The Biblical Arguments for Open Theism

There are a few categories of texts that support open theism. Many will also be surprised to find that there are a lot. I won’t nearly cover them all here, but I will take a sampling primarily from Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. Boyd’s argument which I agree with is that classical (Calvinist and Arminian) theologians essentially ignore these texts and when explicitly asked about them dismiss them as metaphorical while still holding that texts otherwise identical are obviously literally true of all knowledge. The Open Theist view is simple: take all the texts seriously instead of picking and choosing based on a Greek philosophy presupposition. If you do, you’ll inevitably end up at a view of a partially settled and partially open future.

A God Who Regrets

Before the flood, “The LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6) How can God be sorry for how humanity turned out if he knew all along that it was going to turn out this way?

God intends to bless Saul and his household for many generations (1 Sam 13:13). However, Saul goes against God and so God’s plan for him changed – the blessing was revoked. God says that “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me.” (1 Sam 15:10) and it later says again that “the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam 15:35) Again, how can God regret his decision and even revoke his intended blessing if he knew Saul was going to turn away the whole time?

A God Who Asks About the Future

God sometimes expresses the uncertainty of the future outright. He asks Moses, “how long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11) God asks Hosea “how long will they [Israel] be incapable of innocence?” (Hosea 8:5; cf 1 Kings 22:20). Are these just rhetorical questions? Maybe, and I wouldn’t dismiss that interpretation as much as I would dismiss interpretations of some of the other texts here. However, there isn’t any reason to suggest that they are just rhetorical, especially when you consider that God continued to try futilely for centuries to bring the Israelites to him.

A God Who Must Face the Unexpected

God says sometimes things didn’t work out as he expected. For example, in Isaiah, the Lord is describing Israel as his vineyard and himself as the owner and says that he “expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (5:2) and then “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4) If God knows every detail of the future in advance, how could he expect one thing and then experience something different?

Jeremiah provides some more good examples: “I thought, ‘After she had done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return” (Jer. 3:6-7) and “I thought how I would set you among my children… and I thought you would call me My Father and would not turn from following me. Instead, as a faithless wife… you have been faithless to me.” (Jer. 3:19-20) So did God actually think these things and turned out to expect incorrectly because of our free will, or is he lying and he actually knew all along what would happen? Those are our only two options – either he did think it as he said or he didn’t think it. God also expresses shock at Israel’s behaviour by saying they were doing things “which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 19:5; also 7:31; 32:35).

A God Who Gets Frustrated

This is a huge theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. But how can God be frustrated that things happened which he knew was going to happen? Or in the Calvinist perspective, how can God be frustrated if things happened exactly as he ordained them to happen? God gets frustrated at Moses in Exodus 4:10-15 and eventually relents to enlist Aaron to speak instead of Moses.

God repeatedly expresses frustration in the prophets as well, such as in Ezekiel when he says “I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it: but I found no one. Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them.” That one is also really interesting because it provides a very practical meaning to prayer – not just changing us which is very important but also changing God’s mind. To the main point, though, can you really get frustrated when you look for somebody and don’t find them, if you really knew they weren’t there the whole time? It would be like me scrounging around the house all day looking for a $100 bill even though I know there wasn’t one, then yelling at my housemate when I can’t find it.

A God Who Tests Our Character

This is arguably the strongest theme of all. God repeatedly tests the character of people. But if God already knew all the results, then the testing would just be toying with people. God tests Abraham with the binding of Isaac, and then God says “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son” (Gen 22:12) which is very different from “I already knew you feared me and that you would not withhold your son, but I felt like doing this anyway.” We could again say that this is rhetorical, but that isn’t what the text says – it says that he knows since Abraham didn’t withhold. God also tests Hezekiah “to know all that was in his heart” (2 Chron. 32:31) which implies that God didn’t know before that. Otherwise he wasn’t really testing to know him and God is again a liar.

There are lots of examples of corporate testing as well. Moses tells the Israelites that the 40 years in the desert were “in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you could keep his commandments” (Deut. 8:2) and then that with the false prophets God “is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 13:1-3). God withholds assistance in battle “in order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their ancestors did” (Judg. 2:22) and left Israel’s opponents alone “for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD” (Judg. 3:4). When God provides bread in the desert, he commands them only to take what they need to “test them whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exod 16:4).

This motif in particular I’ve barely touched on as I know it is a big one throughout Scripture. But how can God test to know our character if he already knows our character? Maybe God can test so that we know our character, but that’s not what the text says. Is the text wrong? Was God lying?

A Bunch More to Look Up for Yourself

These texts are barely scratching the surface as I said at the beginning. Here’s some more listed in brief with no room for extra discussion, but they’re mostly the same ideas:

Numbers 11:1-2. Numbers 14:12-20. Numbers 16:20-35. Numbers 16:41-48. Judges 10:13-16. 1 Samuel 23: 10-13. 2 Samuel 24:12-16 (1 Chronicles 21:7-13). 2 Samuel 24:17-25. 1 Kings 21:21-29. 2 Kings 13:3-5. 2 Chronicles 7:12-14. Jeremiah 7:5-7. Jeremiah 38:17-18, 21. Ezekiel 20:5-22. Ezekiel 33:13-15. Hosea 11:8-9. Matthew 25:41. Acts 15:7. Acts 21:10-12.

I’m willing to bet there are a lot more, but I just did a relatively quick skim through the book and had already come up with enough to make a 1300 word blog post, and I think the point has been made. Not like so many of the opponents of open theism say, it is a position that is deeply grounded in Scripture.

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.