The Hermenuetics of Open Theism, pt. 2 – Presuppositions

A. The Nature of God

Open Theists allow preconceived notions of God to influence their understanding of God and the Bible. “In theology, as in science, we also make use of models… In the case of the doctrine of God, we all have a basic portrait of God’s identity in our minds when we search the Scriptures, and this model influences our exposition.”(1) But what exactly is this model? To Open Theists, this model of God must include the attributes of personal relateability, and love. The error here is that “to impose a ‘model’… on the Bible in deriving a doctrine of God does not allow the Bible to speak for itself on the subject.”(2) The locus classicus (or primary passage) for Open Theism is 1 John 4.8, which states that “God is love” (this passage and hermeneutical fallacy will be dealt with in more detail below). This passage is used by Open Theists to attempt to define the supreme attribute of God and to supply motivation to all of the acts God undertakes.

In trying to argue for his position, Clark Pinnock appeals to this method of “models” of God by giving his readers two models to choose from:

“We may think of God primarily as an aloof monarch, removed from the contingencies of the world, unchangeable in every aspect of being, as an all-determining and irresistible power, aware of everything that will ever happen and never taking risks. Or we may understand God as a caring parent with qualities of love and responsiveness, generosity and sensitivity, openness and vulnerability, a person (rather than a metaphysical principle) who experiences the world, responds to what happens, relates to us and interacts dynamically with humans.”(3)

Of course, what Pinnock is proposing is a false dichotomy. It is not either/or. Very few traditional theists would describe God in the manner of the first model proposed here. In fact, they would also use many of the words Pinnock uses to describe his “model,” words like caring, loving, generous, and relational.(4) In his attack on the traditional view, Pinnock described it as “biblically flawed, rationally suspect and existentially repugnant.”(5) In saying this, it would appear that Pinnock has begun to base his conclusions on how he emotionally feels about how God is supposed to behave and not on what He actually says He does in His Word. (6)

B. Libertarian Freewill

Open Theism is essentially an over extension of Armenian theology. This theological system can show us the dangers inherent in holding to theological extremes. (7) Open Theism could be called the extreme form of Armenianism in that they are deeply attached to the idea of freewill. They are attempting to reconcile the idea of freewill and the sovereignty of God coexisting with each other (compatibilism). Pinnock in fact makes his opinion clear on the matter:

“In an attempt to preserve the notion of God’s power as total control, some advocate what they call biblical compatibilism, the idea that one can uphold genuine freedom and divine determinism at the same time. This is slight of hand and does not work… such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense.”(8)

In their attempt to reconcile these two pillars, Open Theists have decided to eliminate the sovereignty of God almost completely. In the eyes of Open Theists, one of the most evil acts they could conceive of God doing is exerting His will upon an individual in such a way the individual loses his freewill. This flows from the Openist view of what the nature of God is supposed to be. If God is truly loving, then He will not force Himself on His creation by predetermining their future actions.

This of course does not fit with biblical teaching. There are many instances in the Bible where God, in His sovereignty, controls the will and actions of specific human beings. In Exodus 9.12 we are told that “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh.”(9) Another instance of God controlling the will of man, it would seem, can be found in Romans 11.25. Here Paul says that during this dispensation of a predominantly Gentile church, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel.”

Related to libertarian freewill is the idea that God takes risks when interacting with His creation. Libertarian freewill itself was an incredible risk for God to undertake, because in order for it to exist God had give up perfect sovereignty and control. (10)

C. Philosophical Reasoning Derived from These Presuppositions.

According to Open Theists, the traditional view of a perfectly sovereign God came about by way of Greek philosophy infiltrating the church. (11) According to this view, Greek philosophy demanded a God that was perfect, sovereign, and unchangeable. The early church accommodated this view. Open Theists now see themselves as taking up the mantle of purifying the church of these Hellenist teachings. (12)

When reading what open theists have to say about philosophy, it would appear that there is unhealthy readiness of acceptance of philosophy. In the hopes of not sounding as though philosophy is something to be avoided, it must be stated that philosophy can indeed be beneficial to the study of the Bible and theology. What seems to be the problem with Open Theists is that they occasionally seem to place a greater emphasis on philosophical reasoning rather than scriptural argumentation. This is particularly evident in the book The Openness of God written by Clark Pinnock and other Open Theists. Although there is use of Scripture, there is a greater amount of argumentation based on logical thought and reasoning. There is much appeal to the idea of a God who is primarily loving. Logic and reason would lead to the idea of a God that makes himself vulnerable to His creation, as well as allow them perfect freedom to choose the love He offers. These types of arguments may be strong, or even well thought out. But they lack the support of Scripture to ensure the accuracy of their claims.

It may help to see an illustration of this from history. In his book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer wrote about a Christian philosopher who made a grave error in his judgement of philosophy:

“[Thomas] Aquinas held that man had revolted against God and thus was fallen, but Aquinas had an incomplete view of the Fall. He thought that the Fall did not affect man as a whole but only in part. In his view the will was fallen or corrupted but the intellect was not affected. Thus people could rely on their own human wisdom, and this meant that people were free to mix the teachings of the Bible with the teachings of the non-Christian philosophers.” (13)

To summarize what Schaeffer had to say about Aquinas, Aquinas believed that man was able to arrive at truth using only his mind because sin had not affected the mind/intellect. Although Open Theists have not said anything like this explicitly, one can’t help but wonder if this understanding is at least a subtle part of the open hermeneutic.


(1) Clark Pinnock, The Openness of God, 103.

(2) Robert L. Thomas, “The Hermeneutics of Open Theism,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 12/2 [Fall 2001]: 184

(3) Pinnock, The Openness of God, 103.

(4) On this idea John McArthur says that “the God of old-model theology is also unceasingly gracious, merciful, and loving (a fact one would not be able to glean from the gross caricature new-model advocates like to paint when they describe “old-model orthodoxy”).” “Open Theism’s Attack on the Atonement,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 12/1 [Spring 2001]: 4

(5) Pinnock, The Openness of God, 104.

(6) It should also be noted that Pinnock criticizes traditional theists for preferring “to speak more of God’s power than of weakness.” Does Pinnock intentionally admit that in his system God is weak? The Openness of God. 105.

(7) A helpful illustration comes in the form of the much vilified Westboro Baptist Church. They are an example of the dangers that come from holding to Hyper-calvinism, the extreme form of Calvinism.

(8) Pinnock, The Openness of God, 114-5.

(9) In the events leading up to the exodus of Israel we see events that show the balance between human free will and God’s sovereign control. Prior to God hardening the heart of Pharaoh, Moses wrote about seven times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

(10) On the topic of creation, Open Theists would also readily say that God could have created a universe in which He was in perfect control. But that is not the case with reality, where God gave humans freedom to choose their own direction.

(11) Pinnock refers to this clash of philosophies as “the God of Greek philosophy and the God of the Bible.” ibid. 103.

(12) Pinnock says that the modern day style of thinking will actually help in accomplishing this. “Modern culture can actually assist us in this task because the contemporary horizon is more congenial to dynamic thinking about God than is the Greek portrait.” ibid. 107

(13) Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 51-2

One thought on “The Hermenuetics of Open Theism, pt. 2 – Presuppositions

  1. Good stuff Gary. I’m looking forward to the rest of the posts! I’m especially interested in what you have to say about Libertarian Freewill… I recently wrote a paper on the Problem Of Evil, and in the research process I came to mostly agree with Libertarian Freewill (at least as presented by Bruce Little). I found that the two primary passages that seemed to refute it (at least as an absolute principle) are Prov 21:1, and the passage you mentioned about Pharaoh. I think there must be some qualification to it, or a mediating position, but I don’t yet know what that is…

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