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  • Writer's pictureKirk Bagby

The Early Church Against Open Theism

Open theism is a new way of understanding God’s relationship with His creation that denies God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Open theism seems to be gaining popularity today, but how would the early church respond to open theism? First, I will summaries some key concepts of open theism. Then, I will provide evidence for the recent rise in popularity of open theism. Lastly, I will reveal how the early church would have responded to the claims of open theism, particularly regarding divine foreknowledge and human freedom.


Summary of Open Theism

According to Dr. Michael Peterson, “Open theism is a new movement, originating in the early 1990s, that claims to explain how it is that God, the future, and human choice are ‘open,’…”[1] Peterson, et al., says that “open theism accepts that there are some aspects of the future that cannot be known with certainty by anyone, including God.”[2] Open theists believe that God is omniscient; however, they define omniscience as knowing what is logically possible to know,[3] and they claim that future propositions cannot be logically known: “it is the inherent nature of the future to be indefinite.”[4]


Denying God’s exhaustive foreknowledge allegedly allows open theism to strengthen God’s relationality with humanity. Peterson, et al., says that views such as Calvinism and Molinism tend to “undermine the personal relationships between God and worshipers—relationships that, nevertheless, both of these views typically wish to affirm. Open theism is better placed to emphasize the relational and nurturing aspect of God…”[5] Also, petitionary prayers, “asking God for things to happen,” is more genuine and relevant in open theism than alternative views.[6]


The Rise of Open Theism

Open theism cannot be ignored or avoided, for it seems to be gaining popularity. In 1989 William Hasker laid some of the groundwork for modern open theism in his book God, Time, and Knowledge.[7] In 1994 The Openness of God[8] launched open theism into the theological community.[9] “Books by open theist authors from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s hit conservative evangelical seminaries like a mile-wide asteroid,” says Jeff Robinson, an opponent of open theism.[10] Open theism was debated at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in the early 2000s, resulting in a “large and heated” controversy.[11] Within a few years the controversy within the ETS declined; however, open theism continued among some evangelicals. Robertson wrote in 2014, “While ETS no longer debates whether open theism is an orthodox evangelical option, the view continues to receive sympathy among some Arminian scholars, pastors, and theological progressives.”[12] In 2020 Richard Rice published The Future of Open Theism which recounts “the history of open theism from its antecedents and early developments to its more recent and varied expressions.”[13] The back cover of this book declares, “No matter what one’s assessment, open theism inarguably has made a significant impact on recent theological discourses. . . . The discussion about open theism, it seems, is just beginning.”[14]


Furthermore, Asbury Theological Seminary offers a philosophy class taught by Dr. Michael Peterson called PH501 "Philosophy of Christian Religion" which advocates for open theism. The textbook for this course, Reason and Religious Belief,[15] is authored by four philosophers, two of whom are cofounders of open theism: William Hasker and David Basinger.[16] A third author and the teacher of this course, Peterson himself, strongly leans toward open theism.[17] Chapter eight of this textbook emphasizes problems with Calvinism, process theism, Molinism, and the simple foreknowledge view; however, chapter eight glosses over problems with open theism, and it implies that open theism is the best of all other options.[18] Peterson teaches likewise in both his recorded video lectures and his notes on chapter eight of this textbook.[19] Peterson says that open theism “seeks to be orthodox in many ways. I think it takes itself to be totally orthodox in all ways. . . . I see the open theists as being compatible with a view that the church fathers would have had… Omniscience is about the only controversial element of open theism I can think of for those who are orthodox Christian.”[20] But would the church fathers have agreed with the doctrines of open theism, namely that God does not know future libertarian decisions?


The Early Church on Open Theism

I believe that the early church would have rejected open theism because numerous Christian leaders throughout church history have affirmed both libertarian human freedom and God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. After writing multiple chapters regarding prophetic statements in the Bible, Justin Martyr writes, “But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever happens, happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain.”[21] Justin was aware that some people may presume that because of predictive prophecy, people are fated to act the way they do. He continues by saying, “For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be.”[22] Justin affirmed human freedom while declaring that God foreknows “all that shall be done by all men.”[23]


Irenaeus indicates that he believed God’s foreknowledge is comprehensive. He said that the Old Testament “contained a prophecy of things to come, in order that man might learn that God has foreknowledge of all things.”[24] Elsewhere, Irenaeus attributes God as “foreknowing all things.”[25] Nevertheless, Irenaeus believed that humans have free will.[26] He taught that mankind is responsible for choosing to obey God, and if one chooses to disobey God, he does so of his own choice and not by compulsion.[27] Irenaeus wrote, “The light does never enslave any one by necessity; nor, again, does God exercise compulsion upon any one unwilling to accept the exercise of His skill. Those persons, therefore, who have apostatized from the light given by the Father, and transgressed the law of liberty, have done so through their own fault, since they have been created free agents, and possessed of power over themselves.”[28]


According to Tertullian, Marcion argued, “If God is good, and prescient of the future, and able to avert evil, why did He permit man… to be deceived by the devil, and fall from obedience of the law into death?”[29] In response, Tertullian sought to “vindicate those attributes in the Creator which are called in question—namely, His goodness and foreknowledge, and power.”[30] To explain the Fall of mankind, despite God’s goodness, foreknowledge, and power, Tertullian concluded, “I find, then, that man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power.”[31] Tertullian taught that even after the Fall “man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance.”[32] He explains that even though God foreknew the Fall, God could not have prevented the Fall lest He eliminate human free-will, which God created with a good purpose.[33]


John of Damascus clearly affirmed libertarian free will while believing in God’s comprehensive foreknowledge, including libertarian choices.[34] Concerning free will, John wrote, “Of events, some are in our hands, others are not. Those [events] then are in our hands which we are free to do or not to do at our will,… Strictly all mental and deliberative acts are in our hands. Now deliberation is concerned with equal possibilities: and an ‘equal possibility’ is an action that is itself within our power and its opposite,… The actions, therefore, that are in our hands are these equal possibilities: e.g. to be moved or not to be moved, to hasten or not to hasten, to long for unnecessaries or not to do so,…”[35] Concerning divine foreknowledge, John wrote, “We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them.”[36]


These and other early church fathers[37] saw no conflict between human freedom and God’s comprehensive foreknowledge. Referring to the early church's views, 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, significantly self-determining, even if divinely foreknown.”[38]


Conclusion

I believe that open theism is a theology that is influenced by human philosophy rather than biblical exegesis. Likewise, some early church leaders, such as Clement of Alexandria and especially his student Origen, were influenced by the philosophy of their day.[39] Justo L. González says that “on many points Origen is more Platonist than Christian.”[40] While philosophy can inform one’s theology, theology should be founded primarily upon biblical exegesis. Furthermore, philosophy itself should be derived from biblical exegesis. The Bible should influence philosophy rather than vice versa. When one elevates philosophy above biblical exegesis, one is prone to espousing theology that contradicts the Bible.


Biblical exegesis strongly indicates that God’s knowledge of the future is comprehensive, including knowledge of human free-will decisions.[41] John Oswalt declares, “The Bible teaches both God’s foreknowledge and [human] free will.”[42] Thus, Christians ought to hold these two beliefs in harmony. While we may never fully understand how God knows future human decisions, we can believe, in faith, that divine foreknowledge and human freedom are compatible.[43]



Footnotes

[1] Michael Peterson, “Lectures: Philosophy of Christian Religion PH 501,” 10 August 2017, 86. This is a handout of Peterson’s notes for his class PH-501 Philosophy of Christian Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. [2] Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Fifth Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 171. [3] Cf., Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 146-47, 168, 171. [4] Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 171. Emphasis in original. See also page 168. [5] Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 172. Emphasis in original. For a response to the claim the relationships require risk, see my paper "Response to Dr. Michael Peterson on Open Theism." [6] Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 172. [7] William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989). [8] Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). [9] Cf. Richard Rice, The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 1. [10] Jeff Robinson, “Is Open Theism Still a Factor 10 Years after ETS Vote?,” The Gospel Coalition, 19 November 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/is-open-theism-still-a-factor-10-years-after-ets-vote/. [11] Robinson, “Is Open Theism Still a Factor 10 Years after ETS Vote?” [12] Robinson, “Is Open Theism Still a Factor 10 Years after ETS Vote?” [13] Rice, The Future of Open Theism, back cover. [14] Rice, The Future of Open Theism, back cover. [15] Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief. [16] Hasker and Basinger are coauthors of the 1994 book The Openness of God. Furthermore, Peterson specifically labels Hasker and Basinger “open theists” on page 87 of his class notes for PH501: “Lectures: Philosophy of Christian Religion PH 501.” [17] In April 2022, I sent an email to Peterson asking, “Would you consider yourself to be an open theist like William Hasker and David Basinger?” He replied, “I tell my open theist friends & coauthors that what they say is at stake philosophically . . . is exactly what I think is at stake—a relational universe, a relational God, with relational purposes for humanity, and humanity’s highest (unchangeable) destiny (by its God-given nature/telos). Now does it take open theism to protect/accent/defend what’s at stake? It appears so at this time. After all, what is the opposite of open? It’s closed. Closed God to alternative possible outcomes in His universe, no alternative possible outcomes in human affairs.” [18] Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief, 157–77. [19] See Peterson’s three video lectures “Chap 9 Lecture I: Divine Action in the World,” “Chap 9 Lecture II: Divine Power and Human Freedom,” and “Chap 9 Lecture III: Divine Action--What's At Stake in the Debate?” and his class notes, “Lectures: Philosophy of Christian Religion PH 501,” pages 74-97. [20] Michael Peterson, “Chap 9 Lecture II: Divine Power and Human Freedom.” Emphasis added. This is a recorded video lecture in Peterson’s class PH501 "Philosophy of Christian Religion" which I took in the spring of 2022 at Asbury Theological Seminary. [21] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin 43 (ANF 1:117). [22] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin 43 (ANF 1:117). Emphasis added. [23] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin 44 (ANF 1:117). [24] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.32.2 (ANF 1:506). Emphasis added. [25] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.39.4 (ANF 1:523) and 5.36.1 (ANF 1:566). [26] Cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.37 (ANF 1: 518–521) and 4.39 (ANF 1:522–523). [27] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.39 (ANF 1:522–523). [28] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.39.3 (ANF 1:523). Emphasis added. [29] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.5 (ANF 3:300). [30] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.5 (ANF 3:301). [31] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.5 (ANF 3:301). Emphasis added. [32] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.5 (ANF 3:301). [33] Tertullian, Against Marcion 2.7 (ANF 3:303). [34] Cf. John Damascene, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.25-30 (NPNF 2.9:39-44). [35] John Damascene, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.26 (NPNF 2.9:40). Emphasis added. [36] John Damascene, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.30 (NPNF 2.9:42). Emphasis added. [37] Cf. Augustine, The City of God 5.9 (NPNF 1.2:91) and Origen, Origen against Celsus 2.20 (ANF 4:440). Note: Augustine's early views affirmed libertarian human freedom, but Augustine's later views redefined human freedom. Cf. Ken Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (United States of America: Regula Fidei Press, 2019). [38] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992), 50. Emphasis added. [39] Cf. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), Volume 1:86–88, 93-95. [40] González, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1:95. [41] Cf. Steven C. Roy, How Much Does God Foreknow?: A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006). [42] This came from a conversation that I had with Dr. John Oswalt regarding open theism on April 23, 2022.

[43] This paper was written for my class class CH501 "Church History One" which I took at Asbury Theological Seminary in the spring of 2022.


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