I recently finished No Other God by John Frame. Seldom have I read a book with which I find I disagree so strongly on some issues, while agreeing adamantly on others. Frame pulls no punches and is unafraid to make sweeping generalizations and assertions. Due to the fact I pretty much split the book in half as far as things with which I agree or disagree, I shall proceed by noting these areas and close with a few conclusions.
Areas of Agreement
One of the strengths of Frame’s book is how clear his thinking is. His style of argumentation is precise, and he clearly lays out what he considers evidence for his positions. He is unafraid to make statements with huge implications.
A particularly interesting aspect of Frame’s work was a brief historical look at the roots of Open Theism, leading it back to the Socinianism. Frame points out that advocates of Open Theism tend to portray their view as the “new theology on the block” despite the fact that it has been around (and rejected) for quite some time.
I believe Frame is correct when he argues against the centralization of any one attribute of God. Specifically, the centralization of love on Open Theism tends to ignore other important attributes of God (49ff). (Interestingly, Frame’s own account of God unnecessarily over-emphasizes Sovereignty, though he disguises this by calling it “Lordship.)
Frame levels strong critiques against Open Theism’s reading of Scripture. Open Theists tend to advocate the “straightforward” reading of texts which help their case. One of Open Theist’s favorite passages is God testing Abraham. Yet Frame rightly notes that if there is a straightforward reading of the text, then God did not know the present truth of Abraham’s heart, whereas Open Theists attempt to use this to support God not knowing the future (47). Further, if God was trying to figure out how Abraham would act in the future, then He was trying to do something He couldn’t (determine what the libertarian free choices of humans would be) according to Open Theism. So the story’s straightforward reading does not work to support Open Theism. Frame urges a similar examination of other passages, though he doesn’t expand on it.
Areas of Disagreement
Despite these areas of agreement, I vehemently oppose Frame’s position on several issues. Most notably, on theistic determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism.
First, libertarianism. Frame correctly notes that the core of Open Theism is the assumption of libertarianism. Yet his critique of libertarianism is wrongheaded. He caricatures libertarians as believing that choices are made in the absence of any motivation. He writes, commenting on the libertarian view, “if our decisions are caused by anything or anyone (including our own desires), they are not properly our decisions… to be responsible, we must be able to do otherwise” (121). Yet this is explicitly not libertarianism. Peter van Inwagen, for example, explicates libertarianism by saying “…that someone’s acts are undetermined does not entail that they are uncaused” (van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: 1983, p. 14).
But Frame explicitly centers his critique of libertarianism on a contra-causal account of freedom, saying, for example, “If guilt presupposed libertarian freedom, then in order to show that Hubert [a man accused of robbing a bank] is guilty, the prosecutor would have to show that his decision to rob a bank had no cause…” (126). But again, libertarians deny this very type of contra-causal freedom, so Frame is arguing against a straw man. Because Frame thinks libertarianism is so utterly central to Open Theism, this means that the core of his critique fails to hit home.
The problem with Frame’s counter against libertarianism is that it barely touches the surface of the philosophical arguments for the position. He correctly rails against the idea that our actions are just random occurrences, but incorrectly assumes that this is libertarianism.
Finally, the greatest area of disagreement I have with Frame is on his view of omnidetermination. Consider the following two quotes:
“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (140).
“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).
I’d be curious to see how Frame reconciles these assertions with the constant witness of Scripture that God is just; fair; good; opposed to evil; etc. Frame utilizes several verses to support his position, but he makes primary those which say God uses “all things” and verses which say calamities are from God. But regarding the former, this can easily refer simply to permissive will, and regarding the latter, the verses he uses are out of context (and even were one to grant the “straightforward reading,” one could counter by saying the calamities are not every evil action, but merely those things which God uses–i.e. storms, other nations, etc.–to instruct His people). Frame, like many theological determinists, is not building even on sand, but on a void. Literally saying that God causes evil is so utterly repugnant and contrary to Scripture that this view overshadows all the good things Frame has to say.
Ultimately, No Other God is on target in a few ways, but it is wildly gunning the wrong direction on too many issues. Frame’s philosophical case against libertarianism is off the mark, he fails to deal with the strong philosophical arguments for libertarianism, and his view that God literally causes evil is baseless. Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.
Check out other posts about Open Theism here.
John Frame,No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).
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A word or two about the Genesis 22 passage:
1. God knew all relevant facts about the composition and content of Abraham’s character. When God says, “Now I know…” He means that Abraham’s character was such that whether or not he would actually trust and follow God literally anywhere was not yet settled. It was still an open question which way Abraham would decide, which does not necessitate any level of ignorance about Abraham’s present character. In fact, it just means that Abraham was libertarianly free when he chose to sacrifice Isaac. To Frame, for whom free choices are only made through (deterministic) present desires, it must seem as if God’s ignorance of Abraham’s future choice entails ignorance of Abraham’s present desires/character. To someone who understands libertarian freedom, however, there is no need to make that connection.
2. There is some disagreement among open theists if God ever unilaterally determines creaturely free choices. Some say He would never do such a thing, claiming it amounts to “divine rape”. Others say that in rare and/or extrememe circumstances He might do so. No open theist says that God prefers this or that this is part and parcel of His providential modus operandi. I would challenge Frame to find an open theist who claims that God never “forces our hand” by presenting us with decision points that tip our character past a relevant “critical mass”. That is what God was doing with Abraham and Isaac. This is not determination, since which way we will tip is still an open question and based entirely on our choice.
Re: the history of open theism, actually open theists have spent much time and effort to avoid the label “new theology on the block”. Our contention is that the foundational elements have been a part of Christianity since the beginning, and a minority have actually had the specifics either explicitly or implicitly as part of their theology.
You wrote, “[God] means that Abraham’s character was such that whether or not he would actually trust and follow God literally anywhere was not yet settled. It was still an open question which way Abraham would decide, which does not necessitate any level of ignorance about Abraham’s present character.”
This is where I see the problem. Is it not the case that on open theism, God still wouldn’t know if Abraham would trust and follow God anywhere? For on open theism, Abraham would still have libertarian free will, so he could still choose at any point to stop following God.
There are two possible responses which an open theist might make. They could say that Abraham’s character from that point on was “settled” or “confirmed”. In essence, that it is false that “he could still choose at any point to stop following God.”. Because his character became deterministic as the result of his own self-determined choices and not due to some force external to his own will (I.e., God), this still makes any future acts of his “free”, but in a different sense. Greg Boyd is fond of the character solidification thesis, although I don’t know if he applies it in this instance.
Alternatively, an open theist might say that God indeed could NOT predict with certainty if Abraham would always remain faithful. What God “learned,” then, was not the truth value of a set of counterfactuals regarding Abraham’s future choices — He learned that Abraham was sufficiently (as defined by God’s perfect will) able to be faithful for God’s purposes in using him as a “father of many nations” and eventual progenitor of the Messiah. In shorthand, God learned that Abraham was “good enough”, even if He couldn’t be absolutely sure of Abraham’s fidelity. John Sanders is fond of the probabilistic thesis, as is Clark Pinnock (again, I can’t speak to whether or not either applies this to Abraham — I am away from home right now and can’t check).
Personally, I find both to be cogent responses. I tend to lean a bit more toward the probabilistic thesis in the case of Abraham, however.
I think it would be really unclear that someone with libertarian freedom could freely choose to have their character “determined.” I’m always wary of when I see someone say something like “still makes any future acts of his ‘free,’ but in a different sense.” It smacks of compatibilism to me.
The probabilistic argument would seem to undermine the meaning of “know” when God says He “knows” what Abraham is like. But that’s a hugely broad argument. I’m willing to concede that, possibly, the probabilistic type of reasoning would sufficient explain the Biblical account there.
[Edit:] But my concession does not mean I think it is more likely than a traditional interpretation.
I think we are operating in broad brush strokes anyway, so I’m fine with a broad and limited concession. My intent has never been to “prove” you wrong, only to “prove” open theism meets minimum standards of coherence (and, if I’m honest, I hope to convince you on some level of its cogency). Its other benefits over a more traditional interpretation are another discussion for another time.
There is some skepticism in the open theist camp as well regarding the “settled character” thesis. I share it, but also wonder: what do libertarians think happens to us in heaven? Are we still free to sin there, or does something happen to our will that is the direct result of our choices and renders us incapable of sinning? If the former, what of the numerous Biblical references to a sinless heaven? If the latter, what of freely chosen love and submission? The only way out I see is to have a level of freedom that is self-determined/chosen, yet precludes certain courses of action.
The scary thing is, if that’s true it works for blessedness as well as corruption. Pass me not, O gentle Savior. 🙂
Interesting comments on the “settled character.” These kinds of comments of yours show one area I really need to get better in (and I’m working to do so): general knowledge across Scripture. I’ve been reading through the Bible again (cover-to-cover–I’m in 2 Timothy). These kinds of debates bring up to me how important it is to know Scripture through and through. The idea of “settled character” gains some credibility when we look at the Biblical picture of heaven.
Alexander Pruss shows quite conclusively, however, that given the sheer number of free actions performed in the nearly-infinite future, the probability that God will be incorrect in one of his beliefs (that is, hold false beliefs), is overwhelming and statistically certain (or philosophically very nearly certain). Now, an open theist may be quite willing to bite the bullet and say that God is just going to be wrong about some things, but two things emerge: 1. Most Christians aren’t willing to bite the bullet and accept a non-maximally-excellent being (indeed, it seems then the God of open theism does not exist!) and 2. Prophecies uniformly being fulfilled in precise ways are fantastically improbable if God operates on zero future knowledge of free actions but only probablistic knowledge, based on sheer probability alone.
1. If God’s beliefs about the future are probabilistic, then they are never false. So rather than “A will do X at T” they are “A might do X at T (with P level of probability)”. That is in fact what most open theists claim regarding God’s beliefs about the future – that His beliefs about the future correspond to its ontological status (I.e., not fixed reality).
2. “Fantastically improbable” really is no barrier for an omnipotent, maximally competent and omniscient being. Also, when you consider all the resources at God’s disposal compared to those at ours, as well as our limitations compared to God’s lack of same, I seriously doubt the probability is that low.
Hi Spencer, I think I have been misunderstood. In the potentially infinite future, there are X number of free actions. This should be uncontroversial. This number should be nearly infinite (or actually infinite). This also should be uncontroversial (unless one posits that everything and everyone save God will end permanently sometime). Now unless God knows certainly, the probability will be less than 1. Let us suppose God knows each proposition of your suggested sort, “A might do X at T” at a probability of .99999999999999999999. That’s pretty good. Now, if the world consisted of only one fact, God would be virtually assured of that fact. But the world consists of many facts. Just think, if the world consisted of only 5 choice-facts, that probability goes down to .99999999999999999995. In just five facts, we’ve lost half a decimal place. Now consider the fact that there are literally billions and billions of free chocies made every day. What is the probability that God knows every future free choice in this actual world? Exceedingly low. No matter how many decimals you choose to fill with 9s, the odds are overwhelming that at least one of those beliefs are false. To maintain then that if God believes probablistically, none of his beliefs are false goes against the evidence at best, and is question-begging at worst. It’d be like shrugging your shoulders if I told you I won a $100 million jackpot lottery every day for 30 years straight. Remember, God’s control in omnipotence simply has nothing to do with it, as these are free acts, not coerced. Further, his omniscience can only play a part if in fact future decisions belong to his omniscience (rather than being mere probabilities, for if they are, we are back to square one).
Here’s a simple way to outline it:
1. In a possible world P, there are 5 choice facts in it at time T1.
2. God’s intelligence at time T1 calculates the probability that agent A will perform action X at time T2.
3. This probability calculus takes into account all relevant choice facts at T1
Therefore, God’s belief at T1 about the probability of T2 will never be false. But what if you want to add,
4. Between T1 and T2, there may be other choice facts which come into play.
But this contradicts #1. Thus, the probability calculus remains unchanged. However, let’s let the train on thought continue:
5a. If they are irrelevant to the occurrence of X by A at T2, then they are irrelevant to God’s belief.
5b. If they are relevant to the occurrence of X by A at T2, then they are relevant to God’s belief.
6. Due to #3, we can assume that these extra choice facts were taken into account when #2 occurred.
This, then, is the rule:
7. For any event E which occurs at T2, God at T1 knows the probability of its occurring infallibly.
There is no “increase of choice facts”, for any of such which were relevant would have been part of God’s probability calculus to begin with. Thus, it is always true that “At T1, E has R probability of occurrence at T2”
Will its probability of occurrence change at T1* and T1** (where these are times between T1 and T2)? Almost certainly. But will God persist in believing that the probability remains R? Of course not. We aren’t even that idiotic. If I am in an open competition with 5 people and I deduce I have a 1 in 5 chance of winning, it would be rather silly of me to think that this must be true from now until the actual competition, since others could drop out or join in, thus altering my odds of victory. Why should we assume that God participates in this type of decision-making, if we wouldn’t? It is far more reasonable to assume that His beliefs about the probability of X occurring at T1 are unique to T1 (since their ground is the past, present, and future at that particular time-slice) and should not be projected onto T1* or T1** (where the past, present, and future look different). What actually happens is that there is a set of separate facts “At T1*/T1**, E has R*/R** probability of occurrence at T2”, which God also knows infallibly.
A final word, and I will let you have the last say: I believe that God’s knowledge of the future is probabilistic on biblical as well as philisophical grounds (e.g., Isa 5:4, Jer 19:5). I think that you are right that many Christians may not like the way this turns out. They want a God who knows exactly what will happen in the future. Of course, I then wonder if they really know for what they are asking, since if He knows it will occur then is He not too late to alter it in any way or else He will prove His own omniscience wrong? Still, I do not in any way think that probabilistic future knowledge renders God impotent (as I think exhaustive definite foreknowledge in fact does). If I am playing chess with a Grand Master, I will certainly give my best effort by I will also certainly lose. Imagine how much more this would be true if I were playing against One who knew my thoughts intimately! Even on probabilistic and nondeterministic assumptions, it is still true that “A king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov 21:1). God’s majesty is not challenged on open theism; if anything it is increased because He does so much with so little.
Hi Spencer, I think this idea of belief makes it worse, not better. For then, God will either have to hold no beliefs, or revise his beliefs constantly. But then further, it’s important to note in any possible world the propositions are not probabilistically independent of other, prior facts. Further, I’m not seeing how your conclusion follows. For instance, suppose God constantly revises each proposition with the truth of each new proposition: does this mean that the proposition “God holds no false beliefs” changes? I don’t see why. It would be a bit of the fallacy of composition to say that because each premise’s belief retains a high value of probability, then the composite state does. It would if it were the case that each one was probabilistically independent, but again, they are not.
Pruss’ argument is:
1.(Premise) If p is overwhelmingly probable on the balance of God’s evidence, then God believes p.
2.(Premise) If open theism is true, then some of the propositions that are overwhelmingly probable on the balance of God’s evidence are false.
3.Therefore, if open theism is true, God believes some falsehoods.
4.(Premise) God believes no falsehoods.
5.Therefore, open theism is false.
It seems you would argue that (2) is false, but I don’t see why given the billions and billions of free choices made daily. Of course, the open theist could just deny (4). One thing we have to be sure of: I believe you are sincere, but I would hesitate to make what I call “superlative doctrines” and then judge other beliefs by those doctrines, at least in general. Hence, when people decide what is true at least partially on the basis of what “brings God the most glory,” I find that to be somewhat unconvincing. But I appreciate the conversation!
Interesting review. By this bit “I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed”, did you mean far more dangerous than open theology or far more dangerous than you had thought before you read the book?
Bump, just in case you accidently missed it.
Also, just out of interest (not interested in starting up a debate here, don’t worry!) what do you think the most powerful arguments against a reformed understanding of predestination are? Just a quick outline would do, would be useful for me to keep it in mind when i read works of reformed theologians.
Thanks for your help!
To your latter comment: I think the most powerful argument would be the problem of evil. I don’t see any way that theological determinists can say God is good if they say that literally God causes evil.
My apologies, Michael. I approved this comment and then I must have gotten distracted because I thought I responded. What I meant by that statement was that after reading the book I felt determinism is far more dangerous than open theism.
Quite a statement!
Sorry to keep asking questions, but did you mean dangerous when it comes to the effects that it could have on the future of the church (growth) or the effects on wider doctrine or something similar?
I think it would be dangerous on both counts. Theological determinism undermines the need for evangelism, which cuts into church growth. It also exacerbates the problem of evil and the goodness of God, both of which are harmful to doctrine at large.