Greek Philosophical Roots of Open Theism

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I'm not sure why this never occurred to me before, because it just seems obvious now that I've realized it. Open theists are constantly complaining that classical theism takes its view of God not from the Bible but from Greek philosophers. For a couple reasons why this makes no sense, see this old post. The classical theistic picture of God bears little resemblance to anything the Greeks believed.

What didn't occur to me until just now is that the open theists' picture of God really does bear a striking resemblance to some things the Greek philosophers said. Aristotle, for instance, spends a great deal of time struggling through how there can be true statements about contingent events in the future. On one interpretation, he never solved the problem, but on the most popular view he denies that such statements are even true. It's the latter picture that forms the basis of open theism. Their entire view begins with Aristotle, a Greek philosopher. Alexander of Aphrodisias, a follower of Aristotle, clearly held the view that Aristotle may have held. He doesn't just discuss truth about future contingents but even brings in foreknowledge. He makes it explicit that foreknowledge about future contingents is impossible, so the gods can't have it no matter how perfect they are.

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Parableman goes a little farther. He says it's the other way around: What didn't occur to me until just now is that the open theists' picture of God really does bear a striking resemblance to some things the Greek philosophers said. Read More


That is an excellent point. The ironic thing, of course, is that the open theists criticize people like Aquinas for being Aristotelian. I am going to link you to my site. God bless you, Ron


This is quite interesting; not being a philosopher, I'd love to hear more of your insights on the Aristotelian influence/approach of Open Theism.

Thanks, too, for the "Theories of Knowledge" series.

I'm definitely no Open Theist, but when they say "Greek thought" don't they mean the absolutism of a few Greek philosophies? (Mainly Platonism) Clearly Open Theism has parallels with other greek thinkers. One can see their view of chance/free will and compare it with the Epicureans, for instance.

The problem with Aristotle his his unmoved mover and necessity. So even if future events aren't true, one can argue that they are necessary. (Thus at odds with the Open Theist) With Platonism they are typically necessary *and* knowable, due to the common reification of possibilities within Platonism.

When Open Theists attack traditional theology as being Greek influenced, I think they typically mean that kind of Platonism.

I think one can still make the charges you do. One needn't read much Whitehead to notice a lot of affinity with Plato. But there are some key differences and those differences end up being what they critique in traditional theology. Of course it is quite fair to charge them with picking and choosing what is bad about Greek philosophy and what philosophers are bad.

I think you're right on Jeremy.

I know all too little about open theism. However, insofar as open theism repudiates divine omniscience concerning the future, I find myself tempted towards those kinds of conclusions because of my own Aristotealianism.

For example, Aristotle's discussion of time in The Physics, Book 4, Chapters 10-14 pushes me to reduce divine foreknowledge to knowledge of events that will come to pass because God will bring them to pass. That is, God's agency becomes the mechanism that enables foreknowledge to occur, and foreknowledge is reduced to knowledge about what will happen because of an unstoppable will, rather than any sort of relation between a knower (God) and the thing known (the future). God knows the future it is because he brings that future to pass - not because the future is knowable.

What might be interesting to non-Aristotealians about this is that it isn't so much the impossibility of foreknowledge that moves me in this direction. If that were so, I feel confidant Plantinga's work would suffice to demonstrate a lack of contradiction. Instead, what's crucial in the repudiation of divine foreknowledge is the destruction of time as a category that refers to anything reifiable (loosely speaking). Once time is understood as a measurement of change relative to one's own subjectivity, it isn't the kind of thing that can be created, or that things can be 'in'. Additionally, it seems it can't be known either, at least in the sense above (where knowledge implies some relation between a knowing subject and an object).

Perhaps greater exposure to other arguments would dislodge my assurance of Aristotle's analysis.

The point from the previous post about classical theism isn't that it has nothing in common with Greek thought but that there are enough elements that are distinctively Hebrew/Christian that it's pretty clearly not importing Greek ideas to reinterpret the Bible. The things open theists complain about with classical theism aren't even present in the Greek philosophers. They don't have one God who knows everything and has a plan for how things will go. There's no sense of design in Plato, Aristotle, or even Plotinus. The Stoics had an element of that, but it wasn't an intelligent creator who designed a creation but a universe that contains a blueprint for how the universe would develop.

On the other hand, what's distinctive to open theism comes right out of the philosophers. Aristotle's view is unclear, because in the sea battle passage he might just be struggling through some points that he wants to make but can't resolve (which I think is the most plausible view), but the problem he raises is taken up by his follows, and Alexander of Aphrodisias particularly raises the exact argument against foreknowledge that the open theists raise. Notably, the argument is further by Boethius, the first Christian to endorse it. He doesn't deny God's knowledge of what the future is, of course, but he denies foreknowledge, because God isn't in the past to have foreknowledge, and his reason for rejecting foreknowledge is Alexander's.

The only other element I can think of as distinctive to open theism is the sense of development within God, which is clearly there in the Stoics.

Anyway, the overall point I was making is that open theism's distinctive views are found at least as much in the Greek philosophers as the things from classical theism that they say are from the Greek philosophers are. The question isn't so much similarity of ideas, though. It's about origins. I happen to think the open theists' ideas do find their origin in Greek philosophy. Their arguments certainly do. A few of the classical theists' conceptions (e.g. simplicity, final causes) are only possible to formulate in the tradition that came out of the Greeks, but the central elements that classical theists today hold come much more clearly out of the Bible than the philosophers.

Well, I've also had my problems with understanding God's knowledge of the future.

First, we can say that God knows everything there is to know. Everyone will agree with that point. The question becomes, what is possible to know. Like you pointed out above, certain people don't believe that it is possible to know the future.

Second, does the scripture explicitly say that God knows the future? Is prophesy this explicit claim? Or is prophecy declaring God's intention for the future?

Third, I've been given an argument that, in my mind, can solve the free will/predestination problem(If God knows what you're going to do, then you don't have free will). Namely, that God's knowledge is passive in relation to your choice. His knowledge bears no impact on your choice. We human's do this all the time. We can hear news of a friend, and immediately know what others reaction will be. Granted we don't have the infallibility of God, but neither do we have all the information he does.

John, those are exactly the arguments open theists use that come from Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias. I think they're all fallacious. This has been done in excruciating detail over at Prosblogion, but maybe it would be nice if I could put together a simplified post on it to explain those arguments and why they misunderstand both the nature of truth and the nature of time. It has nothing at all to do with foreknowledge. It has to do with this extremely strange notion that it can't be true that something will happen unless it's the only possible thing that could happen. That's not what this post is about, though, so I'm not going to get into the details of that.

I don't know anything really about open or classical theism, so I won't comment about that. A couple of quick notes about ancient (well, Xenophon and Plato's) conceptions of the divine, though.

* Xenophon (a contemporary of Plato) put forward a design argument for the divine. He did this in the Memorabilia books 1 and 4. The argument isn't so much an argument for God's existence as it is an argument of why we should be properly pious. But the argument basically goes, look at all of the absolutely fantastic and beneficial things that we have (eyes that have characteristics x, y, and z, for example) - surely this is the work of providence and surely we must respect and admire the divine for giving us these beneficial objects. The argument he puts forward there is recognized, even by the Greeks, as innovative and likely motivated the Stoics, who also had an argument from design.

* Also, just a quick note about Plato's conception of the divine. While throughout most of the dialogues he's pretty ambivalent about whether the divine conforms to traditional Greek conceptions of the gods or he posits a philosophic God, he says some interesting things about the divine in the Laws...things that seem to map onto certain characteristics of Christianity. Consider Laws 716a where he says, "'Men, according to the ancient story, there is a god who holds in his hands the beginning and end and middle of all things, and straight he marches in the cycle of nature. Justice, who takes vengence on those who abandon the divine law, never leaves his side. The man who means to live in happiness latches onto her and follows her with meekness and humility..." This idea that one had to be humble before God/the gods/the divine is not a traditional Greek view of the divine/man's relationship to the divine.

*Also in the Laws (although I can't find the exact passage right now, my apologies) we see that, for Plato, it matters what an individual citizen’s beliefs about the gods are. If you have the wrong beliefs about the gods, your beliefs about what is right and wrong will also be incorrect. Thus, all should have the same basic beliefs about god. This ideal of uniformity of religious belief (even at a basic level) is absolutely unprecedented in Greek thought, and had no influence until Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian writers took it up.

* Keeping with the might be interested to read book X of the Laws, if you haven't already. There, Plato puts forward an interesting (and likely quite influential) argument concerning natural theology. I can't remember it well enough to summarize it here (and I haven't the time to reread it to refresh my memory!), but Plato puts forward arguments about the primacy of self-motion (among other things) that you might find interesting.

Like I said at the beginning, I'm completely ignorant about the debate between open and classical theism...but I wanted to point out Xenophon's argument for design and mention a couple of things about Plato's conception of the divine in the Laws that might pertain to this debate.

I wasn't aware of that argument in Xenophon or the stuff in the Laws. Xenophon strikes me as uncharacteristic for the Greeks, with the exception of the Stoics, as I noted earlier. I'll have to look into that. I knew about some criticisms of this sort of argument, most notably in Epicurus but also in Lucian of Samosata, who expresses it much more within the standard pagan polytheistic context. I didn't know who it was they were responding to, because the philosophers I'd read hadn't said anything like that.

Most of those things in Plato that you mention are not additions to the Hebrew mindset behind early Christianity and thus would not have been taken up by Hellenistic Jews and Christians as some new idea, as open theists claim. The theses that classical theism adds (e.g. divine simplicity, impassibility) are, to my mind, side issues for contemporary theists, even if they were a big deal for people like Aquinas. Claims that were there within the Hebrew Bible include absolute foreknowledge (or atemporal knowledge of what is to us the future), a much stronger view of providence than open theists hold, and clear statements that God does not progress into a morally better form.

Now I'm really interested in this Laws X argument. I'm considering working arguments for the existence of God in as a main theme in my ancient and medieval course for the fall, and if I can have that from Plato rather than Aristotle's unmoved mover argument I'd be much happier. I try to have them read as little Aristotle as possible in a 100-level course.

A few caveats Jeremy to you comments above. I think your view of the Stoics is incorrect. Remember that they were panpsychics. Thus the universe is conscious, intelligent and aware. This is true of the neoPlatonistists as well who tend to blend a few aspects of Stoicism with middle Platonism. (Yeah, the pun was intentional)

Anyway I think one could easily consider both the Stoic and neoPlatonic view design. One could of course quibble with what we mean by design in both cases because of the lack of a full ontological difference between creator and creation ala traditional Christian theology. But I tend to see that as an issue separate from design.

If we are talking origins rather than just parallels though, then I think both the traditional theology and the Open Theists owe a great deal to Greek thought. Likewise both owe a great deal to the scriptures and Hebrew thought. So I'm not sure that's that relevant to the debate.

The Stoics didn't have any idea of someone sitting around designing how a universe would go as a blueprint for a separate creation. They do have an intelligence universe, but its intelligence is the sum of all other intelligences, not some separate reality. It's a far cry from classical theism or open theism.

I don't think there's anything that's distinctive of open theism that can really be derived from the biblical texts. There are things it shares with classical theism that are in there, but I don't see any of its distinctive doctrines there. The only ways to find them there are to read anthropomorphized accounts as if they were speaking literally of how things work for God within God's own mind. The more systematic statements go the other direction. Those who don't read scripture synthentically might try to put these statements against each other, but neither open theists nor classical theists seek to do that (at least not the most influential ones).

But that's the point Jeremy, just because the Stoics and the neoPlatonists didn't a design for a separate creation doesn't mean there isn't design. I'd also say that the intelligence of the universe in both is not merely the sum of the other intelligences. There is a strong holism in both movements that would argue against any such conception.

I think what is distinctive of Open Theism is a rejection of ontological absolutism. I think they make a good point that such is much more a notion of Greek philosophy than Hebrew texts . So when Open Theists criticize traditional theology it is that one point, largely arising from various forms of Platonism, that they pick on.

I'm having trouble figuring out how this undermines my argument. We end up with a destructive dilemma. The Greek philosophical positions either deny design or end up with something more like pantheism or panentheism, but either one is far enough from classical theism that my point still stands.

I'm not sure what you mean by ontological absolutism, but if it's not in the biblical texts then I wouldn't consider it essential to classical theism, just the version of classical theism formulated by people like Thomas Aquinas.

I'm not sure what you mean by ontological absolutism, either, Clark (although I have heard open theists use the phrase; they're never clear about what they mean by it -- but they generally aren't very clear about what they mean by anything they say).

In fact, open theists only pull out of classical theism what they deliberately put there; instead of interpreting (for example) Aquinas in terms of how Aquinas himself discusses immutability, they pick someone else (Aristotle and Plotinus being the most common ones), interpret that person, and then assume that Aquinas just means what they say the other person meant. And that's even just the best cases; sometimes they make arguments that are based entirely on the contemporary English meanings of the word.

I hadn't thought about the sea battle link before, but there is definitely at least a parallel: open theists are arguing for an opinion that's at least analogous to a particular sort of paganism.

Brandon, I'll add it to the list of things to blog about. Roughly what Open Theists complain about is absolutism in the sense of completion and presence. One of the many places I differ with Open Theists is over the idea that this is essential to either Greek thought or traditional theology. For instance I think a lot of the neoPlatonic theologians, not the least of which being the pseudo-Dionysus, end up adopting a sense of the One which isn't absolutist. For a more modern form of this see the postmodernism of say Hart or Marion. But I think one can read a lot of medieval figures doing the same thing. So whether ontological absolutism is actually essentially Greek really is up for grabs.

I *personally* think that in at least a vague way most modern ideas can be found amongst the Greeks. When someone starts criticizing Greek philosophy I tend to roll my eyes as it's almost always just hyperbole. I think that true of the Open Theists as much as anyone. On the other hand Greek philosophy, especially Plato, has long been a whipping boy in philosophy. Nietzsche, the Positivists, Heidegger, and so forth all try to differentiate their thought for the error of Plato.

I'm no clearer in understanding this than before. I have no idea what "absolutism in the sense of completion and presence" is supposed to mean. Is this something that you find in Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, and Aquinas yet isn't anywhere at all in Hebrew thought prior to interacting with the Greek philosophers? I find it hard to believe that Psalm 139 doesn't involve some kind of absolute completion and presence. It's about as extensive a statement of omnipresence as you can get in poetry. I'm not sure what you mean by this expression, though.

This is what William Hasker has to say on the subject of Greek philosophical influence

I must confess I don't see why it is so shocking to suggest that the writings of these two men [Augustine & Aquinas] are affected by "philosophical elements contrary to the Christian Faith." [5] Anyone who engages with philosophy at all is bound to come into contact with ideas originating from pagan thinkers. (Even if one decided, unwisely, to read only Christian philosophers, one would still be affected by the pagans at second, or third, or fourth hand.) Augustine was under no illusion that Plotinus was a Christian, nor did Thomas suffer from such an illusion concerning Aristotle. What this meant was, that both of these men needed to make a conscious effort to correct those elements in the philosophers' teachings that were contrary to the faith--and the eminence of Augustine and Aquinas as Christian thinkers testifies to their considerable success in this endeavor. But to insist that no "philosophical elements contrary to faith" remained, is to insist that they were 100% successful in every case in removing all "alien" elements and in transforming the pagan systems of thought into something that is Christian without remainder. And that is a great deal to ask, even of such wise and holy men as Augustine and Thomas.

As for myself, philosophical influences should be judged on their merits and scriptural consistency, not disregarded on the basis of source alone. The open theists I am aware of have presented arguments against particular aspects of traditional theology that bear Greek influence (e.g. the doctrine of divine simplicity adopted from Plotinius). However, the foreign heritage of such doctrines is practically irrelevant to the actual merit of open theism or its more classical alternatives.

See here for more from Hasker on the subject.

I don't know of anyone who thinks no elements contrary to biblical Christianity remained in either Augustine or Aquinas. You can certainly say that without accepting open theism, which does seem to me to be obviously contrary to biblical Christianity in a way that Augustine and Aquinas' thesis that evil is a privation and Aquinas' claim that God is absolutely metaphysically simple are at least not obviously contrary to biblical Christianity.

My sense is that the real complaint of the open theists isn't just against such obscure and non-essential (to us now, anyway) elements of these thinkers but of their thesis that Psalm 139 isn't lying when it says that God knows everything we do before we do it. Open theists seem to think statements like that came from Greek thought rather than from the Bible, but that's just silly. It doesn't take reading much, including some very undisputably old texts like Balaam's oracles Numbers 22-24, to find biblical statements that open theists will disagree with (in this case a clear statement that God does not change his mind, which means the accounts that do say God changes his mind must be talking about something else than really changing his mind, but there's an easy explanation of what that means that interpreters have long given).

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