The Heartbeat of Arminianism vs. Open Theism

The heartbeat of Arminianism is not free will but the character of God. The heart of Open Theism is free will. In Arminianism, regarding the offered salvation of God by grace through faith in Christ, our free will is noted as being lost and destroyed. Apart from the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, a person is not capable of trusting in Christ, nor of seeking Him for salvation. In this regard, Arminians do not believe in free will, but in freed will. Open Theist philosopher Thomas Jay Oord, in his recent book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, writes, "Arminian theologian Roger Olson ... says that 'free will is a key idea of Arminian theology, and prevenient grace is a source of free will with regard to a person's acceptance of the gospel. . . . Free will is for the sake of God's character.'"1 Oord is attempting to bridge Arminianism to his perceptual-logical end: Open Theism. Note carefully Olson's final statement.

Oord is quoting from Olson's blog: "Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism?" Keep in mind that the views espoused by Olson do not represent those of all Arminians (and neither do mine). Arminius opposes an Open Theistic hermeneutic. (See "Jacob Arminius and Open Theism.") But Arminius and Arminians who agree with him also differ with Open Theists on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God -- a key tenet that divides the two parties. Arminius' views on the sovereignty and providence of God are so strong that the question of Arminius being an unwitting determinist has been questioned by historical scholars.2 Thus the doctrines that divide Arminians from Open Theists do not solely revolve around philosophical notions of free will. This is especially true as we, collectively, adopt the historical reality that the heartbeat of Arminianism is not free will but the character of God.3

While debating the extent of the atonement Calvinist scholar Carl Trueman admits, when engaging Arminian scholar Grant Osborne, that "the discussion cannot be advanced, or even really engaged, by the mere exchange of proof texts or even of the isolated exegesis of such texts. The issues that divide are deeper ... and really connect to a much more basic understanding of what Scripture teaches about salvation as a whole."4 That same core truth can be conceded in the debate between Arminians and Open Theists.5 The issues that sharply and distinctly divide us cannot be settled by lodging proof-texts at one another because of a singular and foundational problem: hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is that aspect of knowledge that addresses interpretation proper. The reason, for example, why a Calvinist, an Arminian, and an Open Theist can view a passage, within its context, and conclude with three varying interpretations is because of hermeneutics -- i.e., the art and science of the method of interpretation. This inevitable interpretive reality renders proof-texting irrelevant. What this indicates for the Open Theist is that no amount of exegesis or reasoning will convince the already-convinced that his views are in error and that the Arminian view is orthodox (and, of course, vice versa). When one abandons Open Theism, and adopts an Arminian or a Calvinistic understanding of the central issues that divide us, he assumes an entirely other hermeneutic -- a lens through which he interprets passages of the Bible on key theological components related to God, time, knowledge, foreknowledge, free will, culpability, responsibility, the future, and final reckoning.

Recently, my post "The Superfluous Nature of Open Theism" was criticized by various Open advocates on an Open forum for quoting from Open Theist philosophers Gregory Boyd, David Basinger and Thomas Jay Oord, and not engaging "the right" Open Theists, à la Michael Saia, Chris Fisher, Pelagian Jesse Morrell et al. So, even among Open Theists there exists distinctions and degrees of orthodox representations, even though Boyd, Basinger, and Oord, as well as Rice, Pinnock and Sanders, are considered among the top tier of Open Theist scholarship in academia, philosophy notwithstanding.

The post was also criticized for not addressing all of the proof-texts offered by Open Theist exegetes; as well as for not considering a host of other issues related to time, eternity, free will and foreknowledge. In other words, because I did not exhaust the subject -- and if I had exhausted the subject no one would have read the post -- then my post is inept at addressing Open Theism in toto, as if blog posts are intended to exhaust any single topic. I write this for two reasons: 1) that Open Theists reading this today understand the nature and limitations of blogging; and 2) that Arminians, as long as they remain Arminians and within an Arminian hermeneutic, will never agree with Open Theism. In other words, Open Theists should expect Arminians to disagree with their views.

Open Theist Michael Saia, author of the self-published book, Does God Know the Future? A Biblical Investigation of Foreknowledge and Free Will, essentially concedes the fact that hermeneutics is the primary element that distinguishes all opposing arguments, whether biblical, philosophical, or otherwise.6 Upon displaying the hermeneutics by which the Open Theist interprets passages in Scripture,7 Saia addresses the thorny issue of eisegesis, and then extols the role of reason in interpretation.8 Saia then introduces the reader to the use of "natural justice" in interpreting the Bible.9 We are granted permission, from the examples of Abraham and others, to question the character of God. A passage such as Jeremiah 2:5 "requires the hearers to judge the actions of God using their own understanding of justice."10 (emphasis added) Arminians agree, mostly, though we frame the issue of reason as being a Spirit-enabled cognitive function that remains in a fallen condition until ultimately redeemed when we see Jesus and are transformed into His image (1 John 3:2). We doubt, however, that our Calvinist brothers will agree; as God, in Calvinistic ideology and theology, is often viewed as being able to bring about the most heinous of acts while remaining holy.

Saia then (rightly) notes his disagreement with utilizing the rule of antimony when interpreting Scripture -- i.e., that opposing doctrines can coalesce in the mind of God, even though they betray the law of non-contradiction: "The idea that completely contradictory doctrines must be held in a 'dynamic tension' is in direct violation of the rules of logic."11 By way of example, Saia uses his hermenuetical principles, thus granting us insight as to how Open Theists interpret various passages of texts. For instance, addressing the recognition of poetry in Scripture, Saia confesses that describing certain reactions of God as mere poetic form "constitutes eisegesis."12 In actuality, then, I think Saia's interpretive method of the passages he notes suffers from an overly-literal reading.

Open Theists approach texts in which God states "Abraham, now I know" (Gen. 22:12), or "perhaps they will repent" (Jer. 26:3), or "and if not, I will know" (Gen. 18:21), with a presuppositional framework, or an a priori proper: anthropomorphism is ruled out as a viable interpretive principle13 and, thus, God is learning as He interacts with us creatures throughout history and our earth-time adventures. Saia then writes an entirely unwarranted statement:
In discussions about God's foreknowledge, little time is spent in serious study of the passages of Scripture which contradict the notion of absolute foreknowledge. The reason so few people are aware of these texts is that those who have already concluded God knows everything in the future do not present the verses which would disprove their position. A whole body of texts on the knowledge of God is simply dismissed with a wave of the hand, and a quick, "All of those are just so much poetic language." Unfortunately, the honest seeker is not often given the chance to look at the scriptures which contradict absolute foreknowledge. So the matter of whether these texts are poetic or not should be taken very seriously.14 (emphases added)
These naïve remarks chip away at Saia's credibility. Note carefully his rhetoric: "serious study," as though proponents of absolute foreknowledge do not seriously engage the Bible on this subject; "so few people," as though if more people were aware of the Open Theistic interpretation then they would abandon nearly two millennia of biblical orthodoxy on this issue; "do not present the verses which would disprove their position," as though advocates of absolute foreknowledge fear the Open view and try to hide the biblical evidence; "the honest seeker," as though only Open Theists are truly being honest with the Bible. This section is so very unfortunate in the chapter.

These remarks also betray Saia's own work regarding hermeneutics. Has he forgotten his own words in this chapter? Defenders of absolute foreknowledge interpret the issue of the knowledge and foreknowledge of God, as contained in the infallible and authoritative Word of God, by a particular hermeneutic. They are not veiling the texts which Open Theists think support their view from other believers because those texts so very obviously "contradict" the absolute foreknowledge view. This is a matter of hermeneutics and only hermeneutics. There is no sinister plot to conceal the truth about Open Theism and, frankly, the implied concept has more in common with crackpot conspiracy theories than with biblical theology, classical hermeneutics, and consequential exegesis.

I am constantly asked why I reject Open Theism. I fail to understand why Open Theists are so utterly shocked that I reject their philosophy; and, yes, I think that Open Theism is a philosophy primarily and a theology secondarily. Perhaps this is one reason why Open Theists tend to be philosophers than biblical exegetes. Even Saia's first chapter in his book begins with the philosophical positions rather than exegesis. But the reasons I continue to offer against an Open Theistic understanding of God's nature, as found in Scripture, are the same reasons that most others grant: God cannot be confessed to knowing how the future will "pan out" if He does not foreknow every minutiae about that future.

Moreover, since Arminians, who follow the pattern of Arminius on the issue, insist that the knowledge and foreknowledge of God is grounded in His essence as God, then this subject assumes a more serious tone -- i.e., to withdraw from God His complete foreknowledge is to withdraw from God part of His essence as God. A text that, from an Arminian hermeneutical position, contradicts Calvinism also contradicts Open Theism. When fleeing from King Saul, David asks of the Lord whether the men of Keilah will surrender him over to Saul's men if he flees to that city, and God answers: "They will surrender you." (1 Sam. 23:12, emphasis added) The answer given is not, "They may surrender you," with any semblance of uncertainty. God foreknows an actual event that does not take place; He knows what they will do if David freely decides to flee to Keilah.

Now, Thomas Jay Oord and all other Open Theists concede that God "cannot know with certainty now all that will actually happen in the future."15 This notion is Open Theism 101. By what knowledge, then, can God claim to know that the men of Keilah will surrender David over to the men of Saul should he decide to flee to that city -- an event that will not actually occur? As a matter of fact, one might even argue that David uses the exhaustive knowledge of God to his own benefit, and avoids calamity for himself thereby. An Open Theist may respond: "God could have known or heard the men speaking that, 'if David flees to this city, we will hand him over to Saul.'" We do not know this for certain, however, and then the Open Theist would be guilty of eisegesis -- the very accusation Saia levels against proponents of absolute foreknowledge when assuming too much from a text. What we do know from this text is that David asked God a question the answer to which, if Open Theism is true, God could not know. If God cannot know the future with certainty, and cannot know the spontaneous reactions of fickle and oft-times random responses of human nature, then God could not know with certainty whether the men of Keilah would surrender David over to the men of Saul.

What about the texts mentioned by Saia (Gen. 18:21; 22:12; Jer. 26:3)? If God foreknows every minutiae of the future then why, at times, does He communicate with people using conditional language? I realize that Open Theists reject the concepts of anthropomorphism and anthropopathism -- that God communicates with us on a human level and, at times, linguistically assumes human traits for our base understanding -- as a means of interpreting such passages. But there remains a significant reason why Open Theists must reject this method of interpreting such passages: if God foreknows what a person will do then the person is not free in a true sense. Thus the heartbeat of Open Theism is free will. Arminians see no need for Open Theism in order to maintain true freedom, since a person still freely acts when he acts, not being necessitated to any act by a divine decree (as in Calvinism). Again, the heartbeat of Open Theism is free will, and free as defined by Open Theistic defenders.

What Arminius challenges among his Calvinist colleagues is that their deterministic theology renders God the Author of sin. His primary concern, then, is the character of God and not the free will of His creatures. Oord and other Open Theists can highlight the irenic nature of an Arminian like Roger Olson if they sense that his amiable spirit grants them some semblance of orthodoxy. But they do well to remember that Roger Olson is not an Open Theist. If Olson found Open Theism convincing then he would abandon Arminian theology for Open Theism. But, as Olson himself confesses, Arminian theology posits the biblical concept of free will "for the sake of God's character" (see footnote 1). This is because the heartbeat of Arminianism is the character of God and not free will.

Does Open Theism detract from the character of God as it does the nature of God? When mention is made of the character of God what is referred to is the manner in which God acts, reacts, and interacts with human beings created in His image. If God cannot foreknow the future, then that will affect the manner in which He acts, reacts and interacts with free creatures. So, yes, an Open Theistic understanding of God alters our perception of even the character of God. But defenders of absolute foreknowledge do not advocate the position out of fear of diminishing the character (and nature) of God. The hermeneutic we use guides our interpretation of the scriptures in maintaining this position. We find littered throughout the Word of God a defense that the knowledge and foreknowledge of God is exhaustive; and we can in no sense concede that such passages must be restricted to indicate that God does not exhaustively know the future in order to keep intact a concept of man's free will.

From my perspective, and that of many who oppose Open Theism, the Open theorist has not sufficiently proved his thesis that a free act is only genuinely free if it is unknown to an omniscient God. What constitutes freedom is a lack of determinism rendering necessary said act and not (fore)knowledge of an act. A predetermined act, by a necessary decree of God, is not a free act in any genuine sense of the word; and God's (fore)knowledge of a free act does not impose necessity on the act. Such (fore)knowledge is deemed philosophically benign, in that, the (fore)knowledge does not bring the act into reality. The free agent brings an act into reality by his own determination -- not by a (fore)knowledge of the act in the mind of God. An Open Theist leaves the following comment: "This is an explanatory, robust, biblical view. What is your beef?" This is my beef -- that Open Theists are forcing a faulty conception of God upon believers in order to defend free will as truly free. But we are free. We do not need the ill-conceived philosophy of Open Theism to maintain a "robust, biblical view" of free will. God's exhaustive (fore)knowledge does not cause or necessitate free acts.

For instance, the traitorous act of Judas against Jesus is both foreknown and freely enacted. "For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him." (John 6:64 NIV, emphases added) By what knowledge could Jesus possibly know that Judas would, with certainty, betray Him if God "cannot know with certainty now all that will actually happen in the future"? (Oord) With verses such as this one, and there are a plethora of others, Open Theists are forced to consider how Jesus could have foreknown the betrayal of Judas since God cannot foreknow with certainty actions that have not yet occurred. Saia argues: "If their decisions are settled from all eternity, however, then it is not really possible for them to choose other than what God knows (or ordains) we shall choose."16 Open Theists have contextually framed the issue of genuine free will thusly: "For a person to have free will and be responsible for what they choose, they must have the capacity to turn possible courses of action into actual actions."17 This they find impossible to maintain if God already foreknows what a person will freely choose to do. In a very real sense, then, the Open Theist has hedged himself in, both philosophically and biblically, and thus, like the deterministic Calvinist, creates his own logical and hermeneutical problems.

The wording Saia and other Open advocates choose -- "they must have the capacity to turn possible courses of action into actual actions" -- constrains the (fore)knowledge of God to mere potentiality. In other words, as far as God is concerned, His knowledge must be limited to what could happen, or what may happen given the history of an individual, but can in no sense include what will happen. Thus, passages rendering God confessing "now I know" (Gen. 22:12), or "perhaps they will repent" (Jer. 26:3), or "and if not, I will know" (Gen. 18:21) are interpreted as insisting that God learns from us. In essence, then, God has need of us in order to attain to the knowledge of an event. Paul grants us a proper perspective of the nature, character, aseity and sovereignty of God:
He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn't live in man-made temples, and human hands can't serve his needs -- for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him -- though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. (Acts 17:24, 25, 26, 27, 28a NLT, emphases added)
Open Theism overturns passages such as this one by implying that the infinite is in need of the finite for His knowledge; the independent needs the co-dependent to inform Him of that which He is unaware; the sovereign needs the subject for a proper understanding. Yes, God has communicated with finite beings within their finite and time-bound contexts, but this need not indicate that the infinite lacks a proper perspective. That God foreknows a future act is irrelevant to the creature freely acting, for God has not decreed the act, nor does God's foreknowledge necessitate the act in a strict sense. Yes, what He foreknows will occur shall occur, but does not occur because He foreknows an act. He foreknows a future self-determined act in all aspects of that knowledge.

Could the person have chosen otherwise? Most certainly a person could have chosen otherwise because the person was not necessitated by decree to the act; and, if the person had chosen otherwise, God would have foreknown that choice and consequent action. Hence the foreknowing of an act is inconsequential to the choice or act itself. So, when Arminians persistently argue that the foreknowledge of God is not causal, we mean just that -- the foreknowing of God of a free act is inconsequential to the choice and consequent action. Arminians find no relevance or need in framing the issue of free will as do Open Theists.


1 Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational View of Providence (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 115.

2 See Eef Dekker, "Jacob Arminius and His Logic: Analysis of a Letter," in Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1993): 118-42. See also Thomas H. McCall, "Was Arminius an Unwitting Determinist? Another Look at Arminius's Modal Logic," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2015), 23-37.

3 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford, 2012), 97-106.

4 Carl R. Trueman, "Response," in Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views, eds. Andrew David Naselli and Mark A. Snoeberger (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 127.

5 Someone might ask, "Are Open Theists not Arminians?" No, actually, many Open Theists are not Arminians but are semi-Pelagians or self-avowed Pelagians. While all Open Theists agree with Arminians on issues like general atonement, and the work of grace by the Holy Spirit, they disagree with Arminians on significant doctrines such as total depravity and total inability, election, exhaustive foreknowledge, and the sovereignty of God.

6 Michael R. Saia, Does God Know the Future? A Biblical Investigation of Foreknowledge and Free Will (Fairfax: Xulon Press, 2002), 101-02.

7 Ibid., 102-06.

8 Ibid., 106-10.

9 Ibid., 110-12.

10 Ibid., 112.

11 Ibid., 113.

12 Ibid., 115.

13 Ibid., 118-22.

14 Ibid., 115-16.

15 Oord, 109.

16 Saia, 7.

17 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.