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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Does God Know Everything?

Don Stewart :: What Is the Open View of God?

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What Is the Open View of God? (Open Theism, Presentism, Relational Theism)

Does God Know Everything? – Question 4

Does God know everything which will happen in the future? Is His knowledge limited in some sense? Traditionally Christianity has emphasized that the God of the Bible knows everything exhaustively. This includes events of the past, those occurring in the present, as well as those which will occur in the future.

A New Controversy

However, this issue of the extent of the knowledge of God has become one of controversy among Bible believers. A relatively new perspective says that God’s knowledge does not extend to all future events. This movement is known by a variety of names such as the “open view of God,” “open theism,” “relational theism” and “presentism.”

It is called “open theism” because the future is open, not closed. Since the people who hold this view are Bible-believing Christians who argue that their perspective is actually taught in Scripture, it is important that we have an understanding of what they are saying on this most important of topics. Therefore, we will consider their view of God’s knowledge and other related subjects.

The Case for Open Theism

It is important to understand that open theists are not merely refining certain aspects of the traditional view of God which has been held by Christian theologians. Indeed, they are advocating an entirely new perspective on who God is, what He knows, and how He deals with humanity. They believe in a God who has limited knowledge of the future, who has limited control over what occurs, and who has give human beings complete freedom to determine their own destiny.

In their study of Scripture, open theists have made the following observations about God, His knowledge of the future, and His responses to certain events.

1. Which Speak of the Future as Unsettled

To begin with, open theists note that there are passages of Scripture which speak of what may happen in the future rather than what must happen.

For example, we read the following passage in Exodus.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17 NIV)

In this case, God led the people away from the Philistines because He was concerned that they may be afraid and want to return to Egypt.

We find the same type of uncertainness with respect to the future in the life of Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane,

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39 NRSV)

Jesus asked God the Father if another way, apart from the cross, was possible. This statement of Jesus means that the future is, in some sense, uncertain.

Consequently, from these and other passages, it is argued that the Bible teaches that the future is, in some sense, open.

Therefore, contrary to traditional belief, the future is not completely set or established. The future depends upon how human beings will freely act. Our decisions will determine what will occur in the future.

2. There Are Passages Where God Asks Questions about the Future

Not only is the future uncertain in many aspects, open theists point to passages where God actually asks questions about the future. In other words, even He Himself does not know what will happen. In the Book of Kings, the Lord asks the question as to who will entice Ahab. The Bible says,

“And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to march up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ So one was saying this and another was saying that.” (1 Kings 22:20 HCSB)

The Lord asked for advice as to who should cause or entice Ahab to march up and fall at Ramoth-gilead. Open theists assume that God, like the rest of us, does not know what will occur. Therefore, the uncertain future for humanity is unknown to everyone; including God.

3. Open Theists Cite Passages Where God’s Tested People to Discover Their Responses

Another indication of God’s limited knowledge concerns His testing of certain people to learn their response. In Scripture, we find examples God testing people to discover how they will react to the test.

When Abraham obeyed God after he was told to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, the Bible records this response of the Angel of the Lord, who is the Lord Himself.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12 NIV)

It was only when Abraham obeyed God that God realized that Abraham truly did fear God. Only when Abraham was about to offer up his son Isaac did God know that Abraham truly feared Him. Before this time, He did not know what Abraham would do.

These passages, when read at face value, teach us that God did not know the outcome. Therefore, He must be learning new things. He did not know how they would respond. This gives further testimony that the future is uncertain even to God.

4. Open Theists Cite Passages Where God Expresses Surprise

Not only had God tested people to determine how they would react, we also find that He is genuinely surprised by certain reactions. Indeed, open theists point to a number of passages where God seems genuinely stunned by the outcome of certain events.

For example, we read the following passage in Jeremiah.

“And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.” (Jeremiah 7:31 ESV)

The Lord says that the building of the high places in Topheth was something He never thought would happen. This is further indication that God has not pre-determined every event which will occur or that He even knows what will occur. He, like the rest of us, has to wait to find out what will happen.

Interestingly, not every one who holds to open theism believes God is necessarily surprised by what occurs. They argue that He knew all the possible things which could happen but He did not know which of these would occur. In that sense, He was surprised.

5. Open Theists Note Passages Where God Expresses Regret

There are also passages where God expresses feelings such as regret for past decisions. Scripture states God’s feelings as to why He sent the flood upon the earth.

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6 ESV)

Regret means that God has had second thoughts about previous decisions. Again, this teaches us that God did not know what was going to occur in certain instances. The events which did eventually happen caused God to regret some of the past decisions which He made.

Conclusions Drawn by Open Theists

Open theists generally make a number of conclusions about God’s knowledge, His character, and His control of events based on observations from these passages. We say, generally, because not all open theists agree with each other on every point of this belief system. Having said this, we can make the following basic points about the belief system of open theism.

1. God Has Limited Knowledge and Control of the Future

Open theists believe that the God of the Bible is all-knowing but they redefine what is meant by this. He knows everything which is possible to know but that does not include the future. They believe that His exhaustive knowledge is limited to the present and the past. Therefore when certain events occurred God was surprised by their outcome and has actually regretted some of His previous decisions.

2. Some Believe God Has Chosen to Have Limited Knowledge

Some of those who hold the open view argue that this idea of God having only limited knowledge of the future is something which He has chosen to do. While He could have created a world in which He determined every event ahead of time, God decided to create a universe where humans are completely free. Thus, the future is not entirely knowable to Him. This has also been called “dynamic omniscience.” Open theism believes that He has chosen to create we humans with a certain amount of freedom and this freedom does not allow Him to completely control us or even know what we are about to do. This was His choice.

3. God’s Sovereignty Should Not Be Equated with His Pre-Determining the Future

Consequently, they insist that we should not equate God’s sovereignty or control over things with the idea that He pre-determines every single event. God can choose any way He wishes to accomplish His purposes which is consistent with His character. Indeed, if God has chosen to create a world where His will is accomplished through the free choices of human beings then this is His absolute right to do so. We cannot insist He must work a certain way. If He relinquishes some of His control to humans so as to accomplish His purposes then we should accept that fact. It is certainly His right to do this.

Most, but not all, of those holding to the open view believe that it is not possible that God could give human beings complete freedom of choice and, at the same time, know exactly everything we are going to do in each instance. Therefore, either human freedom must be rejected or God’s absolute knowledge of the future must be rejected; we cannot believe both at the same time. Faced with this dilemma open theists argue that it is the teaching of God’s absolute foreknowledge which must be abandoned. They assume God’s complete foreknowledge of everything which will happen in incompatible with libertarian human freedom. In fact, some open theists say that it is impossible for both of these to be true at the same time.

Other open theists believe that it is possible that God could know the future free actions of humans yet He has chosen not to know them. Since God wanted to give complete freedom to people, He, on His own, chose not to know how people would behave in the future.

4. God’s Limited Knowledge Is Compared to His Power

This limited knowledge of God can be compared to His power. While He has all-power, God does not always choose to exercise it. In the same manner, while God has all-knowledge, at times, He chooses not to know certain things.

Other open theists believe that God does not know how human beings will react in the future but they don’t pretend to know why this is so. They are not certain whether He could know what they will do or whether He could not know. The Bible does not tell us. Therefore, they believe that the Bible teaches that God does not know how humans will act in the future but Scripture is silent on why this is the case.

Therefore, we do not have complete agreement among open theists on this matter of why God does not know each and every thing which will occur in the future.

Some open theists argue that God does know every possible thing which could happen in the future, however, He does not know which things will actually occur. Therefore, His knowledge is not limited as to what we may choose; He knows these possibilities. He just does not know what we will choose. This is because the future consists of free decisions and actions of humans. For God the future is fully unknown and unknowable.

Open theists agree that God sometimes unilaterally intervenes in the affairs of humanity but this is certainly not the norm. In other words, God has all the power that the traditional view attributes to Him but He usually chooses not to exercise that power. The reason that He holds back is because of the degree of freedom He has given to human beings. Again, we find that human freedom seems to be the dominant concern of God. He will not do anything to violate our freedom.

5. Humans Have Complete Freedom to Make Their Own Decisions

This brings us to our next point. Open theists strongly believe that we humans are absolutely free to make our own decisions; God will not generally interfere with our choices. This being the case, the interference of God in our affairs is minimal at best. Instead of the view that God has pre-ordained or determined every event which will occur, open theists argue that God has chosen to give us freedom to act any way in which we desire. This idea of complete freedom, also called libertarian freedom, is at the heart of the system of open theism. Therefore, God does not normally override our freedom unless there is an extraordinary reason for doing so.

6. God’s Main Attribute Is Love

We now come to one of the central beliefs of the system of open theism. Open theists think that the chief attribute, or characteristic, of God is love. This sums up who God is. He loves us and He wants us to love Him. However, if love is to be genuine, then it must be freely chosen. Consequently, God cannot and will not control our actions. He gives us real freedom to do whatever we desire. We have been made in such a way that we can please God with our actions or we can disobey Him. It is completely up to us.

Because God deeply love us, He is dynamically involved in the lives of human beings. The God of the Bible is not an aloof God who merely watches what occurs. God genuinely loves His creation and He is responsive to it. Indeed, God is responsive to the degree that He takes risks. In giving human beings freedom, He risks us disobeying Him and upsetting His plans. According to the open view, things do not always go as God has planned. This is the price of human freedom.

7. God’s Attributes Do Not Change but He Changes

The fact that God loves us, and has given us complete freedom to act, leads to another major belief of open theism. Open theists, along with those who hold the classical view of God, do not believe that God changes in His basic nature. He does not become more loving or more holy.

However, contrary to the traditional view, God’s actions do change based upon the response of humans. There is a give-and-take relationship between God and humans.

One example given by open theists is from the Book of Hosea. Scripture says that God rebukes His people for their spiritual adultery. In fact, He says that Israel is no longer His wife. We read the following words.

Rebuke your mother; rebuke her. For she is not My wife and I am not her husband. Let her remove the promiscuous look from her face and her adultery from between her breasts. (Hosea 2:2 HCSB)

The people moved away from the Lord in their behavior and commitment to Him. Consequently, the Lord did not consider them to be “His wife” any longer.

Because of their sin, the Lord makes a public disgrace of them.

Now I will expose her shame in the sight of her lovers, and no one will rescue her from My hands. (Hosea 2:10 HCSB)

This was the result of their sin. They brought this punishment on themselves.

However, we later find God reconciling with His people. Hosea wrote.

Therefore, I am going to persuade her, lead her to the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her...I will take you to be My wife forever. I will take you to be My wife in righteousness, justice, love, and compassion. I will take you to be My wife in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord. (Hosea 2:14, 19-20 HCSB)

These changing relationships shows that God’s actions change based upon the behavior of His people. However, God’s basic character or nature remains unchanged.

8. Prayers Do Make a Difference

All of these factors lead to another important aspect of open theism; the possibility of our prayers having a direct impact on the future. Prayer is seen as something which is of vital importance. Instead of the future being set, the future is open. Therefore, the things which we ask the Lord about really do make a difference. God has chosen to allow that some of His actions to be based upon our actions. This includes our prayers. In other words, He actually responds to our requests. This is in contrast to the idea that God determines everything ahead of time to the place where humans have no real say so.

9. God Exercises General Providence over Events

Open theism also says that God exercises “general sovereignty” over events rather than “specific sovereignty.” This means that He does not control or dictate everything which will happen ahead of time. While God’s nature does not change, His actions or strategies change based upon how we react. This is something which God has chosen to do because of His great love for humanity. It is certainly not because He cannot control all things. Yet He has set things in such a way that both He and humanity determine the future.

10. God Works with Humanity in Time He Is Not Timeless

Open theists reject the idea that God is timeless. They believe that He is subject to time like the rest of us and therefore, works with human beings in time. This also explains why He is not able to know what will occur in the future. It also explains why He has to change His plans when humans do not obey Him. He must choose another course of action.

11. God’s Limited Knowledge Is Not Demeaning His Character

Open theists argue that saying that God has limited knowledge is not something which demeans or lessens His character. We cannot expect God to do something which is logically impossible to do. As we mentioned, some open theists believe that it is not possible for God to exhaustively know the future and at the same time, to create human beings who are completely free to act as they please. They argue that exhaustive knowledge of the future is a logical impossibility with the world God has created.

However, they say that this is consistent with Christian belief. Christians recognize that God is all-powerful but this does not logically mean that He can do anything. All believers recognize that there are certain things which God cannot logically do.

For example, He cannot make a square circle; He cannot create a being which would destroy Him. He cannot do the logically impossible. In the same manner, He cannot know something which is logically impossible to know, the future. Therefore, we are not lessening God or His character by acknowledging that exhaustive knowledge of the future is not possible for God given the world which He has created.

12. Open Theists Believe They Have the Best Answer for the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil has plagued Christians from the beginning. How can a good God allow evil to exist? Is He lacking power to do something about it? Or is He powerful enough to rid the world of evil but not desiring to do so? In other words, God must be either a bad God or a God which is not all-powerful.

Open theism believes that it has a better answer to this question than the traditional or classical beliefs of Christians. Evil exists because a loving God has created creatures which are completely free. Since God did not want to interfere with our choices He gave us the choice to choose good or evil. Unfortunately, we chose evil. God did not choose it for us. According to some open theists, God did He know that this is what was going to occur. He assumed that humanity would choose to obey Him and live happily in the perfect world He created.

In conclusion, open theism sees history as not something which has been pre-determined or foreordained before the world was created. Instead, history is something which is open. Indeed, it is what we humans make of it. Therefore, we have the responsibility of obeying God’s Word and bringing about the sort of future which glorifies Him. Basically, it is up to us to bring about the best of all futures.

This is a short summary of the main beliefs of open theism. As we have emphasized, not every one who holds to open theism agrees with each other point-by-point. In addition, since open theism is a relatively new way of looking at God’s character, His knowledge, and His dealings with humanity, we will probably see further refinements from those who hold this position.

13. Open Theism Believes It Provides the Best Model for Understanding God’s Knowledge and Character

Open theists think that people today are seeking a more intimate relationship with God rather than believing in some Deity who is far removed from them. They believe their system meets that need in the God whom they present. Open theists conclude that their understanding of the nature of God provides the best model for understanding all of the biblical facts. They think that the traditional view of God has a number of deficiencies which must be made right. They assume that their system does this.

Summary – Question 4
What Is the Open View of God? (Open Theism, Presentism, Relational Theism)

In recent years, a new understanding about God’s knowledge and character has been put forward by some Bible-believing Christians. This model of God has been known as open theism, the open view of God, presentism, and relational theism. Basically, it says that the church has misunderstood much of the biblical teaching regarding the nature of God because it uncritically accepted certain assumptions Greek philosophy.

The traditional idea that God is an aloof monarch who is interested merely in His own glory and not in our human affairs and concerns is incorrect. When the Bible is actually read and studied on its own terms, the classical view of God will be seen to be deficient in a number of important ways. Therefore, a new understanding of His dealings with humanity is necessary. This correct understanding is the “open view” of God.

Among other things, open theism puts forward biblical arguments to state their case. They note that the Bible does not always portray the future as something which is settled. There are events which may or may not take place.

Furthermore, the Bible records that God Himself asks certain questions about future events. This indicates that the future is not only unsettled, even God does not know exactly what will occur. Open theists also cite passages where God tested His people to discover for Himself how they would respond to Him. This is another indication that He was not certain how they would react.

In addition, there are instances in Scripture of God actually regretting what He has done in the past because of the disappointing behavior of humans. He has had to alter His plan because of the disobedience of humans. Supposedly, God did not know they were going to act in this manner so He had to modify His plan accordingly.

Passages like these cause open theists to come to a number of conclusions about God, His knowledge, and His control of history. Generally speaking, we can sum up their main beliefs as follows.

Open theists are united in their belief that God has only limited knowledge of the future. While His knowledge of the past and present are exhaustive, He knows everything which has occurred and is occurring, He does not know everything which will occur in the future. The future is open, not closed.

Open theists believe that God could have created a world where He exhaustively knew what was going to occur by determining every event ahead of time. Yet He chose not to do this. Instead He created a world where humans are totally free. He neither pre-plans our responses neither does He know how we will respond. Consequently, the limitation of God’s knowledge of the future is something which is self-imposed.

Some open theists argue that it is impossible for God to have created a world where human beings are totally free if He knows ahead of time the outcome of their every act. In other words, God cannot have exhaustive knowledge of the future while, at the same time, human beings are free to act as they wish. It is either that God knows with certainty every event which will occur in the future or that humans have the freedom to do and act as they so desire. Yet, both cannot be true at the same time. If humans are given complete freedom to act, then the future must be unknown even to God.

The reason why God chose to create such a universe concerns His love for us. The open view of God believes that love is the main or defining attribute of God. Because God deeply loves humanity, He has given us the freedom to act. This freedom allows us to follow Him or reject Him. It is ultimately our choice.

While God’s basic attributes or characteristics do not change, He actions and attitudes do change based upon our behavior. God is the same God, He is no less loving or holy, and neither is He any more loving or holy. These attributes do not change. However, His actions do change. In this sense, God is a changing God.

Open theism insists that prayers become more meaningful in their system. Instead of the future being completely pre-planned or determined, the future is open. Therefore, the prayers of people can and do make a difference with how future events will unfold. Prayer should be looked at as something which can actually make things happen. This should encourage us to pray all the more. Because the future is not set, prayer does change things.

In keeping with their system, Open theists also maintain that God exercises general providence over events. He does not pre-determine everything which will happen but rather He exercises limited control. This makes our decisions both free and meaningful.

This view is certainly not unique to open theism. Many Bible-believing Christians who do not accept the system of open theism as being the best way to understand God and His dealings with humanity nevertheless also hold to the idea of general providence. They do not believe that every single event, thought, and deed has been pre-programmed by God. Therefore, we cannot equate this specific position of God’s providence with open theism. Indeed, many Bible believing Christians would accept the doctrine of God’s general providence as the best way of understanding how He operates with humanity.

In addition, the open view of God sees Him as working with human beings in time. He has restricted Himself to dealing with events moment by moment as they occur. He is time bound like His creation. The future is thus unknown to Him unless He unilaterally declares something must happen. According to open theists, this is something which He rarely does but something He certainly can do if He so desires.

Some open theists emphasize that their perspective on God does not demean His character because we cannot expect Him to know things which are not logical to know. Just as we do not expect God to be able to do the impossible, He cannot make a four-sided triangle, we should not expect Him to know the impossible, the future.

Finally, open theism contends that they have the best answer for the difficult problem of the existence of evil. Evil exists because God gave human beings the freedom to choose our own destiny. According to open theists, we chose to bring evil into the world. God did not choose if for us, and according to some open theists, God did not even know that we would choose to do so.

Therefore, the existence of evil cannot be blamed upon God. He gave the human race the right to choose for ourselves and we have created our own destiny in these choices.

This is a basic summation of the open view of God. Open theism sees itself as the best way to understand the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture. It believes that it answers questions that no other system adequately answers.

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