Philosophy of Religion: Open Theism

This is the second in a series of posts on the philosophy of religion. For other links in the series:


The Concept of God

Perfect Being Theology


Open Theism

Clark Pinnock, “The Openness of God–Systematic Theology,” a chapter from The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God [1].

[In a nutshell: Unlike the God of Perfect Being Theology, which adheres to classical, overtly philosophical notions of the divine, the God of open theism is temporal, subject to change and passion, responsive to his creatures, and endowed with less than fully detailed foreknowledge of the future as his creation unfolds. This God is not less than perfect; open theism merely asserts that the assumptions of classical theism are not adequate to describe what it would be for God to be a perfect person.]

Pinnock doesn’t mince words in this explanatory introduction to “open theism,” the idea that God is a being who is both open and responsive to his creatures and open to the revelation of the future, which does not yet exist, and is therefore something that God anticipates without fully exhaustive foreknowledge. Open theism only makes sense within the context of various versions of Perfect Being theology, which asserts a more invincible, passionless God. Pinnock immediately asserts here that the Bible gives us a God who shares our suffering and is deeply moved by us. Instead of God being the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and Aquinas, God is the Most Moved Mover (the title of another of Pinnock’s books).

Like Morris, Pinnock agrees that the doctrine of God is the most important of doctrines, but Pinnock has much less glowing esteem for the philosophical tradition. Atheism is in part possible, he says, because philosophy corrupted the doctrine of God, with the end result being that so many Christians believe God is utterly transcendent and wholly apart from us. Pinnock does assert, however, that our own understanding of God is endless. We must be serious about how we interpret scripture, separating our own presuppositions and interests from what the scriptures themselves say.

Broadly speaking, there are 2 rival models of theology:

1) God is transcendent, all-determining, and unchangeable, the Ultimate Principle of metaphysics.

2) God is loving and responsive, open and vulnerable, a person who relates to and interacts with us.

Pinnock, naturally, advocates for the second model (though the brevity of the descriptions of these models almost borders on caricature, since there are so many ways of conceiving them, especially the first model). He wants to argue for a God that is affected by us and can change in certain ways because of us. Traditionally, however, theology has affirmed the transcendence of God. This is true in general, though again almost a caricature: much of the work of theologians for centuries (though particularly in the 20th century to the present) has been to show how God is equally transcendent as immanent. To be transcendent means to be self-sufficient; ontologically other than creation; and sovereign and eternal. To be immanent means to be present in and to the world; active within history; involved; relational; temporal. Pinnock agrees that these divine poles must be balanced in order to come to the best notion of the attributes of God, but he clearly, on the whole, focuses much more on God’s immanence than on his transcendence. In fact, he acknowledges that in modern times Christians have yearned more for a personal God than at other times in Christian history and he consequently admits that this has prepared present generations to be more accepting of a personal, immanent deity.

Like Morris, Pinnock sees the doctrine of the Trinity as essential to Christian theology. However, Pinnock subscribes to what is called “social Trinitarianism,” which is the notion that the “essence” of the trinity is a community of persons (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). Instead of being a thing or a substance (again, broad strokes here), God is three relationally interconnected persons united in free communion and love. Pinnock gives a nod to classical notions of God, however, when he insists that this “triune” notion of God does not need the world in order to make up for a love lacking in his nature. God is self-sufficient in this way, not tied necessarily to a world but open to a world through choice. As further evidence of God’s self-sufficiency, Pinnock asserts that the world was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) a curiously non-biblical choice, though completely in harmony with nearly the entirety of the history of the Christian tradition. Everything, then, owes its existence to God, and God is then free to love his creatures or not. He doesn’t need the world, but desires it nonetheless. God made human beings who are able to respond to God’s love and hear his word. By creating a non-divine world of real significance, God takes risks by entering into relationships with us. God’s bliss cannot increase–he has maximal happiness–but he can share it. In this way God both transcends and surpasses the world, but also participates in it and is intimately involved with it. What makes God worship-worthy is his free choice to be with us–even though he doesn’t have to be.

In open theism, the basic tenets of theism (omnipotence, omniscience, omni-benevolence) are affirmed but modified. God has all power (omnipotence) but does not monopolize it. In order for agency, love, and communion to exist, God cannot exercise all of his power simultaneously. God condescends to be with us, accepting limitations not imposed on him externally. More power, in fact, Pinnock insists, is necessary to rule an undetermined world than a determined one. Besides, it is love and not sheer power that overcome evil. Love is the mode through which God’s power is exercised. Omnipotence is not the power to do anything but the power to deal with any situation that arises. Evil may have its day but will not finally triumph. God takes risks by limiting himself and delegating his power to humans, working within a history whose outcome he has not fully decided and which he doesn’t fully know.

Open theism approaches all the classical attributes of God in non-traditional ways:

Immutability (Unchangeableness)

In his essence God is unchangeable; his character is steady and reliable. But in other ways God does change, responding authentically to people and events in the world,

Impassibility (No feelings or passions)

Open theism rejects this classical divine attribute probably more vehemently than any of the others. The suffering or pathos of God is a strong biblical theme. God suffers in all manner of ways because God has made himself open to the world. He shares in our suffering because of his love. Nevertheless, God doesn’t suffer in quite the same ways we do because God is not a physical being subject to physical suffering. God is therefore beyond some modes of suffering.

God’s Time (Eternity)

Classical theism asserts that God is timeless. Open theism insists God is temporal (this is a theme we’ll visit heavily in future posts). Timelessness, Pinnock points out, is hard to prove. Time and space seem to be inextricably connected, and all our thinking is temporally conditioned. So, it’s hard to imagine how a timeless being could make plans, for example, and carry them out, when plan-making, or moving about, or speaking, or remembering, or loving, or just about anything we can think of occurs temporally, from one moment to another. God is to be praised because he works in time to bring about redemption.

In this sense, God confronts a future that is genuinely open. What is actual and what is possible are genuinely different both for us and God. God does transcend in some way out experience of time, but is still with us in time. Past, present, and future are distinctively real to God. He remembers the past and makes promises for the future.

Divine Knowledge

God does not have exhaustive or absolute foreknowledge in Open theism, the notion that God knows with certainty the details of every future event. Total foreknowledge would jeopardize agency and make genuine relationships impossible. God knows all, but the future by definition is unknown. Prophecies are usually dependent on human response. We have a genuinely open future and our salvation is not foreknown or predetermined. To know the entire future is to be able to control everything, and this God manifestly does not do. If choices are real and freedom is significant, then the future must be open not just for us but for God as well. For God to know the future absolutely is to foreclose in a way on possibilities in the present, and therefore the future is not truly open.

Some thoughts

Philosophy and Religion

In the previous installment, Thomas Morris wrestled with the tension between philosophy and religion; how much should philosophy be allowed to help us think about religion, interpret scripture, etc? Pinnock addresses this as well, and it’s possibly the most pressing issue methodologically in the philosophy of religion.

Interpreting Scripture

Pinnock rightly notes that we need to separate our presuppositions and personal interests as best we can from our reading of scripture. But, he seems to imply that scripture comes to us already interpreted, with its meanings only to be discovered and declared. However, the very act of reading scripture is an interpretation of it. Yes, we should be aware of history, context, and language to the extent we can, and be cautious of simply reading our desires right out of the pages, but our engagement with scripture is meant to entangle us in it, creating worlds that are made of foreign as well as familiar materials.

Process Theology

When Pinnock refers to God as not needing a world, being self-sufficient but choosing to be with us anyway, the background for these assertions is process theology. Process theology affirms that God needs the world as much as the world needs God, and in fact the two are mutually constitutive–God could not be God without the world, and the world needs God to develop in the ways it has. Process theists affirm that the notion of the existence of the divine without a world is incoherent; the divine cannot be what it is without a world to affirm and inform its divinity. Mormon thought appears to be closer to Process thought in this way, when it asserts that the elements are eternal (there has always been a “world” or “universe” or “something” along with God) and/or intelligences are eternal. God is not a being, it seems to me, in Mormon thought that was eternally self-sufficient but decided to love us anyway. Need and love are, in any case, two distinctive concepts. Simply because I need another does not mean I will love them. God can be seen to be free to love in this way, but not free of the needs and desires for relationships that constitute his personhood in the first place.

Finally, I’m not sure that to know the future would be to control it, though I agree that Open theism’s assertions about the problems with absolute foreknowledge are basically right. God doesn’t have to love us but  Controlling everything because knowing the future? But God doesn’t have to love us but does so anyway. Similarly (playing devil’s advocate) why not know the future exhaustively but not control everything anyway?

Further reading:

Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian TheologiesThe chapter on Mormonism and Open theism is probably the best engagement with Mormon understandings of Open theism.

David Paulsen’s review of The Openness of God is another good Mormon consideration of this theology.

Pinnock himself has an article in BYU Studies about Open theism as well. 

My book, Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology has Pinnock’s last article on Mormon thought (John Sanders, another open theist, also has an article here), and possibly his last article he wrote before he passed away in 2010.

[1] As found in Pojman and Rea, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th ed., pp. 22-36.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent summary. I consider myself in the open rather than the classical camp.

    The question of absolute ominiscience (diviine foreknowledge) being compatible with human agency is an interesting one. I don’t think it would be so compatible, but Mormons want to have their cake and eat it too and they love to argue that you can have both. A common tactic is to argue that God is atermporal and exists outside of time (kind of tough for an embodied God, since bodily movement seems to requre time in order to make any sense). I’ve seen this argument play out in a protracted way at least four times in various fora, and I’ve never seen anyone change her mind. People seem almost predisposed to favor one position or the other.

  2. Kevin Barney says:


  3. Yes, you’re right Kevin. We’ll get into the foreknowledge thing much more heavily in future posts, but suffice for right now to say, the only way absolute foreknowledge really works if God is timeless, and the Mormon God really cannot be timeless. Agency, of course, gets severely deformed as well in the timeless sees-the-future model. But this is all part and parcel with the institutional forgetting of prior versions of Mormonism and the increasing concessions in the 20th century to evangelical Christianity.

  4. Chris Kimball says:

    Thank you for these Philosophy of Religion lessons. I enjoy and appreciate them and look forward to more.
    It is not clear to me that Mormon thought is close to process theology. (Or . . . I think that proposition needs further development.) I suspect that is correct in the sense of it being an “essential attribute” of God to be fully involved in and affected by the world (as opposed to a choice or a consequence of self-limitation). However, a (perhaps too casual and even flatly incorrect) understanding of process theology might read “needs the world” or “affected by temporal processes” as “needs people” or “affected by people acting in real time.” On that level, I would have put Mormon thought on the side of God choosing to know, to pay attention, to love. If God doesn’t have agency there’s a flaw in the foundation.
    With regarding to omniscience and foreknowledge, I like to pose the question “does God know both position and momentum perfectly?” Since (I believe) it is a fundamental property of quantum systems that the two cannot be known precisely simultaneously, answering that question gives some substance to what we/you/I mean by “omniscience.” And of course, if the answer is “no, God does not” then randomness and uncertainty exist at the most fundamental level and absolute foreknowledge is impossible.

  5. Nice post. I have never read this “Open Theism” book so sorry if I am misunderstanding. From what I am reading it this seems to suggest God is changing. Fine. But this leads me to this question (which I think is one of the most important questions for any approach to God):

    Where does this God come from? I believe in the “classical” sense God is a necessary Being who is self existant. Like the number 4, He exists whether the universe does or not. We don’t have to explain where 4 comes from because it is necessary.

    But what about this changing God? Is He self existant or did a more fundamental cause bring Him into being? If a more fundamental cause brought Him into being, why isn’t that more fundamental cause God? And didn’t Joseph teach that which has a beginning may have an end suggesting a possible end to this Creature? Or is this God still somehow self existant and if so awesome but please explain how. Thanks!

  6. #5. Those would be the general classical theist arguments against theistic personalism, I think. On classical theism, a being that changes would of necessity need a more fundamental power to give it the power to change. On classical theism, God (the power that actualizes change and sustains the universe in existence) cannot even in principle change – if he changed, he would “cease to be God” to use the Book of Mormon phrase.

  7. why i love… BCC!!!
    i love you Jacob!
    what a great post…

  8. Chris: There’s no doubt that Mormonism is closer to process thought in some ways and closer to open theism in other ways, and far away from both in still other ways. I think, though, that the ways Pinnock details here that make classical theism problematic, Mormon thought largely resonates with. Mormonism is an extension of but also a critique of the tradition, for many of the reasons Pinnock outlines. In process thought, God needs the world is not reducible to God needs people, no, but people are certainly examples of complex unities of becoming experience uniquely capable of responding to and effectuating love, and are therefore highly influential on the becoming experience of God.

    As I mentioned before, we’ll get into issues surrounding omniscience in future posts, but for now, I’ll just mention that omniscience classically includes knowledge about the future, but omniscience can also just mean knowing all that is known (as BH Roberts argued). If it is the case that momentum and position are knowable, then God knows this. If they are fundamentally unknowable, then God, along with everyone/thing else, does not know. This may indeed show that foreknowledge is impossible, but we’ll also see other ways in which foreknowledge is problematic.

    Joseph, insightful questions as always. It depends on what you mean by necessary and self-existent. I think Mormon thought, like other non-traditional approaches, doesn’t conceive of God as the ultimate metaphysical principle, for a couple reasons. 1) you would almost certainly have to accept God as Creator who creates out of nothing (thereby establishing himself as ultimate and first metaphysical principle), and Mormonism just can’t do that. 2) Like other relational theologies, Mormon theology pretty seriously thinks about God as a person, and the language of self-sufficiency/existence isn’t the language of personhood. This last point doesn’t say anything about whether God is metaphysically necessary, only that this isn’t how I see LDS scriptures nor LDS thinkers talk about God, with the exception of some like Orson Pratt, but maybe this is what you’re getting at :)

    But we might also posit that God is a self-existent, necessary being in Mormon theology, but *so is humankind,* as intelligences as eternal as the elements. So that there is more than one eternal will at play in the universe, though one will, of course–God’s–is “greater than them all.” There is certainly room in Mormon thought for “stages of development,” which could include the idea that God is beginningless in some ways and changeable in others. But the logic in early Mormon thought was that humans are as well.

  9. Jacob thanks. This is interesting stuff. As you could probably guess the false doctrine that most resonates with me is there is a self existent part of man and God which is the intelligence that drives them. This entity may be similar to what Christians call God in the classical sense but obviously not the same in every way. And that the elements are necessary for joy as you suggested, it seems like to have a real personhood you have to be attached to something contingent like a mortal body. (D&C 93:33)

    I am told CS Lewis writes about a dream where he sees immortal statues that seem not to move (the eternal self-existant/necessary part of man/God) projecting themselves onto a chess-board where the moving pieces (the mortal tabernacle) become the projection of the necessary self. The chess-pieces give them the ability to act, be acted upon and have a changing personality.

    Again I know this is all false doctrine but whatever… :)

  10. Joseph, I’m unclear what you mean by false doctrine here. The notion that there is a self existent part of humankind and God (which might be false for traditional Christians but not necessarily for us) or Lewis’ notion is false doctrine? In any case, as traditionally conceived, these Mormon notions might be labeled heresy.

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