Read This Article: Perhaps I’ll Reject Open Theism

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

August 19, 2021

To become a Mere Molinist all one has to do is affirm two propositions:

1- God possesses middle knowledge. 

2- Humans possess libertarian freedom.

These are the two pillars of Mere Molinism, and after surveying the scriptural support, perfect being theology, and philosophical arguments, many Christ followers seem to think that these two key ingredients are non-controversial and easy affirmations — unless one is previously committed to either exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) or Open Theism. 

With these two propositions in mind, I am often asked what I would I do if I were eventually convinced that Molinism is false and I had to choose between either Calvinism or Open Theism. This is a tough question to answer because it seems that both of these competing systems affirm what A.W. Tozer described as a “low view of God.” Since I am committed to the highest view of God, I suppose I would give the nod to Open Theism over Calvinism. This is because it seems to me that while both views degrade God’s maximal greatness, the Open Theist typically has a low view of God’s knowledge, while the Calvinist affirms a low view of God’s character.[1

To the Open Theist’s credit, it seems that they hold the view that God does not know the future or possible futures (as Doctor Strange does) in an attempt to save God’s character and omnibenevolence, which Calvinists often reject.[2The Open Theist, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater and goes too far in their attempt to defend God and affirm His omnibenevolence by denying His omniscience (as traditionally understood). 

To make a case for this low view of God’s knowledge, the Open Theist typically offers the philosophical argument known as the “Grounding Objection,” and cites a handful of vague Bible verses in the Old Testament. Jacobus Erasmus and I have previously argued that the Grounding Objection is unconvincing in Chapter 15 of Mere Molinism, so the rest of this article will be spent surveying five Bible verses from the Old Testament that seems to serve as the “biblical foundation” for the Open Theist. 

Vague and Unconvincing Biblical Support

These five verses focus on the word “perhaps” in an attempt to argue that the future is unknown to God and “unsettled.” If God does not know the future with certainty, He obviously cannot know possible futures either, and thus, the Open Theist opposes middle knowledge and Molinism. My friend who is an advocate of Open Theism challenged me with the question: 

“Why would God say “Perhaps” if He wasn’t confirming possibilities do exist and was denying that all is predestined?”

I have argued that if Molinism is true, then all is predestined but not causally determined and that there are still possibilities available to libertarian free creatures. My interlocutor then shared the following: 

per·haps /pərˈ(h)aps/ adverb: “used to express uncertainty or possibility.”

Numbers 22:33 NKJV — “The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If [Perhaps] she had not turned aside from Me, surely [because] I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.”

Jeremiah 26:3 NKJV — “Perhaps everyone will listen and turn from his evil way, that I may relent concerning the calamity which I purpose to bring on them because of the evil of their doings.”

Jeremiah 36:3 NKJV — “It may be [Perhaps] that the house of Judah will hear all the adversities which I purpose to bring upon them, that everyone may turn from his evil way, that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.”

Ezekiel 12:3 NKJV — “Therefore, son of man, prepare your belongings for captivity, and go into captivity by day in their sight. You shall go from your place into captivity to another place in their sight. It may be [Perhaps] that they will consider, though they are a rebellious house.

Hosea 8:7 NKJV — “They sow the wind, And reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no bud; It shall never produce meal. If [Perhaps] it should produce, Aliens would swallow it up.[3

He followed this with the question and implied objection:

“If I told you, “I might go to church this Sunday” while knowing and believing “I will not go to church this Sunday”, did I mislead you? Why or why not? If so, why not apply the same standard to God and His Word?”

It should be noted that this “going to church on Sunday” example is unlike the biblical data offered. God never says, “perhaps I will do X or not-X.” Rather, God speaks of the alternative possibilities free creatures have at their disposal.[4Moreover, if God doesn’t want to reveal the entire truth for morally sufficient reasons (perhaps to strengthen the reader’s faith), then using “perhaps” language seems just fine. Be that as it may, it seems that far too much theological freight is being loaded on top of these five vague verses all while ignoring the rest of Scripture and other arguments. After all, suppose that I have already planned a surprise birthday party for my colleague. His friends and family are already invited, presents have been purchased, and the cake has been baked. I then call my friend and say:

“You should come over to my place on your birthday, perhaps you will be surprised with a party and if you’re lucky I may or may not have bought you a present!” 

Would anyone condemn me as being misleading since the party is already settled and I have already purchased his present? Perhaps, only the Open Theist! 

What if I invited my colleague to meet me at the coffee shop to discuss theology and said:

“Come meet me at the coffee shop this afternoon to discuss why Molinism makes the most sense of Scripture. I might even buy you your favorite drink!”

Even if it was settled in my mind that I will buy my colleague a cup of coffee, there is nothing deceptive about using this manner of speaking, or as the French say, a “façon de parler.” Indeed, if I was trying to influence and coax my colleague to meet me at the coffee shop (without twisting his arm too much) then it would be entirely acceptable for me to speak in “perhaps” language even though I had already settled the fact that I will buy him a cup of coffee.

To keep this odd hermeneutical interpretation, the Open Theist would have to make a strong argument that Hebrew writers thousands of years ago would not use such façon de parlers regarding the word “perhaps.”[5] Given the vast amount of figurative language used in the Old Testament — as well as anthropomorphisms about God and His relationship to humanity — I see no need to interpret these five verses in such a wooden and literal manner (as Ken Ham might interpret Genesis).

What Does God Know? 

What really ought to get one’s attention is the fact that Scripture is clear that God does possess definite and certain knowledge of possible futures that never come to pass. One of the most popular cited biblical passage is found in 1st Samuel 23:6-14. Here, God lets David know a truth to a counterfactual proposition. Namely, that if he were to stay at Keliah, then Saul would pursue him, and that if Saul were to pursue him, then the men of Keliah would give him over to Saul. 

Jeremiah 38:17-18 also provides support for God’s counterfactual knowledge. This passage makes it clear that God knows what would happen no matter what course of action Zedekiah chose to take. 

Additionally, consider that the “test of a true prophet” is the fulfillment of his predictions (according to Deuteronomy 18:22). Some predictions given by biblical prophets, however, are never fulfilled because the people who these prophecies were delivered to responded by changing their lives (Isaiah 38:1-5; Amos 7:1-6; Jonah 3: 1-10). Thus, the people who chose to change their lives avoided the consequences of what would have happened if they had not changed direction.

Isaiah provides the test of the true God versus the trial of the false gods. The primary test Scripture provides for humanity to recognize the difference between the one true God and false gods is that a maximally great being has certain knowledge of the future — including the future choices of humanity. 

So, the Old Testament is rife with examples of what an omniscient God knows. But God knows not just what will happen in the future, He also knows what would have happened in other possible futures (or possible worlds) that He had the power to actualize or not. The Open Theist asserts that God does not know the future (or possible futures) with certainty. 

Jesus vs Open Theism 

Jesus stands in opposition to Open Theism. Consider the knowledge possessed by the Second Person of the Trinity. In the thirteenth chapter of John, Jesus provides certain knowledge of Judas’s betrayal. Jesus did not say, “one of you will probably betray me,” but provided knowledge of what will definitely occur (not to mention the specific knowledge of Peter’s three denials of Christ before the rooster crowed). 

The divine determinist (Calvinist) says that Jesus knows the future sin of Judas (and Peter) because God had already “settled” the fact that He would causally determine Judas (and Peter) to sin. Thankfully, the Open Theist (along with the Molinist) sees the absurdity of such a claim. The maximally great and perfectly loving God revealed to us in Scripture is not the author of evil or a deity of deception. Indeed, to the Open Theist’s credit, they typically affirm that humans possess libertarian freedom and that when we sin, we did not have to sin (as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 10:13). 

Here is the conundrum for the Open Theist: If God does not causally determine the sins of humanity, then how did Jesus know the future free sins of Judas (and Peter) with certainty — a sin that would certainly lead to the atoning death and resurrection of Christ? A maximally great God with middle knowledge would be in a position to know how Judas (and Peter) would and will freely choose (in a libertarian sense) with certainty.

After contemplating Open Theism’s attempts as justifying their low view of God with biblical data, Kirk MacGregor noted the following in his biography of Luis de Molina

“In short, the Molinist can consistently affirm the full scope of the biblical data, while the open theist can only consistently affirm a subset of that data and is forced to explain away or ignore the sizable remainder” (251).

Calvinists have the same problem. The best view is one that can account for ALL the biblical data, not just a subset of it. I invite you to join the Mere Molinism FB group to continue discussing human freedom and divine middle knowledge. Perhaps I will share more arguments for Molinism! (See what I did there?)

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton 

To watch the video version of this article, click here


Notes

[1] Aaron Rizierri has recently attempted to offer an argument against the knowledge of God (as a maximally great being) by going after divine omnibenevolence while appealing to a version of the Hiddenness Argument. Jacobus Erasmus and I have written a paper showing that this argument does not scathe the middle knowledge-affirming Molinist (forthcoming in Perichoresis, 2022). It seems to me, however, that both the Calvinist and the Open Theist fall prey to his conclusions. If this is the case, then the Open Theist affirms a “double whammy”: a low view of God’s knowledge and a low view of His character.

With that said, in my book I pointed out that Calvinists are often guilty of a “double whammy” if not a “triple whammy” against the greatness of God. Of course Calvinists typically affirm that God is a maximally great being, but I don’t think this affirmation is logically consistent with their view of divine sovereignty. Indeed, many (if not most) Calvinists reject Molinism and thus, reject God’s middle knowledge of free creatures within His power to create. So, if that’s the case, these folks also affirm a low view of God’s knowledge. I explained in my book that Calvinists like John Piper inadvertently affirm a low view of God’s power, and thus tacitly reject God’s omnipotence. And of course, as I explain in the footnotes below, many Calvinists reject God’s omnibenevolence. So, at the end of the day, although I think that both Calvinism and Open Theism are false, I do think Open Theism is closer to truth than Calvinism.

[2] Arthur Pink has a long discussion in his book The Sovereignty of God: 

“To declare that the Creator’s original plan has been frustrated by sin, is to dethrone God. To suggest that God was taken by surprise in Eden and that He is now attempting to remedy an unforeseen calamity, is to degrade the Most High to the level of a finite, erring mortal.

To argue that man is a free moral agent and the determiner of his own destiny, and that therefore he has the power to checkmate his Maker, is to strip God of the attribute of Omnipotence” (Pink, 1949:16)….

Later Pink strips God of the attribute of Omnibenevolence (1949:17,19). He writes: “God bestows His mercies on whom He pleases and withholds them as seemeth good unto Himself…. When we say that God is Sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom He chooses. God does not love everybody….” (my emphasis.)

[3] This verse still affirms certain middle knowledge. Even if we were to grant (not affirm) the “perhaps” God still seems to know with certainty that “Aliens would swallow it up.” 

[4 Kirk MacGregor, after proofing a draft of this article, added the following (via personal correspondence):

“The very fact that ‘perhaps’ is used in several of these verses implies that the people have libertarian free will to go one way or the other. The ‘perhaps’ statements are literally true: it is true that ‘perhaps I will leave my office at 3:30 this afternoon’ (I can do it or not do it) and that ‘I will leave my office at 3:30 this afternoon.’ The person also seems to assume a dictation theory of biblical inspiration, which is untenable.”

MacGregor’s forthcoming book provisionally entitled Molinist Philosophical and Theological Ventures focuses on Open Theism in the Chapter 5: “A Molinist Exegesis of Alleged Open Theist Prooftexts.” 

[5] Jacobus Erasmus informed me that it’s unclear whether אוּלַי (‘ûlay) should be translated as “perhaps” in those passages given the term’s various meanings. Consider, for example, Numbers 22:33: many scholars believe ‘ûlay should have been luley and, hence, translated as “if not”.

 
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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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