by Michael A. Cantrell*
“[D]espite our fervent prayers for relief, God did not take away our sufferings or otherwise alleviate them. Open theism—which made so much sense, theoretically—proved to be dumb (i.e., silent) in the crucible of our suffering. It was a miserable comforter…. Our suffering drove us into scripture to answer the question, Who is God? Scripture told us that God was in control of all things and that he was working all things for our good and his glory.”
I am not an open theist. Nor should you be an open theist. Nor should you think that open theism is a viable option for a faithful and intellectually responsible believer.
I have not always thought this way. In fact, I used to think that open theism provided the most biblical-faithful and philosophically-tenable account of how God relates to human beings. What follows is an account of a significant part of my journey into and out of open theism. By no means is this the whole story. And while this account contains some of the reasons why I am not an open theist, this account should not be mistaken for a scholarly polemic against open theism. That’s simply not what I’m doing here. Rather, I am presenting a very small part of my life experience that I hope will be instructive to you.
This story may not go the way you would expect. I did not abandon open theism because of some direct attack on it or because I concluded that the position was internally incoherent. Rather, my abandonment of open theism was the result of scripture-driven subterranean adjustments in my belief structure that made a commitment to open theism utterly untenable.
Becoming An Open Theist
As many readers will know, “open theism” is, fundamentally, a particular view of how God relates to humans beings. The “open” view of God holds that humans have the ability to accept or reject God’s love and that God takes genuine risks in giving humans this ability. The view entails that, because human choices are not determined by anything outside of a person’s own free agency, those choices are not knowable until they are made. This means that not even God can know ahead of time whether humans will choose to accept or reject his love. Thus, on this view, the future is in large measure “open”—it is TBD (to be determined) by free human choices and God’s responses to those choices.
As a sort of evangelical equivalent to the more heterodox “process theology,” the open view of God is a relative newcomer to the theological scene, and it is all the rage among Christian philosophers, even among many who do not publicly identify themselves as open theists. Open theism stands in stark contrast to the classical Christian view of God, which holds that God exercises “particular providence” over even the tiniest details of particular human lives.
I became an open theist through the study of Christian apologetics. In the 1990s Christian book publishers came out with books arguing variously for “open theism,” “free will theism,” or “relational theism,” all of which argued that God takes genuine risks in how he relates to human beings. These books accused the Christian tradition since Augustine of imposing a philosophical framework onto Scripture that made God out to be an unresponsive, dispassionate, and distant deity. The books argued that God as traditionally conceived was not able to enter into give-and-take relations with human beings. Furthermore, the books claimed to articulate an understanding of God that was more thoroughly biblical. All of this was attractive to me. Most of all, I was captivated by the open view of God because it enabled me to deal with the problem of evil in a theoretically-satisfying way.
As many readers will know, the problem of evil poses the question of why a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God would allow evil to exist. While C.S. Lewis was by no means an open theist, my early reading of his work had already helped to crystallize for me the basic contours of the approach to the problem of evil that eventually helped to land me in the open theist camp. In Mere Christianity, Lewis says,
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk" (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, II.3).
I will not say that open theism is the logical conclusion of the view that Lewis sketches here (I withhold judgment), but open theism was the natural conclusion for me, given my desire to articulate a reason for why God would allow evil. I wanted to be able to articulate a reason that would carry some plausibility even with the so-called “cultured despisers” of the Christian faith who I imagined to be the objects of my apologetic endeavors. In my view, open theism provided such a reason.
Looking back, I can see that my approach to the problem of evil was fundamentally flawed because it did not arise from an exegetical study of scripture. Although I could have marshaled various verses of scripture in support of my views, those views were independently conceived, and I consulted scripture largely for beside-the-fact justifications. In brief, I used scripture to support a pattern of thinking that I found particularly useful for my apologetic purposes. Consequently, it is little surprise that I found the support in scripture that I went looking for. Thus, I came to believe that God sovereignly chose to give a great deal of autonomy to creation and that this autonomy broadly entailed open theism.
I’ve heard it said that you don’t really understand a heterodox view until you feel its attraction. Open theism was attractive because it dealt with the problem of evil in an elegant and theoretically-satisfying way while affirming both human autonomy and God’s loving character. Plus, open theism possessed a certain symmetry with widely-accepted truths about God. For example, in the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas argues that God’s inability to do logically-contradictory things is not a limit on his power (See Summa Theologica, First Part, Q. 25, art. 3, ans.).
In other words, God’s being omnipotent does not mean that he has the power (for example) to create a rock so big that he could not move it. Rather, God’s being omnipotent means that God possesses the power to do anything that is logically possible. In open theism, I saw a parallel of sorts to Aquinas’s explanation of divine omnipotence. After all, if it is no limit on God’s omnipotence that God cannot do logically-impossible things, then surely it is no limit on God’s omniscience that God cannot have knowledge of things-that-it-would-be-logically-impossible-to-know. If future free acts of human beings are simply unknowable—with the result that God does not know them—then God remains omniscient because he still knows everything that can be known. As a result, on an open theist’s view, divine omniscience is not so much denied as simply reinterpreted in such a way as to be consistent with the entailments of what philosophers call a “libertarian” or “incompatibilist” conception of human free agency—one that says that a human’s free choice is incompatible with God’s sovereign control over that choice.
As I discovered, there is not necessarily a line separating: (1) the belief that open theism is a viable option for people who are biblically grounded and intellectually responsible and, (2) actually believing that open theism is correct. I could not tell you the point at which I moved from (1) to (2). I doubt whether there actually was a discrete point at which that happened. Rather, over the course of a few years, I thoroughly internalized the open-theistic view of God: it shaped and reinforced my thoughts about what God was like, my sensibilities about what was fair, and my ideas about what God was up to in creating, sustaining, and providentially directing the affairs of the world.
Suffering, Scripture, Kierkegaard, and Who Is God?
“There was no way to appreciate it at that time, but we now recognize that the answer to the question of why God would do this to us was precisely so that we would be driven even deeper into Scripture to answer the question, Who is God?”
I came to believe that open theism’s theoretical superiority to other views was most obvious in the way it dealt with the problem of evil. So it is ironic that my own personal suffering was the catalyst for the events that culminated in my abandonment of open theism. Without going into all the details, a series of identity-shattering events drove my wife and me to the end of ourselves. And, despite our fervent prayers for relief, God did not take away our sufferings or otherwise alleviate them. Open theism—which made so much sense, theoretically—proved to be dumb (i.e., silent) in the crucible of our suffering. It was a miserable comforter. Was our suffering really mere happenstance, a product of the unanticipated convergence of the autonomous decisions of countless individuals? Is it possible that God actually could have some sovereign purpose for bringing us down this particular path of suffering?
Our suffering drove us into scripture to answer the question, Who is God? Scripture told us that God was in control of all things and that he was working all things for our good and his glory. Consequently, the belief that God was exercising particular providence over our sufferings became unavoidable. But a belief that God was in complete control of our situation did not immediately help things. Affirming that God controls all things created a new tension that left us asking, Why would God do this to us? During that long dark night, it felt like God was playing a terribly cruel joke on us. Our belief that God was in complete control of our circumstances made it difficult to trust that God was good.
There was no way to appreciate it at that time, but we now recognize that the answer to the question of why God would do this to us was precisely so that we would be driven even deeper into Scripture to answer the question, Who is God?
That proved to be the decisive turning point for us. The God we found was not the God we had thought we had known all our lives. Rather, we found a God who was more good and merciful than we had ever imagined. We found Jesus Christ as a person in whom we could find genuine delight and liberty from our moralistic strivings.
Here it is more appropriate if I speak just for myself because my wife never consciously embraced the open theist view. My deep study of the writings of the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard was crucially edifying in the way that it pointed me to scripture. Kierkegaard made me sensible of the greatness, majesty, holiness, and untamable character of the God of the Bible. I know many Christians (Francis Schaeffer prominent among them) have been wary of Kierkegaard. I know a few people who have legitimate issues with Kierkegaard, but in my experience almost all are reacting negatively against misunderstandings, pop-philosophical treatments, or muddled secular readings of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works. The fact is that Kierkegaard was a deeply-committed Christian believer and contender for the faith once delivered to the saints. Kierkegaard pointed me to the Bible’s teachings about reason, faith, love, grace, and about my need for grace in the use of grace.
Thanks to the help that my suffering and Kierkegaard gave in driving me to scripture, I realized that, for all my study of the Bible, philosophy, theology, and apologetics, I had still been operating on the basis of sometimes-half-articulate, unbiblical ideas. These ideas controlled my understanding of God and his relation to humans.
First, my understanding of God as “omnibenevolent” had warped my understanding of God’s goodness. The best state of affairs that I could imagine was one in which every single person was saved. I reasoned that God aims for what is best, and I naively took an unjustifiably-expansive reading of 2 Peter 3:9. The result was a sort of implicit soteriological utilitarianism: I assumed that God’s ultimate aim was to create the conditions under which the greatest number of people would accept Christ as their savior. (The greatest good for the greatest number!)
I failed to appreciate the consistent teaching of scripture that God’s ultimate aim is not to maximize human happiness but to bring glory to Himself, and rightly so. To be sure, scripture affirms that God is good, and that God’s goodness is a great blessing to humans, but we must not simply assume that our commonsense intuitions or ideas about goodness adequately capture God’s goodness. Rather, even our understanding of goodness is in need of being conformed to the teaching of Scripture.
See Romans 12:2 (“[B]e transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern . . . what is good . . . .”). Scripture describes God’s goodness in terms of his mercy and justice, and these are subordinate to his own glory. See, e.g., Exodus 33:17-34:10.
Second, it is ironic that, in criticizing the classical conception of God as unresponsive to humans, I overestimated human responsiveness to God. I supposed that humans had the autonomous capacity to choose how to respond to God’s invitation to enter into a loving relationship with him. But scripture teaches that we “were dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked” (Ephesians 2:1); we were “dead in [our] trespasses and the uncircumcision of [our] flesh” (Colossians 2:13); we have “passed from death to life” (John 5:24); again, “we have passed out of death into life” (I John 3:14); we have suffered what God foretold in the Garden: “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17); “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” hence, we “died through one man’s sin” (Romans 5:12-15).
As these verses suggest, until we were regenerated—although we could walk, talk, choose, behave benevolently and even heroically—we were spiritually dead. And dead men are utterly incapable of responding to God. In fact, dead men are not capable of responding—period. A corpse is totally unresponsive to even the most aggressive attempts to transform its deadness into life. Likewise, being spiritually dead suggests total spiritual unresponsiveness.
Incompatibilist (Libertarian) Freedom
Related to the second idea, I recognized that I was operating on an unscriptural idea of human freedom that conceived free human choices as incompatible with God’s exercise of particular providence. This is the “libertarian” or “incompatibilist” conception of freedom that I mentioned above. Contrary to scripture, this notion of human freedom caused me to think that believers are ultimately responsible for their own autonomous decision to accept Christ as their savior. Again, I failed to appreciate the teaching of Scripture that the finished work of Christ actually and completely saves, as opposed to merely creating the possibility that people would accept Christ.
See, e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:8-9; Titus 3:5; John 1:12-13; Acts 13:48; Romans 9:15-16; Ephesians 1:3-5; 2:1-10.
Justification By “Faith”
Fourth, even though I was firmly committed to the abstract idea that salvation was not by works but by faith alone, I was in the grip of a severely disfigured concept of “faith.” First, I implicitly thought that having faith meant being holy—obediently performing what God requires. Second, I believed that my faith was the basis of my salvation in the sense that my faith constituted my righteousness before God. Consequently, to me, the Biblical doctrine of “justification by faith” operated as something like “justification-on-the-basis-of-my-obedient-performance-whereby-I-am-righteous.” What I did not realize is that this just is what it means to believe in salvation by works. I knew, intellectually, that my works did not make me righteous in the sight of God. But somehow I still thought that my faith was itself my righteousness. It did not occur to me that understanding my faith as my righteousness was a form of self-righteousness. Because these thoughts did not rise to the level of being articulated in this way, I failed to recognize that my understanding of salvation was functionally works-based and me-centered.
It was in coming to appreciate the biblical doctrine of justification—and specifically, the doctrine of the forensic imputation to me of the righteousness of Christ—that the grip of open theism on my mind was broken. I realized that, if justification was wholly a work of God, then my justification was not ultimately caused by my decision. My justification—God’s once-for-all declaration that I am righteous—was based, not on my performance, but on the righteousness of another—the finished work of Jesus Christ.
See Romans 4:1-5:21 (especially 4:5 and 5:19); 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21.
I realized that my acceptance with God was the root, not the fruit, of both my decision and my performance. God had not taken a risk in creating me, and he was not contemplating his contingency plans in case I rejected his love. The fact is that I did reject his love because my will was in bondage—it wasn’t in a neutral condition; I was positively inclined toward sin until God mercifully changed my heart and inclined it toward him.
Once the implications of God’s grace ramified throughout my belief structure, I became enamored with Jesus Christ and with scripture—even the Old Testament, in which I had previously had little interest. And there I discovered a great and merciful God—a God who can exercise particular providence that is compatible with human free agency and responsibility while accomplishing his purpose of displaying his wisdom by bringing many sons to glory. In contrast to what I formerly believed, I discovered that it is both scripturally and philosophically proper to speak of God as willing from eternity to turn away or “repent” of some specific course of action in response to a specific human prayer or actions. Indeed, I discovered that God is so intimately engaged in human affairs that anytime a person prays or turns to him, even this human action is a result and evidence of God’s involvement.
It was by God’s grace that Scripture, Suffering, and Kierkegaard rocked my world—and my worldview. My questioning of Who is God? led to my abandonment of incompatibilist freedom, soteriological utilitarianism, and my faulty conceptions of omnibenevolence, faith, and human inability. To say what is already evident, this rendered open theism untenable and drove me back to the classical view of God. And that’s how I came to embrace the God of scripture, again, for the first time.
Soli Deo Gloria.
* Michael A. Cantrell (Ph.D., Philosophy, Baylor; J.D., UALR Bowen School of Law) has studied or conducted research at Yale University, Oxford University, Teikyo University–Maastricht (Netherlands), St. Olaf College, and Notre Dame Law School. Of his various specialties, Dr. Cantrell is particularly interested in Kierkegaard, moral philosophy, philosophical theology, and law. He is an active attorney, Baptist minister, husband/father, and friend of The BMA Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas.