The problem of evil presents a challenge for philosophers and theologians who hold to the existence of God. Simply stated, the problem includes three conditional premises and a concluding question: If God is all powerful, all knowing, and all beneficent, then how can evil exist? In order to resolve the problem that the concluding question implies, one of the three premises has to be denied or altered.
While I would suggest that the problem can only be resolved by understanding and defining the beneficence of God through the lens of His holiness (as emphasized in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4), the theology of divine openness, otherwise known as open theism, attempts to answer the question by denying the other two premises. Open theism is on the extreme end of the “free-will” spectrum as a philosophical attempt at resolving the problem.
Clark Pinnock, the preeminent proponent of open theism, presented a lecture at the 2007 Open Theology and Science Conference at Eastern Nazerene College, in which he addressed the issue of why he was an open theist. In that lecture he discusses some of the more salient and foundational points of Open Theism.
Basic Tenets of Pinnock’s Open Theism
God created the world for love and relations. Genuine love has an element of decision, and requires at least a degree of freedom. Thus genuine love requires risk. God has determined that love is worth the risk. God is involved in the world, rather than detached from it. God participates in human suffering, and makes his actions contingent upon human actions.
God could know details of the future, but renounces that in order to provide genuine freedom. God could control the world if he wished, but He does not wish to. God is not ontologically limited, but He voluntarily limits Himself for the sake of relationship, resulting in a kind of voluntary panentheism. In love, God chose general rather than meticulous sovereignty. In order to grant libertarian genuine freedom, God chose to give up complete control. God took risks. Consequently, God does not have an exhaustive knowledge of the future. Instead, He has partnership in history, as senior partner, with humans. The future is not yet formed, but is being made as we go along. God knows what could happen and is prepared for all possibilities.
The point is a personal, relational, interactive God, rather than a God of abstract features. God anticipates all that can happen and is prepared for it but corrects unexpected events by means of His own repentance.
Advantages Pinnock Sees in Open Theism
In Pinnock’s view, open theism is both biblical and practical, having numerous applications. It corrects hyper-transcendent understandings of God. It contributes to epistemology and science in that it parallels in theology the dynamic cosmology of quantum mechanics. It reflects a world of true becoming, and is also compatible with an evolutionary cosmology. It allows for divine providence and the interactivity of God, in contrast to the limitations of God’s freedom in exhaustive sovereignty. Finally, open theism provides a theodicy, resolving the problem of evil by its assertion that God renounces omniscience, allowing evil, in order to provide genuine freedom, which is required for genuine love.
While open theism possesses some obvious philosophical advantages from the perspective of those who have difficulty with the concept of exhaustive sovereignty, the view is the theological equivalent of Heraclitus’ can’t-step-twice-in-the-same-river world of becoming, in contrast to Parminedes’ cue-ball world of being.
In short, open theism represents a theological iteration of the classic philosophical debate contrasting being and becoming. The debate is nothing new, but Pinnock’s appeal to the Bible as the source of open theism’s derivation represents a development as significant as if someone claimed that Heraclitus’ cosmology was biblically derived.
The question, then, that we must answer is whether open theism is simply representative of a philosophical theory, or whether it indeed represents the cosmological model of Scripture.
Exodus Versus Pinnock’s View
The first biblical instance in which both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are discussed in the same context is in God’s commissioning of Moses and God’s prophecy regarding Pharaoh: “I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion” (Ex 3:19). If God foreknew Pharaoh’s coming disobedience, and if God’s overall purpose is to allow for genuine love and genuine freedom, then any foreknowledge on God’s part would represent a restriction of that love and freedom.
Thus even the smallest degree of foreknowledge would violate God’s freedom-driven model. While God’s discussion of foreknowledge could be arguably passive (responsive) rather than active (causative), there is no arguing that God was indeed active in the restriction of Pharaoh’s freedom, since He preannounces that not only does He know what Pharaoh will do but He adds, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21). The use of the Piel (intensive) form of chazaq (to harden or strengthen) leaves no doubt as to the level of God’s activeness in this.
Further, it is notable that this prophecy precedes all ten plagues, otherwise referred to as judgments against Egypt (Ex 7:4) and against all the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12). Also, as the plagues near their conclusion, God reiterates twice that he would again harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 14:4, 17), and in both instances the Piel is used—emphasizing the intensive quality of God’s activity.
It is fatal to open theism that God had foreknowledge and also exercised His sovereignty on Pharaoh in such a way that caused God’s judgment to come upon the whole land of Egypt. Such a maneuver is certainly not compatible with the theory that God restricts His own sovereignty in order to foster love through freedom. The purpose for God’s hardening of Pharaoh is explicitly stated in His preannouncement: “that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Ex 7:3, 14:4).
God’s Doxological Purpose
This preannouncement reflects a doxological teleology, not a panentheistic or relational one. In other words, God’s purpose is His glory, not simply love or relationship. God would be honored through Pharaoh and all His army (Ex 14:4)—which was great for the Egyptians, who would learn that Yahweh was God, but it didn’t work out so well for Pharaoh or his army—or for the firstborn in Egypt who lost their lives due to Pharaoh’s hard heart.
Finally, we discover that, as the events unfold, the Exodus episodes report five times that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10, 14:8), five times that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (Ex 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35), and three times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex 8:15, 8:32, 9:35). In four of the five passive references, the verses conclude with “as the Lord had said” (7:13, 22, 8:15, 19), indicating that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in these instances was also part of God’s active hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
These occurrences show that God was completely sovereign over the situation, for the purpose of expressing His own character and glory, and that not only was Pharaoh held accountable for his hardness of heart, but so were the animals, the people, the armies, and the gods of Egypt. As Paul later explains, there is no injustice with God, even when He limits the freedom of an individual by hardening them for His own purposes (Rom 9:14-18).
The Exodus episodes debunk open theism’s key premise: that God’s cosmology is purposed in relationship and requires that He restrict His sovereignty so as not to impinge on the human freedom necessary for genuine love. If even in one instance the premise is contradicted, then the entire model (as a universal cosmology) fails. Of course, there are many other passages that are problematic for open theism (which we would expect if it is not compatible with the biblical model), but the Exodus narrative is enough evidence to expose open theism as a philosophically and not biblically derived theological concept. Further, open theism so misrepresents God, His word, and His activities as to be barely recognizable as honoring Him as God at all.
Next we look at how roughly forty other passages answer open theism.