The Hermeneutics of Open Theism pt. 4 – Discourse Analysis

A. What is Discourse Analysis?

Discourse analysis is the technique used by Open Theists to give their system of thought the appearance of being supported by the Bible. The process of this hermeneutical tool lies in the use of “a running survey of biblical passages” that support a specific idea.(1) The general idea behind discourse analysis is that the details of a passage are relegated to being studied at a later time (or dismissed entirely), while the larger discourses (paragraphs, conversation, chapters, possibly even entire books) are examined and the meaning of the passage is derived from the studies of these overviews.(2) The danger in this hermeneutical tool is that conclusions can be formed about the purpose of a biblical passage before the limiting principles found in the specifics of the text can be discerned.

It has been said that the Bible can be used in such a way that it can say anything. In an instance of extreme irony, Rice said that “the Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations.”(3) That is certainly the case with Open Theism. A look at passages used by Open Theists, and then the passages they overlook, will show this to be the case.

B. A Survey of Passages used by Open Theists to Support Their Position.

Genesis 3 – To the Open Theist, the fall of mankind was the greatest event that took God by surprise. Sanders uses the words “the implausible happens” and “the totally unexpected happens.”(5) God created man and placed him into the Garden of Eden, a perfect environment with free access and relationship to God. The idea of relationship is extremely important to Open Theists, as they see it as one of the primary driving forces of God’s relation to man (this stemming from the idea that “God is love”). Open Theists would admit that God could foresee the possibility of this failure, but assumed the likelihood of it would be extremely minimal and therefore highly unlikely. As for God’s response to the sin, when going to confront Adam and Eve God says “Where are you?” when they hide from His presence. This passage is offered as proof that the future is open to God.

There are some problems with this interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3. To show the difficulty, there must be a brief explanation of Open Theisms understanding of omniscience. To start with, Pinnock says that “omniscience need not mean exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events.”(6) His reasoning for this is that “if that were its meaning, the future would be fixed and determined, much as is the past. Total knowledge of the future would imply a fixity of events.”(7) Pinnock rejects the idea of perfect omniscience because he cannot accept the consequences of that doctrine.(8) In his discussion on omniscience, Pinnock stated that the past is “fixed and determined.” To Open Theists, the past and the present are all perfectly known by God, that is what they mean when they say God is omniscient.

That being said, the problem with this passage’s interpretation is that it seem’s to remove God from the situation, exactly what the Open Theists argue against. If the reason God created mankind was to enjoy a sinless relationship with him, why would God allow this to happen? Open Theists would say that God gives mankind freedom to choose because genuine love requires this. But what about allowing Satan to attack his creation? Could God not intervene? It would seem that if God was as devoted to having a loving relationship mankind as Open Theists try to claim, that He would at the very least try to remove or keep Satan from the Garden.

As for the phrase “Where are you?”, if it is taken as literally as Open Theists try to take other passages, it would seem that God is both spatially limited and lacking in perfect knowledge of the past and present. This of course would contradict the Open position on omniscience.(9) And because it would seem that Open Theists realize this, there is little to no coverage of this statement in Openness literature. Even Sanders, who was extremely thorough in compiling data that would support his position conspicuously leaves out discussion of this crucial phrase uttered by God in his discussion on Genesis 3. This fact reinforces the charge of discourse analysis. The fall of man gives argumentative weight to the discussion of God’s openness, so it is used frequently. When God asks where Adam is, it brings out problems in the openness hermeneutic and is therefore skipped over.

Genesis 22 – The story of Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice is perhaps the most used passage in Open Theism. The way it is interpreted by Open Theists is that after God called out Abraham, He wanted to come up with a way to prove whether or not Abraham would remain faithful to Him. “God needs to know if Abraham is the sort of person on whom God can count for collaboration toward the fulfillment of the divine project. Will he be faithful? Or will God find someone else through whom to achieve his purpose?”(10) Sanders argues that when God put this test in place He was putting Himself at great risk (referring to God passing through the covenant sacrifice). When Abraham was about to strike down his son, his hand is stopped by The Lord who says “now I know that you fear God.” This is the crucial verse of the passage. Open Theists understand this phrase to show that God has learned a new piece of information that He did not have before hand. Sanders criticizes traditional theists for either calling the phrase an anthropomorphism, or passing over it entirely.(11)

It is difficult to understand how this one event settles the issue of Abraham’s faith once and for all. If Abraham has the absolute freewill that Open Theists argue for, how can God be sure that Abraham will remain faithful not even the day after the test? As for the phrase “now I know,” to take this at face value, just like the response by God in Genesis 3, would cause problems with the idea of God’s knowledge. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews states that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead.”(12) If these two verses are to be reconciled in the mind’s of Open Theists, then it would need to be said that God is incapable of understanding the thoughts of the mind and heart. If God is able to understand these thoughts, then He should have known as Abraham was walking up the mountain that he had the faith to go through with the sacrifice.

But if the Open interpretation is incorrect, what is God trying to say? It may be best to understand that God has real emotions, and occasionally these emotions will display themselves in the language that God uses (as will be clear in the discussion of Exodus 32). To illustrate, a husband has been faithful and devoted to his wife for many years. He courted her before marriage, and during the marriage he worked hard to provide for and take care of her. Now suppose that the husband surprises the wife with a gift she has been desiring for many years. It could be a piece of jewelry, a trip to an exotic location, or the house she has been eyeing ever since they got married. The wife may respond “now I know that you love me.” Did the wife doubt the husband’s love for her all the years of their marriage? No. She knew he loved her, but with this gift the husband’s love has become concrete and tangible. That is what God shows us here. In his sovereignty and omniscience God knew exactly what Abraham would do. But in the moment his child acted in faith and obedience God was filled with joy to the point of saying “now I know that you fear God.”

Exodus 32 – When Moses went up onto the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel had Aaron craft the people a calf made of gold for them to worship. When God saw what they had done He became very angry. Moses writes:

“Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you”. But Moses implored The Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?…

Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people…”

And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.(13)

It would be important to note that several translations of the Bible render that last phrase “and The Lord changed his mind.”

Concerning this event, Sanders says that “the real basis for change in God’s decision comes from a forceful presentation by one who is in a special relationship with God.”(14) He also goes on to say that “one of the most remarkable features in the Old Testament is that people can argue with God and win.”(15)

The solution here could be as simple as the previous passage observed. God has real emotions. He was genuinely hurt by the abandonment of His people. This does not mean, however, that God was truly about to eliminate the Jewish people. God is sovereign and is all knowing, but that does not keep him from feeling the pain caused by his people sinning against Him.


(1) Thomas, “The Hermeneutics of ‘Open Theism,'” The Master’s Seminary Journal, 189. A less academic way of referring to this technique would be “cherry picking.”

(2) ibid. Also reference Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 227-9

(3) Richard Rice, The Openness of God, 15

(5) The God Who Risks, 46.

(6) The Openness of God, 121.

(7) ibid.

(8) Of course, the phrase “perfect omniscience” is redundant because omniscience already means “perfect knowledge.” However, the distinction must be made here because Open Theists have created the distinction.

(9) Bruce A. Ware gives excellent critiques of this logical and theological contradiction and others within Open Theism throughout his book God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism.

(10) Sanders, The God Who Risks, 52-3.

(11) ibid. 50-3.

(12) Hebrews 11.19.

(13) Exodus 32.10-14. emphasis added.

(14) The God Who Risks, 64.

(15) ibid.

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