Christian Doctrines, Omniscience, Open Theism, philosophy, theology

A Dilemma for Open Theists

John Sanders writes in his treatise arguing for open theism, The God Who Risks, “Following Plato, Calvin declares that any change in God would imply imperfection in the divine being” (74). He proceeds to argue merely that God does change His mind. The problem is that, in arguing thus, Sanders has perhaps unknowingly presented a powerful dilemma for open theism to solve.

If God literally changes His mind, as Sanders desires to demonstrate, then:

1) If God changes His mind, and this brings about a better state of affairs, then it reveals that God was previously operating under a flawed or imperfect plan. [By implication, there are parts of God’s plan which could use improvement, but which God either chooses not to improve or doesn’t know how to improve.]


2) If God’s changing His mind brings about a worse state of affairs, then God has made a mistake, which perfect beings cannot do.

Now an immediate response could be that perhaps neither state of affairs is best. In that case, then, there would be no reason for God to change His mind in the first place and is therefore acting arbitrarily.

A response to this rebuttal may be that the change of mind is not arbitrary, but rather demonstrates God’s responsive, interpersonal nature. By changing His plan, God is responding to prayers and altering the course of history. If that is true, though, we have the first horn of the dilemma: God’s changing His mind is an improvement. And then that would mean God increased in perfection.

One may object with a tu quoque response: “Doesn’t anyone who hold that God becomes incarnate imply that God changes, and therefore wouldn’t they equally be skewered by this dilemma?”

A response to this could be simply that, assuming God has comprehensive foreknowledge, God has planned the incarnation from before the dawn of time, and so there is no changing of the divine plan.

It is interesting to see that Open Theists don’t necessarily hold that the crucifixion was God’s way of bringing about salvation in history. Sanders writes, “Though the incarnation and human suffering and death which would accompany it may have been in God’s plan all along, the cross as the specific means of death may not have been” (102). He concludes this because of his alignment with open theism, and the assertion that, given the free will of those involved, the crucifixion was not predestined (105). Not only that, but Sanders also holds that the suffering and death of Jesus were required by the atonement. Wholly apart from criticizing this theological point of interest, one can see that in this quotation, the open theist is entirely open to the dilemma. Suppose Jesus were to be assassinated, stabbed like Julius Caesar, instead of dying on a cross. Clearly, this wouldn’t suit to fill the prophecies in the Bible which were taken to reference the crucifixion (see Sanders’ discussion 102ff). Thus, it seems that this fulfillment of the divine purpose would have been less perfect than the crucifixion. Perhaps there are ways to improve on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It seems ludicrous to type such a sentence, but if the crucifixion was unnecessary, it seems at least logically possible that a better way to provide for atonement may have been accomplished.

Finally, one may object that the dilemma could work for any who hold that God created the world. One could adapt the dilemma for the creation of the universe and say that God could have brought about a better world and didn’t (and hence is imperfect). Now there are several ways in which this argument is disanalogous to the dilemma presented above, but one could simply answer it by saying that there are specific reasons for bringing about our world over others’ which are “better” or argue that there seems to be no such thing as a way to measure worlds against each other (for some discussion of this see here).

It seems to me that only versions of theism which imply that God does not know [comprehensively] the future will be susceptible to this dilemma. While some versions of theism hold both that God knows the future and that God changes, these versions will [almost all] fail to be susceptible to the dilemma because they’ll have an account for God’s plan which is unchanging.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


6 thoughts on “A Dilemma for Open Theists

  1. I have this book, an earlier edition, sitting on my bookshelf. From what I’ve read it was pretty good but I haven’t read through all of it.

    Posted by Max Andrews | December 27, 2011, 2:18 PM
  2. Actually, as a Molinist, I have no problem saying that God changes his mind. It what makes sense of the cognitive anthropomorphisms (and thus not really anthros.). It’s called the multilayered middle knowledge hermeneutic. I’ll see if I can get some material for you.

    Posted by Max Andrews | December 27, 2011, 3:21 PM
  3. In your argument you assume that God is the only character in the situation. Couldn’t God be perfect at time x, and then also be perfect by reacting to changed circumstances at time x + 10 ?

    If someone walks along the road in a good mood and happy with things, then notices someone lying down on the roadside in pain – they then have an emotional reaction of pity and concern. Was the person less perfect before they met the person on the road or more perfect? The answer is neither. They had the appropriate emotional reaction to a change in circumstances.

    There is no dilemma here for Open Theists. Change is not an indication or moving from sub-perfection to perfection or vice-versa. Now God doesn’t change in terms of His character, but the ability to change appropriately in emotional is a one of the characteristics of God.

    I think the problem in its essense here is the assumption that Open Theists believe in the timelessness of God. Most Open Theists wouldn’t. So they have no problem seeing God reacting to changing circumstances.

    Posted by Tim | December 27, 2011, 3:58 PM
    • The argument doesn’t rely upon an understanding of a timeless deity at all. If it supports a timeless deity, I take that as a mere bonus.

      You wrote, “Couldn’t God be perfect at time x, and then also be perfect by reacting to changed circumstances at time x + 10 ?”

      Assuming God is in time, which one must grant to debate the topic with Open Theists: assume that God’s plan at t1 doesn’t include some feature, x, which God later adds to the plan at t2. The feature x is a huge improvement in the plan–let’s say it results in a net gain of 10 souls saved. Clearly, God’s plan at t1 was not as good as God’s plan at t2. God could have planned x at t1, but chose not to/didn’t know to do so/etc. Thus, God’s plan has improved, and God’s perfection has improved.

      One might object that perhaps God’s knowledge wasn’t such that God knew to add feature x at t1. But I already stipulated against that. For the sake of being generous, however, let us assume that t1 and t2 are some arbitrarily short distance apart: say .00001 milliseconds. It seems to me that this is a short enough amount of time to agree that clearly, God could have included x at t1 instead of t2.

      The argument, one can see, therefore does not make the assumption you charge it with. Instead, it is fully capable of handling divine temporalists.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 28, 2011, 10:41 AM
      • Thanks for the open discussion. Much Appreciated.

        However, I don’t follow with you on the following points.

        There is a difference between God having a plan in reaction to what happens in the scenerios of creation – and God planning the incidents of what happen in the world. God is perfect at time x – and then at x+10 (perhaps that person was on the ground in pain because a free will creature hit them) – He changes to accomodate what happened.

        Now, God is so intelligent that He has a contingency plan for every thing that could possibly happen. Hence, He is not caught off guard by anything.

        I fail to see how God reacting to an incident increases or decreases His perfection. God having an new experience is not an improvement it is merely a description of the experience of being in time.

        Posted by Tim | December 28, 2011, 9:31 PM
  4. Hey J. W.! Took a break from lurking, just saw this post and response sequence.

    Obviously, we virtually must assume divine temporality if we are talking about Open Theism here. So I’ll just assume that ex hypothesi.

    You write: “While some versions of theism hold both that God knows the future and that God changes, these versions will [almost all] fail to be susceptible to the dilemma because they’ll have an account for God’s plan which is unchanging.”
    You allude to this response when you address the “What about the Incarnation?” objection and, to a lesser extent, the “Why create?” objections.

    I agree with you on this distinction between the incidentals of a plan and the essentials of a plan (or, if you wish, a focused vs. a broader plan). To illustrate the validity of this distinction, assume that I plan to go to the grocery store on my way home from work. If I encounter a traffic jam, I can choose to either wait it out or take a different route. We would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is willing to claim that by my taking a different route I was thereby changing the plan to go to the grocery store. I had indeed intended to go my usual route, but that was incidental to the overall plan of getting there.

    So you admit that an overarching, unchanging plan escapes the dilemma. If this is true, why can’t the open theist reply that God has an overarching unchanging plan to always be in genuinely dynamic relationship with creatures? Why can’t the open theist further stipulate that God has from the foundation of the world decided to take creatures’ actions, thoughts, and feelings into account as part of His own decision-making process? So you ask why, at T1, God’s plan does not include X (which it does at T2). It seems to me that “God has planned dynamic relationships from the dawn of time, and so there is no changing of the divine plan,” is a perfectly acceptable response, given the precedent you have already allowed. One could also insert here (assuming it was relevant) God’s unchanging plan/will to keep His covenant — this is, in fact, the context for the famous “God is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should change His mind” verse (Num 23:19).

    What I think is far more thought-provoking is divine repentance, as when God repents that He made Saul king, or when He repents of creating humans and starts over with Noah, et. al. I know that this is its own subject, but I bring it up to say that the classical theist is hardly on more solid footing than the open theist in this arena.

    Just a few (late to the party) thoughts; I look forward to your responses!

    Posted by spencer917cer | February 12, 2012, 8:19 PM

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