Musings on Openness Theology, Part 1: Is God Impassive?

We just finished up a study of John Sanders' book A God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence in our Wednesday night class at the Highland Church of Christ.

Sanders' book is one of a few books out on the market that make the case for what is known as openness theology. The general contention of openness theology is that the future is "open," which is to say, contingent (as opposed to being fixed and predetermined by God).

By contrast, a great deal of theological thinking (notably Augustine and Calvin) has suggested that all past, present, and future events are determined, fixed, and known by God. In this view, the entire timeline of history exists, unalterable, before the eyes of God.

In this "closed" view the future is not "open" or contingent. By contingent I mean "if..., then...". In the closed view of the future there is no if/then. The future is what it is and God has known it for all eternity. There are obviously important nuances to be added here, but, to start, I'm painting in broad strokes. As a representative of this theological perspective Sanders quotes John Calvin:

"Nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by God." Further, God "foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place."

In contrast to this view, openness theology suggests that the future is open and contingent. The world unfolds in an if/then manner. If humans do X God will respond with Y leading to future Z. But if humans do X' then God will respond with Y' leading to future Z'. Given this contingency there is a whole (possibly infinite) set of futures--Z'', Z''', Z''', Z''''', Z'''''', and so on--that might come to be. It all depends upon human/divince interactions RIGHT NOW. Sanders quotes Richard Foster to represent this view:

"We have been taught that everything in the universe is already set, and so things cannot be changed. And if things cannot be changed, why pray? ... In fact, the Bible stresses so forcefully the openness of our universe that it speaks of God constantly changing his mind in accord with his unchanging love...We are working with God to change the future!"

The openness view of God is also called a relational view because human/divine relations are infused with spontaneity and portent. The if/then dynamic makes relational activities with God such as prayer pop and come alive. The future, literally, hangs in the balance.

But openness theology is wildly controversial as it seems to call for the revision of some classic theological commitments regarding the qualities of God. Specifically, God is considered to be (relevant to our discussion here) omnipotent, omniscience, and omnipresent. These adjectives are taken to describe the Transcendent Perfection of God.

The issue is, if God doesn't know the future (either because the future doesn't exist, a view known as presentism, or because God doesn't know which path the future will take) then isn't this a limitation on his omniscience? Can God not know something? Further, can a Perfect God change his mind or make a mistake?

Although these are interesting questions which I will return to, the big issue for me during the study was God's impassibility.

The doctrine of God's impassibility states that God does not experience emotions (as humans understand them). That is, God his "impassive" in the face of events. God is not surprised, alarmed, chagrined, amused, charmed, angered, happy, frustrated or saddened by events the way we humans are. God isn't, like us, affected by events. If God were affected by things then God isn't Transcendent and omnipotent. You can't "touch"--physically, causally, or emotionally--God.

This doctrine is simply the logical outcome of God's omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. If God knows all things from the beginning of time then he can't properly be surprised by the outcome of events. True, the bible does suggest that God experiences emotions, even strong and violent emotions. And God even seems to regret some of his choices. But according to the adherents of divine impassibility all this is just metaphor and anthropomorphism. God doesn't have feelings. (God is love, of course, but this has more to do with his steadfast goodness, his hesed, than the feelings of human love. In fact, most churches downplay human love in favor of this vision of "God-like love." Love is a "commitment," a "choice," it isn't a feeling. Which is true to a point, but it's a crappy notion of love. Imagine me saying to my wife, "Baby, I love you. And by this I mean I'm choosing to stay committed to you." Very romantic.)

Openness theology, by contrast, claims that, because the future is open and contingent, God is passable, God does experience emotions. Those biblical passages speaking of God's anger, joy, longing, frustration, regret, and sorrow speak to something real which parallels the human experience of emotions.

So there is a tension. A tension between the Greek notion of God's immutable and unchanging Perfection. And a Hebrew notion of a psychologically complicated and emotional God. The bible hints at both.

So, I ask: Which is it?

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25 thoughts on “Musings on Openness Theology, Part 1: Is God Impassive?”

  1. I am definitely down with a fully passible God. I agree with Moltmann's Crucified God here.

    I'm not sure whether I am really on board with Openess Theology as you've described it, I'd have to read more. Suffice to say I find it strange to refer to the creator of the universe, the eternal God who is outside time as somehow bound or limited by time. But I'm not 100% on this either way.

    I do want to put in a good word for Hesed/Agape though. I agree that God feels emotions and as James Alison would put it he not only "Loves" us, but is affectionate and even "likes" us, (this contradicts the stern image of God common in my line of Reformed Christianity). However, the commitment/steadfast aspect of love is just as important if not more important even in human relationships. Indeed, all the sweet poetry and declarations of love in the world are just hot air if not backed up with serious commitment. Speaking as a Married Man - Marital love is definitely about commitment. Too many couples I meet treat love as if it were just an emotion beyond their control and thus, when they "fall out of love" there is no reason not to divorce. They have no concept of love being a relationship we work on. That it takes effort to remain in love over time, and that kind of selfless effort is the very thing that makes a longterm relationship worthwhile.

  2. Hi Aric,
    The openness camp, and I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of the area, has a variety of take about the future. Two of the main models (as far as I can tell) are:

    1. Presentism: The future actually doesn't even exist to be known. No limit to God's omniscience since it is no limitation on God to not know what doesn't exist. (This is a kind of weird view, but people stake it out.)

    2. Multiple Futures: Kind of like the quantum notion of multiple worlds, each "decision point" fractures the future into myriad timelines. God knows all these timelines as possibilities and humans, in their choice, pick a path. The future is still open in the sense that humans can pick one of many paths. And God can express joy or anger over the choice. But God knows all paths. William James' metaphor that is God playing chess with humanity is often used: The game, due to human choice, can go in many different directions but God knows all the possible human "moves" and will, eventually, win.

    Regarding hesed and human love. I do understand what you are saying, but, as a psychologist, the division of emotion and commitment just isn't plausible. It's rhetorically neat, just not psychologically plausible.

    That is, commitment goes where emotion goes. No choice is made without deep volitional commitments, and these are typically emotional. When preachers rage against emotions in human love they usually set up a straw man and speak of "mere" feelings (i.e., infatuation). In this, they have a point. Mere infatuation isn't going to get a marriage through difficult times. But why are were artificially speaking about superficial emotions? What about love, the deepest emotion of all? Why isn't that the subject when we rage against feelings?

    Note, I'm not saying that God's hesed isn't a model for human love. What I'm speaking about is when an impassive model of God's hesed is applied to human affairs (seen in the "commitment/choice" rhetoric).

    That is to say, I too think God is passive and that his hesed isn't mere commitment/choice. In my view, God's hesed is deeply emotional. God is passionate and his commitment is of a piece with his passion. And so should human love.

    But I think, once we sort about the language, you and I probably agree.

    And on a different note: Get to work on your Reformed series! I'm getting impatient to learn some things. :-)

  3. I would say that G-d is psychologically complicated. I would also say that G-d is perfectly reactive, that is he responds to perfectly to whatever situation we encounter. I actually have been an openness theology proponent for about 5 years now. I came up with it on my own (after deciding I disagreed with C.S. Lewis' assessment of God and time and pondering the Old Testament and my own experience) and I thought I had discovered something revolutionary. Then I started to look around and I found quite a few books on the subject. I was pretty disappointed that I hadn't discovered something new, but I was happy to know I wasn't alone in my thoughts. Back then I held the "multiple futures" view, but in recent years I've switched to "presentism" so I guess I'm staking out the weird view. Either way, I've found this view to be pretty controversial when discussing it with my conservative c of C friends, but in the wider world of Christianity (or at least the people I have contact with on a regular basis) it's not quite as controversial. Why do you think that is?

  4. Where does the following view fit into openness theology?

    God can see all points in the past present and future (he is the alpha and the omega). He therefore knows everything that happens. However He still allows us to make choices in our present which shapes the course of history. God also intervenes in our presents to weave His will into history, using the raw materials of our choices to work 'all things for the good of those who love Him'(and, I would add for the whole of creation).

  5. Jonathan,

    If I may: The Alpha and the Omega doesn't necessarily mean G-d sees all points in the past and the future. It could mean that G-d is the beginning and the end, that he created us, and that he sees the end as an eternity with Him. If G-d is perfectly reactive (as I believe Him to be) then he can use our choices for the "good of those who love him" and intervene whenever he so chooses (ex: sending His son).

  6. Richard,

    Terms like omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience are rather abstract philosphical categories that may be helpful in our understanding of God. But they may not be helpful as we encounter the text of Scripture or the mystery of God. Working solely within those categories, it seems to me, puts a limitation on God, allowing us to domesticate God to our liking.

    A few weeks ago on my currently dorment blog I posted this which speaks to openness theology.

    "Joan Acocella points out that Dante spins out metaphor after metaphor (like St. John in “Revelation”) to describe the experience of being in Paradise. She writes: “Of the bliss that is Heaven, Dante makes sublime images: flames and roses, rivers and rainbows. Heaven’s light is seen ‘sparking everywhere, / like liquid iron flowing from the fire.’ Created things move ‘toward different harbors / upon the vastness of the sea of being.’” Dante is no longer pilgrim, she says, but an inspired poet.

    She then quotes these lines:

    "My memory of that moment is more lost than five and twenty centuries make dim that enterprise when, in wonder, Neptune at the Argo’s shadow stared."

    Then Acocella explains: “Focus only on the image. Jason and the Argonauts, in the first ship ever made, are sailing across the ocean on a dangerous mission, to capture the Golden Fleece. Neptune, the god of the ocean, looks up from the seafloor. Through the fathomless depths, he sees a shadow—the boat—and stares at it in wonder. Though he is a god, he has never seen anything like this.”

    Does God respond like Neptune, in surprise and wonder at our ecstatic crossing of a threshold? Over eight years ago I held my nine-month old grand-son in my arms as I stood along with my congregation to sing a capella the Hallelujah Chorus. He joined in and sang his infant song with us. I crossed a momentary threshold and was overwhelmed. Tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Was God surprised by him? By me? Is God surprised by you? Is that how radically free wonder is?"

    I believe the answer is yes.


    George C.

  7. Steven,
    I take your point about the possible meanings of God being 'the Alpha and the Omega'.

    I also agree with you that God can use our choices and intervene when he chooses, but why strip God of his omnipotence and omnipresence when He can both be all knowing/seeing/present AND allow us to make choices and respond to them and intervene in time as He chooses?

  8. Richard, I loved your article. Thanks. I'd like to add another random thought (and a wife's perspective) about hesed love, though: while you're right that the "I love you babe but only because I've decided to grit my teeth and fulfil my commitment to you" approach wouldn't thrill any wife (or husband), it's a lot better than, "I don't feel the feelings anymore, babe, so I'm outta here." Sometimes the hesed love is the rebar that holds the cement of the relationship together when the feelings get strained. And as long as that rebar is strong, the feelings usually come back. Feelings can go in cycles; it's nice to know that my husband is sticking with me, in spite of whatever his emotional temperature might be on a given day.

    But having said that, I'm all for flowers and candy and mushy greeting cards...! As long as there's some rebar underneath it all...

  9. Jonathan,

    This is where definitions come into play. I believe we have different understandings of the three 'O' words based on our different theologies. I don't believe this view strips G-d of any of them.

    1.I believe G-d is all knowing, that is G-d knows everything that can be known. I don't believe the future exists so that's not a problem for me.

    2. I believe G-d is all seeing, that is G-d sees everything that is happening and remembers everything that has happened.

    3. I believe G-d is ever present. However, since I only believe the present exists, that the past is only a memory, and that the future doesn't yet exist, this isn't a problem for me either.

    I acknowledge of course that this is not set in stone, that I could be wrong, and that in the yet unwritten future I might change my mind. This is just my current theological state and I always welcome discussion to further my knowledge of G-d.

  10. I've always been intrigued by open theism. Opens up a much more relational idea to our interaction with God and makes prayer seem more meaningful. But this same thing seems to open up a large can of theodicy and in the words of a fellow in a small group I was in about a year ago, "if this is a relationship then God needs to seek relationship counseling."

  11. Aric, open theists would not say that God is 'bound' or 'limited' by time.
    Rather, God truly relates to human beings, who are bound and limited by time. An important distinction.

    Richard, most open theists I've known (myself included) are presentists. The future 'exists' then in God's mind as possible outcomes of present realities (the future is a function of creaturely choices within the limited confines of nature's laws). So 'multiple futures' and presentism should be seen as going hand in hand, or so I would argue.

    Jonathan, your view presupposes the future (and therefore the choices by which we shape the future) exists 'out there' to be seen and known by God. But this is precisely what open theists deny. The future is ontologically different from the past in that the past is settled and the future is open. If it is open, then there is nothing 'fixed' for God to see...

  12. Steven,
    I think the view is controversial mainly in the Reformed traditions informed by Calvin, which seems obvious. CoC people, being more Arminian, should resonate with the view more. But I think this is changing as CoC people are being more and more influenced by Reformed ideas.

    But I think the real tension comes from when these ideas hint that God can "regret" one of his choices. A "regretting God" seems to suggest an imperfect God and people strongly resist that notion.

    I think your first comment may or may not be an openness view. Let me try to unpack the subtle distinction. The future is contingent in that, given our choices today, the future might look like X or Y. Take Nineveh as an example. If Nineveh doesn't listen to Jonah then future X comes about: The city is destroyed. If Nineveh repents then future Y unfolds: The city is spared.

    Interestingly, Jonah seems to know that God is allowing the future to be contingent upon human response: Jonah says, "I knew you were a God of love and might spare the city!"

    Obviously, God knows both future X and future Y as possibilities, so to this point there is no limit to his knowledge per se. But the crux of the matter is this: Does he know WHICH future will unfold? Yes, God knows the options, but does he know the outcome BEFORE it happens? Openness thinkers answer "NO" to both those questions. Hence the controversy; this seems like a limitation on God's omniscience.

    I agree. The Neo-Platonism of the omni language really deflates the relationality of the God/Human dance.

    Welcome Sherry Rankin as first time commenter!
    As I wrote to Aric, "feelings" in these conversations tend to get associated with "moods" which are variable and changing. And if this is how the word "feeling" is being used I agree wholeheartedly.

    But the point I'd like to make is that emotion has a deep volitional component that tends to get ignored. You can't have commitment without a deep love for a person. It is true that we have mixed feelings about people. We might not feel very romantic or infatuated with a person. But what makes us "stay" during rough patches in a marriage--the rebar--is a deep love. This love is volitionally constraining, it produces the commitment, it is not produced by the commitment. You can't make an appeal to "stay committed" unless you can appeal to the deep love the two people have for each other. Without that "a commitment" gains no volitional traction or leverage. You can't choose/commit if you don't care. Caring precedes choosing. And caring is an emotion.

  13. Daniel,
    I see that. Here's the rub for me (which I'll get to in coming post). Presentism seems to be grounded in libertarian notions of free will.

    Which puts me in a bind as I have a dim view of free will. That is, I like the openness theology PRODUCT but am having a hard time with the MECHANISM.

    Are you aware of any views of presentism that don't rely on the mechanism of free will? I'd like to find these.

  14. Richard, yes you're right, open theists all base their defense on an assumption of libertarian free will. (As an aside, the best philosophical defense I've seen of presentism is William Hasker's "God, Time and Knowledge".) But remember that the 'formal' debate over free will need not qualify your commitment to realism about human limitations.
    For instance Greg Boyd has repeatedly argued that libertarian free will is compatible with humans being very bound by their circumstances. The 'freedom to the contrary' is not freedom to be whatever we want to be, or unconstrained freedom to transcend our conditioning, but rather the modest freedom which we experience on an occasional basis.
    On a practical level, Boyd says he chooses to consider himself to be maximally free (to take responsibility for his actions) and considers others to be minimally free (so that he blames their circumstances rather than their choices). Philosophically this is undoubtedly inaccurate, but the only point I'm trying to make is that you CAN have formal 'freedom to the contrary' (libertarian free will) alongside a borderline deterministic psychology. And I take it that's what you're looking for.

    Does this help?


  15. Alternatively, you could argue that the future is 'open', not because of human 'choice' per se, but rather just because of how complex the world is. Of course, that would then pose problems for the biblical data which supposedly undergird open theism (namely that it IS creaturely choice which grounds the future's openness, and therefore God's responsiveness to possibility)...

  16. Richard, Daniel,

    Tripping along Occam's razor can bloody your feet. Either/or responses and questions separate, judge, create debate and attraction and repulsion. Of course, clarity, separation, and distinction are sometimes needed. After all, there is a "time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing."

    But Plato, the platonists, and neo-platonists--and theologians shaped by them--saw (see) poets as liars and enemies of Truth with a capital T. Poets tell stories embodying but not "capitalizing" truth. Talk theology and philosophy in a sermon and it's a snoozer. Tell a story, a parable, actual or fictional, and the people are moved by the "truth" they hear. That "truth" may be a lie but it is relational and can stir us to action. We need those who live by wit and wisdom.

    I think the words of Hamlet apply here: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And I would add: "and in your theology."


    George C.

  17. Great conversations all,

    Thanks for bringing these ideas out so clearly. These are issues i have struggled with growing up in a conservative baptist church-ultra literatism. There was never a good answer given from anyone in that camp to these issues-such as why/how would God change "his" mind?

    That and many other things are going into the category of "holding loosely" while praying/reading and talking to others on both side of the aisle. I find more and more that i used to think i had a firm grip on "Truth" that i am now holding loosely. A co-worker and brother in the Lord brought to my office his bible and opened to Romans where Paul speaks of God "giving them over" to their debauchery of lies,greed etc-including homosexuality. He then challenged me to explain how i see this verse in light of my rather liberal views on homosexuality. My only answer was the same as on this topic-I can't justify the two so i hold it loosely.

  18. Dr. Beck and all,

    Some fascinating stuff here. I am especially sympathetic to George Cooper's poetic bent. Hear! Hear! For the value of poetic notions of truth.

    As for the conversation on emotions and commitment vs. passions/moods I think there is a general agreement here, and doubtless it is hubristic for me with so little psychological knowledge to attempt to debate with Dr. Beck, but I think there is still some ambiguity for me on this issue.

    I agree that love is more than just a mood, that it is a deep state which funds our commitments. I also see that emotions and moods as we experience them are fickle and transitory and we shouldn't be overly attached to them or allow ourselves to be ruled by them. I don't mean this in the usual way to denigrate emotion and elevate reason to some ridiculous plateau, but to say that we ought to not be driven by whims.

    Up to this point I think we are all in agreement.

    Where it's not clear to me is where you say that the emotion of love is prior to the commitment. I'm not sure it's that straightforward. Commitment is certainly a sign of love, but we can and do (and should) hold people accountable for their emotions even in this deeper sense. Spouses have a right to expect love from their partner. Jesus commands us to love. Saints have time and time again demonstrated that it is possible to cultivate love - that we in fact have a responsibility to do so. By saying that love is prior to the act of will which engenders it in every case you make it seem like Love is something which just "happens to us" as opposed to something "we do".

    Surely it isn't a straightforward matter of the will either. We can't just make ourselves into perfect people by willing it, and we can do nothing without the grace of God working in us, but nevertheless I wouldn't say that the emotion of love was always prior to the act of will that creates love.

    Maybe I'm just drawing the wrong distinctions.

  19. Recently I revisited the first chapter of Ain't Too Proud to Beg by Telford Work, which I wrote about back when it was in draft stage, and it related to some of these issues. I bring this up because Telford emphasized the triune nature of God, which complicates the picture of us interacting with God the same way we'd interact with another person who has a more unitary character. One of the three persons is the Holy Spirit, who actually inhabits us, and according to Romans can speak for us in prayer. So cases when people apparently talk God into or out of something were inspired by God himself.

    I still don't know how I feel about this idea, but it seems relevant to your graph saying that God can't be affected by things coming at him from outside, because it says that we aren't really "outside." I don't know what it does to the idea of God being unchangeable though.

  20. I will be interested to see where you come down on Open Theism. Sanders bangs the drum of Libertarian Fee Will as loudly as anyone I have read. The notion of Libertarian Free Will runs contrary to the notions of human contingency you have put forward on many occasions in this blog. You have said Arminianism is in trouble as modern psychology and neuro-science erode the notion of Free Will, well from my point of view Open Theism is Hyper-Arminisanism and is sold out to the most radical notions of human Free Will.

    Hayden Rampy

  21. Speaking of free will and neuroscience, I think you all may find Brant Hansen's blog quite intriguing. He's a Christian who has been writing quite openly about taking medication for depression and his wrestling with how to interpret the effects it has had:

  22. Daniel, Hayden, and Jason,
    I'm going to try to argue for an openness position in these posts without recourse to free will. It may be a unique attempt as the words algorithmic compression, the hard problem of consciousness, Laplace's demon, chaos theory and quantum mechanics will appear frequently. My goal is to reduce my readership even further :-)

    (Jason, thanks for that link. Fascinating stuff.)

    Just always know that as a theologian I'm a hobbyist. I do this all for entertainment.

    Regarding Homosexuality, you should read Sex and the Single Savior. Aric put me on to it and it's a great read.

    First, there is no hubris on your part. I know a bit about psychology, but I'm very liable to be wrong.

    Second, in your comment I think you have my position correctly. We find ourselves committed in various ways. We don't choose those commitments. Of course, there is some reciprocal causation here, but you are correct, I'm inverting the traditional order.

    My stance on this is borrowed from Harry Frankfurt and is supplemented by my understanding of psychology. That is, I find Frankfurt's vision of choice, love, and normativity the best fit with the psychological literature (as I understand it). The best piece I've written on this can be found here.

    I'm heading in the direction you describe. Basically, I'm going to argue that (with a reading of the book of Hebrews) that the Incarnation opened a link between humans and God and that via the Holy Spirit that link remains open and alive. Thus, the Triune nature of God, post-Incaration, is radically and continually open to human input. That God himself, and not just the future, is now "open."

  23. Dr. Beck,

    I was first introduced to Open Theism by Clark Pinnock - who has become one of my favorite theologians. I was first entertained by his approach to conditional immortality, and then read "Most Moved Mover" which is an excellent explanation of Open Theism and Biblical defense for the lay person. I highly recommend it. From Pinnock's book I went to Sanders' as well. His is good, too, but not as easily presentable to the general public.

    So if I put in my two cents and ask you for a "penny for your thoughts." Do you get to keep the extra penny?

    In short, I would say Pinnock's book "Most Moved Mover" is an excellent intro to Open Theism for the average dude.

  24. "Are you aware of any views of presentism that don't rely on the mechanism of free will? I'd like to find these."

    I don't know of any books that present presentism without free will, but they're absolutely feasible. To arrive at presentism as I understand it, you need to show only two things: first, that the future does not actually *exist*, and second, that the universe is not deterministic (because if it were, you could predict the future from the present).

    Note that neither of these things requires human beings to have any degree of free will ... the universe including some randomness is all that's required.

  25. I doubt that you can easily divorce "universal" determinism from human behavior determinism. I, too, have a hard time compatibilizing openness theology with determinism. A deistic view of God is a much easier pill for a determinist to swallow. I look forward to hearing what Richard has to say on the subject.

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