Why Open Theism is Wrong (And So are Its Opponents)

I have posted before on the subject of Open Theism, a subject altogether controversial for reasons that defy my own ability to comprehend. But I will leave that subject alone for the moment. Rather, I want to begin by addressing why Open Theism is, simply stated, wrong. Open Theists claim the Bible pictures God as knowing the future as containing both certainties and potentialities. What determines whether God’s knowledge of the future is certain or possible is the degree to which God must manipulate the future to make it certain. Open Theists aver that God will not manipulate human freewill in order to bring about what he foreknows. This is what makes this line of thinking an -ism; it creates a systematic approach to the way we understand God’s interactions with the world. As with most systems related to God, the system eventually runs up against the biblical text. Take, for example, this text from Genesis:

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

This is a fairly specific proclamation by YHWH that suggests human sin will be fundamental to the working out of this declaration. This is not a contingent plan, as indicated by YHWH’s words, “Know this for certain.” Now, we could get into the discussion as to whether or not this is a text that is written after the fact and reflecting back on Israel’s history, but that discussion is irrelevant. We are concerned not just with what God is presenting, but how God himself is being presented. He knows this because he declares it to Abram. If this text wasn’t problematic enough, we then find that YHWH uses Pharaoh as his pawn to make this happen, hardening his heart several times and even stating before Moses ever confronts Pharaoh that he will do so:

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.'”

It is characteristic of many opponents of Open Theism to point out the rough edges of their system and then act as if this both undermines the entire Open Theistic project and undergirds their own -ism (Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.). If Open Theism is wrong, its opponents are wrong-er. Open Theism is essentially a knee-jerk reaction to traditional theistic systems that run roughshod over the biblical text. They identify a significant number of passages that lie on the extremities of the biblical witness and attempt to use those to develop an alternative theistic system. Simply put, Open Theists rely upon one cache of biblical texts while its opponents rely upon a different cache, and together they share a number of ambiguous passages sympathetic to either view (e.g. Is 46:8-11). As proof that other -ism’s are no better off than Open Theism, consider Joseph’s dream and Jacob’s interpretation:

Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?”

It is interesting to observe that at this point in the narrative, Joseph has 10 brothers, not eleven. We know, however, that when this dream is realized, Benjamin will be born and will serve as the eleventh brother who bows down before Joseph. Perhaps this demonstrates divine foresight, but it immediately poses a problem. Rachel, Joseph’s mother (a.k.a. the moon), dies while giving birth to Benjamin (Gen 35:16-19). It is remarkable that the very thing that makes possible the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream (the birth of the eleventh son) simultaneously renders that dream incapable of being fulfilled (the death of Joseph’s mother). What can account for this most difficult text? Our present systems simply fall short.

Insofar as the argument is limited to the position that, for God, the future contains both certainties and possibilities, Open Theism is on the right track. And yet, the system set up by Open Theism is following the well worn path of creating a system too exclusive to accommodate the entire biblical witness. But this criticism implies the insufficiency of older models built on determinism or simple foreknowledge. And therefore, while Open Theism is wrong, its errors only further condemn the position of its opponents.


24 thoughts on “Why Open Theism is Wrong (And So are Its Opponents)

  1. Good post. I’m not prepared to be “in the tank” for Open Theism as of yet but when I read the Bible I do see a very personal/ interactive, creative and flexible divine sovereignty, as opposed to the distant, impersonal, and arbitrary sovereignty described especially in Calvinism and even in Arminianism. I really enjoy reading Gregory Boyd, who, as you probably know, is at the forefront of the advocacy of “the open-view” of God, and listening to his sermons on his webiste. Thanks for putting this article up.

  2. Interesting thoughts. You are certainly correct that many of the traditional views of God’s knowledge (particularly determinism) are as equally flawed as Open Theism.

    Question for you: The passage you cited for Joseph’s dream comes from Gen. 37.9-10. By this point, Benjamin HAD been born. Therefore, how does this pose any problem? It is not likely that the moon is in fact Leah who was essentially Joseph’s “step-mother” at this time?

    1. Good question, Serge. This is probably something I should have fleshed out. Chapter 35 and 37 do not form a continuous narrative. This can be demonstrated by the fact that these chapters belong to two different toledot sections (and in fact Esau’s toledot separates these two stories). This clearly breaks up the narrative sequence. We must then determine where the narrator then sees chapter 37 belonging in the scheme of the story already partially told in chapter 35. The fact that Jacob interprets the dream by saying “will your mother and I . . . ” suggests to me that his mother is still alive in the story. Furthermore, step-mother seems anachronistic, not to mention problematic given that Bilhah and Zilpah are likely also to be Joseph’s step-mothers. We can add to this argument the description of Joseph in chapter 37, “the son of [Jacob’s] old age” (i.e. his youngest son). If Benjamin were already born, this would be Benjamin, not Joseph. So no, Benjamin is born subsequent to Joseph being taken to Egypt, and the theistic problem still stands.

      1. I think your proposed solution requires a rather drastic re-interpretation of the entire Joseph narrative. If Benjamin is not born until Joseph is in Egypt, why is the meeting of Joseph and Benjamin so emotional? Why does Joseph bestow such favoritism upon Benjamin? These questions can be readily answered IF Joseph knew Benjamin was his FULL brother (information he is not given in the recorded conversation between Joseph and the other 10).

        Furthermore, if Benjamin was not born when Joseph was carried away to Egypt, then Rachel was still alive. Why does Joseph ask nothing concerning his mother?

  3. While these are curious details the narrator has not included in the story, they do not make the story incomprehensible. I certainly believe omitted details can be crucial to understanding a narrative (see this!), but I also recognize that the omission of details may be insignificant. It is the interpreters job to discern between the two. In this case, I would argue that the omitted details do not justify altering the plain meaning of such things as “your mother and I” and “the son of his youth.” Of course, if you think in systematic categories, and it is important to preserve traditional theism, then you certainly are in trouble if you take these at face value. But to interpret “mother” as “step-mother” and “son of his youth” as ???? to suggest that the dream was indeed consistent with how the story unfolds sounds like special pleading. Our foremost commitment should be to what the text presents us, not to a distorted image of that text created when we impose upon it our foreign systematic categories. If the text doesn’t fit, you must a-quit!

    But then, if we introduce omitted details into this story, we have to recognize that Benjamin’s birth and Rachel’s death are omitted from this story (as I mentioned before, they are in a previous toledot). If it is crucial that Joseph know of Benjamin’s birth and Rachel’s death, then why not have those occurring between verses 11 and 12? It allows the plain sense of the above passages while providing what you believe is necessary for the comprehensibility of the subsequent narrative. Of course, this still poses a problem to traditional theism, but after all, that is my point.

    1. But wouldn’t Leah be considered Joseph’s “mother” if Rachel is dead? After all weren’t there clear distinctions between married wives and concubines who bore children in place of those wives?

      In our modern-day context a woman who has a child is instantly given the term “mother”….but does that translate to the ancient practice of having slaves/servants bear children for their mistresses?

      1. “weren’t there clear distinctions between married wives and concubines who bore children in place of those wives?”

        This is something that cannot be assumed. There is a sense in which Rachel and Leah see the children of Bilhah and Zilpah as adding to their tally, so to speak. But these women are elsewhere considered the mothers of the children they bore (cf. Gen 37:2). Moreover, there is no example that anyone has mentioned yet that would support the hypothesis that “your mother and I,” when being spoken to Joseph, would mean anyone other than Rachel. Simply stated, Rachel is alive when Jacob makes that statement.

      2. Let me state that I’m not asking these questions to deny Open Theism…because I tend to lean that way already.

        I simply think that the idea of “family” presented in the OT is very different from our modern perspective. I’m thinking of Ruth handing over Obed to Naomi–

        16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son.” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

        Matthew lists Ruth as the the mother of Obed….but the Book of Ruth seems to say that Naomi was Obed’s “mother” not only in accordance with the custom of preserving family continuity…but in the sense that Naomi “mothered” Obed in every way other than conceiving and birthing him.

        I guess my point is that your interpretation of Joseph’s dream, and subsequent support for Open Theism, is dependent on the assumption that Joseph and Jacob would not have thought of Leah as the official “mother” of the family….in an authoritative sense…rather than simply in a biological sense.

      3. But it is equally an assumption to say that the Leah would be considered the mother. The example of Ruth and Naomi has a motivation for providing a male heir to Naomi, but the situation in Genesis is very different. Genesis continues to list Joseph (and Benjamin) as the son of Rachel (not Leah), which leads me to believe that Joseph remains a son of Rachel throughout the story. And of course, there is an abundance of open theistic passages throughout the entire Bible, so I agree, the issue does not hang on this passage.

  4. To further support that Benjamin has been born and Rachel has died before Joseph is sent to Egypt, consider that in verse 14, Jacob (now Israel) sends Joseph to his brothers from the Valley of Hebron, which is where Jacob ended up after Rachel died, according to the previous story (35:27). But why since the narrative allows this to occur between verses 11 and 12, and since it discourages seeing these events as having occurred before verse 12, I think I still provide the most natural reading of the text.

  5. Joseph,
    one of the points I disagree with you on is your assumption that Genesis is an accurate portrayal of God. I don’t favor a platonic deterministic god, but neither do I depend my theology on Joseph’s dream in an antiquated text.

    1. If we can pick and choose which portrayals of God we accept as accurate portrayals, we create a god in our own image. The question is not if Genesis accurately portrays God, the question is What is Genesis telling us about God. I have not pursued that here.

  6. Thanks for this Joseph, this is a concisely and clearly articulated post. To Ben: I don’t see Joseph arguing for Genesis containing an “accurate” portrayal(s) of God in this post, but rather dealing with the way God is portrayed in Genesis. Perhaps the man himself will respond to that. To your second sentence I would reply that Joseph’s dream recorded in an antiquated text is within the canon of other antiquated texts from which I draw my theology and I am assuming you do as well, and is evidence that should be considered along with other texts. The question to ask is: has Joseph interpreted the text properly, and if so, what does it tell us about God? cheers.

  7. God has knowledge of all things, at all times, in all places, and of all persons. There is nothing known that is hidden from Him. His knowledge is over all things, even the number and the names of all the stars (Psalm 147:4). His knowledge is also over the most insignificant things (i.e. the hairs on each person’s head (Matthew 10:30)). Even the needs that we pray for are known beforehand by God Almighty (Matthew 6:8). The variables of history (Matthew 11:21) as well as future events (Daniel 2:36-43; 7:4-8, Matthew 24-25, Revelation 6-19) are also known completely by God. Nothing in all of history or time is a surprise to God. His knowledge is not dependent on the methods by which humans obtain knowledge (senses, observation, reason). Since He is omniscient, His knowledge is complete, eternal, and infinite. God’s knowledge does not increase with time and history. God acts depending on his unchanging nature and will, while humans take risks not knowing the outcome. God’s nature and knowledge is not affected by human risk. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it.” Numbers 23:19. God persuades human action; because of this we know his will and prophecies come to completion, despite the choices of men. Open theists redefine omniscience in order to accommodate the extreme importance they put on genuine human freedom (in it’s purest sense of the definition). God’s complete omniscience allows Him greater understanding into the sinful hearts of mankind, than open theism allows for. 1 John 3:20 most clearly demonstrates this. “…for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” The Greek exegesis of this verse proves this point even further. “Knows” in 1 John 3:20 is in the gnomic present tense. The gnomic present happens without time limits to the past, present, or future. Therefore God knows everything all the time (in contrast to knowing sometimes but not at other times). Because of this, God is more fully able to minister in an understanding way to each need of each person at each moment in history (Matthew 6:8). Because God holds sway over the will of men, He can be that much more trusted to act according to His nature rather than according to the fleeting risks of men. Free will, like prayer, does not guarantee an automatic prediction of man’s expected outcome (James 4:13-16). The demonstrations of God’s “relenting” as seen in Exodus 32:14 does not imply that God was changing His mind because of the pleas of humanity. God’s nature, purpose, and omniscience never change. They are not “open” to the fleeting whininess of men. However, what does change are man’s decisions. It was the decision of the chosen people to make the golden calf and thus reject God’s best for them. However Moses did not twist God’s arm to change His course of action towards His people for their sin. God simply acted according to His predetermined will, purpose, and nature when he did not give them the disaster that they deserved. Since God created time, He knows all and controls all that happens within time. Since humans are bound by time, during this life we are bound by the fact that we must use finite language to describe God Almighty. When God placed Himself within the scope of human time and language, we are now susceptible to limiting His omniscience because of our human definition of the free will of man. This is the ultimate deficiency of open theism. Their view of God’s omniscience is deficient and proportionately diminished as they seek to exalt the freedom of the human will.

    1. You do an excellent job of selectively drawing from the Bible verses that you can accommodate to a particular view of God’s knowledge not explicitly stated in any single verse you cited (nor, I might add, in the sum total of those verses you cited–hence the word “accommodate”). Unfortunately, the Bible is bigger than your theology; insofar as it is, you can hardly call it a theology.

  8. This is well written, and I liked and agreeded with what you had to say.
    I have a question, if you’re under the belief that Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism are wrong to a certain degree, what is the foundation of your beliefs? I’m not asking for you to take a side or give me a label describing your beliefs, but simply asking when you read the scriptures what do you personally see in the scriptures thus far in your journey? besides, the ‘isms getting alot of stuff wrong.

    1. If their is an -ism upon which I ground my beliefs, it is the inherent skeptic-ism of systems. You could say I am systematically opposed to systems, at least in so far as it applies to the biblical text. I am not ready to swear of systematic theology, just the type of systematic theology that doesn’t recognize its own limitations. As to how this boils down to a practical approach to Scripture, it means approaching each text in light of the larger whole without assuming that such a text will not bring the larger whole into question. Each text has the right to both support and undermine the system. Thus, while Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism are all wrong, one might equally assert that they are all right, in so far as they all posit a view of God that is likely to find support somewhere within the canon. This is terribly unsettling to modern minds, but it is what it is. We cannot argue Scripture is something it is not, simply because we don’t like what it really is.

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