Open Theism is Better than Calvinism

I have noticed an interesting trend on part of the neo-Reformed New Calvinists to say that Open Theism is a “heresy.” A heresy is not just a mistake. It is an error that damns the soul of person that holds it. To be a heretic is to hold to (and perhaps also actively to teach) a heresy. It is logically incompatible to be a true believer and to be a heretic at the same time. It is a deadly accusation to call somebody a heretic, and it is therefore never to be used lightly.

But Calvinists (and others) ordinarily call Open Theism out for heresy. But what is this alleged heresy? And why is it a heresy? In this extended post, I will attempt to do three things. Firstly, I will  begin with an excursus on omniscience (part 1), then I will describe Open Theism (part 2). Then, I will explain Calvinism according to one of its major tenants (part 3), followed by an excursus on what “events” are, and what kinds of events there are (part 4). Finally, I will compare an explanation of sin on Open Theism and Calvinism (part 5), and then provide some reason to think why, given a choice between Open Theism and Calvinism, all things being equal, Open Theism is arguably the best option (part 6). I will then add a brief disclaimer to quell any worries the reader might have about the author (part 7). 

Let us begin by taking an excursus in order to define “omniscience”.

1. What is Omniscience?

What does it take for a person to be “omniscient”? According to the standard definition, a person is omniscient if and only if a person knows all true propositions and believes no false propositions.

(A “proposition” is a truth-apt statement, that is, any statement that can be true or false. For example, “the door is open” and “God loves me” are truth-apt sentences; but neither commands, nor questions, nor ungrammatical statements such as “Open the door!”, “Is the door open?”, or “is door open can” are truth-apt statements; they are therefore not propositions.)

In other words, an omniscient person knows all true propositions and believes no false propositions. 

Classically, God is conceived of as an omniscient person (or being). Therefore, God knows all true propositions and believes no false propositions.

Now, let’s turn back to our original discussion about Open Theism. 

2. What is Open Theism?

Open Theism is a form of free will theism. It is a thesis about what is true about any free being “x”. Such truths may include: x is a free being, x is a person, x had (past tense) black hair and now has (present tense) blonde hair; x is in need of salvation by grace through faith apart from works; x has peace with God.

To be “free” on this form of free will theism is to have Libertarian Free Will. Libertarian Free Will very roughly is the view that free persons cause themselves to do what they do, and for any course of action they choose to do, they could have done otherwise than what they did. Both agent causation and the principle of alternative possibilities feature in this perspective. People who hold to this perspective debate among themselves whether or not having this kind of free will is reconcilable with God’s having divine foreknowledge about what you will freely do. 

Open Theists are people who take the view that divine foreknowledge is irreconcilable with this kind of human freedom. But since we do have such freedom, God mustn’t know what we will freely do. 

Open Theism isn’t technically a thesis about this irreconcilability per se. This follows from something else that the Open Theists (generally) hold to.  

Just what is that thing? Well, Open Theists (generally) think that it is not true that there are truths about what free creatures will freely do do at any future time. So, given the whole set of truths about libertarian free beings, future free acts do not feature in the set of true things about those beings. 

Now let’s come back to our definition of “omniscience.” Remember, a person is omniscient if and only if that person knows all true propositions and believes no false propositions — and God is such a person. 

What does one logically get when one combines (A) omniscience and (B) Open Theism? It follows from (B) that there are no truths about what any libertarian free being will freely do at any future time. It follows from (A) that an omniscient person such as God does not know what is not true. Therefore, on (A) and (B) it follows that (C) God does not know what a libertarian free being will freely do at any future time. Therefore, the future is said to be “open”; there is no fact-of-the-matter about what free creatures will freely do. 

Now, that’s no problem for omniscience, so defined. For if it is the case that there is no fact-of-the-matter or truth about what any free being will freely do, then God will not believe anything about what that free being will freely do, since that belief would be false. This no more impinges on omniscience than would God’s not believing that you have ten heads. That proposition would be false. So God doesn’t know it.

Now let’s turn to defining that one basic tenant of Calvinism I mentioned.

3. What is Calvinism? 

Calvinism is many things. But among other things, Calvinism is a form of theological determinism. That is to say, on Calvinism, God causally predetermines everything that comes to pass in time — including the acts of the creatures. For example, the Westminster Confession talks about how “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” in time. And the Canons of Dort, speaking of divine predestination, do often speak of the “unchangeable purpose” (I.7) by which God freely chose “a definite number” (ibid.) of people from among the fallen human race (which he decreed should fall) for eternal salvation, concerning which the cause is “exclusively the good pleasure of God” (I.10); those “chosen ones” (2.9) whom God has loved with an “eternal love” (ibid.). From teachings such as these (although there is more that goes into it), all Calvinists are determinists in one way or another.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions[.]” On Calvinism, the “antecedent events and conditions” of every event — past, present and future — are somehow set by God. Therefore, we say God causally determines every event, past, present and future. In common parlance, this is often talked about as God’s being “in control,” his “Sovereignty” and his “eternal decree.”

Now we must take another excursus, this time on “events.” 

4. What is an event?

We said that, on Calvinism, God causally predetermines every “event.” We should also see how, on Open Theism, there is no fact-of-the-matter about what free-agent-caused future events there will be. But it may not be obvious to everybody what an event is. Here, we simply mean it in the ordinary sense of “something that happens.” This could be more precisely specified. But it will do for now. 

Here, then, is an alphabet-length list of examples of quite ordinary/common “things that happen”, or, events:

a. singing
b. jumping
c. walking
d. falling
e. rising
f. flowing
g. being righteous
h. striking your toe and screaming “Ouch!”
i. spilling milk
j. making a sound
k. making love
l. being cruel
m. lying
n. stealing
o. masturbating into a chicken-corpse
p. being selfish
q. dropping the Atom Bomb
r. sexually molesting a young child
s. raping someone
t. turning from sin (repentance)
u. bullying somebody
v. wife-beating
w. being racist
x. blaspheming God
y. believing in Jesus
z. apostatising 

This short list of events is quite an interesting one. Some are morally ambiguous/neutral {a, b, c, d, e, f, h, i, j, o, q,}, and some are morally good {g, k, l, t, y}, but others are morally evil {k, m, n, p, r, s, u, v, w, x, z}. 

With these in mind, let us turn to our comparison of Open Theism and Calvinism, and then we’ll close.

5. Sin: An Open Theist and Two Calvinist Explanations. 

Take another look at all the evil things on that list, {k, m, n, p, r, s, u, v, w, x, y, z}. Some of them have to do with people’s being cruel to other persons; others to being cruel to God. All of them have to do with failing to love God and failing to love neighbour. In other words, all of them have to do with spitting on and rejecting “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). That is, they are all “sin.”

Sin happens all the time. It is, indeed, the greatest problem in our world. Sin, being lawlessness, or the transgression of the Law, is the work of the Devil, which Jesus Christ appeared in order to destroy (1 John 3:4, 8). Sin also grieves God, and kindles his wrath (Genesis 6:5-6; Romans 1:18). 

Let’s say a sin happens tomorrow. Let’s say you are the one who commits the sin. How does one explain that?

Say you’re an Open Theist, and you believe the future is open. What do you say? Well, technically, you can’t say the sin will happen tomorrow. That is future. So what you ought to say is: Ia sin happens tomorrow, then I alone cause it. You would have caused your sin at that future time, and you alone are responsible for that sin. 

What if you’re a Calvinist, who believes God causally predetermines all things, past, present, and future, as we have already defined it? Well, it depends. If you’re a Hard Determinist you must say that God alone is the cause of your sin. There is no “free will” of any kind at all. God alone has set it up that you must sin, and that by necessity. God has “unchangeably ordain[ed]” you to do what you will do. So the real explanation for your sin is not yourself, but God. 

Maybe that sounds a little bit harsh to you; it seems to undermine human responsibility for sin. Actually, I, the author, purposefully left out the second half of what the Westminster Confession said earlier. Maybe you think God has “unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to past” — including (and perhaps especially) your own, personal, sin. But maybe you agree with Westminster that this is done by God in such a way “…yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” That is to say, maybe you’re a Soft Determinist or Compatibilist . You think that God has “unchangeably ordain[ed]” all the sin that you ever have done, that you are currently doing, and that you ever will do. On this account, you maintain moral responsibility because you, voluntarily and willingly, commit the sin that you do, and that’s roughly what freedom means — to be voluntary. But it is still true, you think, that God “unchangeably ordain[ed]” your sin. You are simply implicated by virtue of the fact that you are the one doing it voluntarily.

Well, alright then. Let’s move on to the final analysis. 

6. Why Open Theism is a Better Explanation than Calvinism, all things being equal. 

6.1 Calvinism. We said that Calvinism is a form of theological determinism. That is to say, God causally predetermines everything that comes to pass in time — including all your sins. But we then clarified that there are two kinds of Determinism: Hard and Soft. On Hard Determinism, God alone works to bring about some event in the world. There is no freedom of the will on this view. On Soft Determinism, however, God indeed causes you to have the dispositions and feelings that you do, such that you voluntarily do what you do. But you are the one that does them. Nevertheless, it is God who sets the necessary and sufficient “antecedent events and conditions” for your sin on this view. Therefore, on Soft Determinism, it is indeed you. But it is also God.

What do I think of this? Just this. Frankly, I believe the Calvinist explanation(s) for sin is deplorable. Nay, it is truly despicable: it is the highest of the blasphemies, the crudest of false religion, and it is perhaps among the darkest of the doctrines of the demons. I have no comprehension as to how any Christian person could ever look at their own sin and believe that God had somehow set it up that it had to be that way, and that “unchangeably” as Westminster says. 

Take a look at Hard Determinism. On this view, God alone makes me do what I do. Then he blames me for doing the thing that I did. Even though not only did I have no choice in the matter; I also did not cause the thing that I did. That’s what Hard Determinism means! On Hard Determinism, I am treated by God as responsible. But I am not actually responsible. Not even Almighty God can make a single square circular, nor make 1+1 equal 6. No. God alone is responsible for my sin on this view, and not even His saying otherwise could make it otherwise.

What about Soft Determinism? On this view, it is not only God who “unchangeably ordain[s]” the sin that I do. It is also I who freely and voluntarily sins. I am therefore responsible, under this definition of freedom. But here’s the problem: If it is both God and myself who brings it about that I commit the sins that I do, then it still logically follows that it is God who brings it about that I commit the sins that I do! If (A and B) is true, then it follows trivially that (A) is true.  But then not only am responsible for my sin, God is also responsible. And that’s not good enough! Simply because I subsist as a truly guilty and responsible sinner under a Compatibilist framework, it doesn’t get God himself off the hook immediately. For he, too, would be implicated in the sins that I do, in that he determined them, and set up the necessary and sufficient “antecedent events and conditions” bringing it about that I would sin voluntarily and yet by a necessity of that “decree” most “unchangeably” and yet “freely” delivered up by God “from all eternity” — and that by necessity.

So both Hard and Soft forms of Determinism really end up with the same result: in both cases, God is responsible for my sins. He is thus the Author of Sin — the source or origin of sin — even as much as Westminster should like to assert to the contrary. The only difference is that in the one case, God is wholly responsible and I am not responsible at all, despite my being treated wholly as such; and in the other case, both God and myself are wholly responsible, even though I alone am punished as such.

6.2 Open Theism. What about the Open Theist view? Remember, Open Theism is a form of free will theism. Human beings have Libertarian Free Will, and are not determined by God or anyone else but themselves to do what they do. Whenever they do what they do, they could have done otherwise than what they did. So if you sinned, you could do otherwise than sin. Instead of blaspheming God, you could have sung to him instead. Instead of raping that child, you could have cared for them instead. Nothing necessitated you to do the thing that you did. Nothing necessitates you to do the things that you will do. You have the power. And the choice is yours. 

I think that this view makes very, very easy sense of human moral responsibility and divine goodness — much better and easier sense than any one of the Calvinist views. You yourself caused yourself to do what you did. God is not responsible for what you did. You are truly, solely blameworthy for what you did. God didn’t know the thing you would do. But you did it. And he is angry. 

But what about divine permission? Did God not have to permit you to do the thing that you freely did? Could God have not prevented it? 

The answer is yes. God could have prevented it. But there is a world of a difference between not intervening and causing/determining. Perhaps God has morally sufficient reasons to permit the evil and suffering in the world. Or maybe free will requires that God not just intervene any old time, or for any old reason. In any event, answering a question about why God permits all the evil in the world will be a whole lot easier than answering the question of why he caused it, and made it necessary

6.3 Conclusion. Back to the original thought at the very beginning of this blogpost: Is Open Theism a heresy? I don’t think so. It is consistent with the omniscience of God, as classically conceived. It also does no injustice to God’s goodness. If anything, Calvinism has a lot more to answer for on the latter point, and I think that it is much more dangerous to be in a position that risks the goodness of God than in another position which does not. Therefore, I say that, all things being equal, were one to have to have choose between both alternatives of Calvinism and Open Theism, one should go for Open Theism every time. Anyone with even the smallest sense of the goodness of God and the depravity of man should look upon the Calvinist’s dark, deterministic doctrine of the demons, and see the former depreciated and the latter dancing across the church doorways. Any Calvinist who indites an Open Theist as a heretic simply for denying divine foreknowledge of human actions needs to take a look at their own doctrines first. A God who is implicated in setting up one’s own, personal, moral evil. What a theological disaster determinism is! It ruins the goodness of God, stains his character, thus making a mockery of our Maker even to entertain the thought that he is involved in our personal sins.  

7. Brief Disclaimer.

For anyone who might be wondering, I, the author, am not an Open Theist. Call your minds back to part 2 when I said this about Libertarian Free Will:

“People who hold to this perspective debate among themselves whether or not having this kind of free will is reconcilable with God’s having divine foreknowledge about what you will freely do.”

There are two broad camps in this kind of free will theism: Simple Foreknowledge and Open Theism.

Open Theism we have already described. On the other hand, Simple Foreknowledge simply says (pun intended) that God simply foreknows what we will freely do. But he doesn’t cause or determine what we will do. Classical Arminians typically take this position. Alternatively, or perhaps complimentarily, Middle Knowledge is an explanatory schema trying to make sense of how it is so that future contingent truths get the truth-values they they do. Those who endorse this explanatory schema are typically referred to as Molinists. Molinism on Protestantism is broadly Wesleyan and is thus a form of Arminian Theology.

END. 3265 words.


4 thoughts on “Open Theism is Better than Calvinism

  1. blakodeel says:

    Brendan it’s so ironic that you accuse Calvinists of determinist “philosophy” when you use Molinism to reconcile issues that simply have no biblical basis. You make many invalid assumptions concerning God being “responsible” and such, though I won’t list it here. I’m not impressed.

      • blakodeel says:

        “Alternatively, or perhaps complimentarily, Middle Knowledge is an explanatory schema trying to make sense of how it is so that future contingent truths get the truth-values they they do”

        I suppose I was assuming this was advocating Molinism given that you presented no other simple foreknowledge options.

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