Open Theism

by Jimmy Akin

in Theology

A reader writes:

I’m a Protestant who is seriously considering the Catholic faith.  I’ve enjoyed, very much, listening to you on the Catholic Answers Live podcast.

Are you familiar with the controversy over open theism within evangelicalism?  How does Roman Catholic theology square with the view of God as envisioned by open theists?

I am familiar with the controversy, and Catholic theology would have significant problems with the overall picture of God painted by open theists. Historically, Catholicism has been very firm on the classical theism model.

For those who aren’t familiar with this distinction,

HERE’S A BACKGROUNDER.

That being said, not all aspects of open theism are equally problematic. The open theist’s assertion that humans have libertarian free will is something that Catholics would have not a problem with. What would be problematic is the inference that because humans have this kind of free will the future must contain things that God doesn’t know.

It is not true that knowing what someone will choose to do next year means that their choice is not the product of libertarian free will. From his perspective outside of time, God sees your future free will choices next year the same way he sees your current choices right now. Both "now" and "next year" are equally present to God, so if his seeing what your current choices are does  not deprive you of free will now then his simultaneously seeing what you are choosing next year does not deprive free will then either.

While open theists have made some interesting arguments regarding God’s omniscience (e.g., omniscience doesn’t require God to know things that are logically impossible to know the way omnipotence doesn’t require God to be able to do things that are logically impossible to do, like make square circles or stones too heavy for him to lift), these arguments are only relevant if God is inside of time and if certain theories about time are true. From an atemporalist perspective, the concerns they are meant to address simply don’t arise because God’s knowledge of the future is equally possible as his knowledge of the present and the past.

Once one recognizes God’s atemporality his immutability immediately falls out of this as a logical consequence.

Open theists’ language about God voluntarily limiting his exercise of power in order to allow free will in the universe can be taken in an orthodox sense (though only if it is understood that his exercise of the power–not the power itself–is what is limited). Something like that might seem to be necessary for free will to exist, and there is nothing unorthodox about saying that God can choose how far he’s going to do something. If he chooses to make beings with libertarian free will so that he doesn’t determine all their choices for them then that’s God’s choice.

The best argument that open theists have is why God allows evil if he has the power to stop it, and here we run into a matter that is significantly mysterious, though classical theists have a framework for answering it even if it does not exhaust the mystery.

An orthodox Catholic theologian would thus tend to view open theism as, to a significant extent, an attempt to alleviate the cognitive tension caused when man is confronted by the divine mystery by positing a God small enough that the mystery doesn’t arise (i.e., God doesn’t stop all evil instantly because he doesn’t have the power to do so).

There are thus a few individual aspects of open theism that could be harmonized with Catholic thought but the system as a whole posits a view of God that would not at all be favorably received.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ articulation of classical theism has been the standard Catholic account for centuries, and the First Vatican Council taught:

The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, creator and lord of heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding and every perfection.

Since he is one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, he must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in himself and from himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides himself which either exists or can be imagined [Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. 1].

Hope this helps!

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{ 29 comments }

Adam D July 7, 2006 at 8:18 pm

The open theist’s assertion that humans have libertarian free will is something that Catholics would have a problem with.
You must have meant “The open theist’s assertion that humans have libertarian free will is something that Catholics would not have a problem with.”

Justin July 7, 2006 at 8:25 pm

It should be noted that Molinism itself holds to Libertarian-Free will based on God having Middle-knowledge and knowing every and all actions one could take but forknowing all actual choices and all possible choices. This is called the Counter-factuals of human Freedom. Molinism posits that God’s middle Knowledge could fail but won’t fail as if we had done differently, God would’ve known differently.

Jimmy Akin July 7, 2006 at 8:39 pm

You must have meant “The open theist’s assertion that humans have libertarian free will is something that Catholics would not have a problem with.”
Correct. Thanks for the catch. Problem fixed.

AnotherCoward July 7, 2006 at 9:04 pm

An orthodox Catholic theologian would thus tend to view open theism as, to a significant extent, an attempt to alleviate the cognitive tension caused when man is confronted by the divine mystery by positing a God small enough that the mystery doesn’t arise (i.e., God doesn’t stop all evil instantly because he doesn’t have the power to do so).

How do you reach the conclusion that an orthodox Catholic theologian would be certain that an Open Theist is “positing a God small enough”? Everything you said prior grants Open Theism room in orthodoxy … and it would seem that you’re implying if not outrighly stating that Open Theism is outside of orthodox belief in this singular paragraph in your entire post.
If you mean orthodox in the sense of “common, accepted” belief, that’d be one thing … but it would seem like you are using orthodox in more the sense of legitimate and proper belief.
I don’t think Open Theism explicitly states God is power-less to prevent evil – and while some Open Theists do hold to that view, not all do (in fact, some would adhere to the classic view that God allows the free choice of people to perform evil so that a greater possible good that He has predetermined can come about … God is always working to the good, even if we are not). It seems like you’ve set up a straw man to simply say that Open Theism has “issues”, but you haven’t really dealt with any.

Rosemarie July 8, 2006 at 5:51 am

+J.M.J+
Open Theism sounds a lot like what I heard in Evangelicalism. They told me that:
a) God needs us, and our praise and worship “ministers unto Him” (i.e. fulfills His need of our praise),
b) God feels hurt when we sin,
c) God literally forgets our sins after we repent by “choosing not to exercise His Omniscience” in that area, and
d) the Holy Spirit is the “resident Member of the Trinity on earth”, since the Father is only present in Heaven and the Son is up there at His right hand.
(A variation on the last one stated that all Three Persons were once omnipresent, but God the Son permanently limited His presence to His human nature when He became incarnate. So He was present only on earth during His earthly life and is now present only in Heaven at the Father’s right hand.)
In Jesu et Maria,

Jeb Protestant July 8, 2006 at 7:01 am

Rosemarie,
Say what you want about open Theism, it doesn’t have much to do with historical evangelicalism. Even the Evangelical Theological Society, which has been veering toward the left almost since it was created, voted to condemn Open Theism.
Open Theism has much more in common with process theology than Evangelicalism. Numerous evangelicals such as John Piper, Bruce Ware and John Frame have written critiques of open theism.

AnotherCoward July 8, 2006 at 8:54 am

I think a major problem with Open Theism is that there isn’t one official school of thought – a problem I think that stems (1) from it originating in Protestantism and (2) it being so young. You’ve got some folks that veer dramatically towards unorthodoxy like some of the views mentioned here, but you’ve also have some folks who are trying to understand the reality of God’s determinism and man’s freedom in a consistent, cohesive system that stays true to orthodox terminology. It’s still a new school of thought, and I think because it’s new it gets short shrift. It’d be pretty simple to shutdown if someone can point to an authentic break in orthodoxy in the premise of Open Theism (many possible futures, only one reality), but I’ve not seen anyone actually do that.
There’s a tendency amongst serious thinkers of classical theology to state that God’s Omniscience limits the possibilities of human history to a singular timeline. If there’s only one singular timeline which we must play out like puppets, then we’re not really exercising freedom – we’re just going about the dance steps God gave us even though we may think we’re doing it ourselves.
In order for us to be able to exercise authentic freedom, then there must be many possible timelines of which only one becomes real – and it only becomes real as we make our choices. This is the problem that Open Theists are tackling: Can we adopt such a view (many possible realities, only one reality) within the confines of classical theology and how?
In order to tackle such a problem, a lot of the accepted thought and understanding behind classical theology has to be stretched a little and opened up. For instance, the notion that God knows what will happen in the future is classically understood that God knows what singular future is in store. But is it acceptable that God knows and has planned for any number of possibilities that may come about as a result of our choices?
I’ve not really seen anyone sufficiently answer that question with a “no, and here’s why”. Oh, I’ve seen people say that “Augustine says this, Aquinas says that, Molina thought of things a little different” … but that’s just regurgitating history and not dealing with the problem that (orthodox) Open Theists are asking and which Augustine, Aquinas, and Molina as best as I can tell didn’t cover. I’d like to know how Open Theism (many possibilities, one reality) actually breaks orthodox definitions of God and existence.

Jay E. Adrian July 8, 2006 at 10:51 am

AC,
The specific position on future that you cite is neither a identical with Open Theism nor a defining point of it.
The “issues” with Open Theism have to do with properties of God. Unfortunately, you can’t fall back on dogmatic statments about the existence of God because there haven’t been any.
Regarding the specific issue at hand, it all depends upon where we begin in our understanding of the nature of God. If you begin by placing God within time and try to work out his foreknowledge, you will run into problems. If you recognize that God is atemporal (as the ground of not only time, but all being), then the problem doesn’t exist. God is NOT a being in time who knows the future.

MenTaLguY July 8, 2006 at 11:07 am

In other words, it’s not an issue of God knowing our future in advance, but rather directly experiencing it in the same present in which he also experiences our past and present. God doesn’t know our choices before we do (from His perspective), it’s simply that all our choices throughout history are immediately present to Him at once.

Puzzled July 8, 2006 at 11:20 am

b is true, but the rest seem not consistant with Scripture, to say the least in some cases.
Open Theism makes God out to be finite in time, thus not the God of monotheism, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Ba’hai or Zoroastrian. It appears to be a form of temporal henotheism. Or perhaps they are not being clear enough in what they say.
Jeb,
JETS didn’t expel the Open Theists from their midst, so some of the better men left it.
Another, Roman Catholicism doesn’t have one school of thought, either.
William Lane Craig has done a lot of good work with Molinism, but it is way above my head. The novelist Connie Wills has done perhaps far better in her novel _To Say Nothing of the Dog_. When you add a Theistic interpretation of the Copenhagen model to the mix, it starts to make a lot of sense.
And if there is a form of compatibilism we can actually kind of understand, and where Scripture says things that can only fit compatibilism, compatibilism must be true, no matter what the Calvinists/Thomists/Augustinians say on the one hand, or the Arminians or Open Theists say on the other hand.
Or so it seems to me.
Does that seem heretical to the Roman See?
Why do Roman theologians seem to insist that God experiences no thought, communication, will, or anything else dependent upon sequence? Does that go back to Plato and Aristotle, or to Einstein?

MissJean July 8, 2006 at 8:45 pm

When I was younger, I kind of figured that God looks at the present and the future as a lake in a rainstorm. Each action, whether a conscious decision on a human’s part or a sparrow falling, is a raindrop striking the water. Each ripple would affect the surface (and below, too) and have an effect on other ripples in the water. Unlike us, who have only a limited perspective and ability to calculate how one event will affect others, God sees the entirety. He sees each individual drop forming above the whole lake and anticipates how each drop’s effects will be felt in the lake or be countered by another drop, going into infinity.

Geoff July 8, 2006 at 9:07 pm

To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite books.
I have discussed open theism with an advocate, and his stock response seemed to be to blame the standard position on Greek philosophy, as if that somehow made it wrong.

Kevin Jones July 8, 2006 at 9:36 pm

“Once one recognizes God’s atemporality his immutability immediately falls out of this as a logical consequence.”
Speaking of time, has anybody ever made useful distinctions between “chronos” and “kairos” in Greek Christian thought? Remember, Chronos was a god who devoured his children, sometimes bearing the epithet “all-aging.”

Rosemarie July 9, 2006 at 12:49 pm

+J.M.J+
>>>Say what you want about open Theism, it doesn’t have much to do with historical evangelicalism. Even the Evangelical Theological Society, which has been veering toward the left almost since it was created, voted to condemn Open Theism.
That’s good to hear.
Of course, none of the Evangelicals who told me that stuff ever actually called it “open theism”. They just presented it as what they believed was true according to their interpretation of Scripture. I’m just pointing out the striking similarities between what they told me and “open theism”.
But there was admittedly one glaring difference – none of them would ever have denied God’s omnipotence, as “open theism” sometimes does. In fact, my youth leader once asked the group an interesting question: “If God can do anything, can he commit evil?” We were all stumped, so he gave us the following answer: “Yes, God could commit evil, but He won’t because He is Good.”
Well, it wasn’t the right answer, but the youth leader was actually attempting to uphold Divine Omnipotence (in an odd sort of way….)
In Jesu et Maria,

Jon July 10, 2006 at 11:08 am

Here’s the rub.
Let’s grant God is outside of time. He knows what we will freely do because he sees us doing it in an eternal now. That’s fine. But here’s the problem. Isn’t omniscience a necessary attribute of God? If it is, then his knowledge can’t be dependent on anything outside himself. It’s like what he knows depends on what I decide to do. Not chronologically, but logically. That’s a problem, because that means what he knows he doesn’t know with necessity. But omniscience is a necessary attribute of God. How is that one resolved?
When I was a Christian I subscribed to Geisler’s explanation of it all. He tried to salvage free will and God’s omniscience with phrases like “God knowlingly determines and determinately knows.” The more I delved in to it though the more confused it seemed. It seemed you either had to deny free will or deny omniscience. I read a book by Garrigou Lagrange called Predestination, which explained the Thomistic position and I read it to be more in the direction of denying free will.

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 11:18 am

Hassidic thought is more profound
look into G-D’s nature at
chabad.org
or
askmoses.com
or for more profound insigts if one is mathematically literate or knows Hebrew:
http://www.inner.org
for the more practical or translated into American
http://www.meaningfullife.com

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 11:43 am

All you fools assume to know God, it is a MYSTERY,
I believe in God but I cannot define by the Classical definition of theism in Catholicism
HE IS BEYOND OUR DEFINITION and UNDERSTANDING EXCEPT by what He (or She) or It wants us to know
so we are COMPLETELY DEPENDENT–which sounds great but there is NO LOGICAL CERTAINTY
go forward in describing God with a lot of doubt and uncertainty

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Jon-
Every kind of knowledge is “dependent” on the thing being known. This is no limit to God’s omniscience, at all.
He knows everything that can be known, that’s the definition of omniscience. God does not go begging for things to know, He never waits to “learn” anything.
There is a relationship between the knower and the known, of course, but I think you have it backward… in order for anything to exist, it must have been in the mind of God from all eternity… does this preclude free will? No, because He created and foresaw that, too.
For ME this is a mystery, because I experience things sequentially. We can’t know or explain what it is like to know everything at once. God created everything… He knew about all my choices before I existed… his knowledge is real and my choices are real.

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 12:36 pm

How do we know Gods real nature except through God. It becomes circular reasoning.
Certainly logic leads us to the existence of something beyond ourselves AND more specifically a Creator God (Aristotle et. al. demonstrate this to me sufficiently) BUT the exact nature of God is a mystery

Jonathan Prejean July 10, 2006 at 1:31 pm

“Isn’t omniscience a necessary attribute of God? If it is, then his knowledge can’t be dependent on anything outside himself. It’s like what he knows depends on what I decide to do. Not chronologically, but logically. That’s a problem, because that means what he knows he doesn’t know with necessity. But omniscience is a necessary attribute of God. How is that one resolved?”
You’ve assumed a connection that is not logically necessary; namely, that God’s knowledge of what I do depends on what I do. But that isn’t necessarily true, and it simply assumes the contrary of your first premise (that God’s knowledge can’t be dependent on anything outside Himself). If it is the case that God’s knowledge is not dependent on anything outside Himself, then it doesn’t follow that His knowledge of anything, including the free actions of human beings, is dependent on those actions, meaning that the necessity of His omniscience does not turn on what He actually knows (likewise, the necessity of His will is not dependent on the objects that He creates; God is free to create or not).
See, e.g..:
http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1151114734.shtml
More or less, you’re just begging the question as to whether God can know things without being dependent on anything outside of God.

Moshe July 10, 2006 at 2:02 pm

What does traditional Judaism teach? Wouldn’t that be controlling or at least influential on the concept of G-d as in G-d the father, G-d the Creator, the G-d of Abraham

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 2:21 pm

If the Reformed are right and determinism is true, then in a sense God’s knowledge is not “dependent.” For instance if I initiate a collision of ping pong balls and I understand precisely what the reaction of one ball hitting the other is, then it’s not really independent of me because I’m the efficient cause of the motion.
However, if I’m not sure which direction the balls will go (i.e. if ping pong balls have liberterian free will) then I have to wait and look to see what will be true. Now I’m really dependent on non-necessary beings for my knowledge, and therefore perfect knowledge is not a necessary attribute of mine.
I understand that God is outside of time, and hence doesn’t “wait” to see what will happen in a chronological sense, but logically he does wait. His knowledge is dependent.
To Jonathan:
You’re right that it isn’t necessarily the case that God’s knowledge is dependent on what I do. Calvinist could be right. Determinism could be true. But if I am the efficient cause of my actions, then God is dependent on me, the efficient cause, to know what will be true (that I will eat tuna today instead of chicken). You state otherwise. You state that what he knows does not depend on what I choose. But I don’t see that you’ve given any reasons for thinking that. Could I have chosen chicken today instead of tuna? Yes or no? If yes, then logically what God would know would have been different. Logically it is dependent on what I choose. If no, then you are a Calvinist and you escape the dilemma. But of course you expose yourself to many more.

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 2:49 pm

The Calvinist dilemma seems to me is that God is a very cruel God to PREDETERMINE, to create souls that are predetermined, not by choice or free will, but predetermined to spend ETERNITY (not just a weekend) in HELL (Separation from God, Truth, Beauty, Fire, Pain, Torment)
FOREVER, predetermined, that God created them just to be TORTURED

Anonymous July 10, 2006 at 3:04 pm

“I understand that God is outside of time, and hence doesn’t “wait” to see what will happen in a chronological sense, but logically he does wait. His knowledge is dependent.”
But ALL knowledge, by definition “depends” on the thing known. Your just stating what knowledge is, at least from a human perspective.
God is utterly simple, though, as well as being totally imminent… it would be hard to say that His knowledge is “caused” by the thing known. You might just as rightly say that His knowledge is what causes things to be. Being the Creator and Sustainer of all things, His Knowledge and the “thing known” may not be really seperate in the way that we are accustomed to thinking.
The ping-pong ball analogy, I think, falls short because ping-pong balls don’t make choices. There is only one way that a particular ping-pong ball can respond when acted upon. If God made us Choosing Beings, then we are not like ping-pong balls.
If I know everything, and decide to make a maze, and put a mouse in the maze, I may know how the mouse will respond, I may know where it will go and when, but that does not make the choices that the mouse makes invalid or unreal. They are very real choices to the mouse.
The fact that it’s choices are conditioned by it’s mousy nature, or by the structure of the maze does not mean that they are not real choices. NO choice can EVER be completely unconditioned, as if to take place in a vacuum.
The fact that we can’t distill the whole thing (God’s will and ours existing together) into a simple logical statement or philosophical structure doesn’t mean that it isn’t true… just an admission that it is a mystery, that God comprehends what we can’t, and that He is Beyond Reckoning.
If I could wrap my brain around it, it would be a dull universe, indeed.

Tim J. July 10, 2006 at 3:05 pm

Sorry, that last was me.

Jonathan Prejean July 10, 2006 at 4:50 pm

“You’re right that it isn’t necessarily the case that God’s knowledge is dependent on what I do. Calvinist could be right. Determinism could be true.”
You’re misunderstanding me. I’m saying that you’ve already assumed a causal model of knowledge that need not hold, exactly as Calvinists do.
“But if I am the efficient cause of my actions, then God is dependent on me, the efficient cause, to know what will be true (that I will eat tuna today instead of chicken).”
That assumes the conclusion that God cannot be the cause of actions of which you are the efficient cause, which is precisely the point under question. God causes things under a different mode; He knows things under a different mode (Calvinism renders the creature/creator distinction meaningless by making the modes of causation exclusive of one another, one of the numerous reasons I consider Calvinism silly). You’re just rehashing the same question that you begged before.
“You state otherwise. You state that what he knows does not depend on what I choose. But I don’t see that you’ve given any reasons for thinking that.”
But that’s not what I claimed to do. I can certainly give reasons why I believe that a metaphysically simple God exists (and indeed, why I think that it is absurd to even pretend that there are “reasons” for anything if He doesn’t), but I was only addressing your position that knowledge of something establishes a logical dependence between the knower and the known. That’s simply an assertion, and you haven’t made an argument to the effect that it is true.
“Could I have chosen chicken today instead of tuna? Yes or no? If yes, then logically what God would know would have been different. Logically it is dependent on what I choose.”
Non sequitur. All that says is that what would have been known would have been different, not why it would have, which is why the dependence relationship you assert doesn’t follow from the premises. Again, you assume that your being the efficient cause of your action excludes God being the cause of your action, which is simply gratuitous. If that isn’t true (and as I said, I have no reason to believe it is), then it’s perfectly acceptable to say that the reason God’s knowledge is different is God’s causation, not yours.
“If no, then you are a Calvinist and you escape the dilemma. But of course you expose yourself to many more.”
On the contrary, Calvinism creates the dilemma, because it takes the position that an agent being an efficient cause of his own action (in the libertarian sense) excludes concurrent divine causation of the action. That is the root of numerous absurd consequences that Calvinism entails. You don’t need to sell me on the absurdity of Calvinism, but it is absurd for denying the same things you deny for no logical reason.

Jon July 11, 2006 at 2:22 pm

Jonathan,
Can you explain what you mean when you say God “causes things in a different mode”? We know of different types of causes. What type of cause is God?
A concrete example would probably help. For instance, suppose I choose to speed in my car. I’m the efficient cause. The vehicle is the material cause. The concept of speeding is the formal cause. Being late for work is the final cause. In what sense is God the cause? And how does your sense of God’s causation demonstrate that God’s knowledge is not dependent on me?
You claim I’m begging the question when I say that since I’m the efficient cause God’s knowledge is dependent on me. I disagree. Here’s why. All I’m asking when I ask who the efficient cause is, who determines my course of action? If it is me then it can’t be God. If it is God it can’t be me. It can’t be both. Why? Because that is the nature of efficient causes in our experience. If you want to argue that for some reason God is an exception, then the burden is on you to show why God is an exception to the general rule. Explain why it must be. This is what you haven’t bothered to do. You just state that God is a cause in a different mode, but you don’t explain the mode or explain how this absolves the problem. This you need to do.
Note that praise and blame are assigned to efficient causes, so if I sin and both God and I are the efficient cause, then God is to blame for my sin. Consider the speeding analogy. Does the material cause get the ticket (the metal that comprises the car), or the concept of me being late for work? No. I get the ticket. I am the efficient cause.
One other side comment. The computer is an imperfect form of communication and perhaps I’m reading you wrong, but you sound a little angry in your posts. Don’t be. I could totally be wrong and if my arguments are poor or if I’m missing the point I apologize. I have no horse in this race. Now that I’m not a Christian I’m just trying to figure out what I think about God. I’m not a determinist. C.S. Lewis has an argument in his book “Miracles” that pretty much annhialates it in my opinion. But I do appreciate the determinists objections and I want to give them their due. It’s a tough issue.

MissJean July 11, 2006 at 9:44 pm

I’m jumping back in here with a thought that makes sense to me. One of my nephews is working with probability in mathematics. His father used to work with CAD and simulation technology, basically to troubleshoot in his company’s R&D department. Both deal with human’s limited ability to predict outcomes. But God’s view sees all potential action and reaction, on into infinity. I have the free will to punch my brother in the face, but God isn’t waiting on me to decide whether to do it – He’s capable of seeing how my choice affects events and other people before I even make the choice.

Spencer October 23, 2007 at 8:37 am

irke. this is driving my head nuts but it is all very interesting. i think i have to say i should read over this again, its all head splitting.

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