Tag Archives: Open theism

Review: The Foreknowledge of God (Olson)

Gordon C. Olson was a Bible teacher influential in the early years of Youth With a Mission (YWAM). He taught evangelism and theology and often explored issues around Calvinism and Arminianism (but he is not to be confused with C. Gordon Olson, who wrote on remarkably similar topics, and is of no relation).

The Foreknowledge of God (1941) is a theological inquiry into the relation between divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Today, it is classified as an “open theist” stance, but it predates that terminology, as do Samuel Fancourt and Lorenzo Dow McCabe. People with YWAM links may consider Olson’s work to be seminal in this area, whereas in mainstream evangelicalism, most people learned (or learn) of open theism through modern theologians like Greg Boyd, Terence Fretheim, and John Sanders.

Gordon Olson writes from the point of view of denial of “absolute divine foreknowledge”—in other words, God plans and causes much of the future (as written in prophecy) but does not plan and cause all of it. Olson was not a professor or an armchair theologian, but a mobilizer of evangelism. He quotes extensively from certain classic writers of the Reformed period and some Wesleyan theologians. Olson himself quotes extensively from Lorenzo Dow McCabe’s work on the topic in the 1880s. Because he predated the modern debate on open theism by some fifty years, he does not interact with any authors now well-known for open theism; and he remains practically unknown to many of them as well because he mainly operated in the parachurch crowd, not in academia. It is interesting, then, that the arguments that they present are more or less the same.

The introduction has a stunningly long compilation of quotations from theologians asserting the total incompatibility between absolute divine foreknowledge and free will. This incompatibility is noted by Calvinists and Arminians alike, including conservatives and liberals, across centuries of the Christian church. This stream of quotations was a striking way to open the book, and in my opinion is itself worth the price of the book, since it justifies Olson’s line of inquiry. My favorite quotation here was Martin Luther: “Divine foreknowledge is a thunderbolt to dash free will to atoms!”

For those who have not heard of open theism or have only heard secondhand, Olson offers a great introduction to the open point of view. His book is more accessible than McCabe or Fancourt.

Unlike Fancourt, Olson calls the open theist position “denying absolute foreknowledge” or for short, “denying foreknowledge”. This is, in my view, a weakness of Olson’s language. Fancourt stubbornly affirmed foreknowledge, but sought to redefine what was foreknowable on proto-Wesleyan terms. McCabe, a philosopher, spoke of “divine nescience of future contingencies”, which sounds too technical to be a heresy. Olson, Boyd, and most modern open theists, write and speak, in so many words, of “denying foreknowledge”, and this attracts the barbs of their opponents. But when they are describing theologically is justified from the same reasoning and the same Scriptures that led Fancourt and McCabe to their position.

I appreciate that Olson is able to lead us through the paradoxicality of the abstract “eternal now”, so foundational to many determinist viewpoints, as well as the more basic and practical problem of determinism: It makes us want to sit on our hindquarters and await the inevitable. All in all, Olson’s arguments may not sound particularly unique to those who are well-read on open theism; however, the time in which he made them, and the initial chapter which quotes many Calvinists, lend some interest to this book.

In a valuable appendix, Olson also gives an extensive table of Scriptures which support or deny “absolute divine foreknowedge”. Sola scriptura believers should grapple seriously with the many Scriptures that present seemingly contradictory views on foreknowledge. Reconciling foreknowledge with free will is a logical, theological, philosophical problem, yes, but for the Christian believer, it is also a biblical problem.

Chapter 3 is where Olson presents most of his argument in favor of the “open” worldview. Because of the somewhat odd outline of the book, Chapter 3 takes up a large portion of the book and is divided into six sections. Olson gives six reasons to “deny [absolute divine] foreknowledge”:

  • To provide for the duration of time necessary for human experience and relationship
  • To provide for God’s free will
  • To provide for man’s free will
  • To provide a tenable theodicy
  • To restore the spiritual and volitional energies of the soul
  • To satisfy Scripture

He recapitulates these six points in Chapter 4, which summarises his arguments. I’ll conclude with these quotations; if they whet your appetite, you may want to download Olson’s book, which is freely available in PDF, and is now quite cheap in print.

  1. To provide for the duration of time necessary for human experience and relationship
    If God lives in the past, present, and future all at once, which is commonly stated as an “eternal now”and generally admitted by prescientists (those believing in absolute foreknowledge), then there can be no succession of thoughts or acts or experiences in God’s existence, or, the all important element of time is not an element of His being. He therefore ceases to have personal characteristics and becomes to us an impersonal force, with the result that there is no common basis of fellowship with Him and we cannot say that we can know or experience the life of God.
  2. To provide for God’s free will
    Because the absolute divine foreknowledge of all events or acts from all eternity must result in the conclusion that God never originated a single choice. If everything conceivable existed with God from all eternity the will of God is not free and has never exerted a free choice to originate anything.
  3. To provide for man’s free will
    If God foreknows all the moral choices of His free beings, everything that ever has or ever shall come to pass has from eternity been a fixed certainty in the divine mind. In order to have proper freedom of the human will, it must have the power to determine for itself between two or more possible choices in a given instance. This freedom would make the future uncertain or contingent. Since certainty and contingency are incompatible, the certain foreknowledge of God and the contingent actions of men are incompatible. The foreknowledge of God therefore denies to moral agents their proper freedom of will.
  4. To provide a tenable theodicy
    If God foreknew before all creation, with absolute certainty, all the terrible suffering in this life, and all those who would suffer unspeakably throughout the countless ages of eternity, and He brought them into existence anyway, then we are tempted to question the good character and wisdom of God.
  5. To restore the spiritual and volitional energies of the soul
    Foreknowledge is denied because this doctrine creates in the mind, realized or unrealized, the idea that the future is a fixity. The Christian says within himself, either in honest words or suppressed thoughts, that since God knows the future and has determined everything that He will do throughout eternity, volitional acts of the spiritual life, or prayer, cannot change anything. This doctrine therefore becomes an impediment to the Christian and an excuse to the unsaved.
  6. To satisfy Scripture
    And finally, the above mentioned formidable difficulties have been the occasion for the inquiry into the teachings of Scriptures on such a momentous doctrine, (which is indeed the foundation stone of many other doctrines which stand or fall with it). It is found that the Bible gives very many positive testimonies against the doctrine of absolute divine prescience.
This review was written in 2020 and published in 2023. I had read the book many years earlier and went back over it for this review. Please leave a comment and let me know what you thought about Olson's book!

Review: The Openness of God

The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (1994) is an introduction to “open theism”, known to some “dynamic omniscience”.

For those new to the concept: open theism is the idea that the free future choices of accountable moral agents (read: humans) are not in any meaningful sense knowable—if future choices were known with any certainty (as in Augustinianism or Molinism), then they could not be free future choices. It relies, then, on an intuitively linear view of time in its metaphysics. Time as measured by us is a mere construct; but time as a directionality and causality is basic to all existence, including God’s, and it would be logically absurd to argue that anyone was ever “outside time”. Time is not a physical reality that you can enter or exit. Open theism, then, involves both philosophical and theological considerations, and both are handled at some length in The Openness of God.

The Openness of God, despite its length, felt to me like a fly-by. The biblical chapter did not have many new things to say to me, as someone who had reviewed these arguments for many years, but the “historical considerations” was much more relevant to me since I am weak in that area.

The writers argue that certain attributes of God in “classical” theism were derived from Greek philosophy, not from the Bible or Judeo-Christian thought. This is a key argument, because followers of the early church father such as Augustine have maintained for many centuries that God is outside time, and some regard this as the only orthodox position.

The research probably benefits from multiple authors, but I also felt that it made the discussion feel slow, and sometimes repetitive. The book is organized around the different kinds of arguments used to defend open theism.

I did not like that in some chapters the discussion is framed around “rejecting” or “accepting” universal foreknowledge as such. I prefer the language of Samuel Fancourt, who must have been the first Englishman to articulate open theism in the 1720s. He denied that God foreknew our free moral choices in advance, but he always maintained that God’s foreknowledge is absolute. Open theists simply have a different view of time, so certain things cannot be foreknown. (Edit: In a 2021 podcast, Greg Boyd and Thomas Jay Oord have agreed that the grounding fact of open theism is not that God voluntarily limits his omniscience or omnipotence, but that God does not need to predict what is merely possible, not certain.)

If you want to think about ideas like the suffering of God and how we see God’s activity in time, I would recommend something more practical and biblical. Many authors (as I mentioned above) have written on these topics without making dogmatic arguments that tend to remove focus from the application of biblical truth. This is an important debate, but it is primarily important because we need to balance our metaphors about God in the same way that the Bible does and live in light of that truth. Expository writing can meet those goals. However, this book is intended as a theological introduction to a way of thinking. I guess it would meet that goal pretty well if you wanted a clear introduction to “open theology”; though, something like Michael Saia’s Does God Know the Future? or Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic might be less time-consuming and more palatable for those who are not academics.


This review was written around 2013 and posted in 2021.

Review: Some Reflections on Prescience

Rating: ★★

Full title: Some Reflections on Prescience: in which the Nature of the Divinity is Enquired Into

Author: John Jackson (1686-1763) was an English clergyman, as well as a prolific writer with an independent way of thinking. Many of his works were first published anonymously or under pen names. In joining in controversial topics, he followed the lead of the philosopher and clergyman Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). Both men were sometimes regarded as heterodox for their writings about the Trinity.

Overview:

Some Reflections on Prescience (1731) defends the view, previously expressed by Samuel Fancourt, that some future events are truly contingent, and therefore unknowable, even to God. Whereas the other contemporaneous works on this topic—by Samuel Fancourt, John Norman, and David Millar—usually appeal to Scriptural revelation as an authority, Jackson appeals only to reason.

Jackson begins:

By Prescience is generally understood God’s foreknowing not only every action of ever Man, but likewise every, the most minute thing, that happens in the Universe. Now this Definition of God’s Prescience seems to me to be absurd, and no-wise capable of Demonstration, as I shall endeavour to shew in the following Sheets. . . .

Unless every action that passes in the Universe be foreknowable in its own nature from all Eternity, It is not necessary that God shoudl foreknow it; that is, in other Words, that God may be infinitely perfect without foreknowing it. . . . Now the particular Actions, that pass in the Universe are not foreknowable from all Eternity in their own natures, because the Actors of them, and things acted upon, are not eternal themselves. (p. 1-3)

If I recall correctly, Samuel Clarke shared this view with John Jackson. There were, then, a decent minority of writers and thinkers who spoke of unbounded omniscience as incompatible with human liberty. Ironically, these writers would agree on this point with Calvinists who deny human liberty to maintain God’s essential omniscience.

Jackson’s argument may be summarized as follows:

  1. God’s omniscience requires that he know all that is true and foreknowable.
  2. Free moral agents are not eternal.
  3. Since free moral agents are not eternal, their decisions are likewise undetermined in their causes, while they are yet non-existent.
  4. Therefore, even an omniscient God does not know all of the future decisions of free moral agents.

The argument is fine, so far as it goes; but it is probably meaningless to those scholars who presuppose that there is a state “outside time” or an “eternal now” from which God may see all events past and future as one.

Surprisingly, Jackson spends almost the entire book debunking the possibility that a human soul is eternal. (“Eternal” as used here extends to both past and future, whereas “everlasting” extends only into the future.) It is certainly an interesting choice from today’s perspective—I do not often hear anyone contend that human souls existed before their first breath (Gen. 2:7). Souls have a beginning point; if time is linear and basic to reality, no one can foreknow what a free soul will decide.

The logic he uses seems sound enough. But beyond the introduction, the book is very abstract, and belabors a point that is hardly ever discussed today—the alleged “eternalness” of the human soul. This book won’t be very interesting to anyone except those few souls who are keenly interested in the debates around open theism.

Review: What Will Be Must Be

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Samuel Fancourt (1678–1768) was a Dissenting theologian in early eighteenth-century England. He is today well-known for two reasons: firstly, as a pioneer in creating the world’s first circulating library, a cause for which he practically bankrupted himself; and secondly, for being the earliest English theologian to write that some human actions are unknowable to an omniscient God.

Overview:

What Will Be Must Be is one of a polemical series centering around the Arminian theology of Samuel Fancourt, lasting from 1725 to 1735. The letters and essays include responses to Fancourt and Fancourt’s rebuttals, mainly around the concept of “future contingencies,” and the concomitant concept of God’s foreknowledge (of them). I have called this series of writings “The Prescience Papers,” and the titles are worth skimming:

  1. The Greatness of the Divine Love Vindicated (1727) [concerning his The Greatness of the Divine Love, A Sermon (1725), no longer extant]
  2. Appendix to the Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated (1729)
  3. The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved, Anonymous (1729)
  4. An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
  5. God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events Vindicated, John Norman (1729)
  6. Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (1730)
  7. A Letter in Vindication of God’s Prescience of Contingencies, Anthony Bliss (1730)
  8. What Will Be Must Be, or Future Contingencies No Contingencies (1730)
  9. All Future Free Actions : Future Contingencies, David Millar (1731)
  10. The Principles of the Reformed Churches, David Millar (1731)
  11. Greatness of the Divine Love Further Vindicated in Reply to Mr. Millar’s “Principles of the Reformed Churches” (1732)
  12. The Omniscience of God, Stated and Vindicated, David Millar (1732)
  13. Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Norman (1732)
  14. Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (1733)

Many other books on similar topics were circulating in Dissenting circles during the same time period, such as A Vindication of Human Liberty: In Two Parts, J. Greenup (1731).

In particular, What Will Be Must Be (1730) argues that there is no such thing as a “future” event (that is, an inevitably future event) that is also a “contingent” event. This was a key idea for his opponents, such as Bliss and Norman, who argued that future events were contingent for us but inevitable for God at one and the same time.

These old works are not so fascinating in themselves, or in their precise content, because it contains no argument that would be novel to anyone well read on open theism. But the very fact that this “open view” was defended in Dissenting English theology 300 years ago is mind-boggling to those who have heard repeatedly that the open view is an innovation of the 1980s.

Meat:

The chief value of Fancourt’s writing is his return to the logical predecessor to open theism: the incompatibility of “absolute” foreknowledge with human freedom (or “the contingency of events”). Calvin also taught that contingency and foreknowledge were incompatible, but there it results in the denial of contingency and the affirmation of foreknowledge.

Fancourt’s relentlessly positive statement of God’s omniscience should be a lesson to modern open theists, who so clearly distance themselves from what they call “classical Theism.” Fancourt writes:

God’s foreknowledge is truly exhaustive: he knows past as past; present as present; certain future as certain future (because he has determined it in his providence); contingent future as contingent future (because he will allow men and angels to choose).

Again, in The Narrative (1747):

Why, it may be said—don’t you deny the prescience or foreknowledge of God? And this, however, is, we assure you, a prejudice to you here. I answer: if I deny God’s foreknowledge, it is more than I myself know. I never denied that God foreknows whatever will be.

Interestingly a chief axiom for Fancourt is that God did not plan the Fall of Man. Whatever glory he may get out of his atoning work, is not as great as his original plan, in which, Fancourt affirms, the Fall was neither foreplanned, nor a necessity.

Bones:

Reading this book in a fascimile from the 1730 edition was a hassle because of the many strange printing conventions, and I recommend getting an updated edition.

It is also annoying that the entire correspondence is not available in any format, and I hope that someone makes them all available.


Note: This review was written on May 28, 2016 and published online in 2020.

Review: Letters from a Skeptic

Rating: ★★★

Author: Gregory (Greg) Boyd is an American pastor and theologian known for promoting relational theology. He is best known for popular theology books like Letters from a Skeptic and Myth of a Christian Nation, but he has also written ambitious theological works like God at War and The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Overview:

This book is an apologetics crash course, packaged as a correspondence between a theologian and his skeptic father. It is atypical in that the main problem dealt with in this book was theodicy and theology proper. About half of book deals with suffering and the freedom of God in his Creation.

Boyd’s response to these issues is found in the relational theology of open theism, which is a modification of Arminianism. As such, some of the answers are identical to those given by C. S. Lewis:

It is not the will of God which keeps sinners in hell, but the will of sinners. (p. 198)

Where did our longing for something that never existed, and that never could exist, come from? (p. 70)

Other concepts will sound quite novel for those unfamiliar with relational theology:

We tend to become the decisions we make. The more we choose something, the more we become that something. We are all in the process of solidifying our identities by the decisions we make. (p. 51, emphasis his)

I should add, here, that some online reviewers doubt the veracity of the letters because of the overall tone in writing being so similar; my gut feeling is that this could be the result of excessive editing, but I don’t see any reason to doubt the overall story.

Meat:

The strengths of the book include discussions of the problem of evil, free will, Satan, biblical prophecy, the problem of the existence of hell, and problems in the biblical canon. Whereas elsewhere Boyd gets into polemical discussions related to Calvinism and open theism, I liked that this book kept it more to discussing basic objections to faith and didn’t get too bogged down.

If you enjoy the relational theology of writers like George MacDonald, you will probably find the theology of this book compelling and interesting, though liberal on some points. If you hate Arminianism, this book is not for you.

Bones:

I would recommend this book with a few reservations:

1. Accessibility: It was written by a theologian, not your typical pastor. As such it contains a few brief discussions of some things which may not even be relevant: canonization, source criticism, etc. He tries to make it accessible, but a few of the sub-points here are pretty nitty-gritty.

2. Interpretation: Some would consider Greg to be pretty liberal in interpretation, and many Calvinists find him offensive for his free will theology in this book. However, as I stated, I think we get less of his snark in this book than some others!

3. Hell: Near the end both are overly sympathetic (in my opinion) with annihilationism, the belief that souls are destroyed in Hell rather than eternally tortured. This is mentioned only cursorily, and Greg says that he has “exegetical reservations” but nevertheless tells his dad that it is a “viable option.” His father practically accepts this hook-and-sinker with no further discussion.
I’m sure their discussion of this was not over in one letter, but I don’t like the impression that it gives in the book. Most of the book does a good job grappling with such questions, but this answer was pretty dismissive! What about Revelation 14:11?

And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

I wouldn’t form theological opinions based on this book alone, but I think for anyone, it could help them to think through some of the most basic issues of the faith and suffering, along with outside discussion.