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The Open Theist View of Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-Will

           Open Theism is a fairly new development, and has raised a lot of controversy in theological and philosophical circles. In our exposition of Open Theism we will refer primarily to John Sanders book, The God Who Risks:A Theology of Divine Providence.[1] In this book Sanders points out that his main worry, in his theological endeavor, is to preserve the relationship of true love between God and his creatures.[2] The Open Theist view depends upon placing God within time,[3] and claiming that God actually interacts with man exactly as the Bible portrays his interactions.[4]

Divine Sovereignty

            Open Theism holds that God is indeed in control of the universe, but qualifies that control. “God does not control everything that happens but does control many things.”[5] God’s control consists in creating this world, setting us loose in it, and guaranteeing a happy ending. “God has sovereignly established a type of world in which god sets up general structures or an overall framework for meaning and allows the creatures significant input into exactly how things will turn out. God desires a relationship of love with his creation and so elects to grant it the freedom to enter into a give-and-take relationship with himself. Since God macromanages the overall project (while remaining free to micromanage some things), God takes risks in governing the world.”[6]

            The sovereign God of the open theist is not at all like the God of Calvinism, he is very much the opposite. He creates us, and lets us get on with our lives, waiting, and hoping that we will turn to him for an intimate love relationship. A relationship that he desires so much, but can do nothing to obtain without removing our freedom, or diminishing its value in some important way.

Freedom of Will

            The one thing that Molinism and Open Theism have in common is their view of human freedom. They hold a view which is called Libertarianism. Simply put, Libertarianism claims that a voluntary act is free when, and only when, it is not determined by any antecedent state of affairs. An action is only free if the agent, in performing any action, could have done otherwise. In Sanders own words, “…an agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action.”[7]

Putting Sovereignty and Free Will Together in Open Theism

            In order to save libertarian free will, and an intimate “give-and-take” relationship between God and his creatures, the open theist redefines Gods sovereignty, and goes to great lengths to justify this view from the Bible. For the open theist there really is no problem with Gods sovereign control over the world, and libertarian free will. This is because God has very little control over the world. Proponents of this view claim that it is not only faithful to the Bible, but that it is also practical for pastoral counseling.[8] However, there are a number of major problems with this view, both hermeneutically, and philosophically.

            The God of Open Theism is in time, as we mentioned earlier, and cannot know future contingent events (if he did then they would not be contingent, but necessary events, because Gods knowledge is immutable and infallible), which means that he finds out what happens at the same time as we do. It is difficult to see how such a view accords with the biblical prophecies about the actions of individuals (such as the Messianic prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus, or the prophecy about Cyrus), and even of nations and world events. One might try to say, as Sanders does, that God maintains the right to “micromanage” certain things.[9] However, it is difficult to see how such a view is consistent with libertarian freewill. God could be accused of giving us a pseudo-libertarian freewill, as he freely intervenes in world events, taking away the freedom of anyone who might get in the way of his prophetic declarations. God could also be accused of manipulating and coercing the people affected by his predictions so that they do what they are supposed to do. On the open theist view, God is a jealous lover who intervenes in the world’s history, taking away our freedom, whenever necessary, in order to “save face”, and the rest of the time he sits back and waits for us to come to him. Of course, if a little tweaking of certain circumstances is required to bring you to him, then so be it; and if someone’s freedom is removed for a period of time, well, it was worth it to gain a lover.

            A second problem with open theism is that if we follow their hermeneutic, then we must say that not only does God not know the future, but that he also knows no more than we do about current events (Gen. 3:9, 11, 13), and that on top of that, he is a poor planner (Gen. 6:6; Ex. 4:14, 32:14), not even capable of foreseeing potential glitches in his plan. He is as surprise as we are by what happens (Jer. 3:7, 32:35), and can be grieved to the point of wanting to start all over again (Gen. 6:6). He can also get tired (Gen. 2:3), has a bad memory (Gen. 8:1), and has to check out the facts of world events by physically going and examining the circumstances (Gen. 18:1-2, 20-21). Finally, it seems that he is also a poor judge of character, because, he needs to test us to find out if we will trust and obey him (Gen.22).

            One other problem with Open Theism is their view of free will. However, I have already mentioned some of the problems with libertarian freewill when I looked at Molinism.

[1]John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).

[2]Ibid., 223.

[3]John Sanders, “Divine Suffering in an Openness of God Perspective”, in The Sovereignty of God Debate, ed. by D. Stephen Long and George Kalantzis (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 112.

[4]Sanders, The God Who Risks, 224.

[5]Ibid., 227.

[6]Ibid., 225.

[7]Ibid., 235

[8]Gregory A. Boyd, God of thePossible (2000; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2008), 153-156. Cf. Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View”, in DivineForeknowledge: Four Views, ed. by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 27.

[9]Sanders, The God Who Risks, 225.

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