Open theism and libertarian free will

Open Theism states that God has granted to people free will and that in order for this free will to remain free, God cannot know ahead of time what the choices of people will be.  They reason that if God knew a future choice of a person, then that person would not be truly free to choose anything different when the time comes to make that choice.  Therefore, they say, if God knows the future free will choices of people, then it means that free will doesn't really exist.

Furthermore, they hold to a view of free will known as libertarian free will.  This is the position that a person is equally able to make choices between options independent of pressures or constraints from external or internal causes.  In other words, the person is able to equally choose between any set of options.  By contrast, compatibilist free will holds that a person can choose only that which is consistent with his nature and that there are constraints and influences upon his ability to choose.  In libertarian free will, a sinner is equally able to choose God or reject God regardless of his sinful condition.  In compatibilist free will, a sinner can only choose to do that which is consistent with his sinful nature.

Libertarian free will |
Compatibilist free will
  • Free will is affected by human nature but retains ability to choose contrary to our nature and desires
  • Free will is affected by human nature but cannot choose contrary to our nature and desires

In compatibilism a person who is a slave to sin (Rom. 6:14-20) and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14) would not be able to choose God of his own free will because his free will doesn't have the capacity to contradict his nature and his nature is against God, dead, and incapable of choosing God.  Libertarianism would maintain that regardless of the nature of a person, his free will allows him to choose God in spite of being a slave to sin and not being able to understand spiritual things. I believe that the singularly most important aspect of Open Theism is the libertarian view of free will and that the Bible, human sinfulness, human freedom, God's nature, and time itself are all viewed through its filter.  In fact, I further believe that the Bible is reinterpreted in light of this truth.

The difference between definitions has a profound affect on Open Theism because Open Theism must hold to Libertarian view of free will, not compatibilism.  Why?  Because Open Theists hold to the absolute sovereign free will of the individual, regardless of that person's sinful nature.  But, compatibilism teaches that the will is only as free as its nature permits it to be free.  If the latter position is true, then how could the God of Open Theism save anyone without intervening in their wills?  But since Open Theism maintains that God not only is ignorant of the free will choices of people, He will not interfere with the free will of anyone.

Nevertheless, the Bible teaches us that God indeed does intervene in people's free choices.  Please consider Prov. 21:1 which says, "The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes." If libertarian free will is true and if God does not interfere with a persons' free will at all, then how can Prov. 21:1 be true?  Furthermore, consider how God even hardens people's hearts in order to accomplish His will: "But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today," (Deut. 2:30).  Also, "For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the Lord had commanded Moses," (Joshua 11:20).  As difficult as some of these verses might be, the fact is that God definitely influences the hearts of individuals.  If that is so, then what happens to the Open Theist's position that God will not interfere, in anyway, with the free will choices of people?

Free Will

The Bible says the unbeliever is a slave to sin (Rom. 6:14-20), has a heart that is desperately sick (Jer. 17:9), is full of evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19), that he is dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12), and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14).  Do these facts influence the human will?  Both Libertarianism and compatibilism say yes, but libertarianism says that the fallen nature of man does not constrain the free will sufficiently to limit choice.  Compatibilism, on the other hand, states that we cannot violate our own natures and that our will is part of our nature, and that our will is directly related to and affected by our nature which, the Bible says, is in pretty bad shape.  Therefore, in compatibilism, if someone is a slave of sin, is dead, does not seek for God, is full of evil, and does not understand spiritual things, it makes sense to say that his choices are limited to the scope allowed by the description set forth in the Bible.  But the libertarian would say that the will is somehow independent of the nature since it is able to choose contrary to its nature.  This, of course, is illogical.

Free will is the ability for a person to make choices that determine some or all of his actions.  I propose that free will involves three aspects: awareness, desire, and choice.  Awareness leads to desire, which leads to choice.  Please consider the following:

Awareness, Desire, and Choice

Before we can make a choice about anything, we must first desire to choose it.  But before we can desire to choose something we must be aware of it.  So, we cannot choose what we are not aware of.  Furthermore, we cannot be aware of something beyond our ability or nature to be aware.  For example, there are things in the universe that we are not aware of either in dimension, or scope, or place, or time, that are simply beyond our ability to comprehend given our limited human nature.  Therefore, these unknown realities cannot be things we are aware of (and comprehend) since we cannot know of them.  This means that we are not free to make choices about them because we are not aware of them.  Our lack of awareness is logically restricted by our nature.

Likewise if our nature affects our ability to choose, then what the Bible says about our nature will effect our ability to choose.  As I said above, the unbeliever is a slave to sin (Rom. 6:14-20), has a heart that is desperately sick (Jer. 17:9), is full of evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19), is dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12), and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14).  We must ask the question how a sinful will is able to choose contrary to what the Bible clearly states concerning its nature.

Libertarian free will

The Libertarians would, I hope, agree that we are limited by our natures to be able to make choices only between options of which we are aware.  From what I have read of Open theists, they easily concede this reality.  But, given the scriptures about the unbelievers nature above, they still maintain that the human free will is not constrained by our sinfulness and is still able to make equal choices between equal options -- say, for example, the ability to choose or reject God in spite of the Bible's declaration of the constraints of our sinful nature.

But what seems to be happening is that the Open Theists want it both ways.  They want to say that we are affected by our nature, and even though we are sinners by nature, our ability to choose is not constrained by that sinful nature.  But how can this be, given the clear direction of scripture about our sinful condition which sates the unbeliever is a slave to sin (Rom. 6:14-20), loves darkness rather than light (John 3:19), does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12), and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14)?  At this point, the open theists simply states that human free will is still somehow able to make such choices.  To this I ask, "How can this be so, given the scriptures that speak to the contrary?"


In my opinion, the open theist position of libertarian free will violates the revelation of scripture which clearly restricts our unregenerate human natures as not being free from sin.  It further contradicts scripture that tells us that God intervenes in the hearts of people, i.e. Prov. 21:1 and Deut. 2:30.

The open theist erringly exalts the free will of people to such a high level that, in order for God to be God, He must be lessened (doesn't know the future, can make mistakes, etc.) so that our precious free will cannot be violated.  Any theology that reduces the majesty and glory of God by exalting man's freedom is a theology of error.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.