I am growing increasingly passionate about seeking and promoting genuine understanding between people of different views. Especially between those of us who give our allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom. Too many relationships have been ruined and lives hurt because of a lack of charitable discussion and open listening amongst siblings who disagree. Fear and ignorance are never good options when love and understanding are available…even when disagreements remain!
One such topic that has divided the Church in recent years is that of open theism. I’ve heard this view warned against and scoffed at, but never actually explained in a fair way. Without embracing this view myself (although the future is open…pun intended), I wanted to provide a place where this theological view could be fairly explained by someone who embraces it.
Enter Jason Tripp.
Jason lives in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada with his beautiful wife Sylvie and their two energetic children Levi and Michaela. He is the Lead Pastor of Valleyview Community Church, an intergenerational, missional faith community exploring what faithfulness to Jesus looks like in post-Christian Canadian suburbia. Jason is also an open theist.
Over the course of several weeks, I interviewed him via email about open theism.
Q 1: Jonathan Tysick: Some of us have heard a lot about this term “open theism” while other people have never heard the term before. So before we get into the details, what is open theism?
Jason Tripp: Open theism is the belief that the future is open and has not been exhaustively settled by God. Since the future consists of possibilities, none of which have yet to be actualized by the choices of free agents, those who subscribe to open theism deny the exhaustive foreknowledge of God due to the fact that the future consists of possibilities.
J Tysick: Very interesting. So to clarify, in this view, God has not pre-determined every tiny detail in the universe (as in Calvinism), and he has not simply known in advance what free choices human beings will make (as in Arminianism). Rather, God knows every possibility that might happen, but does not know what will happen because humans haven’t made the choices that determine the future yet. Is that a fair summary?
J Tripp: Yes that’s exactly it. Whereas in both the Calvinist tradition and Arminian tradition, God foreknows with certainty all that will happen in the future, in the open and relational view, God knows the future as possibilities and not certainties because the future has yet to be determined by the free will choices of creation.
Q 2: J Tysick: I haven’t heard this view of God preached from pulpits or taught in Christian settings. So I’m curious, how did you come to embrace this view of God? What is your journey with open theism?
J Tripp: As with many of the beliefs that make up my worldview, I intuited Open Theism as truth before engaging with others who ascribed to Open Theism and were able to articulate and affirm what I was already internally processing.
During my seminary days at Tyndale Seminary 15 years ago, I vividly recall my Systematic Theology professor recommending a book entitled God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God by Greg Boyd. At the conclusion of the class I went immediately to the school library and proceeded to read the book cover to cover in one sitting. That was my first encounter with a comprehensive work laying out the case for Open Theism.
That was the first of many books and conversations with proponents of the Open View of God and the future. Greg Boyd along with others such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, John Polkinghorne and Thomas Oord have been instrumental voices in helping shape and articulate my understanding of the Open View.
As a pastor in the Wesleyan tradition, I appeal to the Wesleyan quadrilateral as a methodology for theological reflection and formation. For those unfamiliar with the Wesleyan quadrilateral, it is an appeal to four sources–Scripture, reason, experience and tradition–for the purposes of theological reflection and formation. To use a visual aid, think of a hanging wind chime, with the middle rod analogous to Scripture with the surrounding rods illustrative of reason, experience and tradition.
As I began to seriously ponder the validity of Open Theism, I first evaluated the Scriptural evidence and found much Scriptural support for the Open View. The witness of Scripture attests to the authenticity of God’s relationship with creation in real-time. We read throughout Scripture of conditional promises hinging on the obedience or disobedience of individuals and nations which makes no sense if the future was entirely settled. We also read of God changing God’s mind, displaying emotional responses and being affected by the free decisions of creation. In my mind the grand narrative of the biblical witness was compatible with the Open View of God.
So too do reason and experience support Open Theism. It seems quite reasonable that a relational God of love would create a world in which authentic freedom exists, for love implies freedom and without authentic freedom there is no capacity for love. A world in which the future is settled is a world without authentic freedom and thus a world devoid of authentic loving relationships.
The Open View makes sense of prayer, in particular petitionary prayer. I never could understand the purpose of petitionary prayer–asking God for something on behalf of myself or others–if the future was settled. It seemed utterly pointless. So too does the Open View make sense of the problem of genuine evil and suffering. If God has predestined every future event (Calvinism) or foreknows with certainty every future event (Arminianism) than in my mind God is less than perfectly good and loving. The Open View presents a God of perfect love who does not ordain evil and suffering but is always perfectly loving and working for the good of all in cooperation with free agents without unilaterally coercing or revoking the free will of creation.
My biggest concern during my initial exploration of Open Theism was not Scripture, reason or experience, but rather tradition. I feared that the history of Christianity was devoid of anyone subscribing to the Open View. However, this was not the case, and although Open Theism has always been a minority position, I was pleasantly surprised to discover many throughout history subscribing to some form of the Open View, including many in my Wesleyan-Methodist tradition.
Q 3: You mentioned how you think the open view is supported by the Bible, reason, experience and tradition. On that note, what is the seminal Biblical text that supports the open view of God?
J Tripp: Rather than offering a ‘seminal Biblical text’ which is the method of proof-texting one’s belief about anything related to the Bible and theology, I’ll briefly lay out some broad themes which are observable throughout the Biblical witness which support the view that the future is open rather than exhaustively settled.
One of the texts which under-girds my support of the open and relational view of God is found in 2 Timothy 2:13 where it speaks of God being unable to deny himself. Essentially, this implies that God is restricted to act in a perfectly consistent way with God’s essential character and nature which is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16) defined by the life and death of Jesus (1 Jn 3:16), who is the full and final revelation of God (John 14:9, Col. 1:19, 2:9).
For those of us who embrace the open and relational view of God and a future which is open, the classical view of exhaustive divine foreknowledge is at odds with the God of love revealed in Jesus since exhaustive foreknowledge leads to the conclusion that God bears culpability for the sin and evil in the world and relationships with creation are less perfectly authentic and dynamic.
The biblical witness is replete with evidence to support the open view and the authentic, moment by moment relationships God has with creation. In Scripture we read that God frequently has a change of mind in response to the free will decisions of creation, prayer and changing circumstances (Exod. 32:14; Num. 14:12-20; Deut. 9:13-14, 18-20, 25; 1 Sam. 2:27-36; 2 Kings 20:1-7; 1 Chron. 21:!5; Jer. 26:19; Ezek. 20:5-22; Amos 7:1-6; Jonah 1:2, 3:2, 4-10). At other times we read of God’s willingness to change in response to changing circumstances (Jer. 18:7-11; 26:2-3; Ezek. 33:13-15), while at other times we read of God having a sense of grief or remorse at how things have turned out (Gen. 6:5-6; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; Ezek. 22:29-31). If the future were exhaustively settled, the plain reading and interpretation of these and many other biblical texts make no sense, for God cannot authentically express these emotions if God is fully impassible and without the emotions shared in authentic relationships.
Q 4 J Tysick: Regarding tradition and Church history, who was the biggest proponent of this open view of God who lived before the late 20th century (when contemporary open theism arose as a theological movement)?
J Tripp: Just as there are is not merely one seminal biblical text supporting the open view, likewise there is not only one proponent holding to the Open Theistic view of God living before the late 20th century. When I began to dig into the church tradition tracking the history of those subscribing to the Open view, I was not expecting to find many (if any) proponents, however I did find a great deal more support for the open view than I anticipated. The open view has always been a minority (the influence of ancient Greek Platonic philosophy has been deeply entangled with Christian thought since the early church) however, it has had proponents throughout history and it’s important to note that the Open View was never deemed “heresy” before the mid-1990’s when some started using this label to discredit the Open View and those who were in support of it.
I found it very interesting to discover the embrace of the open view in much of the African [-American] church. Writing on the history of Open Theism, theologian Greg Boyd writes, “According to some African-American church leaders, it has been the predominant view in the African American Christian tradition. [One African-American church leader], Major Jones argues that the African Christian experience of oppression has enabled them to seize a dimension of the biblical portrait of God which the classical western tradition missed because of its overemphasis on control and its indebtedness to platonic philosophy.”
This is an important and sobering reminder that those of us reading Scripture and doing theology from a position of cultural privilege and power need to be aware of and interacting with biblical interpreters and theologians working from the margins. As pastor and author Brian Zahnd rightly notes, “One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true–expect in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.” The ever-present pitfall of theological formation influenced by cultural position and privilege at odds with the bottom-up perspective of Scripture and Jesus renunciation of power and control needs to be acknowledged when evaluating views of God’s providence and concepts of God’s power and divine foreknowledge.
Aside from the African Christian tradition, the earliest known proponent of the open view is Calcidius, a 4th century Christian philosopher whose translation of Plato’s Timaeus into Latin espouses his view which was read and interacted with through the Middle Ages (I have yet to encounter any writings deeming Calcidius a heretic for his adoption of the open view). Closer to home, I was excited to discover numerous leaders in my own Wesleyan-Methodist tradition in the 18th & 19th century espousing the open view as well. This includes Andrew Ramsey, a contemporary of John Wesley, renowned bible commentator Adam Clarke, Methodist circuit preacher Billy Hubbard and L.D. McCabe, Methodist professor and chancellor of Ohio Wesleyan University.
While the open view has been a minority view throughout history, it has been prevalent long before the late 20th century when it began being deemed theologically ‘out of bounds’ by those attempting to hold onto classical notions of God’s providence and divine foreknowledge. In my estimation, both the bible and history lend support to the idea that the open view should not be deemed heterodox and heresy but have a seat at the table of orthodox Christian thinking.
Q 5 J Tysick: You rightly bring up the heresy hunt that has been waged against those that take the open view of God, especially in the early 2000’s when members of the Evangelical Theological Society unsuccessfully voted to removed theologians John E. Sanders and Clark Pinnock from their number for their writings in support of open theism. Prominent American theologian John Piper (a Calvinist) writes that open theism “dishonors God, distorts Scripture, damages faith, and would, if left unchecked, destroy churches and lives”. Why do you think open theism has been met with intense opposition and accusations of heresy from many Christians and theologians?
J Tripp: Broadly speaking, I believe one of the more subtle, yet insidious sicknesses which has infected the church, is the equating of faith with certainty and getting life from the perceived rightness of one’s theology and critique of other’s perceives wrongly held beliefs.
Biblically, faith is not certainty, but rather faith is defined as trust in the midst of uncertainty. When we succumb to the universal allure of getting life from the rightness of our beliefs rather than from Christ, we can take on the role of gatekeeper of the truth, branding others holding to differing viewpoints and theological opinions as heretics, while justifying the dropping of such ‘H-bombs’ all in the name of protecting the truth.
Well I’ve never met John Piper and I have no doubt he is a man of faith who loves Jesus, my perception is that he and others who are quick to dismiss those who hold to Open Theism as dangerous heretics are doing so as self-appointed righteous gatekeepers of truth (as they understand it) of which they are certain of, with little regard for others who disagree theologically and no time or charity for listening and learning from others and engaging in charitable dialogue.
Historically, those holding to Open Theism were not deemed ‘heretics’ but were given a voice and seat at the theological table.
The propensity of Western Protestantism (specifically evangelicalism/fundamentalism) to scapegoat the other and to liberally slap the ‘heretic’ label on those who theologically disagree with us does nothing to unify the body of Christ, and greatly impedes our witness of Christlike love to the world at large.
While right thinking and theological beliefs are important, the irony is that the biblical witness reveals the greatest heresy is to be devoid of love (1 Cor. 13:1-3, 1 John 4:19-21).
Thus the primary question and motivation in the formation of theology is, “Are my beliefs about God and the world consistent with the God of love revealed fully and finally in the person and work of Jesus?” While I can’t speak for anyone else who holds to Open Theism, after much soul-searching, prayer and study I came to the conclusion that Open Theism is the view of providence/foreknowledge which is most consistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus.
I have and will never brand anyone who doesn’t share that belief a ‘heretic’ and would hope that in the spirit of Christ’s ongoing prayer for unity in the body of Christ (John 17:22-23) we would all heed the words of James 1:19-20 when it comes to theological disagreements and dialogue:
“My dear brothers and sisters,take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Q 6 J Tysick: Theology is often accused of being a fruitless and disconnected from real-life endeavour. On that note, how has embracing the open view of God changed the way you personally live day-to-day and in the way you assist others as a pastor?
J Tripp: Embracing the open view of God has led to a number of changes in my own daily life and interaction with God and others.
Recognizing the openness of the future has transformed my prayer life. No longer do I pray prayers ending with “if it’s your will Lord”, as if the future is fully known/settled by God, but find myself more passionately listening in prayer for how I can actively participate with God in cooperatively making the beautiful kingdom of God more visible in our midst.
Also embracing the open view of God has helped me wrestle through questions of theology and the problem of evil and suffering. No longer embracing the idea that God causes or allows evil but is always present with and perfectly loving everyone in every situation has drawn me intimately closer to God who I’m no longer suspicious of having a dark side (1 John 1:5). As I understand and more deeply experience the perfect love and empathy of God towards those suffering, I find myself growing in my empathy for those undergoing suffering and pain in their lives.
Thirdly my eschatology has been radically transformed as the open view has led me to embracing a more compassionate eschatology and working with God and others to heal and restore God’s good creation as we anticipate (and hasten) the return of Christ when all things will finally be made well. (2 Peter 3:11-13, Rev. 21:1-5)
Q 7 J Tysick: What resources, books and authors would you direct people to if they have further interest in open theism?
J Tripp: For those new to the Open view:
Greg Boyd on open theism:
For those wanting to dig deeper: