Open Theism and the Essence-Energy Distinction

Clark Pinnock’s 1994 book, The Openness of God (which I read back in seminary shortly after it came out), is considered by many the first shot fired in the open theism debates which have rocked much of the evangelical world.

Open theism (also, open view theism, openness theology, and other similar variations) subscribes to the following tenets:

According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals. We believe love is the primary characteristic of God because the triune Godhead has eternally loved even prior to any creation. Divine holiness and justice are aspects of the divine love towards creatures, expressions of God’s loving concern for us. Love takes many forms-it can even be experienced as wrath when the lover sees the beloved destroying herself and others.

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us. That God changes in some respects implies that God is temporal, working with us in time. God, at least since creation, experiences duration.[1] God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history.

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

Finally, the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he created. The content of divine omniscience has been debated in the Christian tradition; between Thomism and Molinism for example. In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? We believe that God could have known every event of the future had God decided to create a fully determined universe. However, in our view God decided to create beings with indeterministic freedom which implies that God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God. For many open theists the “future” is not a present reality-it does not exist-and God knows reality as it is.

This view may be called dynamic omniscience (it corresponds to the dynamic theory of time rather than the stasis theory). According to this view God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of that which is determinate or settled as well as knowledge of possibilities (that which is indeterminate). The determined future includes the things that God has unilaterally decided to do and physically determined events (such as an asteroid hitting our moon). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite and God knows it as such. God is not caught off-guard-he has foresight and anticipates what we will do.

Our rejection of divine timelessness and our affirmation of dynamic omniscience are the most controversial elements in our proposal and the view of foreknowledge receives the most attention. However, the watershed issue in the debate is not whether God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) but whether God is ever affected by and responds to what we do. This is the same watershed that divides Calvinism from Arminianism.

[1] It is not essential for open theists to take a stand on whether or not God was temporal prior to creation. Even if God was eternally temporal God did not experience metric (measured) time until the creation. See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s discussion in God and Time: Four Views, ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 233.

– Dr. John Sanders

Open theists primarily, it seems to me, are trying to reconcile two things, God’s omniscient foreknowledge with human libertarian freedom. Unfortunately, they are doing so within a theological paradigm that is inimical to their efforts, for it creates further problems over those they are apparently solving.

The problematic definitional paradigm is what is called definitional divine simplicity. This understanding of God posits that since God is simple he cannot have parts, he cannot be divided. Thus any qualities or characteristics that God has must be indentical to his essence or nature. That is to say, God doesn’t just have love, he is love. And if this is true–that all God’s qualities are identical to his nature or essence–then all his qualities are themselves identical to one another: God’s love is his foreknowledge is his omnipotence, etc. Thus, what God knows God must, in omnipotential essence, bring about. If God foreknows those who will be saved and be damned, then those who will be saved and will be damned must be saved or damned without failure–else God is not omnipotent. But if the saved and damned must be saved and damned, they are so apart from anything contingent to God’s nature, for this would mean that something external to God was more powerful than God and could frustrate his omnipotence. Critics of open theism, then, rightly (at least within their own paradigm) point out that open theism must necessarily deny to God either his omniscience or his omnipotence if they, open theists, are, indeed, going to maintain libertarian free will.

And, in fact, that is something like what open theists do. That is to say, they do not actually deny God’s omniscience, but rather redefine it in such a way so that God can only know that which it is possible to know. Since future human choices are undetermined and free, God cannot know them, since it is not possible to know them.

Now, as can be seen from above, open theists recognize that this opens up a rather smelly can of worms, so they are forced into admitting that some things God does infallibly foreknow since he has predestined them, but others he does not foreknow since he has left that to human libertarian freedom. His knowledge of the future is definite, but not exhaustive. And of course they also must clarify the relationship between God and time, since if God is timeless the future is not future to him, but all times are present to him. But this would mean that God does, indeed, know all that can be known of the (to us) future choices and acts of human beings, specifically what they are (though they are as yet unknown to us). But then if God does foreknow them he must predestine them and must omnipotently bring them about.

Now, let me admit that this is a very superficial synopsis of some of the questions to/criticisms of open theism and open theist responses. As will be seen in the links below and in the scholarly literature, there are significant and sophisticated philosophical and theological positions taken and defended. It is not my intent to engage them here.

But I do think that the primary problem in all this is the reliance upon definitional divine simplicity by all the participants in the debate. The resolution to this problem, for those concerned with human libertarian freedom, is not to redefine foreknowledge and omniscience per se, nor to reformulate God’s relationship to time. Rather, the resolution is to abandon definitional divine simplicity.

There is another ancient view of God’s simplicity which understands that simplicity not to be definitional but to be symbolic–that is to say, the verbal icon of a great mystery. God is, indeed, one and without parts. But that is not to say that God’s nature and God’s qualities are not really, though ineffably, distinguishable. We may take our clue from the historically orthodox understanding of the Trinity: God is both one nature or essence (ousia) and three Persons (hypostaseis); his plurality does not eliminate his unity, his unity does not prohibit his personality. Thus God is simple, but that simplicity is complex. God has “qualities,” but is without division or parts, for each quality is both distinguishable from his nature and is fully his nature. Just as the Son is distinguishable from the Father and yet both Father and Son are fully God, so love is an eternal manifestation of God’s essence in a divine “characteristic,” a manifestation that is distinguishable from his essence, but in which God fully is as well. And given this distinguishability, God’s love is not the same thing as his omnipotence, is not the same thing as his foreknowledge, is not the same thing as his omniscience, and yet all of them fully manifest the divine nature while being distinguishable from it and from one another.

The technical theological vocabularly is usually summed up in St. Gregory Palamas’ energy-essence distinction, though St. Gregory of Nyssa utilized a nature-power vocabulary, and St. Maximos the Confessor utilized Logos-logoi. (It should be noted that these distinctions of terminology were related to the specific issues with which each of theses saints and Fathers were concerned. But it is ot be noted that the same consensus on the distinction between God’s essence and his “qualities” goes back to the earliest testimonies of the Church and is traceable through the millennium represented by St. Gregory-St. Maximos-St. Gregory Palamas, and on through to the present among the Orthodox Churches.)

So, how does this work into the open theism debate? Open theists rightly intuit that there is a problem in the definitional understanding of God’s divine simplicity. They are right to note that God’s divine sovereignty is not antithetical to human libertarian freedom. But where open theists fail is to fall back on a redefinition of omniscience, foreknowledge and omnipotence. For those who hold the essence-energy distinction in God, we affirm that is is possible for God to will two (or more) eternal and unqualified goods at the same time (for example, his judgment and his mercy). That is to say, he can both know the (to us) future exhaustively and at the same time will human libertarian freedom.

How is this so? We need only look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, wherein he both wills his human nature’s good of existence (if it be possible, let this cup pass from me) and his divine nature’s good of cosmic salvation (nevertheless not my will but thine be done). That is to say, Jesus, in his mode of existence as both human and divine, perfectly united his human will with his divine will, thus actualizing two eternal goods: personal human existence which finds its end in God and cosmic salvation.

Thus, open theism’s argument with definitional divine simplicity is on target. Unfortunately, the only resolution to definitional divine simplicity is simply to abandon it for the historically orthodox understanding of God as a unity of distinguishable energies in one essence.

[Note: Here are some other links to open theism. Some of the links on the pages and indices below are expired, but most remain.]

Open Theism Information Site
Omniscience and the Openness of God

Open theism

Pro et contra
Open Theism Index

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