Open Theism and the Nature of Truth: An Unsolved Problem

Open theism, the view of God that claims that he does not know many things about the future (primarily the future choices of free agents), faces a number of theological problems.  One problem that it faces that I have not seen explored anywhere in print is the problem of its ramifications for the nature of truth itself. 

What is truth, in its absolute sense?  I would expect that almost all Christians would agree that absolute truth corresponds to what God knows.  Our grasp of the truth is limited by our finitude, by our perspective, and by sin, and there have been endless debates about whether and to what degree truth can be known by human beings.  But for Christians, there does not seem to be much of a debate about God’s knowledge of the truth.  He has a “God’s eye” viewpoint on everything, and thus truth is nothing other than what he knows.  We have genuine knowledge only when what we know corresponds (not perfectly, though partially) to what he already knows.

Open theism runs into a massive problem here because the God of open theism cannot see everything at once.  He does not know how the future will unfold.  Open theists are careful to argue that he knows everything about the past and the present, but this is a hollow claim, because every event of the past and of the present cannot be known exhaustively unless it is known in relation to everything else, including the future.  God cannot have exhaustive knowledge of World War II, for example, because the full ramifications of that event have not yet played out before him, nor will they until the end of history.  Thus, not only is God’s knowledge of the future severely limited, so is his knowledge of the past and of the present.

And this deals a huge blow to the idea of truth itself.  In the open theist world, not even God has a “God’s eye” viewpoint, and thus there is absolutely no objective perspective on anything.  There is no such thing as absolute truth, for nothing can be known in the fullness of its relation to everything else.  The problem of perspectivalism that postmodernism has raised for us, leading to skepticism about knowledge itself, is now not just a problem for us; it’s a problem for God too, for even God is limited by his own perspective!  The logical outcome of open theism is nothing other than the denial of truth itself. 

Steve Wellum, a theology professor at Southern Seminary, told a story one day in class about how, when he was doing his doctoral work at Trinity, he took a trip up to Canada to interview Clark Pinnock about this very question.  He said Dr. Pinnock had never considered this issue before and had no answer for it.  As far as I have read, neither Dr. Pinnock nor any other open theist has addressed this problem.  It remains an unsolved issue for them.

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14 Responses to “Open Theism and the Nature of Truth: An Unsolved Problem”

  1. Luke A. Says:

    When you say “a denial of truth”…what exactly do you mean? Denying “absolute truth” as you have defined it in the 2nd paragraph?

    I think you need to definte “truth” a little more exactly; your definition would only be a straw man to the majority of philosophic/theologic opinions other than your own.

    I also don’t understand your assertion that Open Theism does not provide God with an objective viewpoint while more traditional views do? Could you elaborate?

  2. Luke A. Says:

    Sorry, straw man isn’t the right word…truism? Would that be better?

  3. fenderpooh Says:

    I would define absolute truth in what I believe is a Christian sense of that term, i.e., the content of a God’s eye viewpoint of reality. I don’t think that many Christians who have thought deeply about this issue would disagree with that, and thus it is not a parochial definition. Obviously, non-theists would not agree, but then I don’t expect open theism to appeal to non-theists anyway.

    Open theism does not give God an objective viewpoint because nothing can be known objectively unless it is known in relation to everything else. But if God cannot know the future exhaustively (in fact, he knows a minimal amount about it), then he cannot know anything in relation to everything else. Therefore, he cannot know anything objectively. His knowledge is constantly growing, evolving, and changing with time. One could even imagine that the God of open theism undergoes a number of “paradigm shifts” in his thought processes as every new surprise unfolds before his eyes. (John Sanders has written about how God has had genuine regrets about former decisions he made, such as the decision to flood the earth; the post-flood God is apparently older and wiser than the pre-flood God, and in his greater maturity he has decided he will never make that mistake again. Sanders wouldn’t put it quite that way, but I don’t see how he avoids that conclusion.)

    So, to give an example, God now knows that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in November of 2008. But God does not have an exhaustive understanding of that event because the significance of that event is only beginning to unfold. So, God does not know how the election of 2008 will impact the election of 2012, for example. He can predict with greater accuracy than any political pundit, but true KNOWLEDGE of the significance of the 2008 election in that regard will elude his grasp until the election of 2012 unfolds before him. But even then he will not understand the election of 2008 in its full significance once all the facts of history have occurred. Objectivity eludes him so long as he remains ignorant of what will occur in the future, and so it will be until the end. And if absolute truth is tied to God’s knowledge, then absolute truth is also an elusive concept as well.

    If an open theist wants to argue that the concept of absolute truth does not depend on God’s knowledge, then what he is really saying is that absolute truth is a reality that is bigger than God, an ideal toward which God is striving (and will eventually reach when history comes to a close). And thus we end up with another form of process theology, the very thing open theists have been zealous to deny.

  4. Luke A. Says:

    Alright. One arguement might go that absolute truth, as you define it “a God’s eye viewpoint of reality”, would exist and stand true regardless of God’s viewpoint (assuming that he simply had one).

    The argument that absolute truth would then be bigger than God is mute because it is defined entirely by God’s knowledge at whatever level one might think that knowledge to be.

    Of course, that would be a silly argument because you clearly mean “an omniscient, omnipotent, exhaustive viewpoint as held by classical theism”. That would be a better definition, right? Otherwise your definition is a truism (I believe that IS the right word for this case) and rather useless for the argument you’re trying to make.

    Have you read Soren Kierkegaard? What if we applied his distinction between objective and subjective truth? One could agrue that Open Theism (unless I’m mistaken) implies that God has exhaustive or at least vast knowledge of subjective truth as it develops. This type of truth would be defined as “absolute”, the most important type. Subjective truth lies at the heart of man as well as God’s relationship with man.

    Objective truth, on the other hand, is mere historicity and not nearly as important or consequential. It is important only in the insights into subjective truth which it supplies (think Isaac and Abraham).

    What are your thoughts here?

  5. fenderpooh Says:

    My thoughts are these:

    (1) Yes, when I say “a God’s eye viewpoint,” I am speaking of total omniscience, the perception of all information that exists, in all of its interconnectedness, at once. There is no growth or development for it.

    (2) I have read some of Kierkegaard, but not on that point. I don’t see how any truth that is constantly changing (i.e., that truth that corresponds to God’s ever-changing knowledge) could be “absolute” in any sense. God’s knowledge would always be relative to time, and if subjective truth is tied to what God knows, then it too would be relativized by time.

    (3) I don’t understand the last paragraph you wrote. Flesh out for me the Abraham and Isaac example and how that applies here. Maybe if I had a better understanding of what you mean by “objective” truth and its relationship to subjective truth, I could speak more accurately to it.

  6. Luke A. Says:

    (1) and (2) How do you define “absolute”? In relation to what? If God is absolute and God is changing (open theism) then absolute by definition is changing. (This is part of why I was saying that you need to refine your definition of “absolute truth”)

    (3) Something was “learned” about Abraham when he was about to sacrifice Isaac (for now we’ll leave alone whether God learned something or Abe learned something). What was”learned” was a subjective truth about Abraham (let’s say his love and devotion to God). That Abraham carried Isaac to the alter was an “objective” truth (the actual outward, physical event).

    See “Concluding Unscientific Postscript To The Philosophical Fragments” written by Kierkegaard in 1846 (or go check out the Cliff’s notes LOL) for more information on Kierkegaard’s idea of subective vs. objective truth.

    I’m no expert on the matter, just have an understanding fromwhat I took away from his text. I might be completely missing the point! Who knows! But the idea is quite a bit older than Kierkegaard (the Greeks had a similar dichotomy way back when…remember the man in the cave?).

  7. fenderpooh Says:

    On (1) and (2), this is exactly what I mean: open theism has no foundation for absolute truth. If you want to label something that is constantly changing “absolute,” then I guess you can do that, but that’s not what the word means, nor is it the concept that I am after in this line of thought. Open theism sounds more and more like process theology the more these arguments unfold. It represents an ontology that is completely at odds with what the church has always held. It is, when you get down to it, a completely different philosophy.

    (3) Okay, on the distinction between subjective and objective truth, this still does not work, for even God’s knowledge of subjective truth is still limited by open theism. First, God cannot know how the subjective truth about Abraham is going to unfold in the future, impacting future events and all of the interconnections. Therefore, God cannot know exhaustively even aspects of past and present subjective truth. Second, God cannot know future aspects of subjective truth insofar as it applies to people who do not yet exist* or to existing people whose subjective truth will change in the future. And for this reason, God cannot even know what the status of his own subjective truth will be in the future.

    *Open theists have also to this point avoided explaining the problem of God’s ignorance of exactly what people will exist in the future. Because every person’s existence depends on the free decisions of other people, and those free decisions are themselves tied up in a web of trillions of other free decisions, God has no way of knowing even whose subjective truth will be available to be known in the future.

  8. Luke A. Says:

    I think you’re missing the point. How would you define “absolute”? You would likely link it ontologically to God (as you did in your definition of “absolute truth”). But if God is changing, then “absolute” must necessarily change. Or would you define “absolute” first and then attribute it to God?

    Here’s an example. What is the universe? It is defined as an absolute, typically as “everything that physically exists”, including space, time, matter, and energy. Yet space and time are constantly changing (the universe is expanding). Therefore you can define the Universe as both changing and unchanging.

    Another example, what is mankind? That could be defined as an absolute, ALL the current human inhabitants of the world. But again, this is ever changing yet unchanging.

    So how would you define absolute? Is God defined by your term for absolute? Or is absolute defined by your idea of God?

  9. fenderpooh Says:

    Okay, let me go about this another way.

    Christians have long had a notion in their heads called “truth,” which they have long identified with God’s knowledge. It has long been assumed that “truth” is a comprehensive, unchanging category; it is absolute in the sense that it is not relativized by time, space, or any kind of change. It involves the simultaneous perception of all information, in all of its interconnectedness. It cannot grow, change, or develop. Let’s call this “blik.” No other concept can be defined as blik. Only this can; that’s the rule for this discussion. I think most open theists, having never thought deeply about this, make many worldview assumptions on the basis of blik, simply because they have not thought through how their limitations on God’s knowledge affect it.

    Blik is essential to the Christian worldview as it has been developed for 2,000 years. Blik is what enables Christians to continue to uphold their faith in a sea of postmodern relativism. Blik is the bedrock of permanence under the never-ending layers of change (including the universe itself and mankind, which is why your examples don’t quite work; they blur the distinction between the creator and his creation).

    Now, along come the open theists who argue something about God that, if true, necessarily eliminates blik. Once they become aware of the problem, maybe they will come up with ways to argue that blik is not all that important anyway. Or maybe they will use the phrase “absolute truth” to refer to something else, but whatever that something else is, it is not blik, and thus it cannot ground the same worldview assumptions that blik grounds.

    So let’s say that open theism is forced to conclude that blik does not exist (I think that is a fair conclusion to draw). Now, in place of blik open theists posit “blurk,” which is what the open theist God knows at any given time. Blurk cannot be equated with blik. They are very different notions of truth.

    My argument is that once you go with blurk, you have abandoned the Christian worldview. You are stepping into something that has more affinities with process theology than with the Christian tradition. You have cut off the anchor that has enabled the faithful to remain true through the storms and waves of relativism. You have, in fact, relativized God.

  10. Luke A. Says:

    First, I should say that you believe anyone who agrees with Open Theism to have abandoned the Christian worldview, regardless of blik or blurk.

    Now let ME go around this another way, because I think my main point has still not been understood, because blik would clearly be jettisoned (for the most part that is, please put down your prism for a moment and let me explain).

    The defense would be that Truth is subjective.

    Let’s go all the way back to Hume and the demise of empiricism. He says that we cannot even speak of truth because we can never identify it objectively. What did he mean? Empiricism claims that everything is viewed objectively; we learn from sense experience, through ration and inference. But while we can observe “things” we cannot observe, say, a self (we can see a body, infer that it contains being, but we cannot know this….only assert this).

    How did this, then, affect something such as causation, one of Hume’s “synthetic judgments”. Causation is only known after the fact; we can never observe the precise connection between cause and effect. Sure, we assume that there is one. But we can only assert what we think will happen, we cannot truly know what will happen. If we try to prove causation, we end up having an infinite number of experiments (just because it happened once doesn’t mean it will happen again…absolutley!) We end up trying to grope our way out of Zeno’s paradox or some form of nihilism (which is why empricism didn’t survive Hume).

    So what does this mean for blik (or is that dogma)? And what can we do?

    Kant and Hegel went to idealism…Kierkegaard went to something else. Himself and faith. Truth is subjective. Is it true that God exists? That you love your family? To YOU, they are both absolutely true; but you cannot prove that to me. That is subjective truth.

    Sure, you can show me evidence that may lead me to infer that you do (or He does) i.e. some objective truths. But these truths (things that I perceive) cannot PROVE the subjective truth.

    Truth is subjective.

    And if truth is subjective, then absolute truth becomes an absurdity. That is, it is absurd when absolute truth is defined as unchanging and universal and is used to define God.

    However, if absolute truth is defined BY God, then it becomes subjective and is no longer absurd. It therefore doesn’t matter whether God changes or not. All that matters is that He exists.

  11. fenderpooh Says:

    Well, that may be just fine if open theists want a Kierkegaardian revolution to occur in the church. But I think they want their message to appeal to people who would not go all the way with Kierkegaard on that. I think Kierkegaard suffers from an anthropocentricism that is the product of the Enlightenment, and he anticipates a good bit of the postmodern relativism that I was mentioning earlier.

    I agree that absolute truth is subjective in the sense that it is defined by God, whose subjective knowledge of all things is itself the only truly objective perspective. But I can’t just stop there because the whole point of this discussion is that there is no agreement on the nature of the God we are talking about. So I am going farther to say that absolute truth is blik, not blurk, and that there are serious consequences of substituting blurk for blik, no matter what label you give it.

  12. Luke A. Says:

    Let me start out with some humility that I am no expert on Kierkegaard. Now let’s jump in!

    What would a Kierkegaardian revolution entail? I think you should read a little more from Kierkegaard, you might be surprised and how much you might like his philosophy! You would also be suprised to see how much Open Theism takes from him as well! (And by the way, while you may think that he is a prodcut of the enlightenment, which you and I both are as well, he was writing in reaction/opposition to it, in an attempt to recover religion and faith!)

    Now, let’s start with the fact that I’ve always had a problem with anthropocentric being a dirty word. It really depends on how it is defined (dare I say, it’s relative?!?)

    K understod the world to be the sphere of the creative God, a world where man simply participates. It is from this premise that all of his other ideas spring forth. The world is by definition logocentric.

    Everything exists because Hehas made it and is sustaining it. In all of creation, the only place where the word of God (voice of God) is heard is the human soul, placing man above all the rest of creation. This would be considered by some to be anthropocentric.

    So which is it?

    To K, our psychology is rooted in freedom, allowing us to respond to our creator conciously OR to reject him and allow ourselves to sink into sin. (The freedom part is what the open theist would like)

    K believed that we are ever becoming. We do not exist, we are always coming into existence. Our character is not set in stone but is constantly shaped by our experiences, emotions, and relationships; esp. our relationship with God. (Sounds a little bit like OT’s idea of God, doesn’t it?)

    The only relativism that Kierkegaard would adhere to is that all things are relative to God (and our relationship to God). Something to which I believe you would agree. He doesn’t go as far as I think you may have assumed; subective truth is the real thing to be concerned with, and subjective truth is all about God and me and our relationship. That’s why he differentiated between subjective and objective truth!

    I took subjectivity quite a bit further than he would have in my last response to simply get my original point across on absolute truth. I’m glad to have read your last paragraph there, that was the original point I was trying to make.

  13. fenderpooh Says:

    Fair enough. But even with these nuances open theism is still left with a theology in which God’s knowledge (and, by implication, “absolute truth”) is constantly progressing toward perfection. God himself is in process of becoming. I don’t see how they can escape a variation of process theology. This is clearly not orthodox.

  14. Luke A. Says:

    Well, we’ve beat this poor horse till there’s nothing left…I’ll just say that you’re right; there’s a lot of similarities between process theology and open theism. The security of the believer seems in question with a changing God.

    And it’s clearly not orthodox. (But what is orthodox? Seems a topic warranting an entirely new conversation!)

    Nice chat! Take care buddy!

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