R.I.P. Dallas Willard (and Was He an Open Theist?)

R.I.P. Dallas Willard (and Was He an Open Theist?) May 15, 2013

R.I.P. Dallas Willard (and Was He an Open Theist?)

            The evangelical Christian community has lost one of its best minds and most articulate writers—Professor Dallas Willard of the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy (retired), associate of Richard Foster’s in the Renovaré movement, and author of numerous books in the philosophy of religion and spiritual theology. I only had the privilege of meeting him once—when we shared the platform at my final commencement ceremony at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in 1999. He was the guest speaker and I prayed for the graduates. Over the years, however, Dallas and I corresponded occasionally. Most of our exchanges had to do with so-called “open theism.”

            Willard was one of those rare intellectuals who could write both for other scholars and for non-scholars. And he was a philosopher who wrote theology (especially spiritual theology) very well. That is, he wore both hats, sometimes simultaneously.

            Probably Willard’s most influential Christian book was The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (1998). (I wonder how many readers noticed that he dedicated it to, among others, fundamentalist preacher John R. Rice?) If I can summarize the thesis of the book (428 pages long!): True Christianity is something more than “sin management;” it is the experience of the “Kingdom of the heavens” here and now.

            Willard ranged far and wide over Christian theology in The Divine Conspiracy, touching on most doctrines even if only obliquely. What intrigued me most, however, were his reflections on God and especially divine providence (a subject I have written about here often).

            In The Divine Conspiracy Willard presented what I have called a “relational” view of God’s sovereignty. On pages 244-253 Willard argued that prayer can and sometimes does change God’s mind about what he intended to do. In a section subheaded “Can We Change God?” Willard wrote “God’s ‘response’ to our prayers is not a charade. He does not pretend that he is answering our prayer when he is only doing what he was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference in what God does or does not do.” (p. 244)

            Also, “It was two Old Testament scenes that changed my own mind about these matters and permitted me to enter into the teachings of Jesus about prayer. For I too was raised in a theology that presents God as a great unblinking cosmic stare, who must know everything whether he wants to or not, and who never in the smallest respect changes his mind about what he is going to do.” (pp. 244-245) The two OT scenes are from Exodus 32 and 2 Kings 19. I’ll let you look them up if you’re so inclined.

            Further, “God is great enough that he can conduct his affairs in this way. His nature, identity, and overarching purposes are no doubt unchanging. But his intentions with regard to many particular matters that concern individual human beings are not. This does not diminish him. Far from it. He would be a lesser God if he could not change his intentions when he thinks it is appropriate. And if he chooses to deal with humanity in such a way that he will occasionally think it appropriate, that is just fine.” (p. 246)

            Willard went on to explain that none of this offends God’s dignity because this arrangement, in which our praying can affect God and even change his intentions and actions (from what they were) “is an arrangement he himself has chosen.” (p. 253) “It is not inherently ‘greater’ to be inflexible.”

            On the basis of those statements, many readers, including most open theists, believed Willard to be an open theist—one who believes that God knows everything actual as actual and everything possible as possible  but does not know the future exhaustively except as a realm of both settled and not-yet-settled events.

            Was Willard an open theist? No. So he said.

            But you will have to decide whether he agreed with open theism or not. That will require some fairly in depth knowledge of open theism (not acquired solely from its critics but especially from those who embrace it such as Greg Boyd, John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, et al.).

            I wrote two e-mails to Willard asking if he was an open theist. Here are his responses:

            March 27, 2000: “I do believe that God does limit himself…and that this is an essential part of what is required in order for him to have a personal relationship with free and historical beings such as ourselves. Many people do not understand that the attribute of omniscience, like that of omnipotence, as a matter of what God can do, not a matter of what he does [sic]. He doses not do everything he could do, and he does not know everything he can know.”

            I took that as a “yes.”

            However, later, a student challenged me about this and argued that Willard was not an open theist. So I wrote to him again, asking for clarification. I specifically asked him if he was an open theist. He responded and copied his response to several people, so I assume he did not intend it to be kept confidential. And it led to further e-mail exchanges between one of those people (John Ortberg) and Willard and me.

            Here is what Willard wrote in response to my question (whether he was an open theist):

            “I think I would not be called an open theist by any thoughtful person who knows what I write and say. The points which strike some people as ‘open’ might be these. I believe that God does modify his actions in response to human beings on some occasions: does what he was not going to do or does not do what he was going to do. And I do not think he has to know every detail of created reality to bring it out where he wants it. But there isn’t anything He needs or wants to know that he does not know. The picture of God as a great, unblinking, cosmic stare is a projection upon him of how some people try to deal with control from a human point of view. But he has resources for achieving his purposes that no human being has, and he doesn’t have to be mean or immediately on top of every detail of existence in order to run the universe. He does have considerable help and no need to micro-manage everything. If I leave some things to my helpers, as an administrator, that does not mean that I close off part of the future to my sight. But if I did not limit myself in terms of what I could know, and what I would do, it would soon ruin the operation. Limiting myself (‘holding back’) is not the same as ‘closing it off.’ Omniscience refers to God’s power to know absolutely everything. That I firmly accept. But I believe he does, by his choice, not know everything he could know—without it in any way defeating his purposes—and I also believe that human interaction with him modifies what he does or does not do in the details of individual and group life. Not to believe this seems to me to force one into false interpretations of the wordings of scripture and to make a farce of prayer. I think it is the main explanation of why very few people pray in any sensible and effectual manner.” (December 9, 2009)

            In my opinion, this could be fairly called “open theism”—or a version of it. But subsequent e-mail exchanges with Willard made clear that he did not want to wear that label.

            One question the above quote raises for me is the extent and depth of Willard’s knowledge of open theism. Did he understand what leading open theists say or was he under some false impression of open theism?

            Another question it raises (for me, anyway) is whether Willard’s aversion to being labeled an open theist had to do with the politics of evangelicalism. There is without any doubt a certain stigma attached to that label such that one will not likely be rejected (by moderate evangelical gate keepers) for holding the view but will be rejected for wearing the label. (It’s the same but reverse for “inerrantist”—as I have argued here before. One can deny inerrancy in any normal meaning of the term and be welcome among conservative evangelicals so long as one convincingly applies the label “inerrancy” to his or her theology of scripture.)

            I never figured out what to make of Willard’s denial of open theism in light of his statements about God’s self-limitation including of his knowledge and of God’s mind-changing responses to prayers.

            At the very least Willard was an ally, wittingly or unwittingly, of what I call “relational theism” and “relational sovereignty” and even of open theism.

            I suspect, in my more cynical moments, that many ardent, passionate, conservative evangelical critics of relational sovereignty and open theism loved Dallas Willard because of his profound piety and intellectual support of biblical Christianity (as a philosopher) and, so long as he did not embrace the label “open theism” were happy to overlook his section on prayer in The Divine Conspiracy.

"I know of this personally and experientially, much to my pain. I lived within the ..."

Why Sexual Abuse within Baptist Churches ..."
"I will approve your comment while disowning it as not speaking for me. On the ..."

What Has Happened to the Evangelical ..."
"Didn't I say both women and men? I'm sure I did. Your question can always ..."

What Has Happened to the Evangelical ..."
"Yes, and I attribute it to the infiltration of fundamentalists into evangelicalism. The two used ..."

The Dark Side of Evangelicalism

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I say let the man define himself 🙂

    Okay, that was tongue in cheek. That’s actually a good question. Willard was tremendously influential in so many circles.

    I’m going to reread The Divine Conspiracy now that you’ve reminded me why I loved it!

  • thomas jay oord

    I once asked Dallas if he was an open theist. He smiled at me, gave me a wink, and didn’t answer my question. In response to his silence, I said, “Oh, I see how it is.” And we started talking about another subject.

    My interpretation of this little exchange (aided some by the quotes you note in your post, Roger) was that Dallas was what I somewhat ironically call “a closet open theist.” By this, I think he realized there were political implications to him openly admitting his affinity to open theism. And I think he chose to remain “in the closet” so that what he considered his other significant contributions were not overshadowed or overlooked by those who consider open theism unsatisfactory (or worse).

    But that’s simply my interpretation…


    • Keith Noren

      It is a sad day when Christians must “closet” themselves. The spirit of criticism is reigning rather than the Spirit of God (which is always redemptive).

      • Roger Olson

        Ah, yes. One of the main purposes of this blog is to expose and condemn evangelical inquisitions that punish faithful Christian thinkers for raising questions and posing answers that are non-traditional but within biblical and orthodox bounds.

      • JR

        Only wolves in sheep’s clothing closet themselves and hide their true nature and agenda. Jesus and His followers proudly proclaim the truth. When questioned Jesus could give answers to the Pharisee’s. In turn, they could not. Anyone with an ounce of discernment recognise Willard’s false teaching.
        Redemption follows repentance. The Truth is always critical of false doctrine. Jesus came to bring division between the sheep and goats and between the Holy and profane.

  • Patrick

    Can God change His mind? Interesting question. He seemed to be flexible in the Abrahamic/Sodom judgment passage.

  • William

    The key would be whether he affirms or denies exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future free will contingencies. One may embrace Open Theism friendly ideas without being fully Open Theist on the core distinctives. Relational theisms will have things in common and some may be practically Open Theist without wanting to wear the label. His wording seems imprecise. Most prominent Open Theists would not add the caveat that God knows what He wants to know or chooses to not know something knowable. This would be a denial of omniscience (knows all that is knowable) even by Open Theist standards. The reason God does not have EDF if LFW is true (vs compatibilism; simple foreknowledge; eternal now) relates to a logical impossibility similar to omnipotence being able to do all that is doable, not being unable to make a rock too heavy to lift, a logical contradiction. His foreknowledge is limited by the nature of non-deterministic creation, not by blocking out something that is a possible object of certain knowledge. If he was an Open Theist, he would likely have to rethink the caveat and affirm inherent omniscience except of the future (past/present must be exhaustively known to be omniscient). He may have Open Theism insight on prayer, but he probably did not think through or embrace all of the technical details proposed by most Open Theists (who also disagree on nuanced details, concepts, exegesis).

    • Roger Olson

      All open theists I know say God COULD have exhaustive definite foreknowledge of the future IF he chose to determine the future. That’s how I interpreted Willard, too.

      • William

        I agree with that. If God deterministically settled the future, it would be foreknown. If contingent, then there is an element of uncertainty, so it is known as such (reality). Open Theism usually affirms two motifs: God settles and knows some of the future, while other aspects are unsettled and thus not actual/certain yet.

  • Harry Fox

    It does sound as if Willard was at least toying with some ideas that would possibly fit the title of “open theism.” It may not be possible to completely categorize him. I suppose I am a “conservative evangelical” and I am certainly a critic of open theism. Yet I liked Dallas Willard.

    The sad thing is that I don’t think it is necessary to move over to the open theism camp to understand how it is that God has exhaustively ordained the future, yet answers prayer. Molinism is a long step in the right direction.

    I have proposed what I think is a coherent explanation and I go into (perhaps excruciating) detail in my book: “CrossCurrents: Making Sense of the Christian Life”

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.’

  • I think there is a paper by John Sanders out there somewhere that categorizes Willard as an Open Theist, but notes the same qualifications that Willard makes. Like other Open Theists Willard conceives omniscience as a modal property (like omnipotence), a property that is limited by what can and cannot be known, but–and this is the Willardian twist–if God wants to veil some truths about creaturely freedom from himself, then he can do so. To my mind, that seems like a function of omnipotence: God can willfully make himself ignorant about certain things, but he need not be. I’m not sure other Open Theists like Bill Hasker would agree with that sort of picture (God knows all that is logically possible to know). But it is an interesting thesis that is undeveloped in the literature.

  • Adrian Turner

    To my surprise [perhaps the politics of evangelicalism ‘kicking in’] I find myself an ‘open-theist’ if, by that is meant [and it appears to be what you mean] acceptance of the simple fact that an infinite God chooses to limit himself in all his dealings with his finite creatures. I am now intrigued to know how your own view may depart from this Roger but I find nothing unbiblical in Willard’s response to you.

  • StriderMTB

    I love your term “relational sovereignty” and believe it accords well with the underlying views of where open theists are coming from. It does seem you wished Willard was more forthright and candid in either endorsing or rejecting the distinctive views that would qualify someone as an “open theist.” In the spirit of your question I would like to ask, would you qualify yourself as an open theist if such a qualification could include Willard’s view of a God who sovereignly self-limits what he knows for his own sovereign purposes? When I read your thoughts in 2010 concerning open theism you mentioned that O.P’s treatment of some verses (like Peter’s denial) weren’t yet sufficiently convincing. However what if such examples are exceptions to the norm? That is to say God could access an exhaustive knowledge of the future…and perhaps at key junctures does… but as a norm sovereignly chooses not to for the sake of other sovereign purposes that trump an exhaustive knowledge of the future (i.e. a genuine give and take relationship with free agents made in his image?)

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t know, of course, but I don’t think God can choose not to know things that are knowable.

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, thanks for sharing Dallas Willard’s thoughts on prayer, I personally always believed that we could entreat God to change a situation or give us a certain desire, but after reading what he said, it makes me want to pursue God in prayer with more confidence that he hears me and if my inquiry is within his will that he will do what I asked.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very interesting article.

    An argument that Greg Boyd makes (in “God of the Possible”, I think) may help with your concern that Willard might not have fully understood what leading OT proponents think about the future. To paraphrase Boyd and elaborate a bit, the part of the future unknown to God is unknown because it does not yet exist. God absolutely knows everything (past, present and future) that can be known for certain, as well as all future possibilities that could ever come to pass (for those future actualities that it is not yet possible to know). So, the argument is not about God’s abilities but about the nature of the future. When people see it this way, they may still disagree about the nature of the future while not disagreeing about the nature of God or his abilities. Thus, the breathless astonishment from OT’s critics could be, if so wished, limited to something less grand than God’s omniscience.

    As for God voluntarily limiting his knowledge of the future, a knowledge he could easily have, in order to achieve some goal unknown to us; this would be problematic for many to accept. I’m not sure this is a true understanding of at least some open theists. Must do more reading. 🙂

    • CarolJean

      “As for God voluntarily limiting his knowledge of the future, a knowledge he could easily have, in order to achieve some goal unknown to us; this would be problematic for many to accept. I’m not sure this is a true understanding of at least some open theists. Must do more reading.”

      Why is “God voluntarily limiting his knowledge of the future” a problem. Didn’t God do that when he became flesh?

      • Roger Olson

        Not necessarily. It depends on how one interprets the Son of God’s self-limitation (kenosis) in the incarnation. I do think that kenotic Christology inclines one in the direction of open theism, though.

        • CarolJean

          It also is helpful in explaining the prayers of Jesus from a Oneness Pentecostal point of view.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Carol Jean,

        I missed your comment of three days ago. The choice between thinking that God limits his knowledge of some of the future vs. some of the future is unknowable because all of the possibilities that will lead up to it are not yet actualized, seems to be the basic problem. In the incarnation, God empties himself for our sakes – becomes subject to death and dies that we might live through the resurrection of Christ, his glorification and his Spirit. This limitation is consistent with keeping creation and redemption together in our understanding. The Kingdom of God is being built and this limitation of God by God is part of the necessary package (according to Scripture).

        Self-limitation of God’s knowledge of the future has no such necessity, at least none recorded in Scripture. So, if the future can be completely known, I’d have to believe that God knows it. If the future cannot be completely known (because that is the kind of universe that God made and continues to make possible) then God fully knows the possibilities until such time as the real future event is revealed. It seems reasonable to see the future as not fully knowable, as a philosophical conclusion, and, to me, a better position than thinking that God self-limits his knowledge of the future.

        • CarolJean

          A self-limitation of God’s foreknowledge might explain how God can know some things as possibilities and other things as certainties. (esp. from an open theist point of view.) A divine selective forgetfulness of sorts.

          Thank you for your thoughtful response, Bev.

  • Roger Olson

    I certainly agree with Willard and many others (both open theists and non-) that prayer can change the mind of God.

  • Jon Altman

    I’m sure it matters to many what “label” is put on someone. I’d wonder why though?

    • Roger Olson

      Because of evangelical politics. In Willard’s case, he may have feared that some evangelical institutions would be closed to him and his writings if he embraced the label “open theism.” And I can attest (from friends’ experiences if not my own) that it happens.

      • Jon Altman

        The United Methodist Church and other “mainline” bodies certainly have their own politics and even their own “heresy hunters” (of the “right” and “left”), but the “heresy hunting” of the evangelical world is so tiresome to me, I just couldn’t spend any more time on it more than 30 years ago.

  • I consider myself a Calvinist, but I imbibed early from C S Lewis the view of Boethius and Einstein that Time is created, that God is outside of time, and that all our prayers are heard “before the foundation of the world.” I still hold that.

    • Roger Olson

      Then how does our praying make any difference? Read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent article “God Everlasting” in God and the Good. We’ve discussed it here several times and it is available somewhere on the internet. Others have mentioned where.

      • Because they are heard before the foundation of the world, say Boethius and C S Lewis. Though I must admit that when I pray, I do so because God says he is pleased with that, and less because I want the responsibility of influencing events. Most Calvinists have a decent theology of prayer.

        • Roger Olson

          But is there anything in Scripture that clearly teaches that our prayers have already been heard by God before we pray them? I’m not aware of it. That God knows our hearts and what we intend to pray before we actual do pray is not the same. I can affirm that without believing our prayers make no difference to God’s will or plan. You say “most Calvinists have a decent theology of prayer.” That’s an assertion. What do you mean by it? What is a “decent theology of prayer?”

          • John P

            Matthew 6:8 So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. NASB

          • Roger Olson

            All Matthew 6:8 says is that God knows what we need; it says nothing about God being outside of time. I have often known what my daughters needed before they asked me. That didn’t make me “timeless.”

  • craigbenno

    I have no problems with Willard’s position. After all we do have a clear example of God limiting himself in Jesus.

    Jesus himself is clearly equal to God, and is God, but he also laid aside his divine power and did not make himself equal to God. Therefore while he limited his divinity, Jesus was always fully God. In fact he limited his divine power to such an extent, that he allowed himself to die, suffer pain, hunger, cold, distress and confusion all which are things we would not attribute to an all knowing and powerful God.

    I would also point out that Willard aligns himself more within a Quaker framework of Christianity which while he held to a more evangelical understanding of faith, never the less, within Quakerism (is there such a word?) they are able to hold to a variety of tensions of belief which we find difficult.

    Therefore we have to be careful in labelling him that we first understand him through his own lens of understanding and not our own. For certainly within this framework, far to often Arminians are labeled as pelegian or semi pelgian by those trying to disect us through their own theological framework of understanding.

    • Roger Olson

      I’ve never heard that Willard was a Quaker/Friend. What evidence have you of that? And what do you mean that Jesus was not God? Or is that a typo? Kenotic Christology (to which I subscribe) says he was God even though he voluntarily chose not to exercise his divine powers but relied entirely on the Holy Spirit.

      • craigbenno

        Roger, that was a typo. I meant to say that while Jesus laid aside his divine power, at no time he wasn’t God.

        As for his being a Quaker, he was a member of Richard Foster’s congregation which was a Quaker church.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Foster_(theologian)

        • Roger Olson

          Thanks for the correction. That helps. And I agree with the view you express. As for Willard–I’m not surprised he attended Foster’s Quaker church. But, so far as I know, he grew up Baptist and was Baptist for many years.

  • wremrick

    This greatly saddened me because I loved Dallas Willard’s writings but believe Open Theism is heresy. No Church Father, from the Apostle until today believed this tripe. It nicely wraps up many of the large theological questions (good vs. evil, predestination vs. free will, etc.) but has no scriptural or historical basis. Sure you can cherry pick scripture – what you can’t do is a hermetical study that “God limits himself.” To say that well “Jesus” did, is childish thinking. Of course that is what Philippians says and the very nature of having an omniscient being becoming a limited mortal. That has nothing to do with the Godhead. Open Theism has more to to with gnostic beliefs than orthodox Christianity. Shame Shame Shame.

    • Roger Olson

      Gnostic beliefs? How so? Explain. I’ve never even heard this accusation against open theism.

      • wremrick

        Christian forms of gnosticism basically goes like this, “we don’t understand an orthodox concept of scripture (the Trinity for example) or we can’t reconcile an idea to our way of thinking (god crucified or the degradation of spiritual becoming flesh) so we’ll make stuff up.” They then create elaborate theories or “esoteric knowledge” to explain deviations from orthodoxy and scripture. Montanism for example simply decided the Old Testament had to be excised from the bible. Then when that wasn’t persuasive the founder claimed he was the Paraclete himself (Holy Spirit) or perhaps even Jesus. I find no difference between the hermeneutics of gnostics and that of open theists. Jesus pointed out that all great lies are seeded with some truth. We don’t know how God reconciles his FULL knowledge while asking for effective, i.e. outcome changing petitions. We don’t know how we/God reconciles predestination with choice. The bible is largely silent on such matters. It Holy Spirit and our great fathers (in scripture) didn’t speak to it I suggest we shouldn’t. Frankly, a life spent learning and being discipled by the Sermon on the Mount (Dallas’ exposition of that is perhaps his greatest contribution to us) is enough.

        • Roger Olson

          Perhaps you meant “Marcion” rather than “Montanism.” May I respectfully suggest that you read more about early Christian heresies? You don’t have Gnosticism right at all.

  • philosophersam

    I think this entire question about Dallas’ views on this matter can be resolved simply. If someone can help me with the details, the result might be better. I was present when he so wonderfully, and in the grace of God, settled it for me. In 1999, at the national Renovare event in Houston, Texas, he was asked a question which was delivered by Richard Foster on the stage. It was a question and answer time. I cannot recall the question exactly, but I do recall Dallas’ response, roughly. He started with something like, “That question is a hard one, because it’s one I’ve struggled with too.” He then went on to briefly discuss the tension between God’s power and our free will, God’s knowledge and our free will. His final statement was: “We cannot solve these problems in the abstract, they must be lived out.”

    Can you see why I’ve forgotten the details? I’m not implying all theological talk about these matters is without value. I am saying it not as valuable as we often think and act (talk). We would do better to mediate more often on 1 Cor 13, spending minutes on each word and what living that looks like in daily life. That is a reminder for me as much as anyone else. And I know for a fact that Dallas certainly agrees (yes, agrees) with me.