While many Christians have found the open view of the future to be the most helpful and accurate view of God’s foreknowledge of the future based on biblical, philosophical, and experiential evidence, others have criticized the view as unorthodox and even heretical. What follows is a brief description and defense of the open view prepared in 1996 for the Overseers of the Baptist General Conference.
Outline of Open View
I unequivocally affirm that God possesses every divine perfection, including the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. I believe that God is the sovereign Creator and Lord, leading history toward his desired end, yet granting freedom to his creatures as he wills. He knows and can reveal all that he has determined about the future, thus declaring “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). I believe that God is perfectly wise and knows all reality exactly as it is.
The issue concerning the “openness of the future” is not about the infallibility or fallibility of God’s foreknowledge, but rather about the nature of the future which God infallibly foreknows. Is it exclusively foreknown and predetermined by God, or does God determine some aspects of the future and sovereignly allow other aspects to remain open?
Many passages of Scripture depict God as foreknowing and/or predetermining certain things about the future. But there are also many passages that depict the future is open (not determined) and depict God as knowing it as a realm partly comprised of possibilities.
Some examples of these Scriptures include:
- The Lord frequently changes his mind in the light of changing circumstances, or as a result of prayer (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. 21:15; Jer. 26:19; Ezek. 20:5–22; Amos 7:1–6; Jonah 1:2; 3:2, 4–10). At other times he explicitly states that he will change his mind if circumstances change (Jer. 18:7–11; 26:2–3; Ezek. 33:13–15). This willingness to change is portrayed as one of God’s attributes of greatness (Joel 2:13–14; Jonah 4:2).
- Sometimes God expresses regret and disappointment over how things turned out—sometimes even including the results of his own will. (Gen. 6:5–6; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; Ezek. 22:29–31).
- At other times he tells us that he is surprised at how things turned out because he expected a different outcome (Isa. 5:3–7; Jer. 3:67; 19–20).
- The Lord frequently tests his people to find out whether they’ll remain faithful to him (Gen. 22:12; Exod. 16:4; Deut. 8:2; 13:1–3; Judges 2:20–3:5; 2 Chron. 32:31).
- The Lord sometimes asks non-rhetorical questions about the future (Num. 14:11; Hos. 8:5) and speaks to people in terms of what may or may not happen (Exod. 3:18–4:9; 13:17; Jer. 38:17–18, 20–21, 23; Ezek. 12:1–3).
- The Lord frequently speaks of the future in terms of what may and may not come to pass (Ex.4:1-7; Ex. 13:17; Ezek 12:3).
Classical theologians often consider only the passages that demonstrate that the future is settled either in God’s mind (foreknowledge) or in God’s will (predestination) as revealing the whole truth about God’s knowledge of the future. They interpret passages (such as the above) that suggest God faces a partly open future as merely figurative. I do not see this approach as warranted on either exegetical or theological grounds. I am therefore compelled to interpret both sets of passages as equally literal and therefore draw the conclusion that the future that God faces is partly open and partly settled.
1: The Open view undermines God’s omniscience
Response: I affirm (because Scripture teaches) that God is absolutely all knowing. There is no difference in my understanding of God’s omniscience and that of any other classical theologian, but I hold that part of the reality which God perfectly knows consists of possibilities as well as actualities. The difference lies in our understanding of the nature of the future, not in our understanding of God’s omniscience.
2. The open view undermines God’s Omnipotence
Response: I affirm (because Scripture teaches) that God is omnipotent. He is Creator of all things and thus all power comes from him. As with all Arminians, I also hold that God limits the exercise of his own power by giving free will to those whom he has created in his own image.
3. The open view undermines our confidence in God’s ability to accomplish his purposes
Response: I affirm (because Scripture teaches) that God can and has guaranteed whatever he wants about the future, since he is omnipotent. I also affirm (because Scripture also teaches) that God created us with the capacity to love, and thus empowered us to decide some matters for ourselves. Within the parameters set by the Creator, parameters which guarantee whatever God wants to guarantee about the future, humans have some degree of self-determination. This means that concerning the fate of particular individuals things may not turn out as God desires. If we deny this, we must accept that God actually desires some people to go to hell. Scripture denies this (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
4. The open view undermines God’s perfection
Response: I affirm (because Scripture teaches) the absolute perfection of God. I do not see, however, that Scripture teaches that the future must be predetermined either in God’s mind or in God’s will for God to be perfect. Rather, I believe that God’s perfection is more exalted when we understand him to be so transcendent in his power that he genuinely gives free will to morally responsible agents.
5. The open view undermines the power of prayer
Response: I affirm (because Scripture teaches) that petitionary prayer is our most powerful tool in bringing about the Father’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Indeed, because my view allows for the future to be somewhat open, I believe it makes the best sense out of the urgency and efficaciousness which Scripture attaches to prayer.
6. The open view cannot account for biblical prophecy
Response: I affirm (because Scripture teaches) that God can and does determine and predict the future whenever it suits his sovereign purposes to do so. But I deny that this logically entails, or that Scripture teaches, that the future is exhaustively determined. God is wise enough to be able to achieve his purposes while allowing his creatures a significant degree of freedom.
7. The open view is incoherent
Response: Some argue that it is logically impossible for God to guarantee aspects of the future without controlling everything about the future. This objection has been raised by Calvinists against Arminians for centuries and is no more forceful against the open view than it is against classical Arminianism. Everything in life, from our personal experience down to the quantum particles, points to the truth that predictable stability does not rule out an element of unpredictability.
8. The Scripture used to support the open view may be interpreted as phenomenological anthropomorphisms
Response: This asserts that these passages are a human way of speaking about things as they seem to be, not as they really are. However, nothing in the context of these Scriptures, covering a variety of audiences, authors, and contexts, suggests they are “phenomenological” (how things appear) or “anthropomorphic.” There is no justification for reading into these descriptions of God’s actions anything other than their most natural explanation. How can reports about what God was thinking be phenomenological (Jer. 3:6–7; 19–20; Exod. 13:17)? And if they are anthropomorphic, it’s not clear what they mean. For example, what do all the passages that explicitly say God changed his mind mean if God doesn’t, in fact, change his mind?
9. The open view demeans God’s sovereignty
Response: On the contrary, it exalts God’s sovereignty. After describing impending judgment, the prophet Joel states, “‘Yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and mourning: and rend your hearts and not your garment.’ Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him…” (Joel 2:12–14).