to Catalyst on-line. United Methodist (UM) seminarians have been receiving
Catalyst in their mail boxes since 1973.
What is Catalyst?
issues of Catalyst are mailed each academic year to some 5,000 UM theological
students in more than 100 seminaries in the U.S.A.
is a project of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE).
What is the John Wesley Fellowship Program?
year AFTE awards up to five John Wesley Fellowships to assist gifted United
Methodists in their doctoral studies at the finest universities.
back issues of Catalyst are now available on-line.
is free for UM seminarians, and is available to all others for $5 per year.
GOD AND THE OPEN VIEW
This essay is meant to introduce readers to some fresh thinking on the doctrine
of God—in particular, to a model known in evangelical circles as “the openness
of God.” Sometimes, theology is called upon to defend traditions. At other
times, it is called upon to assist Christians in re-thinking important matters
and maturing as hearers of the word of God. We need to open ourselves afresh
to Scripture, and listen with the community to what the Spirit is saying
to the church. Theology is an unfinished task and must not be abstract speculation
buried in a labyrinth of academic triviality. It is meant to keep the church
faithful to the revelation of God and to make sure that it witnesses to Jesus
Christ as a living reality in today’s world. (Cf. C. Pinnock and others,
The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding
of God [InterVarsity, 1994]; C. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology
of God’s Openness [Baker, 2001]).
In contrast to other, more abstract approaches to theism, the open view of
God is a relational model of understanding. In conventional theism, God is
seen as an all-controlling and unchangeable Being who determines directly
or indirectly all things that happen. He exists out of time and is unaffected
by anything. He knows all things in advance and sovereignly ordains what
he knows. The open view, on the other hand, sees God as a relational and
triune God who exists as a community (Father, Son, and Spirit) and seeks
loving relationships with creatures. In order for such relationships to be
possible, God imparts genuine (or “libertarian”) freedom to human beings.
This freedom allows them the possibility of loving God or of acting in ways
unconstrained by God’s will. God chooses to achieve his goals by means of
collaboration with humans rather than by predetermination.
Out of this view emerges a God who is vulnerable as he experiences the pain
of human rejection and the consequences of disobedience. But God is also
infinitely resourceful and competent, responding to our choices in ways that
enable him, in cooperation with us, to achieve his purposes. One aspect of
this approach has to do with God’s foreknowledge. God does not (we think)
have exhaustive, definite foreknowledge of every detail of the future, but
has so arranged things that the future would be created through divine-creaturely
interaction. In terms of divine sovereignty, it means that God exercises
general rather than meticulous providence; that is, he leaves the future
partly settled and partly unsettled. It is settled in that much can be foreseen
and God’s victory is assured. It is unsettled in that the circumstances in
which God achieves his ends are open to change. As we like to say, God’s
goals have open routes (Cf. J. Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology
of Providence [InterVarsity, 1998]; T. Tiessen, Providence and Prayer:
How Does God Work in the World? [InterVarsity, 2000]).
According to the open view, the sovereign God decided to make creatures capable
of experiencing mutual and reciprocal, give-and-take relations of love, both
with himself and with fellow creatures. To accomplish this, God allowed some
of his actions to be contingent upon our prayers and responses. God elicits
our collaboration in his plans; he has decided not to control everything,
but to leave room for us to operate. This means that God exercises creative
sovereignty and resourceful strategies in dealing with us. Therefore, we
do not believe that there is a blueprint or script for history. God’s plans
are realized in a variety of ways, depending on the circumstances. Even when
people disappoint him, God remains faithful to creation.
There are some who believe that thinking of God as in any way limited diminishes
him (Cf. B.A. Ware, [Crossway, 2000]). This conviction, though, fails to
acknowledge that any kenosis (or self-emptying of God), in which God
limits the exercise of his properties in order that significant creatures
should exist, is balanced by a pleroma (or fullness of glory), in
which God experiences real gains. The limitation is well worth it. The very
act of self-emptying allows God to experience loving relationships with creatures
that would have otherwise been impossible. Thus, alongside what appears to
be subtraction and loss, there is actually addition and gain. A certain richness
is added to the divine experience by the enjoying of these relationships.
The self-limitation of God makes possible for, and renders visible and wonderful,
new forms of divine glory. Indeed, open theists do not serve a diminished
deity! On the one hand, we acknowledge that God could have created a world
that he would totally control, a world whose future would have been completely
settled. On the other hand, we believe on scriptural grounds that he chose
something very different. He made a world that is not all-determined, the
future of which would not be exhaustively foreknown. He did it in order to
let finite creativity flourish. In the end, there is no “loss” for God in
this view since it is only a question of how God chooses to utilize his power.
This choice remains entirely his alone.
I am aware that some have difficulty with the view that God possesses “present
knowledge,” not exhaustive, definite foreknowledge. What we believe in this
matter is that God knows everything that can be known, but that future free
decisions are not knowable in their entirety. They are not yet real and are
nothing to be known. Therefore, it cannot be an imperfection not to know
them. In other words, some aspects of the future are not yet settled or fixed
but open to what God (and humans) may yet decide to do. Some things are certain
while other things are possible, and God knows the difference. God made the
world in this way because he wants us to collaborate with him in bringing
open aspects of the future into being. To allay the fears of those who think
that limited foreknowledge leaves God epistemologically challenged, we simply
point to God’s resourcefulness and competence to handle every situation that
For God to be omniscient means that he knows everything any being could know.
He knows everything that could possibly exist and everything that does actually
exist. He knows things, not merely in an abstract way but directly. As he
responds in sensitive ways to everything that happens in the world by the
free choices of his creatures, the content of his knowledge changes as they
act in new ways. No being can know in advance exactly what a free agent will
do, although he may predict it with high probability. God knows that whatever
he wills and determines will come to pass, but if God is free and creatures
are free he cannot always know in advance exactly what will happen. This
is not a limit on God’s foreknowledge but characteristic of the world that
God decided to make. We do not see how one can have genuine freedom (human
and divine) and exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Future free acts, by definition,
cannot be known in every detail and with certainty even by God. It is enough
to say that God knows everything any being could possibly know. This leaves
room for human persons to act and room for God to act, since the future is
open to them both. The future is still being formed; that is, everything
has not been decided. God cannot be taken off guard by what happens but can
accomplish his goals in more ways than one. The Bible portrays the world
as a moral order that presupposes both libertarian freedom and a degree of
uncertainty as to how things will exactly work out. (Cf. G. Boyd, God
of the Possible: An Introduction to the Open View of God [Baker, 2000];
J. Beilby and P. Eddy, eds., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views [InterVarsity,
Although the intellectual roots of contemporary relational theism lie in
the Wesleyan-Arminian traditions, in reality, they go back in their emphasis
on divine responsiveness to the church fathers prior to Augustine (Cf. R.
Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition
and Reform [InterVarsity, 1999] ch. 17). The open view of God also goes
beyond classical Arminianism in questioning the timelessness of God and God’s
exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Not only does it challenge Augustinian
traditions, it also breaks new ground for traditional Arminians and challenges
left-wing Arminians, called process theists, as well (Cf. J.B. Cobb Jr. and
C.H. Pinnock, eds., Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between
Process and Free Theists [Wm.B. Eerdmans, 2000]). The open view of God
is also found in mainstream theology, albeit under different labels. Our
key word is “openness,” but others use terms like “kenosis” to say much the
same thing (Cf. J. Moltmann, P. Fiddes, K. Ward, and J. Polkinghorne, eds.,
The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis [Wm.B. Eerdmans, 2001]).
Besides what I have learned about the doctrine of God in pursuing the open
view, I have also learned things about evangelical theology in North America.
First, I have learned that there is a stronger strain of creedalism in this
context than I had realized. There is considerable suspicion of Arminian
interpretations from the Augustinian component, especially when fresh moves
like this are explored. As one who would like evangelical pluralism to continue,
I hope to see a greater cultivation of dialogical virtues among us. Indeed,
theology thrives on great debates; and the trouble with quarrelling, as G.
K. Chesterton said, is that it spoils a good argument! We need to treat one
another with respect and learn to disagree civilly (cf. J. Wood, Epistemology:
Becoming Intellectually Virtuous [InterVarsity, 1998]).
Second, I have noticed that the debate over the openness of God has opened
up an area in which evangelical thinking needs to experience reform. Surely
the glory of God does not consist of his exercising total control over the
world but of his self-giving and self-sacrificing love. This is not just
a partisan interpretation. According to the gospel, God has the properties
of a lover, not the properties of a tyrant. While God is certainly the “most”
and the “best,” there are different kinds of goodness and greatness. It is
a divine perfection, not only to rule, but to be vulnerable for love’s sake.
God is not an impassible Buddha, untouched by the troubles of mortal existence.
We do not endorse the Aristotelian ideal of a self-sufficient God, who devotes
his time to contemplating his own existence. We worship a God who became
one of us and shares in our condition. The open view of God is an ongoing
research project in evangelical theology and everyone is invited to contribute.
By Clark H. Pinnock, Professor of Theology at McMaster Divinity