilities takes problem-solving intelligence. Simply possessing a crystal ball vision of what’s coming requires none.  (p127)

Everything we read in Scripture and everything we observe in the world around us suggests that a God who is frozen in an eternity of perfectly certain facts is inferior to the God of the possible, who is capable of discovery, risk, novelty, and adventure.  (p131)

As a triangle must have three sides and all bachelors must be unmarried, so love must be chosen. This means that love is, by its very nature, risky. To create a cosmos populated with free agents (angels and humans) who are capable of choosing love requires that God create a cosmos in which beings can choose to oppose his will, hurt other people, and damn themselves. If love is the goal, this is the price. The solution to the problem of evil, I believe, is found in this insight.  (p135)

It is one thing to say that the gracious work of the Holy Spirit is necessary for our salvation, and another to say that it is sufficient for our salvation. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to believe, but he does not make it impossible not to believe. Scripture makes it clear that people can—and do—resist the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives (e.g., Isa. 63:10; Luke 7:30; Acts 7:51; Eph. 4:30; Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7).  (p138)

When Paul says that God “has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (Rom. 9:18), he is not suggesting that God does this without any consideration of the choices people make. The people God chooses to have mercy on are those who have faith. The people God chooses to harden are those who don’t “strive for [righteousness] on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works” (Rom. 9:32).  (p142)

In the open view…much of what transpires in world history is the result of the decisions of free agents, not God’s will. This is why world history with all of its horrors does not clearly reflect God’s beautiful character. Humans and fallen angels can—and do—thwart God’s will for their own lives and interfere with God’s will for others.  (p147)

Why should we consider “control” the most exalted view of divine sovereignty? Can we not conceive of a more praiseworthy way that God might choose to rule (be sovereign over) the creation? If we take our model of divine sovereignty from the Bible instead of from the natural inclination of fallen humans to exalt power and control, what we discover is that God’s sovereignty is a sovereignty of love. God demonstrates divine power when he empowers others to make choices to either enter into a loving relationship with him or not.  (p148)

Because God’s foreknowledge consists in part of possibilities, not certainties, he can be trusted to inspire us to avoid certain future possibilities he sees coming.  (p152)

The open view affirms that Christ will be with us to provide a peace that “surpasses all understanding” whatever may come our way (Phil. 4:7). It affirms that whatever happens, God will work with us to bring a redemptive purpose out of the event (Rom. 8:28). The open view also affirms that God can alter your destiny, precisely because the open view holds that the future is in part not settled. Finally, the open view affirms with Scripture the central hope that when God’s kingdom is established, it will have been worth it.  (P155)

You can see my review of another book on this subject here.

Look at reviews I have done on other books by Greg Boyd:

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