Examining Open Theism: An Interview with Dr. Richard Rice

by George Brahm

It is an honour to interview the esteemed Dr. Richard Rice on Cogent Christianity today. Dr. Rice is well-known as the co-author of The Openness of God (IVP Academic, 1994), a book that generated significant controversy and discussion within evangelical circles for introducing a revolutionary doctrine of God called ‘open theism’. He has written a new book The Future of Open Theism (IVP Academic, 2020), which serves as the background of our conversation today.

A disclaimer: As an adherent of Reformed theology, I disagree with Dr. Rice on the doctrine of God. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that charitable conversations between disagreeing sides are worth having, especially as they might serve as opportunities to clarify misconceptions that one side might have about the other. I hope the interview that follows helps you better understand the open theist doctrine of God, even if you ultimately disagree as I do.

George Brahm: Welcome to Cogent Christianity, Dr. Rice, and thank you for agreeing to this interview. Since the publication of The Openness of God, there has been a slew of books by various open theists, expounding and expanding on the doctrine. What motivated you to write The Future of Open Theism at this juncture? Put differently, what makes your new book unique in its genre?

Richard Rice: First of all, let me express my appreciation to George Brahm for his pertinent and well-formulated questions regarding the openness of God. They provide the basis for an interesting exchange, and I hope they will contribute to a thoughtful discussion.

I think the time is right for an overview of where open theism has been and where it might go. For years following the initial expressions of open theism some of its prominent proponents were obliged to answer their critics, rather than develop their ideas further. In more recent years, that has changed. Open theism is now more widely regarded as a version of conservative Christianity. The criticisms that greeted its appearance 25 years or so ago have subsided, and the exploration of its various dimensions has expanded. People have been looking at various topics through the paradigm that open theism embraces.

GB: Can you explain how the doctrine of God that you defend in your published work, namely that of ‘open theism’, differs from the ‘traditional’ or ‘classical’ doctrine of God?

RR: The approaches to God you refer to differ in their respective views of God’s relation to creation. As I sometimes put it, they embrace different answers to two fundamental questions. What kind of world did God create? What kind of God created the world? According to the more familiar version, God’s sovereignty takes the form of absolute exhaustive control, and every aspect of reality is exactly the way God wants it to be. Since God is absolutely perfect in every possible respect—the very best it is possible to be—we cannot imagine that anything other than God has any influence on God. If everything about God is perfect, then nothing about God could be other than it is without detracting from or diminishing the divine reality. The world is the perfect expression of God’s intelligence, goodness and power. Along with God’s perfect character, God’s power and knowledge are perfect. They could not be different in any way without detracting from God’s greatness.

This is, to be sure, a breathtaking view of God. A power so immense that nothing could possibly interfere with it, an intelligence so profound that all the intricacies of the world are the product of its meticulous design,naturally awakens immense admiration.

As open theists see it, there is nothing in the open view of God that detracts from the supreme power and intelligence that this traditional view embraces. In fact, they believe—at least some of them—that if God he desired to create this kind of world—a world over which he exercised exhaustive and meticulous control—he could certainly have done so. But this was not the only option available to him. God also had the ability to create a world containing beings who had the capacity to participate in the process of creation, beings whom God endowed with the intelligence and freedom to exercise a measure of creativity themselves, and in so doing to reflect God’s position in the world, and to participate in God’s creative activity. In other words, God decided to share his ability to influence the course of events with others and to honor their decisions and choices. In short, God decided to empower others rather decide everything all by himself.

The fact that the creatures have a measure of power and control over the course of events was not something imposed on God; it was not a decision that God was forced to make. It is the expression of God’s desire to create a world with the capacity to provide God with a different range of experiences than would be possible if everything in reality were exactly the way God wanted it to be. To put it succinctly, God chose to create a world in which he would interact with his creatures. Instead of unilaterally determining everything that happens, God shares the ability to make decisions and contribute to the course of events with others.

The creation of such a world made available to God a range of experiences and values not available if God were the only one making decisions and influencing the course of events. He created beings who were capable of responding to God because they appreciated God’s wisdom and care and wanted to share God’s joy in creation. In other words, they could reciprocate God’s care for them with gratitude and joy. To put it another way, they were capable of returning God’s love for them.  They could cooperate with God because they chose to, not because they were programmed to do so. As a result of his decision to share with the creatures the ability and opportunity to influence the course of events, God is not the only one responsible for the course of human history. Because God trusted the creatures to respond to his love and care for them and to cooperate with him in pursuing his purposes for creation, the possibility was there that they would choose a different path, but God was willing to take that risk.

GB: Can you provide a few lines of evidence for a claim you have made both in The Openness of God and The Future of Open Theism, namely that open theism is the more biblical way of understanding God as opposed to the classical view?

RR: The general view of God’s creative activity just outlined enables us to allow a wide range of biblical descriptions to enrich our understanding of God. Because God created a world with which he interacted, rather a world on which he merely acted, God not only affects the world, the world has an effect on God. And the biblical descriptions of God attribute to God a broad spectrum of experience. God takes pleasure, even delight, in many of the things his creatures do. According to one description, God takes such delight in his people that he rejoices over them with singing (Zeph 3:17). But he is also disappointed and distressed, even grieved, by many of their actions and decisions. In reaction to the wickedness that led to the flood, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6). Faced with Israel’s unfaithfulness, Hosea compares God’s anguish with that of a parent’s tender regard for a wayward child. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel. … My heart recoils with me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hos 11:8).

At the same time, God is not merely a passive observer of human behavior. He actively seeks to influence their decisions for the best, and just what he decides to do often depends on the course of action they choose to take, as the alternatives described in Jeremiah 18 vividly illustrate. As the Bible describes God’s relation to human behavior, then, God acts upon, reacts to, and interacts with human beings, always seeking to move them toward a fuller appreciation of his love for them and invite them to join him in fulfilling his desire for them to flourish and fulfill all that he hopes for them.

GB: In this book, you caution both proponents and opponents of open theism against using the word ‘limited’ to describe God as conceived by open theism. Can you explain why you raise this concern? And if not ‘limited’, how would you describe the picture of God per open theism?

RR: Instead of placing limits on God, the concept of divine openness makes it possible to attribute many important qualities God’s experience—surprise, delight, enjoyment in response to the positive choices that his servants make. If he knows them in all their detail, their actual occurrence loses the quality of delight. Alternately, the pain God feels when his human children disappoint him loses an loses the quality of momentary disappointment. Here again, it’s the richness of divine experience, as vividly portrayed in any number of biblical passages, that gets slighted. In comparison to the open view of God, it is the traditional view that limits God by denying to God’s experience a wide array of important qualities. It is significant that the emphasis of open theism on the richness of God’s experience as he responds to the wide range of human responses to his multifaceted expressions of love and concern has generated a measure of appreciation even from those who object to its basic premise.

GB: Another notion you reiterate in The Future of Open Theism is that open theism is based on recognizing love as God’s most important attribute and the attribute that defines God’s essence. Could you expand on what you mean by that, and how that leads you to prefer open theism over the classical view?

RR: There is impressive biblical support for the pre-eminence of love among God’s essential attributes. According to some theologians, the affirmation, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), is as close to a definition of the divine being that we find in the Bible. The sending, indeed the giving, of the Son to express the depth of God’s commitment to and desire for restored fellowship with human beings (cf. Jn 3:16) underscores love as the central element in God’s character, the basic motive behind all God’s dealings with humanity. As described in the Bible as well, God vividly expresses his love in hopes that we will love God in return. In other words, love seeks relationship. Creating humans in the divine image involves a number of things, but one, surely, is the capacity to appreciate the fact that we are loved—indeed, that God first loved us (1 Jn 4:19 )—and loving God in return. To love God, as Jesus emphasized in his indication of the “first and greatest commandment” is to identify the experience—not just as a responsibility but as a possibility, indeed that one possibility which most accurately describes our true destiny, the ultimate realization of the essential purpose of human life. Out of love, God seeks our love, because only in accepting and returning God’s love for us can we reach the full measure of our humanity, become everything God wants for us. As open theists understand it, then, ideal love involves reciprocity, genuine interaction. It must be offered, not imposed; and it must be rendered voluntarily, not determined. The Bible is filled from beginning to end with descriptions of God’s interacting with human beings who variously return God’s love for them or turn away from it. It is arguably the underlying plot of the entire narrative.

Emphasizing love as the defining quality of the divine reality also provides a way to understand God’s own inner life as characterized by relationality. As I explain in one of the chapters of The Future of Open Theism, this idea is central to the doctrine of the trinity.

GB: You dedicate an entire chapter in The Future of Open Theism to defending the notion of libertarian freedom. Why do you consider libertarian freedom so important? And why do you think open theism is superior to competing views like Molinism or simple-foreknowledge Arminianism, both of which claim to preserve both divine foreknowledge and libertarian freedom?

RR: An interactive view of God’s relation to the world involves the concept that instead of assigning human beings their response to God, as the Reformers’ concept of predestination does, God created beings who could say “Yes” to God as a voluntary response, a matter of choice—something they decided, not something decided for them. in other words, returning God’s love for them would be a choice they made, not an inevitability. But the capacity to say “Yes” voluntarily involves the capacity to withhold their love for God, in other words, to turn away from God. (I appreciate Augustine’s definition of sin as a “defection of the will,” that is, as a turning away from God, rather than a “turning toward” something else.) And just what their choice would be was something indefinite until the choice was made. In other words, the outcome of genuine choices is unknowable in advance, because it doesn’t yet exist as a potential object of knowledge. For this reason, libertarian freedom is incompatible with the standard view of divine foreknowledge. In contrast, Arminians who accept the traditional view of God’s foreknowledge look for ways to view the future as definite, and therefore knowable in all its detail. The problem with this is twofold. One is the logical consequence of removing the experience of delight and disappointment from God we referred to in responding to Question 4. As for the idea that humans have libertarian freedom, yet God foreknows all their choices, none of the attempts to explain their compatibility has generated widespread acceptance. After her extensive review, Linda Zagzebski, for example, concludes that none of the many proposed solutions of the “foreknowledge dilemma” is convincing, and she has never heard of one that is. 

GB: I would like to turn to a few objections that can be raised against open theism. In The Future of Open Theism, you list some theological antecedents to open theism from the early modern era, but you make no mention of early church antecedents. Many who deny the orthodoxy of open theism point out that it has no notable precedent in the early church. How would you respond to this concern?

RR: One of the most important developments in the early centuries of Christianity provides an important precedent for open theism. As Christianity made its way into the Hellenistic world, the Greek concept of ultimate reality exerted a major influence in the way many Christians thought about God. And it constituted the “back story” for the Council of Nicea, famous for its rejection of Arianism. Christians who made the Hellenistic assumption that the divine is impervious to time were left with an enormous gap between God and the world, and this space is where they located Christ. As they envisioned it, Christ’s role is to mediate between the timeless, immutable God and the temporal, transitory world. Since he stands midway between the two, however, Christ must be subordinate to God and less than fully divine, though in a sense, he is “God for us.” In its rejection of Arianism, the Council of Nicea affirmed the full divinity of the Son and the Cappadocian theologians advanced the view that the relations that characterized the persons of the Trinity were temporal through and through. The doctrine of the Trinity thus applies temporality to the inner being of God. According to Keith Ward, it stresses “the creative, relational, and unitive involvement of God in the temporal structure of the created universe” and “the importance of that temporal structure to the self-expression of the divine being.” Robert Jenson is more emphatic: “The three derive from God’s reality in time, from time’s past/present/future. . . . The relations are either temporal relations or empty verbiage.”

 (Regrettably, these early insights were later obscured, largely through the influence of Augustine.)

GB: There are passages in Scripture that describe God as changing or being affected by the world, there are also passages that imply His being immutable (Num 23:19, Mal 3:6, Jas 1:17). The classical view reconciles this tension by affirming that God is immutable and that passages describing God as ‘changing’ involve divine accommodation, or the infinite God communicating with finite man in a way that the latter can comprehend. Why do open theists reject this view, and more importantly, how would an open theist explain passages that describe God as immutable?

RR: According to open theism, the varying biblical descriptions of God as changeless and as changing both apply to God. Those that affirm God’s immutability refer to God’s essential nature—his existence and his character–and those that describe various ways in which God responds to events in the world refer to God’s concrete experience. As a necessary being, God has always existed, and always will, and as one whose essential nature/character is love, God’s commitment to the well-being of the creatures never varies. But in his concrete interaction with the creatures, God is profoundly sensitive to and affected by events in the world, and particularly by the decisions and actions of those who bear the divine image. And what God decides to do often takes into account their willingness to cooperate with God or their resistance to God’s will. When the Israelites demanded a king so they could be like other nations (1 Sam 8), God through Samuel tried to dissuade them, but when they persisted, God relented and granted their wish. Biblical narratives are filled with accounts of things that happen that God wishes hadn’t.

To invoke a familial analogy, ideal parents are both changeless and changeable. They will maintain unchanging affection for their children and commitment to their wellbeing, and will also manifest momentary sensitivity to the various experiences that children undergo—from delight in a child’s happiness to sorrow and commiseration when a child experiences pain and disappointment.

GB: Throughout the Scriptures, we see God claiming to know specific things about future events, even those that are a product of freely performed actions. Furthermore, we find God making promises to His people, the results of which are often based on the free actions of human agents; for instance, God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would one day be freed from bondage in Egypt. However, as you note in the book, given His lack of exhaustive foreknowledge, open theism entails that God’s plans can beand are frustrated by the free actions of agents. Does this not cast a shadow on God’s moral character, as it entails His claiming to know things that He doesn’t necessarily know or His making promises that He cannot necessarily keep?

RR: For open theism, it is important to distinguish between a divine prediction based on God’s knowledge of something that will inevitably occur and a divine prediction that refers to something that might or might not occur. The latter typically express a promise or a warning. There are instances in which what God announced would happen did not take place because conditions changed. A well-known example is Jonah’s announcement of Nineveh’s imminent destruction. Because of the Ninevites “turned from their evil ways”, however, the destruction did not take place. Why? Because “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). The natural reading of this passage is that God’s decision not to destroy the city was a response that followed the Ninevites’ decision.

As for the issue of “God’s moral character,” if God had certain knowledge of their repentance in advance, then the prediction he commanded Jonah to make was an empty threat. God really had no intention of destroying the city. In contrast, the most natural reading of Jonah’s prediction is that God did intend to destroy the city, yet, as Jonah recognized, there was a chance God wouldn’t, because, in his words, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). The fulfillment of Jonah’s prediction depended on the response, or lack of response, on the part of the city’s inhabitants.

On another note, there are indications that God expected certain things to happen that didn’t. In the “love-song” of Isaiah 5, for example, we find repeated expressions of God’s disappointment with Israel’s unfaithfulness. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4) “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (5:7). And the result? “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down” (5:5).

GB: On a related note, divine prophecy is another theme that constantly appears throughout Scripture. God Himself gives His ability to accurately predict the future as evidence of His divinity (see Isa 41:21-29) and the test of whether a prophet speaks from God is that his prophecies inevitably come to pass (Deut 18:22). A Calvinist like myself credits prophecy to God’s sovereign control over all earthly affairs, while a classical Arminian credits it to God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. How does an open theist account for prophecy, both conditional and unconditional, given God’s lack of both sovereign control over all things and exhaustive foreknowledge?

RR: First a terminological comment. Open theists do not regard their understanding of divine power and knowledge as a “lack” of, or a denial of, either divine omnipotence or omniscience. God has the power to do anything logically do-able and the knowledge of everything logically knowable. Could God create world in which he would decide everything that happens, down  to the smallest detail? Yes, God has the power to do that. The question is, is that the kind of world God created? Or did God create a world and give (some of) its inhabitants the power to make their own contributions to the ongoing course of events? In other words, in addition to “power over,” can and does God decide to “empower” some of the creatures to participate in determining the course of events? And if the latter, when would the content of their participation become a possible object of knowledge? Is God necessarily aware of everything that will ever happen, no matter what kind of world he created? Or could God create a world whose inhabitants had the capacity to delight (or, alternately, disappoint) him with the choices they made and when they made them? For open theists, the concept that God created a world whose future was open to God gives us a richer portrait of the divine reality—and one more in harmony with the full range of biblical evidence—than one in which God’s power is all-determining and God knows from eternity past all that will ever happen.

From the perspective of open theism, divine predictions may express one thing, or a combination of several things. The may express God’s knowledge of what will occur in the future as the inevitable consequence of factors already present. Since God’s knowledge of the present is exhaustive, his knowledge of the future must be unimaginably extensive. This may account for the prediction that Pharaoh would “harden his heart” in response to the request to let the Israelites go. The king’s previous behavior may have so disposed him to reject the appeal to free his slaves that his doing so was a foregone conclusion.

Divine predictions may also express God’s own intentions to act in a certain way. Some of the things God predicts happen as a result of direct divine action. They express God’s intention to bring them about himself. “I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfil my intention’… I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have planned, and I will do it” (Isa 41:9-11).

Then there are predictions sometimes referred to as “conditional prophecies.” They describe events whose occurrence depends on the way people respond. Jeremiah 18 is the locus classicus of such prophecies.

 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

The “if-then” nature of these prophecies indicates that their fulfillment depends on what their recipients decide to do. Instead of forecasting what cannot fail to happen, they announce what might or might not happen, depending on what people decide to do. The purpose of such prophecies is not to forecast what cannot fail to happen, but to awaken a response from people that will enable God to fulfill his purposes for them.

It is also important to note that a prediction may appear in one biblical account to be unconditional, while in another its fulfillment is qualified as conditional. Thus, God’s covenant with David included this promise: “But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever” (2 Samuel 7:15-16). But David inserts a condition when he advised Solomon to observe all of God’s laws, “so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. Then the Lord will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel’” (1 Kings 2:3-4).

The criterion of fulfilled prophecy also requires qualification. There are indeed texts that describe fulfilled prophecy as an indication of a prophet’s divine inspiration. One is Deuteronomy 18:22: If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. Another is Jeremiah 28:9: As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.’ At the same time, a fulfilled prediction alone does not necessarily guarantee a prophet’s divine authority, as this passage indicates: “If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (whom you have not known) ‘and let us serve them’, you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams…” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). Pehaps the notion of “perfect anticipation” applies to God’s relation to the future. To anticipate something perfectly is to know what will happen and what might happen. God knows everything that cannot fail to happen. And God knows everything that might or might not happen, along with the relative likelihood of each. In addition, God has in mind an appropriate way to r.espond to whatever happens. So, while God may be “surprised,” in the sense that he is delighted or disappointed by things that happen, nothing finds God unprepared to respond in a way that promotes the fulfillment of his purposes. As Paul exclaims in a climactic passage in Romans, “In all things God works for good…” (Rom 8:28 NRSV f.n).

GB: Thank you very much, Dr. Rice, for this very informative interview. Despite our theological differences, I must commend you on this book. It is both a comprehensive overview and defence of the open theist position. It covers several of the issues discussed here, as well as several other issues such as the history of the openness movement in evangelicalism, the varieties of open theism and each of their philosophical and theological underpinnings, as well as applications of the doctrine to Trinitarian theology, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. It is bound to be a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in philosophical and systematic theology. You can purchase a copy of the book here.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the interviewer or those of other authors at Cogent Christianity.

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