Was Thomas F. Torrance an Advocate of Open Theism? Nein!

The following will not be an attempt to argue against the merits of what has been called Open Theism, whether it has any (merits), or not. Instead, the sole purpose of this mini-essay will be to clarify whether or not Scottish theologian, Thomas F. Torrance, affirmed the Open Theist position in his material writings, and theological offerings.

Since I am attempting to provide clarification about Torrance’s relationship (or non-relationship) with open theism, there must be, you might infer, folks who are claiming that in some way (even if only suggestively), Torrance was an advocate or friend of open theism. But before we get ahead of ourselves, for the un-initiated, let me provide a definition of what open theism entails from one of its most popular and foremost proponents today, Greg Boyd. Boyd states, in regard to his definition of open theism, this:

If I had to define “Open Theism” in one sentence, I would say that it as the view that the future is partly comprised of possibilities and is therefore known by God as partly comprised of possibilities.  (By the way, I prefer to refer to this view as “the open view of the future,” since the most distinctive aspect of Open Theism is not its understanding of the nature of God, but its understanding of the nature of the future).

To expound a bit on this definition, the open view of the future holds that God chose to create a cosmos that is populated with free agents – at least humans and angels (though some hold that there is a degree of freedom, however small, in all sentient beings).  To have free will means that one has the ability to transition several possible courses of action into one actual course of action. This is precisely why Open Theists hold that the future is partly comprised of possibilities.  While God can decide to pre-settle whatever aspects of the future he wishes, to the degree that he has given agents freedom, God has chosen to leave the future open, as a domain of possibilities, for agents to resolve with their free choices.  This view obviously conflicts with the understanding of the future that has been espoused by classical theologians, for the traditional view is that God foreknows from all eternity the future exclusively as a domain of exhaustively definite facts.[1]

Whether or not (and he does not) Boyd wants to associate his ‘open’ view with his doctrine of God or not, does not change the reality that this (his) view does implicate his doctrine of God, and his conception of a God-world relation; in particular, as the quote illustrates, how Boyd conceives of God’s posture and activity towards the future of this earth, and the human decisions that shape it. For Boyd, then, God’s life becomes contingent upon the way we as human beings ‘decide’ to go one way or the other; and God then responds in kind to our decisions, even if he does so from a more privileged and knowledgeable place than we ourselves do. The implication being that God is ‘open’ to our future, thus filling in the gaps or contingencies embedded in creation as he ‘responds’ to our ‘free’ and unconditioned choices (which ends up collapsing God into creation [making God’s decisions about his relation to creation contingent upon creation’s decisions about the future, both generally, and particularly], which would be akin to the kind of pantheistic theology of someone like Jürgen Moltmann).

To be ‘open’ then, for God, in this system, is to be genuinely open to the choices that we make as human beings.[2] This would be opposed to the conception, the classical conception, that God knows the beginning from the end; and that there is nothing external to God’s life (like creation) that could cause him to change his mind, like our decisions.

Thomas F. Torrance is not an advocate, whatsoever! of Open Theism as some would like to suggest.[3] And for the rest of this little essay, I would like to briefly explain why; and further, how Torrance is using the language of ‘open’ in contrast to the way that open theism uses it. By engaging in this quick exercise, I hope to demonstrate that any attempt to correlate Torrance and open theism, simply because they use similar language at points (i.e. open), is in the end an equivocal endeavor.

Thomas Torrance’s primary concern, in his theology, is not to explain how human being’s choices might implicate God’s inner Triune life (in se). Torrance is not anxious about defending free-will theism, and libertarian free agency (as is open theism) against the over-deterministic world of classical Calvinist thought imbued with a universe that is regulated by fate-driven decrees and cog like mechanisms that turn the hands of God’s time and our’s. Instead, Torrance’s primary concern, in regard to a doctrine of God, is to demonstrate that God’s life has always already been free in itself to be what is exhaustibly within itself based upon the intra-relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, for Torrance, he would like people to understand that God does not need anything or anyone else to be exhaustively complete and full within himself (so simple). It is precisely because of whom God is in and for himself, Torrance would postulate, that he has the kind of freedom it took for him to decide to create. And for Torrance, God decided to create not by a necessary compulsion, but because he is grace and love; and because he is love and grace he freely chose, in concert with this defining reality, to create counterpoints, by creating a creation (humanity) that could participate and reciprocate his self given life of love back to himself (cf. I Jn. 4.19) in fellowship one with the other. For Torrance then, and in line with an Athanasian theme, God has always been Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, but he has not always been Creator; becoming Creator for God, just as becoming Incarnate in Christ, was something new for God and it was grounded back in this antecedent reality of who God is as love and in his free act grace.

Given this background on Torrance’s doctrine of God we are free to consider, better, how openness for Torrance functions in contrast to how ‘openness’ functions for the Open Theist. When God freely chose to create, in Torrance’s view, built into this was the notion of contingency. In other words, when God created (and the classical Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo is foundational and presumed for Torrance), since he did not need the world in order to be God, by definition (since he is the one creating it), the world depended upon his divine Word for its reality; and so the world was initially and continuously contingent upon this reality (i.e. the world needs God’s sustenance in order to exist, so contingence). In describing this we are getting closer to understanding how ‘open’ language will do work within Torrance’s system of theology and doctrine of God, in a God-world relation. What you should be starting to realize by now, is that for Torrance, there is an interesting and pregnant relation between the contingency of the world, and how he uses the concept of openness in regard to the world’s relationship with its giver, with God. It is apropos then for us to see how Torrance himself articulates his understanding of God, and how the world is open to him (not vice versa in contrast to open theism’s conception and employment of ‘openness’). Here is Torrance (at length):

There is no intrinsic reason in the universe why it should exist at all, or why it should be what it actually is: hence we deceive ourselves if in our natural science we think that we can establish that the universe could only be what it is. The universe is not some sort of perpetuum mobile, a self-existing, self-supporting, self-explaining magnitude, wholly consistent and complete in itself and thus imprisoned within a pointless circularity of inescapable necessities. On the contrary, the universe constitutes an essentially open system with an ontological and intelligible reference beyond its own limits which cuts the circuit of any possible closure of its internal processes re-entrantly upon themselves, and thereby gives them their distinctive intelligibility. Thus it belongs to the very nature of the universe that the consistency of its own independent status and condition is incomplete and requires to completed beyond itself. That is another way of saying that the independence of the universe is both grounded in and limited by its radical dependence. Given that dependence, openness, or reference of the universe beyond itself which is part of what contingence means, contingence also represents—that the universe is endowed with an autonomous character both as a whole and throughout its immanent relations, with features and patterns and operational principles which belong to it as by intrinsic natural right, and which require an autonomous mode of investigation appropriate to their distinctive nature and integrity. That is why contingence must be assiduously respected, and must not be rationalized away as some unfortunate element of deficiency or inexplicability in nature from which science must abstract in order to give a consistent, rational account of the universe. Rather is contingence to be regarded as a basic and essential feature of the universe, a constituting condition of its reality and actuality.[4]

Torrance’s whole discussion of ‘openness’ takes place under the dogmatic category of a doctrine of Creation (which is distinct from where the discussion of openness occurs for the Open Theist, for the OT this discussion takes place in a doctrine of humanity or in the realm of an theological-anthropology). The world is necessarily ‘open’ precisely because it is contingent upon its reality given and sustained by God. The world, for Torrance, as just noticed, has its own internal order and independence, and thus has realities attendant to that that are coherent with its own immanent integrity; but the point, Torrance’s point remains, this independent character of the created order, the world, is a contingent independence, contingent upon God. When scientists, when people endeavor to seek out the mysteries of the universe, there is a naturalist component to this, but ultimately this seeking out, according to Torrance, will finally terminate beyond creation itself, and require the inquirer to move beyond nature and recognize that nature itself is contingent upon God’s word of grace. In this sense the world remains ‘open’, the world is ‘open’ and there is an openness of God in a God-world relation, wherein the world must look beyond itself to its giver if there is going to be an ultimate intelligibility about its order and resplendent glory.

This is different than the way the open theist thinks of openness. I will leave this open for you to consider further. But what should no longer be open, if ever it was for you, is the idea that Thomas F. Torrance is anywhere close to being an advocate, chum, friend, mate of what has become known as Open Theology. He is not for the reasons delineated  above.


[1] Greg Boyd, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-open-theist-greg-boyd-response, accessed 04-16-2014.

[2] In other words, God could change his mind based upon future contingencies that become actual through the decision making process of human beings, for example. So God’s life vis-à-vis his relation to the future is not exhausted by his own internal life, but remains genuinely open and informed by the choices that human history makes; thus implying that God’s own being could be lacking and deficient insofar as he, along with us, is waiting to see how the future is going to unfold.

[3] See this blog article Muslin Open Theists, Politics, T. F. Torrance, and Why the God-Man Matters, written by open theist proponent, T.C. Moore. Moore would like to suggestively posit that Thomas F. Torrance’s theology somehow is in alignment with the concerns and categories offered by Open Theism. Moore quotes Torrance in a piece where Torrance uses the language of ‘openness of God’ to draw this kind of purported or suggestive correlation between Torrance’s theological articulation and that of open theism. This quote:

The world, then, is made open to God through its intersection in the axis of Creation-Incarnation. Its space-time structures are so organized in relation to God that we who are set within them may think in and through them to their transcendent ground in God Himself. Jesus Christ constitutes the actual centre in space and time where that may be done. But what of the same relationship the other way round, in the openness of God for the world that He has made? Does the intersection of His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ mean anything for God? We have noted already that it means that space and time are affirmed as real for God in the actuality of His relations with us, which binds us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can contract out of them. Does this not mean that God has so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly experiences have import for Him in such as way, for example, that we must think of Him as taking our hurt and pain into Himself? This is what we cannot do from the approach of deistic dualism—why, for example, Schleiermacher could not hold that God is merciful and why Bultmann cannot allow that the love of God is a fact within the cosmos. Thus it would appear that the question as to impassibility of God is the question as to the actuality of the intersection of God’s reality with worldly reality, and as to the depth of its penetration into our creaturely being. If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence, and if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in faithfulness but not immutable. T. F. Torrance, Space, Time, and Incarnation (Oxford University Press, 1969), 74-75, emphasis added.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 36.

This entry was posted in Doctrine Of Creation, Doctrine Of God, Doctrine of God, Open Theism, Systematic Theology, T. F. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Was Thomas F. Torrance an Advocate of Open Theism? Nein!

  1. Tim E says:

    Too bad he wasn’t cuz open view Rocks!!!!


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim E,

    You meant to say Sucks!!!! 😉


  3. Pingback: An Open Orthodoxy

  4. T. C. says:

    Actually, Bobby, Open theists can and do agree with everything you’ve stated. Open theists don’t posit that God was obliged to create, nor do Open theists posit that God is ontologically dependent on creation. Open theists agree with Torrance that God created the world out of the freedom of the love that God is as Trinity.

    But, of course, to understand what Open theism actually entails requires one actually reading the source material written by Open theists—not just RHE blog posts. As I’ve told you multiple times, you’re just not qualified to comment on what Open theism entails since you haven’t read any Open theism. And this is why your characterizations of Open theism continue to be mere caricatures.

    I’ve admitted repeatedly that I haven’t read much of Torrance’s work. That is why I am endeavoring to do that very thing. You’d be wise to do the same, or just recognize the limits of your expertise and cease commenting on subjects about which you haven’t studied.


  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Here is what Tom Belt said about Open Theism:

    “… I’m not arguing that nothing about God or God’s decisions is contingent upon the world in any sense (it is, to the extend God wills it to be and sustains it in its freedom). I’m only arguing (contrary to you) that this does not mean “God’s life” without remainder becomes contingent upon the world.”

    Torrance does not believe this, TC!

    As far as having an intelligent conversation with you about any of this, TC; let’s not and say we did. I’d rather interact with someone like Tom Belt, who is better able to seriously engage than you appear to be.


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