Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism?

Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism? November 10, 2012

Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism?

One of the reasons I started this blog was to provide a place to talk about Arminian issues, issues related to Arminian theology. (There is no “Arminian movement” as such, so all talk about Arminianism is about theology.) One of those questions is whether open theism, “openness of God” theology, is a version of Arminianism. Does it belong under the umbrella category “Arminian theology” or is it a “stand alone” theology vis-à-vis Arminianism? Are they separate or should Arminianism be regarded as the larger, broader doctrinal perspective and open theism a particular angle on that perspective?

Generally speaking, open theists want to be considered Arminians. Most of them were Arminians before becoming open theists; they still consider themselves Arminians. (A few open theist jumped right from some version of Reformed theology into open theism.)

Generally speaking, non-open theist Arminians do not want to include open theists among their ranks or treat open theism as a variation of Arminianism.

I think there are political reasons for that. Among evangelicals, anyway, Arminianism has long been accepted as a respectable tradition even by most Reformed evangelicals who strongly disagree with it. Arminians were among the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals. Who can seriously doubt that John Wesley should be considered evangelical? Yes, of course, there are those Calvinists and Lutherans who would like to own the label “evangelical” and exclude Arminians, but that’s not widely accepted by the movers and shakers of evangelicalism. If open theism can be considered Arminian, that gives open theists more of a voice, a place at the table, among evangelicals.

On the other hand, anti-open theist Arminians, even some Arminians sympathetic to open theism, don’t want it included as even a variety of Arminianism because gives credence to the Calvinist critics’ claim that Arminianism leads to open theism (which they claim is heresy).

I have a partial recording of a public event where two leading evangelical Calvinists talked to each other, in front of an audience, about open theism and Arminianism. They agree that open theism is “beyond the pale,” so to speak (of evangelicalism) but end up not sure what to say about Arminianism except that Arminians “are all headed there” (viz., open theism). What they meant, I feel certain, is that open theism is the logical end point of Arminian theology (slippery slope argument).

Some years ago I helped start an organization of evangelical Arminians. I didn’t argue that open theists should be included because I understood the political ramifications of that. The organization intended to introduce an organized, trans-denominational voice for Arminians among evangelicals. The thought was that including open theists would cause Calvinist critics to lump the whole organization together as heresy-friendly. It would play into the hands of those who claim that Arminianism leads to open theism. I did not agree that it does, but I could see the point of excluding open theists—at least at the beginning. Now I think that was a mistake.

Of course, setting aside the political issue, everything depends on how broadly one defines “Arminianism.” If it includes a lot of details, then perhaps open theism doesn’t belong in that category, but then many other people (who are not open theists) who consider themselves Arminians would also be excluded. For example, we evangelical Arminians disagree among ourselves about Molinism, “middle knowledge,” and whether that is a valid version of Arminianism. Many Arminians do believe God has middle knowledge and uses it in his providence and predestination of people. Some Arminius scholars argue that Arminius was a Molinist. Other Arminians are adamantly opposed to middle knowledge and especially any idea that God uses it in providence and predestination. (I’m not going to go into this here, now, but the matter was being discussed mostly amicably among evangelical Arminians on the Society of Evangelicals’ discussion board.)

To me, this is a bigger, more important, issue than open theism. That’s because, for me, and for many Arminians, THE key to Arminianism is the character of God. That is what primarily distinguishes Arminianism from Calvinism. Arminians all believe that the God of Calvinism cannot be understood (logically) to be perfectly good and loving and that ONLY Arminianism (whether under that label or not) makes it (logically) possible to view God as perfectly good (without going to universalism as in the case of Barth and some others in the Reformed tradition).

Yes, of course, free will is a key idea of Arminian theology, and prevenient grace as the source of free will with regard to a person’s acceptance of the gospel (and anything truly, spiritually good they accomplish). But free will is for the sake of God’s character. Arminians, at least evangelical Arminians, do not believe in free will for its own sake or in any humanist way. We believe in the “freed will” (freed by grace) because we believe in God’s relational goodness (stopping far short of universalism).

Molinism, in my opinion, raises question marks over God’s goodness—insofar as it suggests that God uses middle knowledge to determine persons’ decisions and actions. And why else even believe in it? The whole point of Molinist middle knowledge is to reconcile free will and determinism. I believe Arminianism is essentially non-deterministic. Divine determinism, even in its Molinist form, leads logically, inexorably, to the same problem as classical Calvinism—a shadow cast over God’s goodness. The issue, of course, is divine intentionality with regard to sin and evil and especially hell. (See my discussion of Molinism, middle knowledge, and compatibilism in Against Calvinism.)

So, it seems ironic to me that some Arminians are Molinists and that Molinism exists among Arminians, but open theism, which is closer to the “heart” of Arminianism (God’s character as absolutely good), is excluded.

Of course, one argument for including Molinism but not open theism is the appeal to tradition. Some Arminius scholars are arguing that Arminius was a Molinist. If so, I argue, he was inconsistently so. There may be passages in Arminius that sound that way, but my own “take” on them is that he was not thinking clearly on the days he wrote them. And he never comes right out and embraces Molinism or middle knowledge (to the best of my knowledge and I have read all of his works that have been translated into English and many books about Arminius and his theology).  When I was conducting my research for Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities I read numerous Arminian theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth centuries and never came across one that was clearly Molinist.

Nevertheless, I am willing to admit there may have been Molinism in some corners of Arminius’ many writings and in later Arminianism. I think it’s at best a foreign body within the Arminian tradition. It belongs to Calvinism, in my humble opinion. (Unless an Arminian simply believes God has middle knowledge but doesn’t use it to determine creatures’ decisions and actions. But then, what’s the point?)

Another point of disagreement and variety among Arminians is Christian perfection, entire sanctification, or not. Wesleyan Arminians believe in it; non-Wesleyan Arminians don’t. (And, of course, contemporary Wesleyan theologians disagree among themselves about its meaning.) This doesn’t even come close to touching the central issue of God’s character, so I have never worried about including both perspectives as equally Arminian. However, many Reformed critics of Wesley (and Wesleyan theology) do worry that belief in any kind of Christian perfection or entire sanctification leads inevitably to works righteousness and a denial of justification by faith. And yet, that criticism has never, to the best of my knowledge, kept non-Wesleyan Arminians from considering Wesleyan Arminians fellow Arminians on an equal footing.

So, there is very deep disagreement among evangelical Arminians about many things. Why exclude open theists—especially if Molinists are included?

The only reason I can think of is that open theism is controversial among the movers and shakers of evangelicalism—most of whom are more Reformed than Arminian. (Here I won’t get into that discussion—whether Arminianism is a variety of Reformed Protestantism.)

When open theism first came on the evangelical scene with the publication of The Openness of God in the mid-1990s several leading evangelicals screamed loudly about it—condemning it, for example, as “just process theology.” They raised such a hubbub, before even bothering fully to understand it, that evangelical leaders backed away from embracing open theism as a legitimate evangelical option. I was treated very badly by some evangelical leaders for doing so.

Here’s a personal story I can’t prove; you can either believe me or not. But I remember it as if it happened yesterday. A very influential evangelical leader who has as much authority as anyone to define “evangelicalism” and make his definition “stick” told me, over breakfast at a professional society meeting, that he leaned toward open theism and had for a very long time. This was just after The Openness of God was published, before the brouhaha over it exploded. I know he understood what open theism is, because we talked about it for at least thirty minutes and he had read and understood other writings by people like Richard Rice and Clark Pinnock that pre-dated that volume. Then, when the controversy broke out into open (non-violent) war among evangelicals, with some Calvinists especially, stomping their feet and shouting (and often revealing they didn’t even understand open theism!), this leading, influential evangelical person would no longer identify as an open theist in private or in public. He did attempt to moderate the controversy, to calm it down, and get all sides to engage in calm, civil discussion. But I am almost certain nobody but I and a very few others know he was an open theist, or at least leaned in that direction, before the controversy exploded.

How did that controversy become so explosive? Well, one way was anti-open theists misrepresenting open theism to non-theologians, pastors and lay people, as, for example, belief that “God gives bad advice” and belief in an “ignorant God.” Many of them went directly to denominational conventions and got resolutions passed against open theism by frightening delegates by implying that open theism is a Trojan horse for process theology. (They would sometimes spend more time talking about process theology than open theism and allow the scared delegates to think they are basically the same.)

I’ve often wondered why open theism, of all things, led to such hysteria (and sometimes outright dishonesty) among its critics. One thing I suspect is that many Calvinists realized that if many evangelicals adopted open theism, one of their strongest arguments against Arminianism would be nullified—that Arminianism cannot explain how God foreknows future free decisions of creatures without in any way determining them.

Open theism is, in my opinion, although mistaken, closer to the true heart of Arminianism than is Molinism (insofar as it uses middle knowledge to reconcile divine determinism with free will). It ought to be considered a variety of Arminianism just as, say, supralapsarianism is considered a legitimate variety of Calvinism. Calvinism is a diverse tradition. It includes lots of very different perspectives, some of them very controversial even among those who consider themselves mainline spokespersons for Reformed theology. Supralapsarianism is one. (Okay, R. C. Sproul is against supralapsarianism and says it’s not even true Calvinism. I’d like to see and hear him tell that to Alvin Plantinga’s face.) The Synod of Dort allowed supralapsarians to be considered truly Reformed even though most of the leaders of the synod favored infralapsarianism. There are other debates among evangelical Calvinists over which few would expel someone from being considered truly Reformed or Calvinist.

Arminianism is a big tent and a centered set. Open theism is under it and in it. It’s time all Arminians simply acknowledged that and quite trying to exclude open theists.

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