Do Relationships Require Risk?: A Response to Open Theism
1 Introduction: What is open theism?
Open theism is a system of theology which denies God’s exhaustive foreknowledge in favor of libertarian free will. Open theists believe that God does not know and cannot know future human decisions. Open theists do affirm that God is omniscient; however, they define omniscience as knowing everything that can be logically known, and they claim that future human decisions cannot logically be known.
In contrast to open theism, classical theism is the belief that God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive. Classical theists believe that God knows all future human decisions. In general, classical theists are divided between Reformed theists (i.e., Calvinists) who deny libertarian free will and Arminians who affirm libertarian free will.
My philosophy professor Dr. Michael Peterson teaches open theism as being the best philosophical and theological position in his classes PH501 “Philosophy of Christian Religion” and PH600 “Suffering, Tragedy, and Christian Faith.” Although Peterson sometimes sounds uncertain whether God’s foreknowledge is or is not exhaustive, at other times he implies that he affirms the open theist’s doctrine that God does not know future human decisions. During one class period, Peterson mentioned that he is “not-with-no-divine-foreknowledge,” meaning that he is not opposed to the idea that God has no foreknowledge, but a few minutes later, he said that he tends to lean towards there being credibility in the open view regarding God’s omniscience.
2 Do relationships require risk?
A core doctrine of open theism is the proposition that relationships require risk. Peterson adamantly teaches in PH600 that relationships require risk. He specifically mentioned in class that he agrees with his friend and fellow philosopher William Hasker that risk is necessary in relationships. Immediately thereafter, Peterson warned his students that if one affirms God’s foreknowledge, then one may be willing to give up the idea that relationships imply risk. Furthermore, Peterson said that if God knows future human decisions, then He can “rig the system” to get what he wants. If God knows future human decisions, then God’s relationship with humanity is not very risky. Divine foreknowledge waters down or eliminates the element of risk in God’s relationship with humanity. Consequently, foreknowledge weakens God’s relationality with humans.
3 Relationships do not require risk.
On the contrary, I propose that relationships do not require risk. Risk is not always necessary in relationships. Relationships can be significant and meaningful without the element of risk. Consequently, God can know future human decisions and still engage in perfectly meaningful relationships with humans.
After Peterson finished teaching that relationships require risk, I raised my hand and asked Peterson, “If relationships require risk, then is there any risk in the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity?” With laughter in his voice, Peterson immediately exclaimed, “I wish you hadn’t asked that question because I don’t have a clear answer!” He acknowledged that my question is a good point because it messes with the logic of “relationships require risk.” I proposed to Peterson, “The Persons of the Trinity have adequately enjoyed relationships with each other from eternity free from risk. Therefore, God can adequately enjoy relationships with His creation (e.g., us human beings) free from risk.”
God is a necessary being. Indeed, God is the only necessary being. This means that God alone has existed from all eternity. God alone is uncreated. He has always existed and he cannot cease to exist. God is also triune. He exists as one divine substance in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From all eternity, the three persons of the Trinity have existed in a perfectly loving relationship with each other. Being of the same divine essence, the three persons of the Trinity know each other perfectly well. They can trust each other completely, having no fear of the risk of a broken relationship. There is absolutely no element of risk involved in the inter-trinitarian relationships. From all eternity, the three members of the trinity have enjoyed perfect relationships with each other completely free from risk. Consequently, risk-free relationality is an eternally necessary reality.
By contrast, risky relationships are not necessary but contingent. All beings, except for God, are contingent beings. We humans are contingent beings because we were created by God, and we depend upon God for our existence. Inter-human relationships always involve risk because humans do not possess knowledge of the future decisions of other humans. Being finite, humans clearly do not possess exhaustive foreknowledge of other humans’ decisions. Indeed, humans cannot know with absolute certainty any possible future decision from another human being. Furthermore, God created humans with libertarian freedom, allowing humans to choose to do good or evil. Consequently, humans can be unfaithful in their relationships with each other. Due to free will, humans can betray each other’s trust. In summary, because humans have libertarian freedom and lack foreknowledge, all inter-human relationships involve risk. Thus, human relationality is risky, but human relationality is contingent rather than necessary. Thus, risky relationships are contingent rather than necessary.
Now, one could also contend that a certain measure of risk is involved in human relationships with God. Because humans are finite and contingent, we cannot know with absolute certainly that God’s promises contained in His Word are true. Faith is always required in every human relationship with God to trust that God is faithful and true. Consequently, human relationships with God could be viewed as involving a certain measure of risk. However, this measure of risk is not qualitatively the same as the risk involved in inter-human relationships. Due to the witness of God’s Spirit, humans can be confident in the veracity of God’s Word and the promises therein. God’s Spirit can assure us that we are saved and are living in a right relationship with God (cf. Rom 8:15). Furthermore, faith in God’s Word informs us that God is not capricious or fickle. He will never betray us or abandon us. Rather, God is always faithful, reliable, and trustworthy. While faith must still be exercised by us humans to trust that God’s promise of our future resurrection and glorification is true, this faith is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and this faith is affirmed by God’s own Spirit bearing witness with our spirits. Thus, the “risk” involved in human relationships with God is ontologically different from and qualitatively less risky than the risk involved in inter-human relationships.
In summary, risk is an inescapable aspect of all inter-human relationships. Also, a certain type of risk is present in human relationships with God, albeit mitigated by faith and the witness of the Spirit. However, this reality does not necessarily imply that risk is always required in all relationships. As demonstrated above, the inter-trinitarian relationships are completely risk-free. If the three persons of the Trinity can relate to each other perfectly well without any element of risk, then I propose that God can relate with us humans perfectly well without any element of risk. Thus, God can know humans perfectly and completely, including all future human decisions, without lessening the meaning or significance of His relationship with us humans.
4 Other Problems with Open Theism.
The reality that relationships do not require risk is not the only problem with open theism. Open theism suffers from numerous problems including inconsistent reasoning (i.e., fallacies), lack of biblical support, lack of historical support, and theological issues.
4.1 Open theists use inconsistent reasoning.
First, open theists use a double-standard or logical inconsistency in their arguments. On the one hand, open theists teach that the church has been corrupted by Greek philosophy when it affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. But on the other hand, open theists use Greek philosophy to support their own position!
Peterson taught in PH600 that there is “Greek baggage” in the church’s view on divine omniscience. He also said that there is a mix of Greek elements in the church’s view of God’s foreknowledge. Afterwards, Peterson mentioned Boethius’s view of the timelessness of God, and he likewise condemned the doctrine of divine timelessness as being a bad view with Greek baggage which the church should not have added to its doctrines. Peterson’s remarks correspond with other open theists. Open theists claim that the reason why the majority of Christians throughout church history have affirmed God’s exhaustive foreknowledge is because the church has been erroneously influenced by pagan Greek thought. Consequently, Christians should rid such pagan Greek influences from its theology by denying God’s foreknowledge of human decisions.
However, open theists actually use Greek philosophy to support their denial of God’s foreknowledge! Shortly after protesting about how the church has been unduly influenced by Greek philosophy, Peterson cited Aristotle (specifically, Aristotle’s famous essay regarding a hypothetical future ship battle) to support his view that future tense propositions cannot have any truth value. Since future tense propositions have no truth value, they cannot be logically known, even by God Himself. Thus, God cannot know future human decisions. It is logically inconsistent for open theists to approvingly cite Greek philosophers who support their position while accusing classical theists of being unduly influenced by Greek philosophy.
Furthermore, open theist William Hasker provides a philosophical argument in favor of open theism. His argument, which I call the “omelet” argument, allegedly proves that God’s foreknowledge is not exhaustive. Yet, his argument is nothing more than a rehash of Cicero’s philosophy: that it is impossible for God to know future libertarian decisions. (For a rebuttal of Hasker’s “omelet” argument, see my article “Must Clarence Eat the Omelet?: A Response to Open Theism.”)
Can open theists honestly claim that their position is less Hellenistic and more biblical than classical theism? Why should anyone believe that the vast majority of Christian leaders throughout church history have been duped by pagan Greek philosophy, when they should have been studying the Bible, but open theists are immune to influences from Greek philosophy? Perhaps open theists are unduly influenced by Greek philosophy when they deny God’s foreknowledge?
While most of the Greeks held views contrary to open theism, there were some Greek philosophers who held views similar to open theism such as Cicero and Aristotle. Indeed, open theist John Sanders acknowledges that Cicero held a view similar to open theism saying, “Thus if humans have free will, says Cicero, then God does not foreknow what they will choose.” Sanders mentions that the church was not influenced by Cicero’s view, but he provides no evidence to explain why “Cicero’s views would not become widely influential.” Why was the church influenced by those Greek philosophers who affirmed God’s exhaustive foreknowledge rather than those who denied God’s exhaustive foreknowledge?
Open theists are responsible for providing sufficient evidence and warrant to support their claim that classical theists have been influenced by Greek philosophy rather than the Bible in affirming God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Without sufficient evidence or warrant, open theists are guilty of committing the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (“before this; therefore because of this”). This fallacy claims that if “A” came before “B,” then “A” must have caused or influenced “B.” Open theists imply that because the Greeks believed in exhaustive divine foreknowledge before the early church existed, then the early church must have derived their doctrine of exhaustive divine foreknowledge from the Greeks.
4.2 Biblical evidence supports classical theism.
In addition to the inconsistent reasoning employed by open theists, much biblical evidence contradicts open theism. Predictive prophecies and New Testament passages speaking of God’s foreknowledge of the Fall and His knowledge of those who will be saved indicate that God knows future human decisions. Examples of biblical prophecies involving human decisions include the prophecies regarding Josiah, Cyrus, the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus, Peter’s denial of Jesus, and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus
Over three hundred years before Josiah was born, his name was prophesied along with his action “to desecrate the altar by burning the bones of pagan priests on it.” Isaiah prophesied that Cyrus would deliver the Israelites from captivity (cf. Is 44:28-45:1). Micah 5:2 predicts that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Now, God could have easily filled this prophecy by conceiving His Son in a woman living in Bethlehem; however, God chose to conceive his Son in Mary who lived ninety miles away in Nazareth. Why would Mary travel ninety miles to Bethlehem, especially while being pregnant? The census which Caesar Augustus enacted required Mary to travel to Bethlehem because she was betrothed to Joseph, and Joseph was from the lineage of David (Luke 2:1-5). The fact that God chose to incarnate His Son in a woman living in Nazareth, despite the Micah 5:2 prediction indicates that God knew the decision of Caesar Augustus to enact this census which led to Mary and Joseph’s decision to travel the long and treacherous 90 miles to Bethlehem.
All four gospels mention that Jesus knew and taught His disciples about His own future execution. Furthermore, Acts 2:23 declares that God foreknew Jesus’s death, which was the result of numerous sinful human decisions. Jesus predicted that all His disciples would abandon Him (cf. Mt 26:31; Mk 14:27), and Jesus very specifically predicted that Peter would deny Him three times. Both the prediction and the fulfillment of Peter’s denial are mentioned in all four gospels. Jesus was confident that Peter would deny Him three times even though Peter was confident that he would not (cf. Mt 26:33-35; Mk 14:27-30). Furthermore, Luke’s gospel indicates that Jesus was also confident that Peter would repent (cf. Lk 22:32). Regarding Judas’s betrayal, Roy notes, “Each of the Synoptics records Jesus’ prediction that Judas would betray him (Mt 27:20-25; Mk 14:18-21; Lk 22:21-23).” These prophecies involving numerous human decisions provide strong evidence that God knows future human decisions.
4.3 Church history supports classical theism.
If the Bible supports exhaustive divine foreknowledge better than open theism, then historical evidence should affirm this conclusion. Indeed, historical evidence supports God’s exhaustive foreknowledge so much that open theists do not deny this reality. After providing a few historic sources similar to open theism Gregory Boyd admits, “Still, I must concede that the open view has been relatively rare in church history.”
Millard Erickson provides evidence that the church has predominantly affirmed God’s exhaustive foreknowledge from its inception to the 20th century. He could not find a time before which the church denied God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Also, he demonstrates that many historic examples of those who confidently denied God’s exhaustive foreknowledge were either (1) people outside the church, (2) people within the church who also affirmed many other unorthodox doctrines, (3) or people within the church who were not well-known or influential.
Moreover, many of these historic sources also affirmed libertarian freedom. For example, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all affirmed God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and libertarian freedom. (For more details, see my article “The Early Church Against Open Theism.”) Some may object saying that it is not clear that all these early church leaders affirmed libertarian freedom; rather, they may have affirmed a “compatibilist” definition of human freedom like the later views of Augustine. By contrast, Ken Wilson affirms that “no extant Christian author prior to Augustine taught anything other than genuine free choice…” Wilson further writes, “Of the eighty-four pre-Augustinian authors studied from 95-430 CE, over fifty addressed this topic. All these early Christian authors championed traditional free choice…” Indeed, open theist John Sanders agrees that Justin Martyr and Irenaeus “affirmed libertarian human freedom.” Furthermore, John of Damascus, who lived hundreds of years after Augustine, clearly affirmed libertarian freedom and God’s foreknowledge of human decisions. These and other early church leaders saw no conflict between human freedom and God’s comprehensive foreknowledge. Referring to the early church’s view on God’s foreknowledge, Thomas Oden writes, “If God knows what I later will do, does that take away my freedom? Although it may at first seem so, the consensus of classical Christian teaching is to answer no. Human freedom remains freedom [sic], significantly self-determining, even if divinely foreknown.”
4.4 Open theism violates the second commandment.
Finally, I object to open theism because I believe it violates the second commandment (Ex 20:4-6). In essence, the second commandment admonishes us not to make God in our own image. Open theism teaches: “Relationships require risk. Therefore, God’s relationship with humans requires risk. Therefore, God cannot have exhaustive foreknowledge of future human decisions.” As noted above, inter-human relationships do involve risk, but inter-trinitarian relationships do not involve risk. Open theism brings God down to the human level by claiming that God’s relationship with humans requires risk because inter-human relationships involve risk. Thus, the proposition “God’s relationship with humans requires risk” humanizes God.
Stripping God of His exhaustive foreknowledge also humanizes God. Open theism asserts that God’s knowledge is ontologically the same as human knowledge. Humans can know past and present propositions with certainty but not future propositions. Open theism claims that God is qualitatively no different, for open theism claims that God knows past and present propositions with certainty but not future propositions. Yes, open theism does affirm that God knows all past and present propositions (e.g., God’s past and present knowledge is exhaustive). Thus, open theism does affirm that God’s knowledge is quantitively different from human knowledge. However, open theism implies that God’s knowledge is not qualitatively or ontologically different from human knowledge, for God’s ability to acquire knew knowledge of temporal events is no different from the human way of acquiring knew knowledge of temporal events. God must experience the future in order to know the future just as much as humans must experience the future in order to know the future. Consequently, with regard to God’s knowledge, open theism humanizes God.
In conclusion, open theism suffers from numerous philosophical, logical, and exegetical problems. Specifically, the proposition that relationships require risk is untenable due to philosophical and exegetical reasons. Relationships do not require risk because the relationships between the Persons of the Trinity do not involve any sort of risk at all. Therefore, God’s relationship with humanity need not require risk. God can know all future human decisions and still engage in perfectly meaningful relationships with humans. God desires an intimate relationship with every man and woman whom He has fearfully and wonderfully made, and this intimate relationship is by no means diminished by His knowledge of our future decisions.
 Cf. Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). Libertarian freedom can be concisely defined as “the choice to do otherwise.” Libertarian free will, also known as an “incompatibilist” view of free will, stands in contrast with “compatibilism,” the belief that determinism and free will are somehow compatible.  Cf. Michael Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Fifth Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 146–47, 168, 171. See also, Pinnock et al., The Openness of God.  NOTE: Arminians have always qualified their definition of libertarian free with the doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace so as to avoid the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.  I took PH501 in the spring of 2022 and PH600 in the fall of 2022 at Asbury Theological Seminary.  This comes from my class notes for PH600 taken on November 7, 2022.  William Hasker is one of the co-founders of open theism. See William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 126–54.  Of note, Peterson approvingly recommended the book The God Who Risks which is written by open theist John Sanders. See John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, Second Edition. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007).  This comes from my class notes for PH600 taken on November 7, 2022.  Being a Wesleyan-Arminian, my view of human freedom is very much the same as that of open theists. I affirm libertarian freedom, albeit, qualified by the doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace so as to avoid the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.  Cf. Rev 3:14; 19:11; 21:5; 22:6.  This comes from my class notes for PH600 taken on November 7, 2022.  Cf. Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 59–100; Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 115, 130–32.  Remember, open theists believe that God knows everything that can be logically known, but they claim that future tense propositions regarding human decisions cannot logically be known.  Hasker’s “omelet” argument can be found in the following four sources: William Hasker, “Foreknowledge and Necessity,” Faith and Philosophy 2.2 (1985): 121–57, https://doi.org/10.5840/faithphil19852212; Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge, 66–74; Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 148; Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 168.  Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 68.  Steven C. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?: A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 200–201, 207.  Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 68.  Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 68.  For a detailed exposition of biblical evidence against open theism, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?  For a discussion of the New Testament passages speaking of God’s foreknowledge of the Fall and His knowledge of those who will be saved, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 114–23. Note: Roy is Reformed in his theology. As a Wesleyan, I do not agree with all his interpretations of these New Testament passages; however, I do agree that these passages afford evidence of God’s foreknowledge of human decisions.  Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 37. See 1 Kings 13:2 for the prophecy and 2 Kings 21:26 (Josiah becomes king) and 2 Kings 23:15-16 (Josiah desecrates the altar) for the fulfillment.  Cf. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 44–53.  “A Long, Cold Road to Bethlehem : Nativity: Gospel Accounts of Mary and Joseph’s Journey Gloss over the Arduous Reality of Life and Travel in Ancient Galilee, Scholars Say.,” Los Angeles Times, 23 December 1995, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-12-23-me-17102-story.html.  For more information on this and other Messianic prophecies, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 55–61.  Cf. Mk 8:31; Mt 16:21; Lk 9:22 and Mk 9:31; Mt 17:22-23; Lk 9:44 and Mk 10:33-34; Mt 20:17-19; Lk 18:31-33. See also John 2:19-22. For more details, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 92-96.  Cf. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 74–79. See also Acts 4:27-28.  Prediction: Mt 26:33-35; Mk 14:29-31; Lk 22:31-34; and Jn 13:36-38. Fulfilled: Mt 26:69-74; Mk 14:66-72; Lk 22:54-62; and Jn 18:17-27.  For more information on Peter’s denial of Jesus, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 96-101.  Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 103. For more information, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 101-111.  For these and other examples, along with answers to rebuttals from open theists, see Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?, 27–123. See also, Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 39–57.  Boyd, God of the Possible, 115.  Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?, 87–109.  Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?, 131.  Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?, 111–31.  Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin 43-44 (ANF 1:117).  Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.32.2 (ANF 1:506), 4.37 (ANF 1: 518–521), 4.39 (ANF 1:522–523), and 5.36.1 (ANF 1:566).  Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.5 (ANF 3:300-301) and 2.7 (ANF 3:303).  Ken Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (United States of America: Regula Fidei Press, 2019), 18.  Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, 19–20. See also the chart on pp. 120-121.  Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, 74.  John Damascene, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.25-30 (NPNF 2.9:39-44).  Cf. Origin, Origin against Celsus 2.20 (ANF 4:440).  Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992), 50. Emphasis added.