Does Prayer Change
Yes, if you're an Open Theist
Clark H. Pinnock (Ph.D. University of Manchester),
Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, taught at McMaster
Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, from 1977 until his retirement
last year. He is the author, editor or co-author of 15 books,
including More than One Way, and Flame of Love, a work on
the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
In recent years, he has become one of the leading
theological voices for the “openness” movement,
a theological perspective that takes another look at the omniscience
of God. He spells out this view with a team of other writers
in the book, The Openness of God (InterVarsity Press, 1994),
and in his book, Most Moved Mover (Paternoster Press, 2001),
a publication of his Didsbury Lectures in 2000 at the University
of Manchester where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation in New
Testament under the supervision of F.F. Bruce, the first Didsbury
He writes in the preface to this book that he “did
not for a moment imagine in 1994 that our book on the ‘openness
of God’ would create such interest and provoke such
controversy, particularly in the evangelical community.”
In fact, certain members of the Evangelical Theological Society
have brought heresy charges against him to which he is now
drafting a response prior to a fall meeting of the society.
When we met with Dr. Pinnock in late winter in his
office at the Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, these
charges as well as the nature of his lifelong work were much
on his mind.
HOMILETICS: What is Open Theism?
PINNOCK: It’s called by different names: free will
theism, the open view of God, relational theism or even personal
theism. They’re all getting at God’s nature as
a personal being, a triune God who is essentially relational
himself and who treasures relationships of love with his creatures.
So openists chose this word because it wasn’t used
by anyone else and we thought it could be a wonderful term
for what we were saying. You could say that it is a variant
of Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, which would suggest something
very different. But we chose this term because we wanted to
introduce this to evangelicals who might be interested but
not know anything about it.
HOMILETICS: You say “we.” To whom are you referring?
PINNOCK: The team: John Sanders, Bill Hasker, Richard Rice,
David Basinger. So we knew that lots of people, especially
the Christian philosophers were discussing these things (some
of the biblical people were, too), but the systematic theologians
were cautious and were worried about something new. So we
wanted to communicate what we meant. We thought it might at
least be a stimulus to the discussion.
So it was surprising that it received such a hostile reception
in certain quarters, because we certainly didn’t intend
to provoke that, and I didn’t even predict it, although
once it happened, you could see why who is saying what and
why. At first I thought of it as a variant of normal Wesleyan-type
thinking, which sees God as a personal God in relation to
HOMILETICS: But if you had to stand on one leg and had to
tell me what open theism is, what would you say?
PINNOCK: A relational view of God. [pause] Because the thing
is that, in the past, with a high doctrine of predestination
and timelessness and changeability, it’s hard to see
how God was relational.
HOMILETICS: But certainly classic theologians would not say
that God is not a relational God?
PINNOCK: No, they wouldn’t use that language, but it’s
hard to see how since God can’t really respond to what
we do because it’s not really part of his own decree
for the world. So it doesn’t seem we’re bringing
out something that they wouldn’t bring up in their preaching,
but I think in their theology, God cannot have real relations,
because that would imply that aspects of God’s experience
depend on something else. So we’re trying to bring back
the personal into it.
HOMILETICS: How does openness theology differ from process
PINNOCK: We believe that God created the world out of nothing,
and so God limits his power toward the world in order to have
loving relations, but with process theology, God is doing
all that he can do, so process doesn’t see an ontological
distinction between God and the world. I guess another word
for it would be self-limitation. For open theists, God self-limits
for the sake of love, whereas in process he is limited and
he can’t do anything more than that. It’s quite
HOMILETICS: So in openness theology the future is an “open”
question as far as the knowledge of God is concerned.
PINNOCK: This is the point that is most controversial. That’s
why I speak of it as a variant of Wesleyan-Arminian theism,
because it posits a different view of the future. We think
it strengthens that way of thinking, but some critics think
that it’s too risky, too dangerous.
So our view is not that God knows everything that can be
known and is therefore omniscient without qualification, but
that some aspects of the future are settled and other aspects
are not settled. The world is such that certain things are
still being settled by the agents in the world, by us and
by God, so God knows things as possible as well as certain.
Traditionally, God knows everything that will ever happen
certainly, so it must happen exactly that way. Whereas we’re
saying that God appears in the Bible to know some things for
certain because he planned them or because they’re going
to happen definitely, but aspects of the future may surprise
I think that’s a point that’s gotten people scared,
the idea that God takes risks and is vulnerable. The same
thing with the impassibility of God.
HOMILETICS: So are you arguing that God can’t know
the future in a certain sense because that kind of knowledge
contains a self-contradiction, in the same way that the proposition
that God can’t create a rock that is too heavy for him
to lift contains a self-contradiction?
PINNOCK: We’re saying that omniscience doesn’t
mean that the future is exhaustively foreknown because God’s
made a world the future of which would be decided by himself
and human agents. So it’s really the reality of the
human agents as to whether they make any difference for the
future. If they do, then it means that certain things are
not yet settled, because they haven’t made their choices,
or done their thing.
HOMILETICS: How does this affect biblical prophetic statements?
PINNOCK: That’s a challenge. There are different types
of prophetic statements. Some of them announce what God will
do, so it’s nothing about foreknowledge, it’s
Some of them offer alternatives: If you repent, this; if
you don’t, that. So the future is open and they’re
being asked to make a decision as to which way it will go.
And many of the prophecies are quite general as to how they
will be fulfilled; they’re not specific. So there are
very few that actually require exhaustive, definite foreknowledge
to be interpreted fairly. Although, of course, in the New
Testament, as you know, these prophecies are turned in new
directions sometimes, so their fulfillment is somewhat surprising
in light of their original contextual appearance.
In fact, if you thought that God had exhaustive definite
foreknowledge you might well wonder why the prophecies are
not more precise, because in fact they’re not. In process
theology, God can’t determine anything about the future
because he’s doing all he can do already, whereas in
our view God can determine aspects of the future as he wishes,
like Christ is considered a predestined Messiah. He’s
free to do that, too. He normally doesn’t predestine
things in detail, but he is certainly free to do so if he
HOMILETICS: Critics would say that the God that you envision
is certainly not the God of classical theology and that he
is in fact a diminished God. If you have a God who is omnipotent,
omnipresent, omniscient and so on — this seems to be
less of a God than that traditional view.
PINNOCK: That depends on your view of God’s perfections.
If it is a divine perfection to control everything, then our
God is diminished. But we think, “What’s so great
about a God who controls everything? Isn’t a God who
loves us and enters into relationships with us a wonderful
ideal of God?” So it’s partly how you see things.
If God’s glory is to determine everything, then we diminish
God. But the Bible doesn’t have such a God and we don’t
worship such a God.
HOMILETICS: Where in the Bible do you adduce support for
PINNOCK: The openness of God is very scriptural. It’s
the classical people who are embarrassed by texts that speak
of God changing his mind. We’re the ones who think that
perhaps these texts reveal something about God. In Genesis
6, for example, and all the repentance texts, God is sorry
that he made man upon the earth. It’s odd, because our
opponents are saying we deny biblical authority, but in the
debate it looks like it is they, not us, who deny biblical
authority. Jonah is another example where God says he will
judge Nineveh and then he doesn’t. He relents. And of
course the odd thing is that Jonah is angry about that. God’s
relenting from judgment is the glorious thing about God! We’re
not diminishing God by saying God relents from judgment, but
celebrating that he is a God who does! Then there’s
Isaiah 5, where God says, “I planted this vineyard Israel
and did everything I could and look what happened. It brought
forth sour grapes. What could I have done that I didn’t
do?” In other words, God is confronting a situation
that appears to be a great matter of distress to him. But
how could it be if he had determined it all? It wouldn’t
be. It would just be another thing he had already decided.
HOMILETICS: You weren’t always an open theist. How
did this change in direction come about for you?
PINNOCK: Well, I used to be a five-point Calvinist in the
late ’60s and then I came to read Hebrews and noticed
how it appears our relationship to God is conditional upon
faith, so I was intrigued by the idea that God is conditioned
by some of the things that creatures do.
The old view is that God is not conditioned by anything his
creatures do because he has determined what they do. But if,
in fact, God’s will is affected by what his creatures
decide, then that calls for a personal theism, relational
theism, open theism.
So in a way open theism goes right back to the early ’70s
when I realized the weakness of deterministic thinking. And
then over the years I wrote different things on the subject.
Then John Sanders talked to me and we decided that since this
is a view that some people know about, but not all, let’s
present it in a clear way just for evangelicals so that they
can see what we think.
HOMILETICS: Has this made a ripple on the mainline side,
or is this a problem primarily for evangelicals?
PINNOCK: The Evangelical Theological Society is a peculiar
group of very conservative evangelicals. But there are many
who consider themselves evangelicals who don’t go to
it who you would find in different sections of the American
Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature
and who are positioned in the Wesleyan faith. So they see
it correctly, namely, as a variant of their own position and
worthy of consideration — which is all we want them
to do. Like Randy Maddox [Professor of Wesleyan Theology,
Seattle Pacific University], for example, a major interpreter
of Wesley, who wrote a great book. He says that Wesley might
well have considered openness in full agreement with what
he was getting at.
So there are evangelicals who are not ETS evangelicals. You
almost need a new term. There are the ETS types who would
go after me like that, but normal evangelicals who are outside
that, they regard it just for what it is — a variant
of Wesleyan-Arminian thinking. Nicole, a five-point Calvinist,
wants to emphasize how different our view is so they can isolate
it as a heresy, because they don’t want to criticize
all Wesleyan-Arminians although they don’t like their
HOMILETICS: But they would regard your views as extreme.
PINNOCK: We want to say we are not extreme.
HOMILETICS: So are you a heretic? You don’t look like
PINNOCK: I’ve found that concerning the question of
divine foreknowledge there are different ways you can think
of it from within personal theism: God is timeless and he
foreknows everything by virtue of that, or middle knowledge,
a new view of how it might be understood, or simple foreknowledge
— he simply knows the future; we don’t know how
he knows it, he simply does.
And then there’s our view. So there are three or four
ways one could look at the matter and we’re just saying,
“Let’s try this way.” And some of the critics
are saying, “It does work better.” If the Calvinists
looked at the ways personal theists might understand foreknowledge
they would say our way is the most coherent of the bunch.
If you have that kind of view, our way is better because all
the others imply that the future is already there, settled.
It won’t be different from what it is. It’s been
So we’re saying if you want a relational theism you
really need to deal with this question of omniscience and
see it as present knowledge — God knows everything about
the future at this point that can be known, not God —
he knows everything as actual about the future because, in
fact, some things remain to be seen. Like 2 Peter, the reason
Christ hasn’t come again is because God is waiting for
more people to repent. This thing yet needs to be settled.
He doesn’t want to close it down too soon. We’re
the people who think that there are aspects of the future
that are not yet settled. Isn’t that obvious? We all
live our lives that way — that our future is not settled.
That we’re going to help make it. Right? What’s
so odd about this?
HOMILETICS: What’s middle knowledge?
PINNOCK: That’s a theory that Bill Craig has picked
up. It’s from the Middle Ages. They think that God knows
what any free agent will do in any given situation before
he/she does it, and they think that doesn’t take away
human freedom because they’re free to do it, but that
God is able to know what they would do in any given situation.
So they want to present libertarian freedom with divine exhaustive
We think that if God knows what free agents would do in any
situation, that means that they’re predetermined to
do it because how could he know that? Why couldn’t he
be capable of being surprised if their freedom were genuine?
So we take freedom to imply novelty about certain aspects
of the future. If there is freedom, you’re not always
going to know what someone will do in any given situation.
Because that’s the point.
We point to Scripture where God is enraged or rejoicing,
or he responds to things as if they came to be known as real
— in his experience. God’s experience involves
new things happening. Which he can handle! We see the world
as a project that God is engaged in, and our critics seem
to think he can’t handle it. They seem to diminish God
themselves, as if the world had an open future in which the
creatures would decide some things, not God, and they might
well displease God. They think that would be a terrible thing,
whereas we think it is a glorious thing. Kierkegaard said
somewhere that what is wonderful about God is not that he
has to control everything and thus be in charge, but that
he doesn’t have to, that he has loving relations and
he can handle it.
HOMILETICS: It was J.I Packer, perhaps someone else, who
introduced the idea of compatibilism — that perhaps
the problem of foreknowledge is that all these things have
been resolved in the mind of an infinite God but not in the
minds of finite beings.
PINNOCK: We think that Packer is just pulling the covers
over the incoherence of what he says. [laughter]. On the one
hand God determines everything; on the other hand we also
act and are responsible. If God controls it all, how can you
hold people responsible for what you do? But he says it’s
compatible. He says it’s a mystery. So Packer is trying
have a libertarian view of freedom — we’re responsible
for what we do — without denying that God determines
We’re just saying, “You can’t.” It’s
just a contradiction. And there’s no reason to think
it isn’t a contradiction for God. How does he know God
can work it out? He’s just stating it. We think it’s
a fallacy of his theology. We agree about mystery, but it
shouldn’t be used to cloak incoherence.
HOMILETICS: With your view you could really argue that prayer
does change things.
PINNOCK: Yes. Oh, I think that’s a very strong point.
A lot of the appeal of openness is that, on the one hand,
it can take a lot of Scriptures more straightforwardly, like
repentance texts, but, on the other hand, it can also better
handle practical matters Christians always assume —
such as prayer making a difference.
Because in the classical view, praying cannot make any difference.
The outcome is predestined. The prayer — the answer
for which is predestined — is also predestined! The
reason openness has an appeal today is because it has an existential
fit. People assume when they pray that the openness view of
God is true and that, in fact, God may respond to them and
do something that he otherwise would not have done. So part
of its appeal is its practicality. If God is inviting the
world to be saved it seems to imply that the world can be
saved, and therefore that is not predestination — it
looks like it’s an open thing. So I think the critics
see their position as shaky. I don’t think they’re
uncertain about it, but that they’re terribly vulnerable
and that it’s best to get rid of these openness people.
Hence the ETS action: Open theists shouldn’t be allowed
to be a part of the discussion.