Open theism boldly rewrites the nature of divine providence, God's sovereignty, and his involvement in our lives. This book summarizes and critiques this doctrine and the subtle but dangerous ways in which it steals glory from God.
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About the Author
Bruce A. Ware (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written numerous journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and has authored God's Lesser Glory, God's Greater Glory, and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Read an Excerpt
Why You Should Be Concerned
A Future Unknown to Us and ... to God?
Life contains daily reminders of our limited human knowledge. How often, and for how many different reasons, do we think to ourselves, "If only I had known ..."? Have you ever sat frustrated behind the wheel of your car in an unexpected traffic jam because you didn't know that a stalled car up ahead was blocking the lane? No doubt you thought, "If only I had known, I would have turned off and taken a different route." Or have you agonized over an unforeseen accident that happened to one of your children? You naturally think, for example, "Had I known she was about to slip, I would have held her hand." Yet we realize that even the wisest and most perceptive drivers and parents endure traffic jams and injuries in part because they simply cannot know what the future holds.
But think for a minute. What if this inability to see into the future is true not only for human beings but for God as well! What if God in fact faces the same limitations as we do in not being able to know what will happen in the next moment, or day, or year, or century? How would this affect your trust in God, your confidence in facing the future, your motivation to pray and leave everything in his hands?
One of my dad's favorite "vacation songs" has a line that says, "Many things about tomorrow, I don't seem to understand, but I know Who holds tomorrow, and I know He holds my hand." What a beautiful, reassuring, faith-building, hope-inspiring truth! How many Christians have been strengthened to know and believe and rely on the fact that God knows absolutely everything about their future, even if they know nothing of it? But now, consider: What if it simply is not true that God "holds tomorrow"? What if, in fact, he does not know what tomorrow will bring? What if it turns out that God may be just as alarmed and taken aback by what happens as we are? What, in fact, if God even looks back with regret at many of his own decisions and thinks, "If only I had known"? Can such a God really be trusted? Can we really have confidence in his direction and will for our lives? Is this God really in control of the unfolding events and progression of human history? Can we be confident that his purposes, both individual and cosmic, will be accomplished? Can we be absolutely sure that God in fact will win in the end? Is such a God worthy of our worship, our praise, our adoration, our uncompromising devotion, and our unqualified obedience? And even more basic, is such a God the God of the Bible?
Many readers may be surprised to learn that this very view (namely, that God does not know much of the future and has to learn what happens as that future unfolds) is being advocated by a growing number of biblical scholars, theologians, and philosophers who identify themselves as evangelicals, some of whom teach at highly respected evangelical colleges and seminaries. These scholars call the position they advocate "open theism" because they like to make central the notion that, for God as well as for us, much of the future is "open" and hence not foreknown or foreordained.
The reasons open theists give for denying God's comprehensive foreknowledge (i.e., comprehensive knowledge of the future) are biblical, philosophical, and practical. Biblically, openness proponents seek to defend their position as being in accordance with the full range and texture of biblical teaching. According to this view, while Scripture does sometimes teach God's knowledge of select future actions or events, a strong pattern of biblical teaching would suggest that generally God does not know what will happen in the future. Passages that speak of God changing his mind or regretting his past actions are not treated fairly in the classical tradition, it is claimed. If these passages are taken in a straightforward manner and allowed to say what they mean, they demonstrate that the future is open, for indeed God learns what this future holds as it occurs.
Philosophically, open theists argue that true human freedom is possible only if the future is open. If God knows all that will occur in the future, then we are not free to do differently than what God knows, and hence we are not truly free. Furthermore, since God can know only what is real, he cannot by definition know the future — because it has not as yet happened and so is not real.
Practically, open theists argue, if God knows in advance all our thoughts, feelings, and actions, then our real relationship with him is called into question. How can our ideas, prayers, or decisions make a difference to God if he knows all of those things from eternity?
What Difference Does It Make?
While much more will be said in due course on the openness proposal, enough has been said to raise an important question: What is at stake in this proposal, and why does it matter whether or not we adopt an openness view? Although the critique of open theism presented in subsequent chapters will be much more specific, let me suggest here that our overall conception of God and our broad understanding of living the Christian life are both deeply affected by the openness view.
First, consider God. If open theism is correct, we must acknowledge that the openness God, when compared to orthodoxy's view of God, is quite deficient in his understanding. It follows that his wisdom and providential control are greatly affected. God not only learns what happens moment by moment (as do we), but he also realizes moment by moment which of his beliefs about the future have been wrong. Yes, the God of open theism is mistaken about much. Furthermore, since he is so mistaken in many cases, we must conclude that God would often be filled with regret over his own past decisions. Just how often this is the case, we do not fully know. But it stands to reason that, since God cannot know any future free decision, choice, or action, many times he is faced with some turn in events that takes him by surprise and reveals to him that his thoughts about the future and his past decisions were, disappointingly, erroneous and misguided. What, then, do we make of the wisdom of God? Since wisdom is the application of knowledge to devise good and right ends, this deficiency in God's knowledge cannot but negatively impact his wisdom. As we considered earlier, how often do we think, "If only I had known ..." The shocking reality is that the God of open theism faces just this same frustration in relation to his wisdom, planning, and predictive ability.
And what do we make of God's providential oversight of the unfolding of human history? Deficient knowledge and wisdom surely mean that neither we nor God can be certain about just what will happen in the end. Will God succeed in fulfilling his goals? Will history move in the direction he hopes it will? Are God's predictions and promises sure? The only answer open theists can give to these questions is that they are hopeful that God will somehow pull it off. God is resourceful, we are assured! But providential guidance is risky business for God, according to this view, and the future is unknown and uncertain. In short, the God of open theism suffers greatly from this lack of knowledge and it affects his plans, wise counsel, predictive ability, and providential control of history.
Consider also some implications of the open view of God for living the Christian life. While open theists claim that their view enhances the reality and genuineness of relationship with God, the truth is that the gains they propose are not real, while the losses incurred are tragically great. In a word, what is lost in open theism is the Christian's confidence in God. Think about it. When we are told that God: can only guess what much of the future will bring; is relatively reliable only when predicting things close at hand; cannot be trusted to give accurate guidance on matters that are far into the future; constantly sees many of his beliefs about the future proved wrong by what in fact transpires; reevaluates the rightness or wrongness of his own past conduct based on what he learns moment by moment; even regrets at times that his own decisions or his counsel to those who have trusted him have actually resulted in harm instead of the good he intended — given this portrayal of God (and more — read on!), what happens to the believer's sense of confidence before God? Can God be trusted to give accurate guidance or to lead us in a direction truly best in light of future developments? Can hope in God to fulfill his promises be founded without mental reservation or qualification? Can a believer know that God will triumph in the future just as he has promised he will? All this and more is greatly harmed and ultimately undermined by the open theism proposal.
While claiming to offer meaningfulness to Christian living, open theism strips the believer of the one thing needed most for a meaningful and vibrant life of faith: absolute confidence in God's character, wisdom, word, promise, and the sure fulfillment of his will. The strengthening and reassuring truth of Romans 8:28 ("God causes all things to work together for good ...") is tragically ripped out of our Christian confession as it becomes an expression merely of God's resolve to try his hardest and to do the best he can.
Lest one think that this revisionist model of God and the Christian life is affecting just a few theologians and Bible scholars in the backwaters of academia, it is important to note the impact of this issue on some major evangelical institutions and denominations. The Baptist General Conference (BGC) has been divided over the question of whether open theism's denial of comprehensive divine foreknowledge is an acceptable view within their churches and their denominational college and seminary (Bethel College and Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota). Largely due to the advocacy of open theism through the writing and teaching of Gregory Boyd (professor of theology at Bethel College and senior pastor of the BGC Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul), a major controversy has arisen. Several BGC pastors who oppose Boyd's view on this issue proposed a resolution at the 1999 annual meetings of the Baptist General Conference affirming God's knowledge of all future actions and events. After debate on this issue, the conference delegates declined to adopt the resolution, thus affirming de facto that Boyd's view is acceptable within the BGC, even if most BGC churches and church members would disagree with Boyd's view. Then in the 2000 annual meetings of the BGC, a somewhat confusing pair of statements was adopted. First, an overwhelming majority approved the following statement:
Be it resolved that we, the delegates of the Baptist General Conference (who are also the delegates of Bethel College and Seminary) affirm that God's knowledge of all past, present and future events is exhaustive; and, we also believe that the "openness" view of God's foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship's historic understanding of God's omniscience.
Later the same day, the following statement also passed by a 423 to 363 (54 to 46 percent) vote:
Be it resolved that the statement on the doctrine of God in the 1951 Affirmation of Faith is sufficiently stated; and, in regard to the subject of open theism, as delegates of the Baptist General Conference (who are also the delegates of Bethel College and Seminary) we affirm the Position paper unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees of Bethel College and Seminary on June 24, 2000.
The relevant section of the "Position paper" spoken of, says,
We affirm the unanimous vote of the Committee for Theological Clarification and Assessment occurring on May 13, 1998, that Dr. Boyd's views did not warrant his termination as a member of the Bethel College faculty and by inference that his views fall within the accepted bounds of the evangelical spectrum.
So, the BGC adopted one statement which says that the openness denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge "is contrary to our fellowship's historic understanding of God's omniscience" and on the same day adopted another statement saying that Dr. Boyd's denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge falls "within the accepted bounds of the evangelical spectrum." I dare say that the last word on this matter has not been said in this denomination.
In notable contrast to the ambiguity reflected in the BGC, at the 1999 annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention a resolution was proposed and unanimously endorsed affirming that God does know all future contingencies, including all future free choices and actions. And at their summer 2000 annual meetings, the messengers (delegates) of the SBC voted overwhelmingly in favor of a revised version of The Baptist Faith and Message. A number of key changes were introduced to the previous (1963) edition, one of which is the addition of a clear affirmation of God's exhaustive foreknowledge. In part, the 2000 revision reads: "God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections. God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures." Clearly the SBC leadership and messengers see this issue as central enough to warrant a forthright declaration that defines the boundaries of this major denomination's core beliefs.
The issue has affected other major evangelical institutions. InterVarsity Press has determined that open theism should be known more broadly and its case published. Most of the current volumes advocating open theism have been published by InterVarsity Press. Recently Baker Books decided to join InterVarsity in allowing its readers exposure to the case for open theism. Baker's publication of Boyd's God of the Possible caused some grave concern as it delighted others. Add to this the February 7, 2000, editorial in Christianity Today titled "God vs. God: Two Competing Theologies Vie for the Future of Evangelicalism," in which open theism was extolled as a viable albeit imperfect evangelical model of God and his relations to the world. Christianity Today has published several other articles relating to open theism in recent years. These data indicate that open theism is anything but a backwater movement, and its impact is increasingly being felt in some of evangelicalism's most significant denominations and institutions.
All of this elicits deep, prayerful, and earnest concern. To the extent that the openness model of God penetrates our churches, we can anticipate a greatly lessened confidence in God and a much greater temptation to trust in our own insights and abilities. We can anticipate weakened prayer lives and more confidence in our own accomplishments. God will be viewed increasingly as a pathetic sort of figure, possessing good motives but terribly faulty in his attempts to steer the direction of our lives and of human history. We will see more emphasis on the importance of human will and work, and less confidence that God's will or work will prevail. Worship will be muted and, in the end, smothered because this God of faulty vision, action, and purpose will be seen, in time, as unworthy of unqualified honor, glory, and blessing. Fear of the future will grow as people begin to realize that God may be just as taken aback by the unexpected as we are. In short, then, both the undiminished glory of God and the unqualified good of Christians are at stake in this new and deeply flawed vision of God and the Christian life known as open theism. For the sake of God's greater glory, we must take seriously the argumentation offered by open theists — lest the church be led, with them, to affirm this God of lesser glory.
The Organization and Contribution of the Sections to Follow
This book contains three main sections. In Part One, a summary of the central elements of and support for open theism will be presented. Fairness and accuracy will be sought in this description, though its brevity will require that some aspects of the openness model be neglected.
Part Two will offer a critique of the biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments supporting open theism's view of God and his providence. I will endeavor to demonstrate that, in the end, open theism suffers from serious and fatal problems. Contrary to the openness proposal, I will show that the God of the Bible does in fact possess comprehensive knowledge of the future and so is omniscient in the classical sense. Furthermore, God is not the risk-taker that open theism espouses. To the contrary, Scripture indicates over and again that God rules over heaven and earth and thus is fully in control of all that occurs. Careful attention will be given to biblical passages, and several sobering doctrinal implications of open theism will be developed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "God's Lesser Glory"
Copyright © 2000 Bruce A. Ware.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Why You Should Be Concerned,
PART ONE What Does Open Theism Propose? Examining God's Lesser Glory,
2 The Perceived Inadequacy of the Classical Arminian View of God,
3 The Perceived Benefits of Open Theism,
PART TWO What's Wrong with Open Theism's View of God? Assessing God's Lesser Glory,
4 Assessing Open Theism's Denial of Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge,
5 Scriptural Affirmation of Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge,
6 The God Who Risks and the Assault on God's Wisdom,
PART THREE What Difference Does It Make in Daily Life? Expressing God's Lesser Glory,
7 Harm to the Christian's Life of Prayer,
8 Weakening of Our Confidence in God's Guidance,
9 Despair amid Suffering and Pain,
10 God's Greater Glory and Our Everlasting Good,
What People are Saying About This
Open theism offers a God who, like us, does not know the future. Its sponsors see this humanizing of God as logical and devotional gain. Bruce Ware sees it as a way of misreading Scripture and impoverishing the life of faith, and he makes a compelling case for his view. I heartily commend this thorough and insightful book. J.I. Packer, Professor of Theology, Regent College
Open theism, which denies that God can foreknow free human choices, dishonors God, distorts Scripture, damages faith, and would, it left unchecked, destroy churches and lives. Its errors are not peripheral but central. Therefore, I thank God for Bruce Ware's loving, informed, penetrating, devastating critique of this profoundly injurious teaching. I pray that God would use this book to sharpen the discernment of leaders and prepare the people of God to recognize toxic teaching when they taste it. O how precious is the truth of God's all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful care over our fragile lives. For your name's sake, O Lord, and for the good of the suffering church who rest in your all-knowing providence, prosper the message of this beautiful book and shorten the ruinous life of open theism. John Piper, Senior Pastor, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis
Evangelical theology faces a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. The denial and redefinition of God's perfections will lead evangelical theology into disintegration and doctrinal catastrophe. The very identity and reality of the God of the Bible is at stake. The real question comes down to thisdoes God really know all things, past, present, and future? Or, is God often surprised like all the rest of us? The Bible reveals that God is all-knowing and all-powerful. Bruce Ware sets out the issues carefully in God's Lesser Glory. This book is a much-needed antidote to contemporary confusion, and it is a powerful testimony to the truth of God set forth in Scripture. I can only hope that Christians will read it and rejoice in the knowledge of the true and living God. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
At once businesslike and practical, Bruce Ware's restatement of classical Christianity in the face of contemporary challenges to it within evangelicalism is bold and bracing. Driven by the pastoral and practical importance of God's greatness, Ware's approach keeps his defense from bogging down in pedantic rhetoric. This book clearly demonstrates that the historic Christian view, against centuries of antecedents to "open theism," has been favored for so long for one reason: It is so evidently biblical. Michael Horton, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary in California
Not even God knows whether you will decide to buy this book or read it, at least according to "open theism." But Bruce Ware shows that this position, which is seeping into evangelical churches, is contrary to Scripture, intentionally contradictory, and destructive to our Christian lives. This is a clear, fair, well-reasoned, and Bible-centered critique of a doctrinal error so far-reaching that it ultimately portrays a different God than the God of the Bible. Wayne Grudem, Chairman, Department of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
The movement known as open theism claims to be a more biblical and more practical alternative to the traditional view. Bruce Ware systematically refutes both of these claims, showing that the traditional view better handles the biblical evidence and the issues of Christian living while better preserving the glory of God. His examination of the biblical material is especially strong. Millard J. Erickson, Distinguished Professor of Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University
While I (basically a traditional Arminian) do not agree with all of Ware's answers, I applaud his keen discernment of the questions and issues raised by openness theology. He clearly sets forth the key differences between this view and traditional views of God, both Arminian and Calvinist; and he perceptively identifies its major weaknesses. I benefited especially from Ware's treatment of the biblical teaching on God's foreknowledge. Jack W. Cottrell, Professor of Theology, Cincinnati Bible Seminary