God and the Open View

Clark H. Pinnock

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 arises.

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, 2002]).

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 [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.

Posted Feb 01, 2003