Is the God of Open Theism the God of the Bible?

Greg Boyd

The most familiar advocate of Open Theism in the public square today is theologian, pastor, and author Greg Boyd. He is Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and President of In his book Letters from a Sceptic, Greg Boyd sums up Open Theism in this way:

‘In the Christian view God knows all of reality–everything there is to know. But to assume He 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. So God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.’ Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Sceptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions About Christianity (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1994), 30

Understand, Greg Boyd is a respected and qualified Christian theologian, and this is not about him. Nevertheless, since he is ‘the face of Open Theism’ to the world right now, what he has to say on the issue is important. It is equally important to know something of his background and history, as well as how he sees things today.

Greg Boyd was raised a Roman Catholic and became an atheist in his teen years, as so many do in their search for independence and meaning outside the institutions of family and church. At sixteen (1974) he was drawn to Oneness Pentecostalism before becoming an orthodox Christian in 1979. He gained a philosophy degree at the University of Minnesota before earning a Master of Divinity degree at Yale in 1982, and a PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1987. The man is seriously qualified.

His Princeton dissertation addressed the issue of Process Theology, the idea God affects and, especially, is affected by temporal processes. Process Theology challenges the traditional teaching that God is eternal, immutable (unchanging), and impassable (unaffected by world events). Boyd attempted to embrace what he saw as the positive features of Process Theology while still retaining traditional orthodoxy. By his own admission, then, he has moved away from long-held traditional orthodoxy, so to say his view is heterodoxical is hardly controversial.

Open Theism: History

What is the thinking behind Boyd’s claim, ‘God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.’

Open Theism’s origins are commonly associated with Clark Pinnock and his 1994 essay, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the understanding of God (IVP 1994) In it Pinnock writes:

‘God is omniscient in the sense that he knows everything which can be known, just as God is omnipotent in the sense that he can do everything that can be done. But free actions are not entities which can be known ahead of time. They literally do not yet exist to be known. God can surmise what you will do next Friday, but cannot know it for certain because you have not done it yet.’

Open Theists say that the church has been taken captive to Greek philosophical thinking that casts God as impassable, immutable, and timeless, whereas the God of the Bible, they insist, is anthropomorphic – a father, capable of suffering, changeable.

Many of these ideas can be found in an earlier book of essays entitled, The Grace of God and the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (ed. Clark H. Pinnock [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989])

Pinnock admits being heavily influenced in his thinking by a book by the philosopher Richard Rice, entitled, God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will (Bethany House, 1985). He incorrectly cites it as entitled The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will (Review and Herald Publishing, 1979) This is very helpful in tracing the history of Open Theology.

It was the 1985 (Bethany House) volume that he had in mind but the title he gives is that of an earlier incarnation of that book, its 1979 original published by the Review and Herald, a Seventh-day Adventist publishing house.

Richard Rice is a Seventh-day Adventist theologian and author. As of 2007 he is professor of theology and philosophy of religion at the private Seventh-day Adventist Loma Linda University in California, and is a leading proponent of Open Theology.

Notwithstanding this, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was not comfortable with Rice’s thinking and didn’t adopt it. What the Seventh-day Adventist Church finally rejected Rice had reprinted through the offices of the Christian publisher Bethany House in 1985.

Open Theology may be traced even further back, to the 16th and 17th century, developed by the Italian Renaissance humanists and theologians Lelio Sozzini and Fausto Sozzini. Most humanists back then were Christians and they focussed on the nature and importance of humanity, drawing on their study of Classical antiquity. A ‘humanist’ was one who studied the humanities. Only in the 19th century did this come to be called humanism as we understand it today.

Renaissance humanists concerned themselves with purifying and renewing Christianity, returning ad fontes (to the sources), to the simplicity of Jesus’ message, getting rid of all that heavy and cumbersome Medieval Theology with its councils, creeds, and confessions. Read Why Creeds and Confessions?

It’s an old idea that can be found in any number of movements throughout church history. Everything has become too complicated, apostasy is rampant, but there is this remnant, led by someone who has been to the top of the mountain and brought back ‘new light,’ fresh revelation,’ ‘restoration,’ a new expression of 1st century Christianity for this ‘new season’ where God is ‘doing a new thing,’ and he’s written a book about something every previous generation of Christians missed.

On the About section of the ReKnew website, under the banner, ‘ReThink everything you thought you Knew,’ Greg Boyd writes:

‘We live at an exciting juncture of history. The traditional triumphant understanding of the church, known as “Christendom,” is crumbling. Out of its rubble is rising a grass-roots global movement of people who are captivated by the vision of a Jesus-looking God raising up a Jesus-looking people to transform the world in a Jesus-kind of way. And as this new kingdom wine is bursting the old wineskins of Christendom, believers and sceptics alike are being forced to rethink everything they thought they knew about the Christian faith and life.’

Open Theism: Vocabulary

We are aware that cults routinely redefine the long-established meanings of words, bringing novel ‘interpretations’ to established understandings of ideas. They also introduce into the established Christian lexicon words foreign to Christian theological tradition. When addressing Open Theism we must, as with the cults, not assume a shared understanding of words and ideas. To illustrate:

Isaiah asks:

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?’ Isaiah 53:1 cf John 12:38

Mary, in her great song of praise, declares:

He has shown strength with his arm: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…’ Luke 1:51

Open Theists will readily agree that the Bible writers here are speaking in anthropomorphic terms. They are describing the indescribable in human terms, not saying he is human, with arms and legs. This analogical language, a language where words compare two things, is saying ‘God is like…’ It is not saying ‘God is.’

In Christianity God certainly can be known, but not comprehended; our knowledge of him can never be comprehensive. Calvin, writing about God’s condescension and our limited knowledge, wrote:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.’

Having accepted this principle readily enough, the Open Theist abandons it when it comes to:

God determining to destroy Israel for Worshipping the golden calf, but when Moses intercedes, relenting, Exodus 32:7-10

Isaiah prophesying that King Hezekiah will die, only for God to ‘change his mind’ in light of Hezekiah’s repentance, giving him another fifteen years to live, Isaiah 38:1-5

God regretting, at the time of Noah, making mankind and determining to flood the earth and start again, Genesis 6:6

The language used to describe these events, for the Open Theist, is not anthropomorphic, God himself is anthropomorphic. He not just acts, but is acted upon. Scripture here, they say, is speaking univocally, i.e. giving words one meaning that applies equally to God and man. These, apparently, are not examples of God’s ‘lisping,’ but a description of how God really is in himself; regretting, learning, changing his mind – becoming.

This is what happens when you think the Scripture is about you and is understood through the lens of your experience and not through the lens of established church teaching and the Bible. It’s a ‘seems to me’ theology, much like that of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

Once God is said to be in process, ‘becoming’ he is no longer God, his aseity is brought into question. Aseity comes from the Latin a’ meaning ‘from’ and ‘se’ meaning ‘self.’ Add the suffix ‘ity’ and you are describing a quality as in words like, well, ‘quality.’ The aseity of God refers to his self-existence, his not being dependent on, or subject to the process of cause and effect.

The creation story helps us think about this. Everything in creation is said to be contingent, dependent on what went before. If you see an oak you can be sure there was an acorn, if an acorn there must have been an oak. There must be a first cause in such a system, one thing must be necessary, not contingent. The Bible tells us this is God (Genesis 1:1) Further, we read of Jesus in John’s Gospel, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ John 1:4

God has life in himself, God causes and is not himself caused to be or do anything. He acts and is not acted upon.

Redefining God

According to Open Theism (also called ‘unsettled theism’):

1. God is vulnerable, capable of failing (I did my best but…)

2. God is not immutable, and can change his mind according to circumstances (Back to the drawing board)

3. God is sometimes mistaken in His beliefs about what will happen (I wasn’t expecting that)

4. God is not omnipotent, his purposes can be frustrated (The best laid plans of mice, men – and God it seems)

5. The most important attribute of God is not Holiness but Love (Never mind, you did your best)

Open Theism may be thought of as Arminianism taken a step further, a hyper-Arminianism. Arminianism is a 17th century movement, based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius. Arminius taught that election is based on God’s foreknowledge of who would believe in him. God chose those he foreknew would choose him. In this scheme God’s choices are not sovereign since they depend on our future choices.

Open Theism says that, since man has a libertarian free will, God cannot know the future choices we would make. If he did, those choices would be fixed and certain, meaning we cannot choose differently than what God foresees us choosing, thus robbing us of true, libertarian, free will

Consequently, we cannot change our future any more than we can our past. The freedom to change our minds is central to libertarian thinking. How, Open Theists ask, can we be held morally responsible for choices that are already fixed in God’s mind before we make them?

God is said to make informed, educated guesses, based on events as they unfold, and on his intimate knowledge of our characters. This sounds much like the educated guesses of parents anticipating the future actions of their children based on their intimate knowledge of their children. Open Theism seems to imagine God in the same way Pagan societies through history have imagined their gods; Like men, only with super powers.

It is important to understand, as we have seen, that the god of Open Theism can be said to be in process, becoming. He must be, since he comes to know something he did not know before; how we will decide. This god is very familiar to me, since it describes the god of Mormonism, who is an exalted man, much like the Pagan gods.

We are made in the image of God, but we are like God, he is not like us.

The problem here is they are confusing cause and effect in time with foreknowing in eternity. My future decision is still future to me, still my own decision. I may change my mind a thousand times over time but my final decision is known to God in eternity.

The fact God foreknows does not interfere with that cause and effect process, he only knows what I don’t yet know, he doesn’t determine what he knows and what I have yet to discover. The god of Open Theism is, by its own lights, subject to time, confined to the present, waiting to see what will happen.

This seems to me an attempt to ‘understand’ the tension between sovereignty and free will, a question that has troubled theologians and philosophers over the centuries. The problem here is, we have some understanding of our end of the equation but, as Calvin points out, we cannot possibly comprehend God’s perspective.

It is ironic that Open Theists charge the church with being taken captive to Greek philosophy when their 16th and 17th century Italian Humanist forebears drew on classical antiquity to focus on the nature and importance of humanity. When we begin with humanity we find ourselves lost because of the great limit of our knowledge and understanding. We end up with a ‘seems to me’ philosophy, a ‘my god wouldn’t do that’ theology, as though we are the measure of things eternal.

In the controversial Bread of Life chapter, John tells us:

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’…He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.’ John 6:5,6

Was Jesus surprised by the situation? We know he asked Philip because this was his stomping ground. Was Jesus saying, ‘Philip, you know this area, I don’t, help me here?’ God the Son knew what he would do, but from the disciples’ perspective he might have appeared at a loss.

When God began to answer the complaints of Job, he said:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ Job 38:2,3

Both Job and his friends had drawn conclusions about God and his ways from what they were able to observe in the world, from circumstances familiar to them; words without knowledge. God begins to challenge their presumption by asking Job, ‘Where were you when I [created, determined, measured, and prescribed]’

Isaiah wrote:

Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?’ Isaiah 40:13,14

The writer of Ecclesiastes writes:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. I Perceive that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live.’ Ecclesiastes 3:11,12

When Jesus, ‘…began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again…Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’’ Mark 8:31-33

These thoughts should bring us to a place of humble and reverent awe before an eternal, immutable, and impassable God, whose ways are inscrutable, but whose promises are sure, and who knows the end from the beginning, even our end.

For a closer look at Open Theism you can download Beyond the Bounds by John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth. There is plenty online from both sides of the argument, my only caution would be make sure you embrace what the Bible says and not what appeals to you.

An Apologetic:

It is not often Reachout Trust moves into the world of challenging Christian teachings and traditions, but looking around the church these days I have been drawn back to Paul’s words to believers in Philippi:

One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.’ (Philippians 3:13-6)

I have been asking, to what exactly are we holding true these days? What exactly are we leaving behind, straining forward to? The church seems to be carrying an awful lot of baggage, and abandoning a lot of valuable luggage.

Faith is a journey, of course, and on that journey we are at different stages of growth and maturity. Mature Christians see this and show grace in handling differences, in recognising the need for everyone, wherever they are on the journey, to ‘press on,’ bearing with one another, and determined to ‘hold true to what we have attained.’ What have we attained, and to what are we holding true?

We are a cult ministry, we defend the faith against openly cultic teachings, we educate the church in how to intelligently and biblically meet the challenges of error, and we challenge the claims of the cults. Over the years, when Reachout has wandered over into ‘in-church’ territory, many have insisted we stick to our remit and calling, and leave the church alone. (There are those who insist we shouldn’t be ministering at all, but that’s another story).

I have been aware for some time, however, of strange and heterodoxical ideas having entered and lodged in the church, ideas that trouble the saints, that challenge established Christian truths, those truths to which Paul urges us to hold true.

The church is essential to this ministry, and so what harms the church harms this ministry. Frankly, it is getting increasingly difficult to confidently recommend churches to former cult members seeking teaching and discipleship. Further, we are, ourselves, Christians and church members, and we personally have as great a stake as any in the ongoing battle for truth. Now and again we must say something, because to remain silent makes us complicit in error. And so we come to Open Theism.

Open Theism