Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Open Theism Is Heresy

Earlier this year I debated Will Duffy, an open theist, on The Gospel Truth YouTube channel. You can watch the full debate with opening statements and cross-examinations on that channel.

Open theists believe that the future is absolutely open; thus, God does not exist outside of time. (He can't exist in what is "future" to us because the future doesn't truly exist.) They believe humans are absolutely free; therefore, God can't know future events. (If He has certain and exhaustive knowledge of future events, the future must be set.)

This is my opening statement from the debate, which has been mildly edited.


The topic of tonight's debate is “Does the Bible Teach That God Exists Outside of Time?” “Outside of time” is the phrase found in the title, but it's not the phrase that I will use exclusively this evening. In fact, my opponent, Will, doesn't even believe time exists, so that creates an interesting dynamic for such a debate.

I believe that God transcends the creaturely limitation of sequential thoughts and action, and I believe that he is Lord of time absolutely.

So, what's on the line when we have this discussion? What does it matter if God is inside of time only or if He exists outside of time as well? What do we lose if God has a purely temporal existence, just as His creatures do? What goes wrong if open theism is right? There are two major items we will lose if open theism is correct.

First is the Lordship of God. God is no longer the Creator of time in such a view, but He must exist like His creatures within time. According to open theism, God is no longer able to do what He alone wills, but He is subjected to an outside force. In His character, His holiness becomes temporal and His nature can change. His Lordship is directly affected if He is changeable. So, to be clear, if God lacks transcendence in just this one area – transcending time itself – then He is not Lord at all.

The second thing that we lose if open theism is correct, is certainty – God's absolute and sure knowledge of future events. In the open theism system, prophecies become mere weather forecasts. (We all know how often meteorologists are wrong about the weather!) In open theism, God can be mistaken. He's just forecasting things and He's not certainly telling what will happen. Open theists believe that God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge, rather He has ignorance regarding events that will certainly take place.

This directly affects our hope as Christians. Christian hope is certain because it is rooted in the Lordship of God. Christian hope is not mere wishful thinking, as the world talks about hope. When Christians talk about hope, we are speaking of a certain future reality, a certain future inheritance that's awaiting us. If God does not know the future and if God exists within time, with the same limitations that we have regarding time and sequence, Christian hope is no longer certain.

Principles of Hermeneutics

So, what does the Scripture say? This is the key point. This is really all that matters at the end of the day. As we get into that thought, I want to talk about hermeneutics – how we interpret the text. What is our interpretive guide? What's our interpretive grid as we approach the Scriptures? And within that, I want us to think about the difference between indicative passages and narrative passages. This will be very important to pay attention to throughout the debate.

There are indicative passages in Scripture (or “didactic passages”) in which we are being taught something about the very nature or character of God. We might be told by an inspired author, as in John 4:24, that God is spirit. This is a straight-forward statement about God's nature. God is spirit. That's an indicative: it's indicating something about God's nature.

Narrative passages describe actions of God. For instance, many times in the Old Testament you'll see the phrase “the hand of the Lord was against [certain people].” Well, we don't read those narratives and understand that God has a physical hand that He actually uses in combat to physically hold people back. We understand by the plain teaching of Scripture that God is spirit, and we also understand that there are literary devices used within Scripture's narrative passages that still teach us something about His character and His nature, but often with literary devices.

However, open theists argue that God's actions can never be understood as figures of speech.

As we consider “the hand of the Lord" passages, my opponent tonight is not denying God's immateriality. Will doesn't believe that God has a physical hand that He's actually using in battle. But, generally speaking, Will and other open theists see narrative passages as being undeniable and never figures of speech. Those narrative passages, then, become our interpretive grid for the indicative passages. Generally speaking, they believe that the indicative statements about God's nature should be interpreted by the narratives.

As God inspired Scripture, He worked through human authors in their limited state to express a variety of truths that all people need to know. Scripture is anthropomorphic in nature, and that just means that God meets us in our limitations. The very fact that God is communicating to us in a language we can understand means that He is meeting us in our limitations, because God is not limited by language as we are. He's condescending to speak to us so that we can understand what He wants us to understand. 

Many of the passages that we'll look at tonight show God's response to sin – how He is holy and man is sinful – and that His disposition toward man changes based on the presence or absence of sin. This reveals to us God's righteousness and man's depravity. That’s what’s going on in many of the passages we’ll look at this evening. The most fundamental point of Christianity, that man has sinned against a holy God, is being communicated by God Himself who meets us in our language, using terms and using communication that we can understand, so that we can get that very basic point.

Understanding this, it's very reasonable to expect that idioms and metaphor would be found throughout Scripture because God is describing infinite truths to finite creatures. We must take heed not to project our limitations onto the God who condescends to make himself known. We cannot escape our limitations and we cannot exhaustively comprehend the infinite. So, we must take heed not to project our limitations onto God. He has condescended into our limitations to speak to us.

Scriptural Transcendence

Scripture teaches very clearly that God transcends time. In Psalm 90:4, it says, “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.” God has a unique relationship with time. He transcends our creaturely limitation of perception of time and our creaturely limitation of experiencing time. A thousand years in His sight are like yesterday.

In 2 Peter 3, the apostle communicates the same idea: a thousand years are like a single day for God. This is more than just mere eternal existence that is still marked by time, like our existence. Instead, these passages are indicating that God is Lord over time and He has a unique relationship with time because of it.

Scripture teaches that God's decree transcends creaturely time limitations. God says through Isaiah that He has declared the end from the beginning and He will accomplish all His good pleasure – and His good pleasure is to glorify Himself. This is only possible if He transcends time, if He declares what's going to happen before it happens to bring glory to Himself.

The apostle John saw future things he was writing the book of Revelation. These future things will take place as he saw them because God transcends time. There are detailed prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the other prophets. These prophecies include the countless choices of men, yet their prophecies have and will come to pass just as they had said, just as God has said, because God transcends time.

The open theist asserts in the face of all of this that it is most virtuous for the future to be completely uncertain. They teach that it is most virtuous for the future to be totally undetermined. This isn't virtuous. Only God bringing glory to Himself, according to His will alone is truly virtuous, and Scripture teaches us that that's exactly what God does.

Not Only Transcendent

Scripture also teaches us that God exists within time. Out of His infinite love, God has chosen to be fully present among His creatures on the earth, and this can be referred to as immanence. Just as He exists outside of time, He is found within time. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is not infinite to the exclusion of being personal. His presence is absolutely personal, and this is most clearly understood and seen in the incarnation and in His Spirit’s dwelling within believers.

In Jeremiah 23, it is written, “’Am I a God who is near?’ declares the Lord, ‘And not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?’ declares the Lord.” In Isaiah 57:15 it says, “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit.’” He is transcendent and He is immanent.

Will and I agree that God is immanent. We both believe that He is personal. However, we disagree about the degree to which that this fact is truly amazing. God is both transcendent and immanent, and His transcendence magnifies His immanence. How awesome is it that the God who is outside of time can also be found within time? That the God who is infinite also relates to us and is very personal to us? That is a magnificent glory, that He is both transcendent and immanent.

Perceptions and the Eternal Decree

Taking the transcendent-immanent understanding into the next part of the conversation, I want us to think about how God's decree never changes. God has a decree. He has an eternal purpose and it never changes. However, as humans, we perceive God as changing in time as He responds to us based on the conditions He set forth in time. His own actions that play out within time were eternally purposed outside of time.

God has a decree that exists outside of time, just as He is outside of time by nature, and yet we perceive Him as changing within time as He responds to us. As God’s commands are issued and subsequently obeyed or disobeyed, His response within time is in accordance with His nature, His decree, and what He has said He will do in given conditions.

In Deuteronomy 27 and 28, Israel was given means of blessing and cursing. God told them, “If you do [this], you will be blessed. If you do [this], you will be cursed.” Those conditions played out within time. In Jeremiah 18, God said of the nations, “If I said I'm going to destroy one nation and they repent, then I will change and relent of that disaster.” These ordinances that He has eternally decreed play out within time. He has decreed His own actions and He's very personal with us in the playing out of His decree.

The conditions that are found in a prophetic utterance do not disprove God's certainty about what will happen after the prophet makes the declaration. From the creaturely perspective, the responses of God to man's actions in the biblical narrative may seem like on-the-fly reactions to an unforeseen event, but rather they are contained in His unchangeable eternal decree. He is both transcendent and immanent.

As John Frame has said, “God is not merely like an agent in time. He really is in time, changing as others change, and we should not say that his atemporal changeless existence is more real than His changing existence in time. Both are real. Neither form of existence contradicts the other. God’s transcendence never compromises His immanence, nor do His control and authority compromise His covenant presence.”


This conversation takes a great deal of humility. We must be in touch with our own limitations as we seek to understand what Scripture says. God communicates to us in a way that we may know Him truly, but not exhaustively, as Francis Schaeffer was known for saying. Some things are surely more difficult to understand than others. We are so utterly bound by time that our minds cannot fully comprehend an existence outside of it. However, we can recognize it when it is revealed to us.

While we're on this point, think about the Trinity and think about the incarnation of the Son of God. The divine nature was linked up, unified with, a human nature. Can you fully wrap your mind around that? You surely cannot. You cannot fully comprehend that; yet, you can recognize it as it has been revealed to you.

God does all things to glorify Himself and He does this in inscrutable ways. That's what Scripture says: His ways are inscrutable. Let's not simplify these things by ascribing to the Creator a creaturely existence. This is what's necessary for open theism to be true, for open theism to make sense: God must exist with creaturely limitations. That's a terrifying proposition.

Consider Calvinists and Arminians. They disagree on God's sovereignty and human freedom, to an extent. Calvinists emphasize God's sovereignty, perhaps to the detriment of human choices. Arminians magnify human choices, perhaps to the detriment of God's sovereignty. But they're both compatibilists. They're both within the realm of biblical theology, understanding that God is sovereign and man does have choices. Though there's an emphasis on one side over the other, neither side is eliminated. There's a compatibility that exists in those theologies as it's presented to us in Scripture.

Open theists fall outside of biblical theology by rejecting God’s sovereignty altogether. A god who shares our limitations, and changes as we do, ultimately cannot be trusted and cannot issue hope.

I agree with what the Scriptures say and hope you do, too: “To the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 25

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