Books Providence Theology Proper

Boyd’s open theist model of providence







We come now to the fourth model in Four Views on Divine Providence, as Gregory Boyd puts forward his understanding as an open theist.

 Gregory A. Boyd’s model of providence

Christocentric criteria proposed for assessing models of divine providence

Boyd posits that Jesus is the key to understanding the nature of God’s governance in the world and so he identifies four christocentric criteria by which models of providence should be assessed.

  • Since “everything Jesus was about centered on manifesting the reign of God against forces of evil that oppose God,” a model should “render intelligible the reality and scope of evil in the world and the need for God to battle against it” (184-85).
  • God’s struggle against evil, as revealed in Christ, is distinct from pagan views because God relies primarily on wisdom rather than on power (185-86).
  • Taking the cross as paradigmatic of God’s way of overcoming evil, a model of providence should adequately portray God’s reliance on other-oriented love and his willingness to be affected and influenced by humans (186-87). 
  • In principle, God has already won the battle with evil, bringing ultimate good out of the evil that led to Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion, so a model of providence should demonstrate God’s ability to bring good out of evil and thereby accomplish his overall purposes for creation (186-87).

The key features of Boyd’s open theist model

Because love is the goal of creation, it must include libertarianly free agents who are able to freely choose love, so that they have “genuine say-so to affect what comes to pass” as they choose whether or not to align their wills with God’s. But having chosen to limit the exercise of his power by giving agents free will, God cannot meticulously control what those agents do, and he cannot revoke the free will he has given to creatures (191). This does not make God passive in the face of creaturely evil, because “he can do a myriad of things to influence this agent in a different direction or to influence other agents to help prevent, or at least minimize, the evil this agent intends” (192).

Since we are continuously influenced by innumerable variables outside of our control as agents, only God can “specify the extent to which any agent is free, in a libertarian sense, in any given moment” (192). What we are morally responsible for, therefore, is what we do in the limited domain where we have say-so. God’s knowledge of what will happen in the future is very great, even though that future is open, because God “perfectly knows all past and present variables that effect what comes to pass, including his own will” (193).

Boyd posits that the freedom of creaturely will is not only limited in scope, by virtue of the many factors in our context which constrain us, it is also limited in duration. Through the decisions we make, we solidify our character, and “eventually reach a point of no return, when we are either solidified in our relationship with God or solidified in our rejection of God” (193). So, although “love must be freely chosen, it does not have to be eternally chosen in a libertarian sense. Rather, the purpose of libertarian freedom is provisional, intended eventually to lead us to a much greater, eternally solidified form of compatibilistic freedom” (194). This makes the biblical portrait of heaven and hell intelligible, but it also “explains how God can sometimes know what agents will freely choose under certain conditions” (194). An example of such knowledge is seen in the prediction that Peter would betray Jesus. He was “morally responsible for his cowardly decision, not because he could have chosen otherwise in that moment, but because he freely developed the kind of character that rendered it certain that he would deny Christ when it was in his self-interest so to do” (194).

In this model, “what is real, prior to the agent’s choice, are the alternate possibilities.” Insofar as agents have “genuine say-so freely to resolve possibilities into actualities and thereby influence what comes to pass, the open view holds that the future is comprised of alternate ontological possibilities” (195). Being omniscient, God knows the truth-value of all propositions but, contrary to the understanding of classical theism, this entails that God knows some of the future only as possibilities, as “might” propositions. Boyd argues that if this were not the case, then agents would not be “genuinely free in the flow of history to choose this or that” (196). Furthermore, “we all live as though the future is partly open and partly settled,” and “we presuppose that it is up to us to resolve alternate possibilities into one definite course of action” (196). Boyd asserts that propositions asserting what “might and might not” come to pass “have an ontological referent, namely, the domain of real possibilities” (198). He believes that “no Scripture forces the conclusion that the future is exhaustively settled, let alone necessarily settled from all eternity,” and many Scriptures seem to indicate otherwise (e.g., Matt 26:39, 42; Gen 6:6-7; 1 Sam 15:11, 35; Jer 3:7, 19; Isa 5:1-5; Deut 8:2; 13:1-3; 2 Pet 3:11-12; Ex 4:5, 8-9; 13:17; Ezek 2:5, 7; 12:3) (198-99).

All this leads Boyd to posit a “choose your own adventure” model of providence, in which God “predetermines the overall structure of the adventure as well as all the possible story lines and all the possible endings within this adventure.” God also “predestines certain events to take place regardless of what story lines are chosen,” while leaving free agents “with a certain amount of say-so as to which of the many possible story lines is actualized” (200). Since the complexity of such a situation is virtually infinite, it is deemed to reveal the “unfathomable intelligence and resourcefulness of its Author” (200). Furthermore, this situation differs significantly from “choose your own adventure” books written by human authors because God not only created the overall adventure of creation, he is also the main character in that adventure. Nonetheless, though highly influential, God “lovingly refrains from coercing agents as they exercise the domain of say-so that he has given them” (201).

An assessment of the open model, using the four Christocentric criteria

Boyd shows how his own model fulfills the criteria he defined as essential for assessing models of providence:

  • “Evil originates in created wills that choose to go against God’s will,” and God does not know with certainty precisely when this will occur, so he does not have a specific reason for allowing each specific evil as proponents of simple foreknowledge are deemed to assert (202). God is able to try sincerely to prevent individuals or groups from doing evil because he does not know with certainty that his efforts will fail.
  • God has the power to “write himself into every possible story line to exercise whatever level of unilateral say-so he sees fit,” but he cannot control situations in which he has given created agents say-so. For this reason, God relies more on his wisdom than his power in defeating his foes.
  • God’s other-oriented love is evident in his having given humans their own domain of morally responsible say-so, including the ability to impact God “even to the point of influencing him to modify his plans” (204), and even to thwart God’s will.
  • Because God is infinitely intelligent, he is as able to prepare “for every one of any number of possible future events as he would be for a single future event that was certain to take place,” and he has excluded from the adventure any possible story lines that could not result in God’s bringing good out of evil (206-07). He knows the future just as effectively as does the God of classical theism because of his having anticipated every possible turn of events and previously having decided upon his own course of action in each of them.

My initial reflections on Boyd’s model

General comments on Boyd’s proposal

Greg Boyd has presented his model of providence with characteristic passion and clarity. Of course, I disagree fundamentally with him because I am convinced that Scripture portrays God as meticulously in control, so that everything that occurs is part of God’s eternal plan for creation, although much of it is not brought about by direct or immediate action by God. In commenting on Boyd’s proposal, therefore, I will not speak to the most basic question of whether synergism or monergism are correct, but simply analyze it as one of many forms of synergism.

If one is not offended by the limitation necessarily placed upon the range of God’s foreknowledge, which is fundamental to open theism in all its forms, then open theism should be attractive to synergists, and Boyd’s own proposal particularly so, in my estimation. But even many Arminians have been scandalized by the denial of comprehensive divine foreknowledge, and I am convinced that whether this model finds a place within the evangelical tent, for the long term, will be decided by Arminians.

Many Calvinists find open theism even more problematic than classic Arminianism, but I do not share that assessment. Because the concept of divine temporality, at least after creation, is acceptable to many well respected Calvinist theologians, that part of the open theist platform need not be a major stumbling block, though it still is for some classic Arminians.

The basic reason why I am less disturbed by the open theist model than many of my fellow Calvinists is that I agree with open theists that simple foreknowledge is useless to God’s plan and providence. Knowing what will occur throughout the whole of human history before the act of creating, gives God no opportunity to affect it. Consequently, I do not think that open theism restricts God’s control of the world to a degree significantly greater than is the case in a classic Arminian model.

I think that open theism actually does better than class Arminianism in formulating a construction in which God is genuinely responsive to his creatures. Were I to become a synergist, one alternative which looks to me to be worth considering, as something of a middle point between open theism’s presentism and classic Arminianism’s simple foreknowledge, is the proposal that God knows the future incrementally. That would allow God to roll the film a bit at a time (so to speak), inserting his own responsive action at every moment and then watching what the creatures do next. God could then act responsively and with effect, but it would still give him comprehensive foreknowledge before he did his first creative act. This would, perhaps, be a variation on Boyd’s proposal that God, in his infinite wisdom, has determined all the feasible story lines and has preplanned his action for every eventuality. Boyd’s proposal may have an advantage, however, in that it does not portray God’s foreknowledge perceptually as the incremental foreknowledge construct does (i.e., in the metaphor of playing the movie ahead of time, in small segments). Agreeing with Bill Craig, I think that synergists would do better, if they wish to affirm comprehensive divine foreknowledge as orthodox synergists have classically done, to think of God’s foreknowledge in conceptual terms. God knows all true propositions, and these are tenseless. The achilles heel of Molinism, of course, is the grounding objection, the belief that counterfactual propositions regarding the future acts of libertarianly free creatures have no truth value.

Boyd’s appropriation of the work of Molinists is particularly intriguing, since I have not met this approach in the work of any other open theists. Because I too have benefited from  Molinists in formulating my own, monergistic, understanding of providence, I find this particularly interesting. On Boyd’s second Christocentric criterion for assessing a model of providence (God relies on power and wisdom, but particularly wisdom), for instance, I find that my model does very well. God’s natural knowledge of counterfactuals enables him to choose to actualize a world in which his purpose is satisfactorily achieved, even when many of the events are brought about by the decisions of free creatures, with minimal “intervention” needed on God’s part. Thus, God’s wisdom also plays a larger role in my own model of providence than does his power, yet God is meticulously in control in that he is never taken by surprise and the whole of history comes out as God purposed it from eternity. Unlike the open theist proposal, of course, God never has to “modify his plans in response to human input” (187).

Boyd contends that “the God of open theism knows the future just as effectively as the God of classical theism, who faces an eternally settled future” (207), because of the way in which God, in his infinite wisdom was able to prepare for every eventuality, and to act in the history brought about by free creatures, in a way that eventuates in a history that serves God’s final purpose, without being continuously controlling. The role of God’s knowledge of “might” counterfactuals is important  to Boyd in God’s achieving this.

As in Molinism, Boyd’s God knows all possible worlds but, in Boyd’s model, God chooses the actual world as time progresses, rather than choosing the whole world ahead of time. The risk is clearly much greater for God in this open theist model than in Molinism, but if the knowledge of “would” counterfactuals of creaturely freedom is impossible (as both Calvinists and open theists contend), then Boyd’s model portrays God’s providential work in as strong a way as is possible, within a synergistic framework. Boyd argues that “if there were possible story lines that could not result in God’s bringing good out of evil, let alone story lines that threatened God’s objectives for creation as a whole, the Author of the adventure of creation would simply exclude them from the adventure” (207). With this proposal, Boyd looks to be saying much the same thing that Molinists do when they speak of worlds “feasible” for God. In both of these synergistic models, the power moral creatures have to actualize any world they choose, is limited by God, and even in Boyd’s open theism that limitation is established beforehand, when God decides which story lines are open for creatures to actualize.

With both Molinists and Boyd, I affirm the importance to God’s providential work of his knowledge of counterfactuals. With Boyd, I believe that God cannot know what libertarianly free creatures would do in hypothetical situations but, with the Molinists, I assert that God used his knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely free action (which God had naturally, given the creaturely freedom of spontaneity, rather than of alternate possibilities) before creation, choosing an entire world history, rather than working it out on the fly.

On one last point, I want to say that Boyd’s work on moral responsibility in this brief essay is very helpful. I concur with him that creatures are only morally responsible so long as they have the kind of freedom necessary to ground such responsibility. Granted, Boyd is more certain than I am about what sort of freedom that is. He is convinced that it must be a libertarian freedom, giving the power of alternate possibilities. I have reasons to doubt that creatures are libertarianly free, but I am less able to state precisely the nature of the freedom that God gives his moral creatures. What I do know, as a compatibilist, is that whatever the nature of freedom necessary to ground moral responsibility, humans and angels have it. I also concur with Boyd that we can limit our freedom, and hence our responsibility, by developing our character with habitual patterns, and that we can become so bound by those habits, that we are no longer morally responsible for our actions. (I see this happening, for instance, with addictions.) So, we can reach a point at which we break God’s moral law without guilt; we are not morally accountable for those particular actions, but we are accountable for the decisions we made along the way which put us in this bondage, robbed us of our freedom, and hence of our moral responsibility. Importantly, however, unlike Boyd, I glory in the transforming power of God’s grace to break even the bonds which have been forged by an individual’s voluntary choices. God may abandon sinners to their own sinfulness, but he does not bind his own sovereign right (though not obligation!) to graciously give them repentance instead.


I would welcome the opportunity to get Boyd’s answer to a few questions that arose as I read his proposal.

1) Boyd states that “God allowed the powers to help orchestrate Jesus’ crucifixion . . ., knowing that it was by this means that these forces of evil would bring about their own demise” (185). I agree with that statement, but I wonder what “allowed” means to Boyd. To me, it entails deliberate permission, but that can surely not be Boyd’s meaning, because his model requires that God would have been doing his utmost to prevent the evil, but have been unable to do so because of the irrevocability of the libertarian freedom he had given to those powers.

2) In Boyd’s insistence upon “the uncontrollable and irrevocable nature of free will,” he asserts that “whoever or whatever rendered the murder certain to occur is morally responsible, whether by means of a microchip or a mysterious deterministic decree” (191. Why, I wonder can Boyd (and many other synergists) not see the critical difference in regard to the way in which God renders different kinds of events certain? In the case of evil acts, such as murder, although these happen within the history that God has chosen for the world, in all its detail, God’s will to permit people to do moral evil does not require him to do anything positive or immediate. Where synergists and monergists differ is that synergists view God’s permission generally (i.e., he permits everything that libertarianly free creatures choose to do), and monergists view his permission specifically (i.e. he decided not to prevent this particular act of evil because of the way in which his overall good purpose for creation was realized, even though it included the permission of evil acts for which the creatures were morally accountable).

3) Boyd’s proposal concerning character solidification is certainly intriguing, since it entails the belief that free will is limited, not only in scope (which Arminians also grant), but also in duration (193). I wonder how other synergists respond to Boyd’s idea. It strikes me as an extraordinarily important limiting factor, which quickly limits moral creatures’ libertarian freedom. Each act of rejection of God’s initiative hardens them and narrows their opportunity to do otherwise. I concur, but then I would point out that it is precisely here that God’s grace appears as most amazing. In Boyd’s model, God never graciously intervenes to expand the freedom of creatures bound by their own sinful habits. In Scripture, and in history, however, I see remarkable instances in which God has graciously transformed people who had for a long time been adamantly set on a course that was leading them to destruction, and yet God reverses that course, gives them a new nature and uses them to glorify him in the world. Does Boyd not think it peculiar that monergism thus allows for instances of greater, indeed increased freedom, on the part of moral creatures than does his own construction of irredeemable bondage? In Boyd’s model, no one can ever turn back; they can purportedly keep themselves from getting thoroughly bound by evil habits, but once their character is solidified, they have put themselves beyond God’s grace to redeem.

4) Boyd asserts that “open theists alone are free from the burdensome assumption that there is a specific divine reason for each specific evil” (202). Why so? Would this not also be true of classic Arminians, for whom also God’s providence is a general allowance of what free creatures choose to do?

5) Boyd asserts that Reformed theology’s common assertion “that God ordained all that comes to pass, including evil, ‘for his glory’ simply reveals that this model works with a power-centered criterion of greatness (‘glory’) rather than the criterion of other-oriented love” (204). I wonder: What does he think of Gerald Bray’s God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology? (I haven’t seen the work myself yet, but the title is clearly designed to belie charges like Boyd’s.)

6) Boyd proposes that “if we allow the crucified Messiah to shape our conception of God,” then God’s “dependency becomes one more mark of God’s greatness” (205). This raises a couple of questions in my mind:

  • (a)   Is the cross paradigmatic of all God’s work? Certainly, it is consistent with God’s nature, but does Scripture make it a paradigm for all divine providence?
  • (b)  Did God, in fact, let humans decide how this turned out? That sounds to me like a very different conception from Peter’s at Pentecost. He declared  that Jesus, who had been “killed by the hands of those outside the law, “had been handed over to [the Jews] according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. Part 6. Part 7


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,569 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments