Sunday, August 24, 2008

Open Theism and the Test for a Prophet

During my year at Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion, I'm going to be working on a book-length research project on open theism, a relatively new proposal for understanding divine providence that has gotten a lot of discussion over the last 15 years, especially in philosophy of religion and evangelical theology circles.

Roughly stated, open theism holds that divine providence is neither wholly meticulous (as it is in Calivinism, Thomism, or Molinism) nor wholly general (as it is in process theism). In other words, God has not efficaciously decreed every particular thing that happens (contra Calvinism, etc.) but has efficaciously decreed some particulars (contra process theism).

The current debate about open theism centers on four key issues: (1) its fidelity to Scripture, (2) the significance of its differences from the mainstream theological tradition, (3) its ramifications for religious practice, and (4) its core philosophical presuppositions, esp. creation ex nihilo, creaturely libertarian freedom, and the incompatibility of meticulous providence with creaturely libertarian freedom.

In this post I want to briefly comment on one challenge, nicely posed by philosopher Francis Beckwith in an article entitled "Limited Omniscience and the Test for a Prophet". Beckwith charges that open theism, which he inaccurately supposes to entail the idea that God has "limited omniscience", is incompatible with the Biblical test for prophecy given in Deuteronomy 18:22:
If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
Based on this verse, Beckwith develops an argument that runs, in its essentials, thus:
  1. Necessarily, if X speaks for God about the future, then X is correct.
  2. If open theism is correct, then it is possible that X speak for God about the future and be mistaken.
  3. Therefore, open theism is false.
This argument is clearly valid (that is, if the premises are both true, then the conclusion must also be true), but not, I think, sound (since it is not the case that both premises are true). The premise that I wish to challenge is the second one.

The rationale for premise (2) runs something like this: Proponents of open theism hold that creaturely free decisions cannot be infallibly known in advance. It is possible that the outcome of a prophecy depends upon creaturely free decisions. Therefore, it is possible that the outcome of a prophecy cannot be infallibly known in advance. Therefore, it is possible that God could inspire a prophet to declare categorically that some future event will happen and that event not happen.

This reasoning overlooks something, however. It overlooks the possibility that there might be some other necessary factor that would prevent God from inspiring any categorical prophecy that he couldn't be infallibly certain about. Plausibly, there is such a factor in God's essential nature, namely, God's concern for his own integrity. If so, then it is consistent with open theism to deny the possibility that a prophet might speak for God about the future and be mistaken on the grounds that, necessarily, if God couldn't be absolutely certain about the prophecy's coming true then he wouldn't have given the prophecy in the first place. With that, premise (2) fails.

All that I'm arguing right now is that the quick knock-down attempted by Beckwith is too quick. There is, of course, a lot more to be said on this issue, and it is not yet fully clear that open theism is consistent with everything the Bible has to say regarding prophecy. Further reflections, however, will have to wait for another time.


At 8/25/2008 9:16 AM, Blogger Michael said...

I eagerly anticipate your forthcoming philosophical work on open theism. Thanks for your response to Beckwith's challenge. I do not at present think open theism and prophecy are incompatible (although it is possible that I could be wrong). Those who suggest that they are seem to misunderstand one or the other or both. I find this a fascinating area of study and look forward to more posts on the topic.

At 8/25/2008 8:48 PM, Blogger Francis J. Beckwith said...


Hope you're doing well. Frankie and I just arrived at Notre Dame on Thursday of last week.

One thing about my argument: what I suggested in the article is that according to open theism, as I understand it, in some possible world God makes a prediction about the future that does not come to pass. But in that case, he fails the test of a prophet; that is, he does not speak for God. But that paradoxically means that God does not speak for God.

At 8/26/2008 8:14 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Thanks for your interest. In the abstract I agree with you that the prophecy objection is not a strong defeater for open theism. Matters can get a bit more difficult, however, when some specific Biblical passages are brought into focus. Open theist explanations of specific cases of predictive prophecy haven't always been the most convincing. I think we can do better, but at the end of the day there might be some bullets we have to bite.

At 8/26/2008 8:27 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Thanks. My family and I are doing well. I look forward to seeing you and Frankie again. Perhaps tonight at the opening celebration.

Regarding your argument, while it's true that some open theists (e.g., Pinnock) have ill-advisedly stated that God has made incorrect predictions, I don't think that open theism per se is committed to either the actuality or the possibility of false predictions on God's part.

As I'm sure you know, open theists have sometimes let sensationalism get the best of sober judgment. If it is ever to become widely accepted as a viable option for evangelicals, open theism is going to have to become more moderate.

At 9/02/2008 2:29 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Hi Alan, I totally agree with you about (2). If God was undecided why would he act as though he was not? (Of course he might do, cf. how parents do, and might even do so via his prophets, but presumably only if he did not mind them being considered to be false prophets if he got unlucky.)

Incidentally, I'm aiming to respond to an argument by Mawson (from his 2005 book, repeated in the last IJPR), some of which resembles what Francis said in the comment above, that God can get things wrong, and I couldn't see a response in your publications (nor much of my response already there, fortunately); so I'm wondering, have you responded to Mawson's arguments (I'm going to reread the 3 papers on your website today, but thought I'd add this here as I get side-tracked v. easily)?

At 9/02/2008 8:44 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Enigman,

No, I haven't replied to Mawson yet. If you have the inclination to do so, then by all means go for it. Just send me a copy of your paper when it's done.

Best wishes,

At 9/11/2008 2:12 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Thanks, I will... incidentally, I'm a bit unsure about 'will' (used in the apposite way) having causal content as a rule. Maybe I misread you...

Suppose I suppose that a coin will land heads up. Then that 'will' is only about the coin landing heads up. And surely I might use 'will' in such a way in other contexts with that meaning whether or not I ought to. The question of how we interpret each others utterances, and how that affects literal meaning, is very messy... but surely that acausal content is very naturally indicated?

Consequently I'm unsure how far my response to Mawson's argument differs from your response to such arguments. I say that (given indeterminism, and the future not yet being real) it is not literally true that the coin will land heads up because there is nothing in reality for those words to correspond to - although we could be saying that the coin is likely to land heads up, e.g. if it is two-headed and unlikely to land on its edge (and although we might know that we could correctly say that it was true if it lands heads up (etc.))...

Were you explaining how we might correctly say that the coin will land heads up even though it could not then be literally true that it will (as I see it), or were you saying that such a statement is literally true if there is a reasonable probability of the possible outcome - or indeed, is this a very apposite distinction that I'm seeing here?

At 9/11/2008 11:46 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Enigman,

Good questions. I've been thinking more about the semantics of 'will' lately, and I agree that it does not have causal content as a rule since we can merely suppose or entertain the possibility of some event's occurring in the future.

My semantic argument against Ockhamism is not that Ockhamist propositions about the future fail to be genuine propositions, but rather that bare Ockhamist propositions about the future are unassertible. Since at least some predictions are assertible, it follows that Ockhamism does not adequately capture the semantics of predictions.

Now that argument is certainly not airtight. The question of how to sort out the literal meaning of utterances is, as you say, a messy one.

I think your argument appealing to the lack of correspondence (given indeterminism and an ontically open future) is a good one. Alicia Finch and Mike Rea defend a similar argument in "Presentism and Ockham's Way Out" (Oxford Studies in Phil. of Religion, vol. 1).

Regarding your question, I think we can appropriately say that the coin will land heads even though it is not now causally settled, but I think that involves a kind of "loose use". Strictly speaking, I would say that "the coin will land heads" is false under those conditions. The key distinction for me here is between a "loose" and a "strict" use of terms. The distinction is pragmatic, having to do with our communicative goals or purposes. But I think it has a bearing on the semantics as well.

Well, I hope that's tolerably clear! Take care.

At 9/12/2008 2:47 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Many thanks, that was very clear, much clearer than my questions!

At 9/27/2008 3:04 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Incidentally, today I posted some superficial criticisms of your forthcoming paper (on Presentism implying Theism) on my blog. I was bored and couldn't find anything else worth criticising. It's not a detailed criticism, as I've yet to delve into either the truthmaker or the Presentism literature (fortunately I found your paper very accessible).

At 11/06/2008 2:04 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

More incidentally, I now think little of those criticisms (although I wonder what is the best reply to the possibility of God creating an unobserved free-willed creature). Very few of my thoughts stand the test of time, I find.

My paper is pretty much done now, and on my website here. I agree with all your philosophical reasons for Open theism, and found (I think) a couple more (one of which is my most recent blogpost)... very quiet round here (?)...

At 12/13/2008 1:56 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

Further incidentally, that paper is even more done, but with a name-change, here (the previous link won't work soon).

At 5/04/2009 9:03 AM, Blogger Noel Rude said...

I'm not sure I see the problem here, but anyway biblical interpretation in the Judeo-Christian tradition asks that we harmonize seemingly contradictory passages. For example, one might think that Deuteronomy 18:22 and 1Corinthians 13:8 clash: “… but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail ...”

There is also the place where God says (Jonah 1:2): “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.” The prophet ultimately prophesies (Jonah 3:4), “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But Nineveh was not overthrown because Nineveh repented.

Was Jonah a false prophet?

Maybe better—did God prophecy falsely? Yes, if what God said was “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. Period.” But we have to assume that God was smart enough to leave himself an opening, perhaps the opening that Jonah feared, which was that if Nineveh repented there would be no overthrow in 40 days.

A man may say, “Yet 40 days and I will do such and such,” but not having control over all exigencies he is wise to add (James 4:15), “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” One assumes that God need not hedge his word with respect to a higher power. He can give his word and we can be assured that nothing can stand in his way.

But if as presentists we assume that the future hasn’t happened yet from any perspective, then God has only the crystal ball of his will and his word. He does not know what he has chosen not to know, namely the decision of those to whom he has granted the freedom to decide.

At 1/19/2010 3:44 PM, Blogger Cameron said...

Quick thought on this from an email I'm sending a friend.

"Just to point out a quick objection to the idea that God relents or changes His mind about prophesies He has stated, some will quote Deuteronomy 18:21-22, "You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." It's true, in the verses I have mentioned, God's original plan (i.e. to allow the disease to kill Hezekiah) was changed, so the original prophesy was not fulfilled. But notice that in every single example, another prophet was dispatched or another revelation given to let those who heard the prophesy know that God had relented. Think of it like eBay. (Assume that eBay always fulfills their promises for a moment.) If you get an email message regarding changes to the website interface that will be brought about in one month, but three months pass and the changes don't come, you can be pretty sure that the message was a scam by a faker. However, if before the one month is up, you get another email stating that they have decided not to make the changes, or to do things differently, and things come to pass as that email says, then that message must have actually been from eBay."

At 1/19/2010 4:16 PM, Blogger Cameron said...

Oh, in the case of Ninevah, it is not explicitly stated that Jonah told the Ninevites that God had relented and had compassion on them, but I think we can(very) safely assume that.


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