What Is Open Theism?

By | September 22, 2013

In 2008 I published a paper called “Generic Open Theism and Some Varieties Thereof” (Religious Studies). My stated goal in that paper was to “facilitate ongoing dialogue between open and non-open theists” by making precise what “minimal set of commitments any open theist, qua open theist, must affirm.” I thus advocated, and still advocate, for a broad understand of “open theism”, one that is robustly theistic and also distinct from process theism.

My definition of “open theism” is as follows:

Open theism =def.

  1. broadly classical theism =def. there is a unique, personal, metaphysically necessarily being (namely, God) who essentially possesses a maximally excellent compossible set of greatmaking attributes, including maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, to whom all (concrete) non-divine beings owe their existence, and who created the world (i.e., the space-time system of concrete non-divine beings) ex nihilo and can unilaterally intervene in it as he pleases
  2. the causal openness of the future (i.e., the reality of future contingency)
  3. the incompatibility of a causally open future with an epistemically settled future (i.e., there being a complete, known story of a unique, complete, linear future)

Some observations:

  • By God’s being “metaphysically necessary” all I mean is that God cannot begin to exist, cannot cease existing, and does not owe His existence to anything else. There are stronger ways of understanding metaphysical necessity, but I see no reason to insist on more than I have here.
  • From (2) and (3) it follows that (4): the future is epistemically open.
  • From (1), (4), and the stipulation that the future is providentially settled if and only if God has ordained the coming to pass of a unique, complete, linear future, it follows that the future is not providentially settled but providentially open (i.e., it is not the case that everything that comes to pass has been ordained by God).
  • The last clause of (1), concerning God’s creating ex nihilo and ability unilaterally to intervene in creation, is intended to distinguish open theism from process theism, which denies both of these claims. Some self-professed “open theists” (e.g., Tom Oord) reject the clause and have suggested that I drop it to allow for a more “open” open theism. This I refuse to do, for two related reasons: (a) The authors (Sanders, Pinnock, Hasker, Basinger, and Rice) who introduced the term “open theism” into the modern discussion in 1994 were very clear about their intention to keep it distinct from process theism along the very lines I propose here. (For an example of open theism vs. process theism discussion that divides over the very same fault lines see this book.); (b) since “open theism” was introduced as a semi-technical term, what C. S. Peirce has called “the ethics of terminology” applies. Technical, semi-technical, and scholarly terms need to retain a fixed and relatively precise meaning corresponding to how they were introduced. To violate this maxim by blurring the boundary between “open theism” and “process theism” would do nothing but introduce confusion.
  • God’s metaphysically necessary existence, His creating ex nihilo, and His ability unilaterally to intervene in creation are all corollaries of the doctrine of divine aseity, which states that God needs nothing but Himself in order to exist and to act in creation. In contrast, while on process theism God does in some sense (i.e., in His “primoridal nature”) exist independently of anything else, He cannot act independently; rather, at every moment He requires external input from creation, which input limits what He can do in the next moment. This type of limitation is incompatible with open theism.

The above, in my view, is all it takes, or should take, to be an open theist.

Hence, in my view, open theism simpliciter should not be identified with “Christian open theism”, “Trinitarian open theism”, or “Biblical open theism”, the latter being subsets of the former, even though most self-identified open theists are Trinitarian Christians who claim to derive significant support for the view from the Bible. There are, in fact, historical examples of Jewish open theists (e.g., Gersonides, and maybe Rashi), and I understand that there have been Muslim open theists. Further, I see no reason in principle why open theists couldn’t be deists, Hindu theists (e.g., Ramanuja), or purely philosophical theists not affiliated with any religious tradition.

6 thoughts on “What Is Open Theism?

  1. Dan Martin

    Alan, I’m confused by the last bullet above. It seems you start by stipulating that the future is providentially settled, and then conclude that it is not, but rather providentially open. Can you clarify?

    I would have guessed that we might stipulate (or, for Biblical Open Theists, we derive from Scripture) that there are some elements to the future that are providentially settled, but they comprise merely a subset of a much larger future, the balance of which is open. This is why Christian Open Theists can (and do) still have an eschatological hope, right?

    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Hi Dan,
      Thanks for the query. I could have been more clear. What I meant to say was that from (1), (4), and the stipulation that IF the future is providentially settled then God has ordained the coming to pass of a unique, complete, linear future, it follows that the future is providentially open.
      I’m going to edit the post accordingly.

  2. Jeff

    What’s the 4) being alluded to in the post? I see a list of 3 above, but not a 4th enumerated statement.

    1. Joe Garratt

      Hi Jeff, I think Alan is introducing and defining ‘4)’ in the bullet point section, so that 4) is the statement ‘the future is in fact epistemically open’.

      1. Alan Rhoda Post author

        Yes, that’s what I intended, Joe. My formatting was, perhaps, a bit misleading. Thanks for your clarification.

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