Louis Midgley on Open Theism

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[ed. note: This was originally written by Louis Midgley and posted with permission.]

The discussion [on Open Theism] always ends up focused on whether God knows and must know everything in fine detail that ever has or will ever happen. Some insist that this has to be the case.

But the fact is that Latter-day Saints are strictly Open Theists, if any group of believer fit that label. Why? The reason is that creedal Christians, and this includes everyone who is locked into what is often called classical theism, ends up picturing God with attributes that Latter-day Saints from day one flatly reject. One is an Open Theist or can be described as such, if one is uncomfortable with or rejects classical theism. What do I mean by classical theism?

In what I am calling classical theism, and I am following a long line of authors in using this label, the divine attributes are such that Latter-day Saints flatly reject all of them, if they are understood from the perspective of those who hold them or from what is called the worldview they ground. In no particular order, I will identify these attributes. One must sense that these are not separable, meaning that one cannot coherently accept some of them and reject others. Put another way, they fit together into what those who hold them insist is a single coherent worldview.

In classical theism, the divine attributes consist of the following:

1. God is Unconditioned–that is, it is the Unconditional, meaning that it is not dependent on anything else. This is sometimes called aseity, which is a word meaning, I believe, “from self.”

2. God is Being. Think of the Greek word on from which we get ontology and remember how that word is used to qualify it in sectarian conversations. But one must understand that it is not just any old being. It is not even a being that exists somewhere–that is, is not corporeal. Instead, it is Being-Itself or the isness in everything that is. This explains why it is sometimes called the Supreme Being.

3. God is Eternal. This does not mean, in classical theism, that God just goes on and on, but that it is timeless. There is no time for it, meaning no past or future; it does not experience temporal sequence. If there as a past and future, then it would not be unconditional and would not has aseity and so forth.

4. God is Pure Actuality, meaning for it there is no potentiality. God is everything that it can possibly be.

5. God is Simple, meaning that it has no parts or is not a compound of anything.

6. God is Self-sufficient, meaning that it does not need anything, including us.

7. God is Incorporeal or Immaterial, meaning It is not embodied, however one thinks of bodies or material things.

8. God is Impassive, meaning that it is wholly apathetic about everything.

9. God is Wholly Other, meaning it is not like anything we can possibly experience.

10. God is Omnipotent, meaning that God has all power.

11. God is Omniscient, meaning God knows everything.

12. God is Creator and we are mere creature, meaning it created everything out of nothing and at that moment determined everything that can ever possibly happen.

13. God is really Real, while everything that it created is only real depending on the degree to which it participates in the ground of what is the only ultimate Reality.

14. God is Changeless.

In the various often competing and conflicting theologies that rest on classical theism, there are, of course, a host of disagreements about fine points. But it is clear that no petition addressed to God can really be heard, and none can possibly be answered, since that would entail a future and change and so forth. The future for human beings, understood as mere creatures, is wholly determined by the Sovereign God at the moment of creation. This explains why classical theists insist that God must not be involved with a plan, since planning and working to achieve what is planned runs directly in the face of about half of the what classical theists attribute to God

One final note: the passion with which classical theists have pushed their picture of the divine attributes can be seen in those instances in which theologians have insisted that nothing can be affirmed about God. One can only say what God is not. This is called the via negativa (or negative way). After insisting on this notion, theologians then write fat books about Divine things.

Conclusion: what is called Open Theism is a challenge to several of the divine attributes as set out above. This is good news for Latter-day Saints, since we need allies in our own conflict with classical theism. This does not mean that every Open Theist has a single way of seeing things or that we agree with any of the various versions of Open Theism. But the fact is that we simply must agree with much of what Open Theists believe, since what Joseph Smith taught flies in the face of classical theism. … For the record, I believe that God knows everything that such a being can know, but I must admit that I have no idea what that means, since I am not all that sure about much of what I think I know or exactly how I know it.

19 thoughts on “Louis Midgley on Open Theism

  1. Keller

    Dr. Midgley gave me permission to post this a few months ago, but I didn’t act on it at the time. Now that our Sunday School lessons brought up the concept of fore-ordination and the premortal existence, I have been thinking about it recently. My gospel doctrine class had a fair amount of discussion on whether everyone was fore-ordained to accomplishing a mission in life or just elites. There was a discussion of agency and God’s omniscience.

    I told my home teacher afterwards that there was no way I could spell out my take on the subject in a devotional setting as there wouldn’t not have been enough time to establish preliminaries such as what Open Theism is. Perhaps nobody in the class has read any Blake Ostler or various New Cool Thang blogs on the subject.


    Richard Sherlock’s review in FR of Ostler


    I brought Open Theism up here earlier in my musing on the Jackson County temple failure.


    That isn’t to say that even among Mormons informed about open theism accept all its principles or think the approach is worthwhile. I think it will remain in not safe for Sunday School territory for some time. I am hoping to post some more items from other FAIR members on some of Open Theism’s controversial aspects.

  2. Michael Keller

    I wonder when classic theism solidified as a theory. It doesn’t sound like Catholicism. There were deist in late colonial America. What I understand about deism seem similar to classic theism.

    The best example of open theism in Church lore is the story of Martin Harris and the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon:
    Martin Harris and Joseph Smith prayed that Martin could show the pages to others (acquaintances, neighbor, relatives, etc). They were initially rejected but further prayers earned them approval. Did God know that allowing the Martin this wish that it was a sure thing that the pages would be lost?

    The importance of members understanding open theism vs classic theism is minimal unless it is a widespread underlying current of man’s understanding of god(s). I think Mormon have developed a sophisticated understanding of God as a distinct individual and once mortal man. They may not have articulated a widespread and well thought out conception of the agency and predestination of God. However, those seed are there as soon as well cement the predestination and chose (not specifically agency) of mankind.

  3. George Cobabe

    Dave – I am concerned with your notion that if anyone is an Open Theist surely the LDS are. The problem is that the label is one that references evangelical thinkers and therefore implies many facets that are not consistent with the LDS understanding. I suggest that it would be true to say that there are many aspects of Open Theism that are consistent with LDS thought there are many aspects that are not.
    I do not think it is useful to apply others labels to LDS thinking – LDS are just so different as to make such an action misleading, at best.
    As you know the idea of divine foreknowledge is where you and I find different solutions.
    IF an Open Theist accepts the idea that God can know of all future contingencies and be prepared for them, then why could he not choose the future contingency that best accomplishes his goal of bringing immortality and eternal life to His children. By seeing all of the alternatives why would he not choose the most favorable one?
    This, as I am sure you recognize, is basically a Middle Knowledge position as opposed to open theism.
    Why does not middle knowledge better represent LDS thinking?

  4. Keller

    George, thanks for your comments. I agree with you that Mormons should be cautious about using the Open Theism label with its evangelical roots. I also posted your review of the article Matt. W. points outs above that further clarifies your thinking.

    I am not sure how middle knowledge works. Care to elaborate?

  5. Keller


    Those are some interesting thoughts. Classical Theism has its roots in Augustine (4th century) and worked on by the likes of Calvin and Luther. I am not sure about the intellectual history of deism.

    I like you bringing up the Martin Harris account. I was just thinking about the Words of Mormon might be used to support the idea that God knew well in advance that the 116 pages were going to be lost or at least enough to prepare a contingency plan centuries ago. (I wonder sometimes if Words of Mormon might be of more recent authorship (with a resurrected Mormon asked to write a new introductory section).

    But you are right that God giving a different answer on the third prayer does show the power of petitionary prayer (God changing his mind in response to prayer). That is something that open theism does better that classical theism, IMO.

  6. Blake

    George: There is are several compelling reasons why middle knowledge (MK) is not compatible with Mormon thought. First, MK requires creation ex nihilo. That is, God must see all of the possibilities at a pre-creation and pre-decision moment and then implement his choice. But there just is no such pre-creation of all possibilities in Mormon thought.

    Second, MK is inconsistent with free will. Third, MK is self-referentially incoherent because it entails a vicious circularity of explanation. I discuss all of these issues at length in my 1st vol. of Exploring Mormon Thought btw.

  7. George Cobabe

    Blake – I would suggest that Middle Knowledge does not have to include creation ex nihilo IF you, as I do, apply it to the various “earths” that God creates or organizes.

    If we looked at God having foreknowledge of this earth, and every earth he has created, because as he organized not only the elements but the participants in a manner consistent with considering every possible contingent and simply choosing the one that best serves his purpose. The choice between all contingent possibilities is, of course, the basis for middle knowledge. If God can see all of the possibilities for a particular earth and its future inhabitants why would he not choose the most favorable one? Open Theism admits that God can see all of the possible contingent futures. Why would God not take the obvious step and choose the best one – why would he settle for some other situation?

    In big view, that is beyond this earth, I consider that God is presented with a vast assortment of intelligences that he needs to learn about and then use his new understanding to put them in the proper place to accomplish his purposes. He has the eons of time we are with him preparing for the next step to watch and learn and see what should be done.

    So in regard to me and mine God has perfect foreknowledge, but in regard to those worlds he has not yet created he still is in the process of organizing and determining the best course of action.

    It seems that every most Christian thinker that I, in my limited way am familiar with, rejects the idea that foreknowledge precludes agency. I agree. The way that God knows is not known to me but the fact that he does know is clearly attested to in the scriptures and in prophetic utterances. And the fact that agency continues to operate is attested in the same way. At least in my opinion.
    I have ideas of how agency works in that scenario, but that is beyond the limited discussion scenario we are communicating in now.

    I have read your first volume and certainly found it informative, but did not agree with all you had to say.

    Best to you, George

  8. Blake

    George: You have missed the requirements for MK. First, there must be a situation in which counterfactuals of freedom obtain before the creation of an agent. In Mormon thought there is no “before” the creation of an agent. Further, these counterfactuals must have a definite truth value and not merely be possibilities, but world-indexed truths that obtain before any agent chooses. Thus, MK requires creatio ex nihilo. In the tradition, God sees which agents he will create by actualizing those individual essences of whom the right counterfactuals of freedom are true to get the world he wants. That just isn’t possible on the Mormon view of eternal intelligences.

    Even proponents of MK admit that God can’t simply choose a best world because which worlds are possible must be up to the agents about whom the counterfactuals of freedom obtain. Just how an agent can be truly free when there is a world-indexed set of conditionals true of that agent even before the agent exists is a huge problem for MK. What makes these counterfactuals true?

    When you speak of “almost every Christian thinker” who accept that foreknowledge is compatible with free will, you include those in the creedal tradition like Augustine, Aquinas and so forth. But their view of freedom and how God relates to us is very different. Why would any Mormon use such figures as authoritative in the sense of setting doctrine?

    You’ll of course have to deal with those scriptures that seem to be genuinely incompatible with the view that God has foreknoweldge — e.g., those cited here: http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2007/01/hermeneutical-assumptions-and-open-theism/319/

    Further, you’ll have to deal with the argument that shows that free will is not compatible with foreknowledge. Merely asserting that it is so doesn’t make it so and has no persuasive value in my view.

  9. Greg

    Blake: It seems to me that your argument above for MK requiring creation ex nihilo is circular, that is, you accept the premises only because you accept the conclusion and not the other way around.

    Your first premise is “There must be a situation in which counterfactuals of freedom obtain before the creation of the agent.” But, if by “creation” you mean “creation ex nihilo” then you’ve built the conclusion into the premise. If one rejects the conclusion then they would also reject your first premise here; for you’ve done nothing other than repeat it.

    It seems to me that MK only requires the weaker requirement of “There must be a situation in which counterfactuals of freedom obtain before the agents acts” or “There must be true counterfactuals of how an agent would act in a number of given situations prior to the actualization of any one of those situations” or something like this (these are, of course, very rough, off the cuff statements.) The point is that either one of these seems to be compatible with metaphysically necessary agents. And, thus, MK does not require that the agents be created ex nihilo and is compatible with LDS theologies that deny it.

    Furthermore, I think many who subscribe to MK also believe that God has MK about himself and this doesn’t seem on the face of it impossible. And if that the case then, again, MK does not require that the agent be created ex nihilo.

  10. Blake

    Greg: Your assertion that somehow creatio ex nihilo is assumed in any notion of creation and thus beg the questions against LDS MK is false. I don’t build into my assumption of creation ex nihilo into the notion of “creation” — that assumption is already built into the notion of creating creatures that have counterfactuals true of them — or choosing which creatures will obtain in order to bring about the right counterfactuals of freedom. Look, if God cannot create creatures knowing what they will do, then God is stuck with creatures that already have a complete set of counterfactuals true of them and God’s knowledge is simple foreknowledge and not MK.

    If counterfactuals merely exist before the creature acts, then the creature exists before God’s act and God cannot bring about anything through middle knowledge because he cannot choose which creatures to create. Look at it this way, if the counterfactuals are true of me and God doesn’t create me, then God has no control over which counterfactuals obtains because I exist along with every true counterfactual about me before (in both a chronological and logical sense) God can act. Further, the counterfactuals that are true of me are also true before I decide. But how do these counterfactuals have truth value before I decide if they are based on my decision to bring them about? Further, it logically follows that there are simply propositions true of me and there are no counterfactuals among which God can choose about me at all.

    How could God have true knowledge of all counterfactuals about himself? Such knowledge collapses into simple foreknowledge because once both the agent exists and the counterfactuals about that agent are known to be true, there is a given truth.

  11. George Cobabe

    Blake – I think you miss my point entirely.
    1. I do not accept all notions that represent the common understanding of Middle Knowledge. I accept only those propositions that I agree with. I reject the entire idea of assigning someone else’s labels to my, or LDS, points of view.
    2. The “birth” of intelligence’s into spiritual bodies do create a person that God does not control and it does create a challenge to foreknowledge because of that. I do not contend that God has that sort of complete foreknowledge.
    3. After our spiritual birth we lived with God and were taught and raised in his eternal family for eons of time. During that time our Father was able to gain a complete understanding of who and what we were and to understand fully how we would act in certain circumstances.
    4. God then organized our earth in such a way to accomplish his purposes. He was able to use his divine knowledge or each of us in a way that he was able to accomplish his purposes for this earth. His purpose include the provision for agency for all men. He exercised complete foreknowledge of the possible contingencies to choose the one “creation” that would best accomplish the task, while maintaining the agency of man.
    5. I do not claim to fully understand the method God used in obtaining his foreknowledge. Perhaps by understanding what we would do. Perhaps by seeing all of his creations as tho they were before him constantly. That is an interesting question – just not a crucial one.
    6. I maintain that God has complete foreknowledge for this world and every other earth he has created. That is all that I am concerned about. The scriptures and the prophets who have declared this to be the case are only concerned with this world. I suspect/believe/maintain that God does not have complete foreknowledge of all creation – as he does not control what intelligences bring to the equation. He must learn at that point how to organize the worlds to accomplish his purposes.

    You are correct in suggesting that I should not use other non-LDS thinkers as authorities. I did not mean to do so, only to point out that the position about agency is not unique to me as others also reject the idea that foreknowledge precludes agency.

    I note that I am not skilled in using the language of philosophical discussion. I shall do my best to speak and to understand with this serious limitation on my part.

    Blake says: “Look, if God cannot create creatures knowing what they will do, then God is stuck with creatures that already have a complete set of counterfactuals true of them and God’s knowledge is simple foreknowledge and not MK.”

    George would alter that to read: If God cannot create creatures knowing what they will do which is true at the time of their spiritual birth, then God is stuck with creatures that already have a complete set of counterfactuals true of them which God then has an opportunity to learn about and God’s new knowledge can be used to choose how to use that knowledge in organizing the new earth to accomplish his purposes.

    If an open theist accepts the idea that God knows all possible future contingencies why would that God select a contingency that would not maximize his creations? The act of not selecting the optimal plan is Open Theism. The act of selecting the optimal plan is that part of Middle Knowledge that I accept as true. You might argue that by selecting any plan God is limiting agency. But it is not possible for God to NOT select a contingency – therefore it does not make sense for him to select a course of action that is not consistent with his understanding of possible futures and taking the one that maximizes his creations.

    Why does that not make sense? It seems to be an obvious conclusion to make.

  12. Blake

    George: God cannot choose which “future contingency” would maximize his creations because which of these contingencies occurs is up the agent to bring about. God cannot unilaterally control that.

  13. Steve G.

    Blake I was wondering when the last book in the series is coming out. I know i don’t completely understand all the concepts as well as i would like and think that it is probably over my head to grasp the total picture, but I have enjoyed reading them. I read the first two volumes twice. I understand what George is saying and have not made up my mind on everything, but the books have help me to clarify my faith some. I am looking forward to the last volume.

  14. Allen Stephens

    I haven’t read the series on Open Theism, having just read this blog, but I see large populations in the church abandoning the omniscience of God as soon as they feel their agency threatened by asking, “Are there surprises for God?” I may change my mind after reading the referenced volumes, but in the meantime I’ll stick with Elder Maxwell’s “Hard Doctrine”, the Smith’s (including Joseph Jr.), and the McConkies who have all contended that the scriptures on omniscience are true and that without this attribute of Godliness it would be impossible to have sufficient faith in Him. During any discussion of the purpose of life I list the usual (Body, Experience, Prove them herewith, and Sealing to families), but spend most of my time on big #5: Mosiah 16:1 We are here to prove to ourselves that God’s judgment about us is true. We prove it to ourselves because we made the choices and the fact that He knows what we chose doesn’t diminish agency. Of course, the follow on is pretty bizarre stuff. He knows because he has already seen us make the choices. He lives in a dimension where there is no time, at least relative to ours (Alma 40:8) When He showed Enoch, the Brother of Jared, and others the beginning of the world to the end, did he show them a statistical projection of how things might turn out? No! He showed them things as they happened. This concept puts Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Velocity, Back To The Future, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in new light (literally). Laugh all you want at these concepts, but they help a few of us understand that God is not a “laboratory technician” (yes this is from the June 1980 “Heresies” speech) and that He really is omniscient. You can blast the other concepts of classical theism, but as for me and my house, we will stick to having FAITH in an omniscient God.

  15. Daryl

    I grew up in the church, and maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention in my Sunday school classes but I always thought that all Mormons believed in pre-ordination and not pre-destination.

    I always thought that that meant that someone like Joseph Smith was pre-ordained to be the prophet which means that God selected him, if he lived worthy, to be the prophet. But God did not know when JS was born that he would live worthy or not, as that was JS’s choice. God had faith in JS when he was born, and God was right about him, however he had someone else lined up if JS fell through.

    It wasn’t until an adult Sunday school class that I realized that I held a view that was not shared by everyone. I was quite surprised when I found everyone disagreeing with me.

  16. James


    Claim that the problem of exhaustive and infallible divine foreknowledge is solved by appealing to a dimension of space where there is no time but where God sees our time is merely an appeal to your imagination.

    Where is the evidence for this dimension of space and how does it necessitate “God’s” exhaustive foreknowledge? According to your claim, foreknowledge isn’t an attribute of God’s consciousness but merely a function of entering into a particular dimension, right?

    In this case, God is not omniscient but the “special dimension” is the place of omniscience? When God steps outside this dimension is he still omniscient?

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