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The Table Video

Dean Zimmerman& Thomas M. Crisp

Open Theism: God's Knowledge & Our Freedom - CCT Conversations - Zimmerman/Crisp

Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University / Director of Rutgers Center for the Philosophy of Religion
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
December 13, 2013

Philosophers Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University) and Tom Crisp (Biola University) discuss Zimmerman’s view about God’s knowledge and human freedom.


There’s a view, debated in Christian circles, called Open Theism. According to which the future isn’t yet fixed. What the future is, is still open. It may go one way, it may go another and it hasn’t been decided yet. Moreover, on this view, God doesn’t know which way it’s going to turn out. He may well know all the truths, He may well know all true propositions but, on this way of thinking of things, there are propositions about the future which, at this point, anyway, haven’t been settled, don’t have a truth value yet.

And so God just doesn’t know those. You are one of the prominent defenders of this way of thinking about God. What are some of the things about this way of thinking about God that are attractive? You mention here His vulnerability, flexibility, openness to change.

That certainly is one aspect of the view that I find attractive, appealing. It seems to me to do justice to God’s character as it’s revealed in Christ, for instance. God is making Himself vulnerable to us and pleading with us. Not causing us to do what, whatever we do. And, Jesus, of course, says that he doesn’t know everything about the future.

Now, of course you say, well God, in some other sense, God does, you know, so God does and doesn’t you know, relative to the incarnate Christ, God doesn’t know things but, in another aspect of God or another person of the Trinity, does know these things.

Or maybe Christ has two minds somehow? A divine mind, a human mind, but, yeah.

Yeah, so there’s various ways around that but, it doesn’t seem to me to be out of keeping with the, sort of the spirit of Christianity to suppose that God is trying to persuade us, sort of, exercising power from below, as Greg Boyd puts it. Where, you know, love exercises power by being vulnerable to others and trying to get them to see, by their very vulnerability that you’re showing, that they must behave differently.

That they must come around to your side, you know. So God is appealing to us to get on the side of love by being vulnerable to us. And, not, you know, Open Theism strikes me as a way of making, sort of, precise and philosophical sense, that kind of vulnerable love on God’s part. Now, why do I believe Open Theism? I guess it’s because I think there really is a deep incompatibility between determinism and freedom. Between there being facts about the past that already settle what I’m going to do and freedom.

So, if there’s, if God believed from the beginning of time, that I’m freely going to tell a lie tomorrow, then for me to be able to tell a lie tomorrow would require that I can change the past. I can make God to always had a different belief. And I think that’s as impossible as it is to to make it the case that there’s always been something else different, written down on a sheet of paper somewhere. You know, if the paper’s already been written on then it’s too late.

So facts about what God believed, those facts are fixed? We can’t do anything, now, about them?

Yeah, that’s what I think. And, if, however, there’s no fact of the matter about what I’m going to do tomorrow, on some occasion when I really am free to do otherwise, if there’s no fact of the matter, then, of course, God doesn’t believe that I’m going to do one thing rather than another. God knows the truth, which is that there is no fact of the matter about this.

So, God is still perfectly omniscient, in the sense that, if something’s true, God knows it. If it’s not true, God doesn’t believe it. But, there are things that remain undetermined until the time comes.

And what do you do with those, cause a lot people will wonder, well what about when Christ says to Peter, before the day is over, before the cock crows?

You will deny me three times, yeah.

Those kinds of passages?

Yeah, well, and so I think, for one thing, we may be free on far fewer occasions than we think. You can still be morally responsible for things, for good or bad things that you do, when you’re not acting freely, right then, if your action is the result of the kind of character that you’ve formed over the years. And if you’ve had some freedom with respect to that, you’re still a dirty, rotten scoundrel if you betray somebody.

Even if it’s too late for you to do anything else. So long as you have freely made yourself into a dirty, rotten scoundrel, what God could predict you would do is still a morally reprehensible thing. So, perhaps, you know, Peter was a coward and if God knew what people were going to say to him and God knew how cowardly he was, it would be easy for Jesus to know what he was gonna do.

And, you know, there’s other kinds of prophecies about the end times and so on and how things are gonna wrap up and understanding exactly what those mean is really, really difficult. But, if we take them as showing us that God knows something about how things are going to wrap up, the Open Theist does have to believe that of all the different ways that things could go, God knows that some of them are going to come about, in a certain way.

And perhaps God is prepared to just make them happen. Make people do things. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Sometimes Pharaoh hardened his own heart but, sometimes God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.


I think what’s important is that we are partly responsible for what we do and that we do have morally significant freedom to move towards love and virtues and get on God’s side or to pull away. We don’t have to be free on every occasion when we act in order to have that kind of moral responsibility. [relaxing music] [relaxing music]