I’m going to risk a very brief explanation of open theism in laymen’s terms. The advantage of a brief explanation is that it requires us to find the core, defining claim of the open view in contrast to positions that often get attributed to it but which aren’t essential per se. In this post I’d like to focus on the core, defining claim of open theism and in the next discuss three supporting convictions that all open theists hold to. Now, the disadvantage of using popular lay terms is that they tend to be imprecise while philosophical terms can be extremely precise, and with brief explanations we need precision. So we’ll have to make use of just a couple technical terms, but they’re easily understood along the way.
The defining claim of open theism states that the future is epistemically open for God so far as it is in fact causally open and epistemically closed for God so far as it is in fact causally closed. Now, that’s a mouthful, so let’s take it a step at a time. Some things about the future are presently ‘settled’. That is, given everything at present that has anything to do with influencing or bringing about the future, some things about the future are presently determined to be. You might say they’re inevitable given the present moment. That’s what’s meant by saying the future is causally closed. The causes and influences that presently exist limit future to a single possibility.
To say the future is causally open on the other hand is to deny that what occurs is inevitable or in some way determined by the past. That is, it’s to say that some event “might” happen and that it “might not” happen. A good way to think of this is to imagine the future in terms of a tree that branches out as you move up the trunk. We’re essentially saying there are a number of ways the future could turn out given the present moment. With a closed future we face a single branch or path that the future can take whereas with an open future we face a branching of possibilities. Lastly, it’s important to remember that open theists think the future is partly open and partly closed, not entirely one or the other.
Saying the future is partly (causally) open and partly (causally) closed isn’t very controversial. In fact, many non-open theists would thus far agree with me. The controversial, defining claim that open theists make is to say God’s knowledge of the future reflects the truth of the future’s being closed or open, whatever the case might be. So when we (and the Bible) describe the open future in terms of what “might” and “might not” be, our language doesn’t just describe what we don’t know about the future, as if we have to say it “might” turn out this way or that way because we don’t know the truth about the one path it will in fact take. Open theists attribute this “might” and “might not” to the way the world really is and how God knows it.
So to say the future is epistemically closed for God in some respect is to say God’s knowledge of how the future will turn out is also ‘settled’. For some (e.g., Calvinists), the future is exhaustively closed, so there’s only one determined route the future takes because God determines all things and determined that one route our world is to take. In this case God knows the future exclusively in terms of what “will” or “will not” occur. There aren’t any “might’s” and “might not’s” so far as the future is concerned. But for open theists who don’t think God determines everything and who think human beings exercise a certain freedom to choose (a freedom that’s incompatible with its determined by God), the question is: How does God know the open future? And here is where open theists make their unique claim mentioned above—where the future is in fact open, God knows it as open, and where the future is in fact closed (or settled), God knows it as closed. It’s really that simple. So for open theists the established belief that God eternally has a snap-shot or a single blueprint of exactly how the world’s history unfolds is false.
Is what we’re calling God’s epistemic openness (his knowledge of the open future in terms of what “might” and “might not” be) incompatible with divine omniscience? No, not if omniscience means God knows all truths, which is the established understanding of omniscience. The question is: What is the truth about an open future? Open theists differ on which theory of truth and semantics (which can be mind-numbing to study) they think best answers this question. One popular view (the one I hold to) claims that statements of what “will” occur where the future is in fact open are all false, for it is false to say of what “might not” occur that it “will” occur and equally false to say of what “might” occur that it “will not” occur. So on this view “might and might not” expresses the truth about the open future, the truth that an omniscient God would know. The thing to remember is that for non-open theist believers, God’s knowledge of the truth is expressed exclusively in terms of what “will” and “will not” occur. That’s the settled view that open theists challenge by arguing that God’s knowledge of the future should also include statements of the “might and might not” sort if in fact the future is open. For us, open theism is the only way to maintain that the future is in fact open and God is in fact omniscient.
Part two in this two-part series can be viewed here.
Tom Belt and his wife Anita live in Minneapolis, MN where he is Spiritual Life Pastor at Emmanuel Christian Center. Among other things he directs their Recovery Ministries. They were Assemblies of God missionaries in the Middle East for over 20 years. Tom has also been a frequent adjunct instructor in Bible/Theology and has his MTh from the University of Wales.