God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God

Regular readers know that I am a fan of the teachings of Greg Boyd. You would also probably know that I am an open theist, of which Greg Boyd is one of the most outspoken defenders. You probably don’t know, though, that before a few days ago, I had actually only read one Greg Boyd book (Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of Revolution) and I had not read any books on open theism. I’ve mostly become familiar with Boyd through his sermons at Woodland Hills Church which are available online. I similarly hadn’t done much real research into Open Theism, although I knew what it was and some of the general arguments and counter-arguments. So all that to say, this book was an exciting read for me to finally get the whole picture of the view from probably my favourite teacher. In general, it lived up to the hype I had going into it.

As I feel like Boyd provides in general, this is an extremely well-argued book. He clearly had no interest in just tossing together a feel-good argument about his position, and contrary to even a lot of Christian writers he did not present opposing views with straw men arguments to make his own look better. As somebody who was generally familiar with the arguments, sometimes it felt like he was being ridiculously repetitive, but as I thought about it afterward, I realized that most people without at least part of a theological degree like myself would probably greatly benefit from the repetition. It is a huge paradigm shift, so hearing it once probably wouldn’t cut it so Boyd’s repetition is extremely valuable.

Defining Open Theism

Some of my less frequent readers or new readers altogether are probably still asking themselves what open theism is. The simplest definition is to say that the future is not exhaustively settled, even for God, but is partially open. This is in opposition to the two variations on the classical viewpoint: Calvinism which says that the future is exhaustively settled because God has set every little detail in place, and Arminianism which says that the future is exhaustively settled for God because he exists outside of time and knows what choices we’re going to make even though we still (sort of, in theory) have free will. It is primarily not a question of God’s ability to know as it is a question about the nature of the future. That should be gotten out of the way quickly because it is a frequent objection. It is not about limiting God, saying that he doesn’t know something that is knowable. That would fall within the category of process theology which open theists also disagree with. Open theists believe that God knows everything that is knowable – it is just the content of what qualifies as knowable that is up for debate. In the same way God can’t make a round square because it is a logical contradiction, he cannot know something that does not exist as knowledge.

The Settled Future Motif

The first chapter of the book deals with Scriptural passages usually used to defend an exhaustively-settled future argument. The Open Theist argument agrees completely that some things are settled, but does not accept that all things are settled. We say that parts of the future is settled, for certain reasons which Boyd explains well. One possible reason is that it is God’s intention. If it is God’s intention and that intention has no possibility of change – say for example the death of Jesus – then it will happen without any chance of the opposite. Some things are central to God’s grand plan and will happen because he will do it. Some other things are knowable, or virtually knowable, because God knows every variable that is currently in place including the character of everyone involved. And logically, the closer it is upcoming in the future the likelier it is that a path will not change. In this first chapter Boyd establishes quite effectively that the rare verse that is used to say that God knows absolutely every fine detail of all time even before it happens cannot really be used to say that. Those texts can be used to say one or both of these other things: God is active and has certain active plans, and since God knows the present and knows us perfectly he can have a pretty good probability estimate (in some cases a 100% probability) of the future. Open Theists totally agree with those two things. But there is no Scriptural evidence that God knows everything, and in fact there is a lot of Scriptural evidence that God doesn’t know everything ahead of time.

The Open Future Motif

The second chapter gets into the very long list of passages which present an open view of the future. Then if those still aren’t enough for you, there’s another substantial appendix with a bunch more. Once you see all of these passages, you are faced with a choice. Most classical theologians essentially ignore them. They argue that they aren’t really meant to be taken seriously. They are just metaphors and shouldn’t be taken literally. One problem with that is that they are written no differently in style – usually in historical texts and often with God himself saying the words – than the motif of future settledness that was discussed in the previous chapter. So if those are taken literally, as I like Boyd think they should be, then why shouldn’t the motif of future openness be taken literally either? Another problem is that if they are supposed to be a metaphor, what is the metaphor supposed to be saying? When the text says that God changes his mind, or regrets, or makes a conditional prophecy, what is that a metaphor for? Is God just being sneaky and toying with us? I agree with Boyd that there isn’t really any answer given and that it is generally just ignored instead. He gets into other ways that theologians try to shrug off these texts as well but I don’t need to write them all here. There are a lot of texts here that are usually ignored by classical theologians (Calvinists and Arminians) as having no meaning. And in the evangelical segment of Christianity from which and largely to whom Boyd is writing, saying that significant portions of the Bible has no meaning is definitely a problem.

The argument is fairly simple: treat that motif in Scripture as seriously as you treat the future-settledness motif, and you’ll undoubtedly end up at Open Theism. If we (Protestants) claim that Scripture is our highest authority, we need to stop treating Platonic ideals of God as higher – the ideals that say that God is emotionless, never changes his mind, never experiences things, and sees all time as the same. These ideals have been imbued in the church since the 2nd or 3rd century and it is just the past 100 years that people have started to ask whether those ideals are really defensible by Scripture or by any other means other than Plato. And an increasing number of us are finding that they’re not – once Scripture trumps Plato then classical theism falls apart.

Conclusion (For Now)

The next two chapters of the book I’m going to deal with in separate posts: Chapter 3 talks about practical applications of this different belief from the classical belief, and Chapter 4 addresses the objections. But I wanted to stop here for a couple of reasons. For one, this post is already getting lengthy enough as it is. For a second, this is really the heart of the argument. As somebody who believes in the authority of Scripture, not the authority of Plato (although he was a very wise man and I definitely respect him), like Boyd I simply cannot ignore what Scripture says on this topic. The next two sections of the practical differences and the answering objections really just solidify the position. As Boyd says himself lots of times, those are necessary too, but even if opponents had a great philosophical objection (which they don’t), with it being as clear in Scripture as it is then I’d still be an open theist anyway.

The subtitle of the book says that it is a biblical introduction, and it really was. Boyd points out something very interesting about the nature of the debate. Generally when people try to refute Open Theism, they do not bother to answer any of the Scriptural points used by Open Theists. They rely entirely on Platonic philosophy or else fear mongering that it is “undermining the sovereignty of God” (it’s not – it is undermining the micromanaging control freak God, but enhancing his sovereignty). Whether those opponents think so themselves or not I’m not sure, but it definitely tends to give the impression that Open Theism is not a Scriptural argument but just some crazy new heretical anti-Scriptural philosophy. Boyd annihilates that impression over and over and over again to the point of exhaustion, and for Bible-believing Christians I have a hard time thinking that anybody could finish this book and not accept that the Bible says that the future is partly open.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.