Philosophical Essays against Open Theism – ch. 1: Stump

By | March 13, 2024

Philosophical Essays Against Open Theism (Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion)With this post I begin a series of responses to eleven essays in a book edited by Ben Arbour titled Philosophical Essays against Open Theism (Routledge, 2019). (As an aside, Ben was a friend, a good scholar, and a model Christian. In November of 2020 he and his wife Meg were both tragically killed by a reckless driver. They left behind four young kids. May Ben and Meg rest in peace, and may their children grow up to embrace the legacy of faith their parents left behind.) The essays in this book are of somewhat uneven quality. None of them poses what I regard as a serious challenge for open theism, but some are quite intelligently crafted and require a nuanced response.

In this post I tackle Ben’s introductory essay and the first full chapter, “The Openness of God: Eternity and Free Will” by Eleonore Stump. Stump is a highly respected philosopher of religion at St. Louis University.

Ben’s Introduction (pp. 1–18)

Aside from his chapter summaries (which I skip over here), Ben’s introduction focuses on defining open theism and establishing a context for the ensuing philosophical essays. He uses the well-known “dilemma of freedom and foreknowledge” to set the stage. The dilemma proposes that there is a logical inconsistency in affirming both (1) God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (i.e., infallible knowledge of a unique actual future) and (2) some creaturely choices are indeterministic (i.e., it is really possible up to the moment of choice that it goes in either of two or more incompatible directions). I’m convinced that this is a genuine dilemma and that (1) ought to be rejected in favor of open theism. Ben, like most Christian philosophers, believes the dilemma is resolvable and that Christians should continue to affirm both (1) and (2). On the whole, his introductory discussion is reasonably accurate and fair, but there are several places where Ben (inadvertently) misstates open theism.

  • p. 4: Ben glosses open theism as the view that “God doesn’t know the future.” This is false because it assumes that there is a unique actual future (UAF) that God doesn’t know. Most open theists reject that assumption. There simply is no UAF. God perfectly knows the future as open-ended because it is open-ended.
  • p. 6: Ben describes open theism as advancing a “relatively novel” and “innovative” conception of divine omniscience. Also false. Open theism is fully compatible with standard philosophical definitions of omniscience. Open theists don’t (have to) redefine omniscience. Instead, they challenge the assumption that the content of God’s omniscience specifies a UAF.
  • p. 7: Ben says “God lacks knowledge concerning whichever actual future state of affairs is going to obtain.” It can be argued that this is technically correct, but it is nevertheless misleading because it seems to question-beggingly take for granted that there is such a thing as a UAF that God should know, but doesn’t.
  • p. 9: Ben says the “all-falsist” version of “open future open theism” (OFOT) depends on a Peircean semantics for propositions concerning future contingents (PCFC). This is incorrect, though it is an error I myself have promoted. (See this post for the technical details.) Suffice to say, OFOT does not require a specifically Peircean semantics. All it requires is a more generically modal semantics, one that allows us to quantify over possible futures.
  • p. 10: Finally, Ben says that “OFOT denies that God possesses any foreknowledge of future contingents whatsoever.” This is wrong. Ben wrongly assumes that PCFCs range exclusively over propositions that represent the future as determinate in some respect (e.g., will and will not propositions). This overlooks PCFCs that represent the future as indeterminate (e.g., might and might not and will probably propositions). Open theists can affirm that God has exhaustive and infallible foreknowledge of all future contingents (i.e., all true PCFCs) by holding that God’s knowledge of future contingent propositions concerns propositions of the indeterminate sort.

Eleonore Stump, “The Openness of God: Eternity and Free Will” (pp. 21–36)

Stump’s essay is a focused reply to the work of open theist William Hasker. She argues (pace Hasker) that God’s having timeless knowledge (of a UAF) is both compatible with human freedom and providentially useful (pp. 21–22).

i. Stump on Divine Eternity (pp. 22–24)

Before developing her response to Hasker, Stump begins by summarizing the Thomistic doctrine of God’s eternity. She says that God’s eternity is “not just timelessness” but a mode of existence characterized by both “absence of succession” and “limitless duration” (p. 22). By absence of succession she means that “no temporal entity or event can be past or future with respect to, or earlier or later than, the whole life of an eternal God” (pp. 22–23). By limitless duration she means that God’s “present” is “not limited by either future or past” (p. 23). (But how is this duration?) Accordingly, she argues, “the relation between an eternal God and anything in time has to be one of simultaneity” (p. 23). Of course, she doesn’t mean temporal simultaneity. Rather, she means “ET-simultaneity.” This relation, she says, is symmetric, but neither reflective nor transitive. Thus, “two temporal events can be ET-simultaneous with one and the same eternal event without being ET-simultaneous with each other” (p. 23).

As I see it, Stump’s ET-simultaneity relation is a needlessly convoluted way of saying that God’s timeless eternity encompasses the whole of created time. We can think of the latter as like a film strip, with different temporal events occurring at different times (i.e., frames) along the strip. God, being “outside” the strip, can survey the entire strip all at once from a timeless vantage point. So, God’s is eternally “present” to the entire strip, but successive moments along the strip are not temporally “present” to each other.

Before moving on, Stump argues that God’s timeless eternity is compatible with the “absolute now” posited by a moving spotlight model of time (see p. 24). According to this model, the entire film strip is actual, and there is also a moving spotlight that sequentially highlights one frame on the strip at a time as “present.” Stump misunderstands the model, however. On the model, the spotlight is “absolute” such that from the God’s eye perspective there is a real distinction between past, present, and future. Because Stump’s conception of divine eternity does not allow for distinctions of past, present, and future in God’s life, she cannot allow for a absolute “now.” Her confusion, I surmise, arises from conceptually embedding the original time series or “film strip” within a hypertemporal film strip. Each frame of the latter contains the whole original film strip but shifts the position of the spotlight. On such a model, there is no objective “now” at all from the perspective of the original time series, there is a relative “now” from the perspective of the hypertime series (that is, relative to each hyperframe, there is an objective “now”), and no absolute “now” from the perspective of God’s eternity.

ii. Stump on Hasker’s Position (pp. 25–30)

Focusing on Chapter 9 of Hasker’s book God, Time, and Knowledge (Cornell, 1989), Stump considers remarks by both Hasker and Alvin Plantinga on the compatibility of divine timelessness with creaturely freedom. She quotes Plantinga arguing that if, e.g., Paul mows his lawn in 2095 then “God knows eternally that Paul mows his lawn in 2095” is true now (in 2015), and so the necessity of the past applies to God’s knowledge of Paul’s mowing in 2095 the same way it does of God’s eternally knowing, e.g., that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. Commenting on Plantinga, Hasker reportedly argues that it depends on whether “the past truth of the proposition God eternally knows that Paul mows in 2095 [is] a hard [and therefore fixed] fact about the past,” which in turn depends on whether “the proposition God eternally knows that Paul mows in 2095 is itself a hard fact” (p. 25). Stump then walks through Hasker’s attempt to assess this issue, attributing to him several claims that she debunks as reflecting an incorrect understanding of divine eternity.

She begins by quoting Hasker as follows: “[A]s of the present moment, it is in many respects not yet determined how the future shall be. … God’s timeless eternity … certainly cannot be open in this way; every fact is determined to be as it is, and not in any other way” (p. 26; GTK, p. 174). Now, I wouldn’t have said with Hasker that, from the perspective of God’s eternity, every fact is “determined” to be as it is. Rather, every fact is determinately what it is. In other words, there are no open questions about the future; there is no indeterminacy in the future. What’s determined is determinately going to be the case, but it doesn’t obviously follow that what’s determinately going to be the case is thereby determined to be the case. At the very least, that would need to be argued for. In any case, Stump doesn’t press that issue. Instead, she quotes Hasker (who is quoting Arthur Prior) saying that “God distinguishes necessities and contingencies [in time] even though there is no contingency left in the latter in the form in which they reach His gaze.” She takes him to mean that “God looks at all of time as a temporal being would look at the temporal past” (p. 26) and criticizes Hasker for this on the grounds that, given divine eternity, “it is not possible for God to be related to anything as past” (p. 27). Moreover, she rejects the claim that for an eternal God there is no temporal contingency, for “God is related to contingent things as they are present” (p. 27).

Let’s pause there. Having looked at the text from Hasker that Stump is quoting from, I’m confident that she is misreading Hasker. A philosopher of Hasker’s caliber doesn’t make the boneheaded mistakes she attributes to him. In the first place, when Hasker quotes Prior to the effect that a timelessly eternal God views all of time as though it were past and as though there were no contingency left in it, he is simply pointing out that, for a timeless God, everything is eternally determinate. There is no future contingency from God’s perspective because, like on the filmstrip, all temporal events are eternally determinate. Nothing is left to be decided. Stump, I submit, conflates relative contingency with future contingency. This is evident from her example: “What makes Jerome’s smiling contingent is the fact that he might not have smiled; nothing that acted on him in advance of his smiling made his smiling necessary” (p. 27). In other words, relative to previous frames on the filmstrip, Jerome’s smiling is contingent. It’s not determined by prior events. Okay. That may be well and good, but it’s not nearly enough to support creaturely freedom and future contingency. Not being determined by prior events is compatible, for example, with all frames of the filmstrip being causally independent of each other and being wholly caused to be what they are by God. Stump’s notion of contingency is, therefore, compatible with occasionalism!

Continuing on with Stump’s analysis of Hasker, she attributes to him the claim that “it follows from this [i.e., time’s being wholly determinate for God] that we are related to God’s eternal present as we are related to the future” (p. 26) and takes him to infer from this that “eternity is like the future, and unlike the past, in that it is still open to our influence” (p. 26). Hence, divine timelessness is compatible with creaturely freedom if and only if “[t]here are things that God timelessly believes which are such that it is in my power, now, to bring it about that God does not timelessly believe those things” (p. 27; GTK, p. 176). Stump then criticizes Hasker for badly misunderstanding the doctrine of divine eternity, for, “it is not possible for anything in eternity to be future with respect to time” and “it is not in anyone’s power in the temporal present to bring it about that in the eternal present God believes things different from those that he [eternally] believes” (p. 27).

Again, Stump is badly misreading Hasker. He’s not at all confused about the implications of divine eternity. As he himself says, “there are no temporal relationships between a timeless being and temporal beings” (GTK, p. 175). When he considers that eternity is like the future in that it is “still open to our influence,” he’s arguing that IF future contingency and divine timelessness are to be reconciled, THEN God’s eternity must still be open to our influence. In this he is correct. By denying this possibility, Stump inadvertently forecloses the very reconciliation of creaturely freedom and divine timelessness that she herself want to affirm!

iii. Stump on Reconciling Divine Eternity with Creaturely Freedom (pp. 28–30)

Stump’s response to the alleged incompatibility of divine timelessness and creaturely freedom amounts to a denial that God’s knowledge of temporal events implies the prior fixity in time of those events or of truths about those events (cf. p. 30). So, on her account, if God eternally knows that Paul mows his yard in 2095, that knowledge is grounded in Paul’s temporal activity of mowing at that time, and it does not require that it was true in 1932 (say), that Paul mows in 2095. In this way, Stump intends to circumvent arguments for creaturely freedom based on the accidental necessity or fixity of the past.

From my perspective, it seems to me that Stump is missing the point, for the fixity of eternity is just as much a threat to creaturely freedom as the fixity of the past is. If, as she has already argued against Hasker, “it is not in anyone’s power in the temporal present to bring it about that in the eternal present God believes things different from those that he [eternally] believes” (p. 27), then she has just relocated the problem without solving it. If, as she seems to want to affirm, Paul has power over “whether or not he mows in the future” (p. 30), then it directly follows (pace Stump) that it is in Paul’s power to determine whether, in the eternal present, God believes that Paul mows in 2095. If Paul mows in 2095, then he brings it about that God eternally knows that Paul mows in 2095, and if Paul does not mow in 2095, then he brings in about that Paul does not mow in 2095. Either way, if Paul’s mowing in 2095 is a future contingent, and if the content of God’s eternal belief depends on what Paul eventually decides, then the content of God’s eternal belief is a future contingent as well. But, as Hasker observes, this is “truly remarkable” (GTK, p. 176). How can the content of God’s knowledge be both timelessly eternal and a future contingent? Hasker doesn’t pursue the issue, but it should be evident that the two statuses cancel each other out. Divine timelessness does not help one reconcile God’s knowledge of a UAF with creaturely freedom.

iv. Stump on Hasker on the Uselessness of Eternal Knowledge (pp. 30–35)

The last section of Stump’s essay is a response to Hasker’s claim that divine timelessness is providentially useless. As Hasker puts it: “it is impossible that God should use [knowledge] derived from the actual occurrence of future events to determine his own prior actions in the providential governance of the world. (p. 31; GTK, p. 63)

Stump immediately chides Hasker for “presupposing that God’s actions are prior to the occurrence of future events,” a presupposition that is incompatible with God’s timeless eternity. But this is uncharitable on Stump’s part. The Hasker quote in its own context is explicitly directed at the simple foreknowledge position, which rejects God’s timeless eternity. In that context, reference to God’s “prior” actions is wholly appropriate.

In any case, Stump rightly notes that Hasker’s claim can be reformulated without reference to temporal priority. She suggests reframing the question in terms of logical priority: “an event’s obtaining is logically prior to God’s knowing it” (p. 31). This suggestion suits her purposes, but it is a poor suggestion nonetheless. The problem is that “logical” priority is too weak to capture the asymmetrical dependence of God’s knowledge on creaturely events because logical relations are not inherently asymmetrical. An asymmetric relation of explanatory dependence is needed.

Stump concedes that there is a prima facie difficulty for understanding how a timelessly eternal God’s knowledge could possibly be useful “for guiding his interactions with things in time,” but she thinks we can overcome this difficulty if we take a step back and “consider how anything in time acts on anything else in time” (p. 31). She then launches into a “relatively simple” example that turns into a long and needlessly recherché exposition of how one neuron causes another to fire. (Yes, neurons are exciting, but the point is to be clear, and for that, billiard balls colliding is a much better example.) From this example she draws two lessons: (1) “the thing that exercises causal power is simultaneous with the things its causal power is exercised on,” and (2) the “because of relation” that obtains between cause and thing caused is not inherently temporal (p. 32).

She is wrong on both points. Yes, there is a sense in which, e.g., for one billiard ball to strike another and cause it to move, both billiard balls must exist “simultaneously.” But more fundamentally it’s not billiard balls in isolation that causally interact but balls in very specific states that do so. At the first moment of impact, both balls have a specific location and momentum (State 1). Immediately afterwards, both balls have a different location and momentum (State 2). Instead of saying that Ball 1 causes Ball 2 to move, it would be more accurate to say that State 1 causes State 2. Moreover, the transition from State 1 to State 2 is an inherently temporal event. Because the two states are incompatible with one another, they cannot both obtain simultaneously. So, when viewed as a sequence of states, “the thing that exercises causal power” (State 1) is not “simultaneous with the things its causal power is exercised upon.” In fact, causal power from State 1 isn’t exercised upon State 2 because the latter doesn’t even exist yet. Rather, the propensities inherent in the State 1 system transform it into State 2. That State 2 comes about “because of” State 1 is inherently temporal.

Moving on, Stump applies her two lessons to the case of petitionary prayer. She says, “[f]or something to be a response to a prayer, it has to occur because of the prayer. But this is not the same as occurring after the prayer. … In one and the same eternal present, God can be aware of the prayer for healing at t1 and will that there be healing at t2″ (p. 33). Clearly, her supposedly nontemporal because of relation is doing the work here.

This is a poor analysis. Yes, a “response” to prayer must occur “because of” the prayer, but as I’ve already argued (pace Stump) the because of relation is inherently temporal. If God’s healing at t2 is a response to prayer at t1, then we must consider the prayer as making a difference to God. If it doesn’t make a difference—if God was going to do the requested action regardless, then God didn’t act because of the prayer. He acted for independent reasons. Consider James 4:2, “You do not have because you do not ask” (NKJV). James says that God sometimes does things because people pray that he would not have done otherwise. This implies that God is sometimes in a state of equipoise between blessing people in a certain way and not blessing them in that way and that prayer (or lack of prayer) sometimes tips the balance, moving God from equipoise to definite (in)action. Because a timeless God cannot change in any respects, prayer cannot make any difference to God. A timeless God cannot transition from a state of equipoise concerning incompatible options to a state of definite action or inaction concerning those options.

The rest of this section in Stump’s paper is similarly confused. She argues that “the logical dependence of God’s knowledge on the events known does not rule out the causal dependence of those events on God’s acts” (p. 34). This is true but irrelevant because, as I’ve already noted, the dependence of God’s knowledge on the events known is not a merely logical dependence. It is, in fact, an asymmetric explanatory dependence. This leads to an explanatory loop: God’s knowledge of event E is explanatorily dependent on event E and, in turn, event E is causally (and therefore explanatorily) dependent on God activity (which is presumably informed by God’s knowledge of E). Because the asymmetric nature of explanatory dependence rules out loops, Stump is incoherently trying to have her cake and eat it too.

v. Concluding Remarks

Stump’s closing remarks are puzzling:

[A] simple, eternal, immutable, impassible God can be as intimate with human beings and responsive to them as any open theist could desire. For a classical theist such as Aquinas, God is a risk-taker, too. (p. 35)

I have already argued that a timeless God cannot be truly “responsive” to creation. But can such a God be a “risk-taker”? Stump clarifies what she means in an endnote: “The Thomistic God is a risk-taker in the sense that he makes decisions that depend for their outcomes on the responses of free creatures, when those responses are not themselves determined by God” (p. 36).

What is one to make of this? Not much, I think. In the first place, a timeless God cannot “make decisions” in the sense of choosing between open options. If God makes decisions in that sense, then he cannot be timeless because choosing between open options essentially involves an intentional transition in the chooser from a not-having-yet-decided state of equipoise between one’s options and a having-decided state of being settled on one of those options to the exclusion of the others. Because a timeless God cannot so transition, he cannot make decisions. The most a timelessness proponent can consistently say is that God eternally wills thusly and leave it at that.

Now, let’s suppose that what a timeless God wills depends “for [its] outcomes on the responses of free creatures,” who are “not themselves determined by God.” All this means is that God’s will and activity do not completely specify all creaturely events. It doesn’t render God in any way responsive to creaturely events. Indeed, because a timeless God cannot be responsive, and therefore cannot do contingency planning, Stump’s God would have to be a much more radical risk-taker than most open theists would be comfortable with. Thus, if God’s will and activity only specific some creaturely events, then (1) God can’t ever come to know how those events turn out, because this would require God to receive new information from creation. That doesn’t jibe with divine timelessness. Further, (2) God can’t respond to those developments, for this would require God’s activity to be contingent upon new information from creation. So, in effect, it would be like God setting up an indeterministic system inside a black box that God can’t peek inside of. God sets the overall parameters and the initial conditions inside the box. He also fully specifies what’s going on outside the box where everything runs deterministically. In this setup, God would be forever ignorant of the post-initial contents of the box. That doesn’t strike me as a plausible model of providence.

Overall, despite Stump’s reputation as a top-notch philosopher of religion, I find her essay to be very poorly argued. She doesn’t follow Hasker’s argument, she levels numerous uncharitable criticisms against him, and she doesn’t seem to understand the problems that divine timelessness gives rise to as indicated by her superficial responses. Stump may do fantastic work elsewhere in philosophy of religion, but when it comes to matters of God and time, I’m unimpressed.

One thought on “Philosophical Essays against Open Theism – ch. 1: Stump

  1. Thomas Jay Oord

    Fantastic essay, Alan! I’m looking forward to your series!

    As you may know, Ben Arbour and I shared a grant from which this was one of the books produced. The other was my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.

    I’ll add this essay to an upcoming Center for Open and Relational Theology newsletter.



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