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:
- Necessarily, if X speaks for God about the future, then X is correct.
- If open theism is correct, then it is possible that X speak for God about the future and be mistaken.
- Therefore, open theism is false.
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.