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If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Open Theism: An Introduction

This is a lenghty introduction to Open Theism. Here I am trying to get a handle on the theology of Open Theism based upon the writings of its advocates: John Sanders, Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and others. This paper is strictly my research on Open Theism, and as such I make no serious attempt to evaluate any strengths or weaknesses of Open Theism. This is just a stab at doing a fair analysis of what Open Theism is: "Just the facts, Ma'am."
Here is a .pdf:

This paper was also published on the Official Open Theism Information website. You can access it by looking for my name (Jonathan Erdman) at: http://www.opentheism.info/pages/opposition/



Biblical Foundations of Open Theism

  • Introduction To The Open Theism Hermeneutic
  • Anthropomorphic Language and Metaphor
  • All Language as Anthropomorphic and Metaphorical
  • Controlling Metaphors
  • The Revelatory Extent of Metaphors
  • The Scriptural Motif of Openness
  • The Relationship of Philosophy to Hermeneutics
Philosophical Foundations of Open Theism

  • Philosophical Foundations of Classical Theism
  • The Philosophy of Human Free Will
  • Determinism, Libertarianism, and Compatibilism
  • Open Theism Arguments for Libertarian Free Will
  • The Nature of Reality – An Open Universe
  • Theories of Time
  • Arguments of Open Theism for an Open Universe
  • Relationship of Philosophy to Theology
Existential Arguments

  • The Problem of Evil
  • The Argument of Real Relationships
  • Living and Praying to Affect the Future

Excerpt from the Introduction:

In recent decades there have been many theologians and biblical scholars who have begun to question the validity of many of the traditional doctrines of God. Specifically, these doctrines surround God’s immutability, impassibility, and other notions that suggest God is static and unchanging. The grounds for this challenge seem to come from two different areas. The first is found within the biblical text. Open Theists and those sympathetic to their viewpoint believe that the Scriptures present a future that is open and genuinely affected by the free will choices of human beings. God, in turn, as an active participant in the unfolding narrative of history, acts and reacts to humanity and is himself, in certain respects, subject to experiencing change.

As it will be seen, the issues raised by Open Theism in questioning the traditional formations of the doctrine of God are exposing many philosophical presuppositions that are foundational to the theological discussion. Even the task of biblical interpretation does not escape the long reach of philosophy. So, at every level the theologian is now forced to not only argue on a sort of “neutral” biblical grounds, but to discuss the philosophical presuppositions that are foundational to that hermeneutical task itself. In fact, the idea that discussion can take place on any philosophically neutral playing field is becoming noticeably out of date.

As a general introduction, then, three general areas of Open Theism will be presented. The first is the biblical and hermeneutical foundations of Open Theism. Here the approach to anthropomorphism and metaphor will be explored to understand the significant shift in interpretation that Open Theists take in viewing the biblical data. Second, the philosophical foundations will be scrutinized. The nature of human free will and the nature of time will be explored to understand the important issues that are coloring the lenses of theologians as they approach the doctrine of God. Thirdly, we will review three existential arguments. Open Theists see a tension in traditional theology that has tended to dichotomize theology from practical concerns. In short, Open Theism, it is claimed, is simply more livable.

Finally, there are two things to note before we proceed. First, this paper is an examination of the works of the Open Theist proponents, themselves. It does not explore the numerous responses to Open Theism by their opponents and critics. Second, there is a noticeable absence of discussion on some of the process philosophers and theologians who influenced Open Theism, namely thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, etc. These two points are made in order to highlight the fact that we are examining the view of Open Theists as they have outlined and developed their own thoughts and positions.

Please leave your comments - I love the feedback!


Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

I do not agree with Open Theists on their conclusions about the nature of God, but I think they do make some good points about the nature of God's sovereignty.

ktismatics said...

The writing is excellent; the summary of open theism is clear. You acknowledge right away that you won't evaluate or critique beyond summarizing the positions the open theists themselves put forward -- so I won't do it either. I guess that leaves me with inferring your position and responding to that.

Your second paragraph presents the theme that all exegesis is philosophical: it "does not escape the long reach of philosophy." This sounds deterministic, but you pretty much embrace the long reach, suggesting that any attempt to resist isn't just futile but "out of vogue." Which is more free: to resist even though it's futile, or to go along with the irresistible force because it's what you want to do anyway and because everybody else is going along with it too?

The first main section is internal to open theism, so I won't comment -- on to "The relationship of philosophy to hermeneutics."

Okay, let's acknowledge that "hermeneutical empiricism" is itself a philosophy. I think you've set up a simplified or outdated straw man version of that philosophy. The idea of raw observational data assembling itself into a higher-order framework might have been Locke's version, but I think even Locke was a caricature. A more robust empiricism entails an iterative process: formulate a theory, see if the theory adequately accounts for empirical data, revise the theory accordingly, and so on. That's how modern empirical science works, and I think it's a pretty good approximation to how Reformed empirical theology works too. Formulate a systematic theology, test it against the data (i.e., the Scriptures), revise the theology accordingly, and so on. Theory is a mental construct for explaining the empirical data: that's empirical philosophy as I understand it.

So, if you're a hermeneutical empiricist, you take the open theism theory and see how well it accounts for the Scriptural data. Do some but not all of the data "fit"? Then revise the theory instead of ignoring the data that don't fit. If no one theory accounts adequately for all the data, then you can invoke some more subjective or presuppositional or metaphysical criteria for preferring one theory over the other. In doing so, however, you acknowledge the inadequacy and tentativeness of your solution. In my view your critique doesn't address this more nuanced and balanced version of empiricism.

When you get to the libertarian discussion, I can't tell whether this is the explicit position of the open theists, or an independent philosophical position that you bring in to support open theism. You state in italics that "libertarian free will is foundational to openness theology": I assume, then, that critiqueing open theism entails also critiqueing libertarianism. Therefore, like you, I'll refrain, since you're just stating the positions in this paper. Likewise with the open future discussion.

But now you get back to the "Relationship of philosophy to theology," which brings us again to the staw man. This time you go even farther: not only is hermeneutical empiricism "fallacious": "There is simply no other way to form beliefs other than on the basis of philosophical presuppositions already in place." How so? It seems to me that empiricism's virtue is precisely to evaluate the extent to which philosophical presuppositions get in the way of adequate theorization. Aristotle thought he was a scientist, but it took a lot of empirical work to demonstrate that his scheme was based on faulty philosophical presuppositions. Arguably Calvin played the same empirical role with respect to medieval theology.

Now you move on to the problem of evil, and again I presume you're summarizing open theism arguments rather than actively critiqueing them. I certainly get the sense, though, that you think rather highly of the open theism position. All your dismissive adjectives are reserved for the empiricists, whereas the open theists get words like "most compelling" and "consistent" and "livable" attached to the presumably dispassionate summaries.

That's it from me on this paper. I'd be interested to see how you critique open theism. Do you debate the philosophy itself on rational and metaphysical grounds, or do you run it past the biblical data and see how the theory holds up empirically?

Jonathan Erdman said...

First of all, I don’t know that I did a good job clarifying the relationship between the text and one’s philosophy and presuppositions that are brought to bear on the text. I think what is critical to keep in mind here is a version of the hermeneutical circle/spiral: That we bring to a text certain presuppositions, which affect our interpretation, but that in turn the text will affect our interpretation and thus change our presuppositions. This is, in a nutshell, one of my core beliefs about hermeneutics. I believe that we make a mistake if we do one of two things: 1) Interpret as though we have no presuppositions - as though the text is just raw data or 2) Fail to allow the text to change and mold and form our presuppositions.

To interpret as though we have no presuppositions seems risky. We all have cultural/social/linguistic backgrounds that we bring to the text. We have a framework through which we view life and a text. That is why we all view things so differently - because we have such diverse frameworks. To be ignorant of one's framework usually means that a person fails to recognize that the author of a text (or, to be more specific the text itself) has a different framework. In Gadamarean terms there needs to be a fusion of horizons: The horizon of the text must fuse with my own horizon. But for this to happen, I must open myself up to allow my presuppositions/framework to be challenged.

You cited me as saying:
There is simply no other way to form beliefs other than on the basis of philosophical presuppositions already in place.

Maybe it would have been better if I had said that there is simply no other way to form beliefs other than through a framework of interpretation that is already in place.

The reason I react strongly against "hermeneutical empiricism" is because I think that much of systematic theology has been guilty of mishandling texts because they have failed to recognize the existence of frameworks and presuppositions. They have tended to view a text as "data." I have a serious linguistic problem with viewing language as "data." My question is this: Does language function as data? Is language the same thing as scientific data? How do we come to view language as data - as though it were a chemical in a laboratory?

Thanks, ktismatics, for raising some thoughtful issues. There are definitely some things in my Open Theism paper that need fleshing out a bit.

ktismatics said...

Thanks for interacting with my comment. Surely there is an iterative process between our conceptual frameworks and the facts. We use concepts to understand the facts, so there's clearly an interrelationship.

I don't see why texts shouldn't be regarded as data. Granted, the Bible wasn't cooked up in a lab specifically to answer our scientific questions. But we can certainly use texts to support or disconfirm theories, especially when those theories are at least partly about those texts. Newton didn't create the earth, but he could use the earth as a data source in formulating a theory of gravity that applies to the earth.

Perhaps if you interact more specifically with open theism as a theory we'll get to look at the relationships between theory and data more specifically...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Having taken a bit of time to think about texts and data I think I know what my primary gripe is.

Data, particularly of the scientific type, is often self-authenticating. That is, the data appears before us with little debate as to what it is in and of itself. When I was in the sixth grade a I did a science project on light and plants. I placed the same type of plants in different light for a period of time and observed how the different lights (natural and different varieties of non-natural) affected the plants. These observations were the data. I could simply record the data: "Plant #2 in the natural light appears healthy and green."

I then collected the data and made and came to some conclusions, i.e. I developed a meaning for my data.

What data is is usually clear in science, but what it means may be less clear.

But with texts I don't know that they present themselves as clearly as data. When it comes to the text I think the lines are blurred between data and meaning. In fact, I would argue that the data is the meaning - that we cannot separate the two. The reason is because in determining what the data of the text is we must make a meaning judgment. I must say, "this text says ______." As soon as I make that statement, however, I am making a statement of meaning that can be disputed by any number of people.

Determining meaning is a process of bringing all my experiences and presuppositions and my framework to the text and using it to determine meaning. But someone with different presupps. and a much more diverse framework will likely make a different judgment on meaning.

On the contrary, scientific data is often a bit more clear. In many (but not in all) cases we can usually tell what the data is and distinguish the data from the interpretation of the data.

ktismatics said...

To treat text as data you have to strip it of at least some of its meaning, and even some of its content, in order to answer the question at hand. So I could count the average word length of your posts and compare it with word lengths on posts from other blogs and draw some inferences about your relative linguistic sophistication as a blogger -- without even reading what you have to say. Google's algorithm for ranking texts relevant to a user's query is another example. There's more to these texts than the data that's harvested from them, but the data have meaning and pragmatic value.

I can see why you might find the data-driven approach distasteful, but that doesn't necessarily make it invalid. I can also see how some empiricists might lose sight of the richness of their data sources, believing that phenomena can be reduced to data. That's their loss.

Anonymous said...

Hi there

I'm a biblical scholar (Old Testament). In biblical theology philosophical reflection on the texts is sadly lacking and there is little in the way of a kind of philosophy of religion that studies not Judaism or Christianity but ancient Israelite religion from a descriptive perspective. I myself am trying to change that and am grateful to encounter papers like the one on the introduction to Open Theism

From the perspective of non-fundamentalist biblical theology, however, I have three problems with the debate between Open en Classical Theism.

1.) I believe the debate is fueled by a false dichotomy. The Old Testament is riddled with theological pluralism. Notions of the nature of Yhwh changed throughout the history of Israelite religion. Some texts presuppose what Open Theism argues for while others assume what Classical Theists believe. In other words, there is no "biblical view" and no possibility of constructing some sort of philosophical theological system from the texts in their entirety.

2) While I myself find Open Theism more representative of the majority of texts'assumptions about the nature of Yhwh, there is one thing I find awry from a biblical-theological perspective. Both Fretheim that you quoted plus your own paper seem keen to depict the deity as "good" and assume the validity of discussion the "problem of evil" in a biblical context. Now while I would agree that there are texts which desire to do something similar, many texts have no problem ascribing metaphysical, natural and moral evil directly to Yhwh. In other words, God was not assumed in these texts to be only good but played a causative role in the actualisation of both good and evil. People back then did not presuppose a god had to be only benevolent and user-friendly before being worshipful. It was a matter of might makes right. My argument is that if Open Theism (or any other kind) intends to be consistently biblical it cannot simply bracket the darker side of Yhwh. Of course, as with divine knowledge, there are texts, especially in the New Testament that deny the deity's role in evil so again the canon deconstructs its own god-talk.

In the end, Open Theism is simply at the other end of the spectrum vis-a-vis classical theism and both falter before theological pluralism in the text. This pluralism is real (as real as the pluralism in Christianity) and cannot be dismissed on the grounds that it results from hermeneutical or ideological assumptions on the part of the reader.

3) The greatest challenge to both camps in the debate is, however, not the intra-canonical contradictions with reference to views of God but a number of other issues suggesting that Yhwh is a character in a story and has no extra-textual counterpart. This is evident not only from historical fiction and cosmographical fiction in the discourse but particularly from the fact that the deity as depicted share the erronous beliefs about reality held by those who worship him. His own moral demands change with over time and biblical criticism has demonstrated the way later editors added onto the traditions because they could not bring themselves to believe in the god of their fathers. This gives the game away. In the end, all modern theology is simply reconstructive mythology. Philosophers of religion can say what they do only by bracketing the history of religion. The greatest argument against any dogma is its own history.

I understand if the believer thinks atheism is not an option. But from personal experience I who was myself a fundamentalist can attest to the fact that there is no greater argument for atheism that an in-depth study of biblical theologies. A god constructed by ink on paper is no less of an idol than a god carved from wood or stone.

I apologise if this comment seems upsetting. But you did ask for my opinion so I gave it. No so much to convince you of its truth but because it is therapeutic expressing my doubts.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for your thoughts, JWG. I appreciate you taking the time to read through my research and comment.

You said: I believe the debate is fueled by a false dichotomy. The Old Testament is riddled with theological pluralism. Notions of the nature of Yhwh changed throughout the history of Israelite religion.

I agree. I also see a very clear theological pluralism in the OT. Things are even more pluralistic when we encounter the NT. For example, it is clear that the NT authors are wrestling with how to retain the OT as the revelation as the "living and active" Word of God (Hebrews 4), but still move beyond the fearful God of Mt. Sinai who has now revealed himself as a God who receives his people into a joyful assembly of angels (Hebrews 12). Holding all 66 books together to form a monolithic theology has proved to great a task for any systematic theologian.

Your second point has been something we have been discussing on this blog, and that I have been thinking over a good deal:

Now while I would agree that there are texts which desire to do something similar, many texts have no problem ascribing metaphysical, natural and moral evil directly to Yhwh. In other words, God was not assumed in these texts to be only good but played a causative role in the actualisation of both good and evil. People back then did not presuppose a god had to be only benevolent and user-friendly before being worshipful. It was a matter of might makes right.

Evil and its relation to God has also been the subject of much thought and discussion here at my blog. Once again, if we introduce the NT into this discussion, then things become even more complex and pluralistic because the life and teaching of Jesus seems to refocus our attention on the love (agape) of God: all of the commands can be summed up in terms of love. God moves from the position of law giver to lover. Quite a radical shift!

On to your third point, which brings together the first two:

The greatest challenge to both camps in the debate is, however, not the intra-canonical contradictions with reference to views of God but a number of other issues suggesting that Yhwh is a character in a story and has no extra-textual counterpart....I apologise if this comment seems upsetting. But you did ask for my opinion so I gave it. No so much to convince you of its truth but because it is therapeutic expressing my doubts.

Your comment is in no way upsetting to me. In many ways, these are the questions that I wrestle with as well.

I have two questions for you:

1) Let's say that you are correct in saying that "Yhwh is a character in a story and has no extra-textual counterpart." Does the fact that Yhwh has no extra-textual counterpart imply (to you) that there is no supernatural Deity, whatsoever? I'm unclear as to whether atheism is implied. Does your study of the OT lead you to atheism?

It would seem difficult to me to imply atheism from your statement. My thought is that this would be a form of the Genetic Fallacy.

Here is the wikipedian definition of the Genetic Fallacy:
The genetic fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone's origin rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context.

The fallacy therefore fails to assess the claim on its merit. The first criterion of a good argument is that the premises must have bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim in question. Genetic accounts of an issue may be true, and they may help illuminate the reasons why the issue has assumed its present form, but they are irrelevant to its merits.

So, if our origins for the existence of God are found to be incomplete, erroneous, or even contradictory, does this imply that God does not exist? Or that all spiritual commentary by the authors should be discarded?

Does it even imply that the text was not in some way "God breathed" (theopneustos, as the NT puts it)? For example, is it possible that there is a God, who remains somewhat indefinable, but who nevertheless revealed himself and intended that a record be kept of his activities, even if such a record was incomplete/erroneous/pluralistic/contradictory?

These are the questions I am sorting through. Even if the biblical record is not the magical, "inerrant" book that we were taught it was by fundamentalist Christianity, what follows from this?

2) My second question kind of goes along with the first: what do you believe is the value of the biblical text? (The OT in particular, since that seems to be your area of study.) Is there a value? Or is it primarily a historical curiosity? Can the OT (or NT for that matter) connect us with something greater than ourselves?

Again, thank you for your thoughts, and I hope you have the time to sort through some of my queries.

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Anonymous said...

Apparently JWG didn't respond? Too bad, you're response was well reasoned.
I found your blog research Greg Boyd. I went to Taylor U ('84) and am rediscovering/reassesing a number of things. I really like your approach; seems very even handed (and your responses even-tempered - most refreshing and perhaps your best feature). I get the feeling that there is reassesment amoung the evangelicals re some "fundie" positions. You're filling a real need delineating the various positions. (I just hope it all brings us to place of real love).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for the encouraging comment, Charlie.

I agree that love is the what backs any of our theological currency. Love in practice, not merely as an ideal but as a way of living, breathing, and being.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Are you doing research on Open Theism? Is it out of curiosity? Or is there some other reason?

Bob Hunter said...

Visiting The Theos Project solved a mystery for me, why Open Theism Information Site classes your essay as opposition information. I consider the essay to be quite sympathetic to open theism, but your comments about it here confirm that it is a genuine research essay rather than an essay advocating open theism.

Jonathan Erdman said...


There certainly are elements of Open Theism that I am sympathetic to. There are also areas, however, where I find myself a bit skeptical.

My research paper was meant, though, to be neither for nor against it. In the midst of a good deal of strong feelings on either side, I wanted to read the viewpoints of Open Theists themselves and present a systematic and concise treatment.

I have recently been wondering if perhaps I should look into publishing my paper into a small book. Perhaps expand it a bit. I wonder if it might not help the debate along a bit if there were a short, systematic presentation of Open Theism, something informative for those interested in an overview of the perspective.

Where do you find yourself on this issue?

Bob Hunter said...

Raised an Arminian but impressed by Reformed arguments against Arminianism, I arrived at open theistic views on my own about 30 years ago. However afraid that I'd be considered a heretic, I kept them to myself except for expressing them in a couple papers that I wrote for California State University in the early 80's. Naturally I was optimistic when The Openness of God was published and treated respectfully by Christianity Today in the mid 90's. However the storm of opposition to open theism that followed made me glad that I'd kept my views to myself. Now the number of voices speaking out on the Internet on behalf of open theism is making me again optimistic and I'm gathering material to help me in writing a "letter" to my family explaining open theism to them.