Open theism, reformed theology and fatalism

At last week’s Fellowship of Word and Spirit Conference, Richard Pratt drew a really useful diagram to highlight the differences between open theism, reformed theology and fatalism with respect to the sovereignty of God and the providence of God.  The hinteraction of these two can be shown in a Venn diagram:

Open Theists – Big on providence
The open theist sees God’s hand of providence in all things. God is at work, like a master chess player, interacting with the world, relating to people, loving people, frustrating the wicked, though often the wicked seem to get away with things. God is immanent and intimate. Life is dynamic and fluid.

Fatalists – Big on sovereignty
The fatalist is aware that God controls all things to the point that the fatalist is resigned to whatever happens if life, que sera sera. He feels unable to change the course of events because his distant God pulls all the strings and so there’s no point in pulling back.

Reformed theologians – Big on sovereignty and big on providence.
As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it in section 5.2

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

In other words, from God’s perspective, he is in complete control and yet, from a human perspective, we face the reality of choice as God uses second causes such that all events are, to us, free and contingent.  The reformed Christian thinks “I have a choice to make, and I want to make it under the guidance and will of God.  If I make a good choice blessing will come and if not it will result in bad fruit.  When I look back on life, I see God at work in directing all things.  Looking forward, I have confidence that God will build his church and see me through, even as global events unfurl and I make bad choices.”

The question which I wanted to ask at the conference and didn’t is, “what is life for according to these three schools of thought?” Open theists seem to believe that life is for interacting with the inter-actable God. Life is an adventure with no assurance of a happy end but it is fun and hardship on the way. Fatalists believe in the opposite, that whatever they do in life makes no meaningful difference so life is for enduring, as they suffer whatever comes their way. But Reformed theologians get the balance right.  God is sovereign, yes, but we also learn about him and we are changed from one degree of glory to another.  Safe in his sovereignty, we grow and change before the unchanging God and we do this by making choices and reflecting on life in the light of his word.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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8 Responses to Open theism, reformed theology and fatalism

  1. Tim says:

    With full respect. Isn’t Reformed theology fully inside the fatalist circle? I am not sure how it differs? If God is the first cause for everything and controls everything then everything is an a pre-determined pattern. Humans in that scheme only have the appearance of free-will – in actuality nothing they do is free. (Because God is the first cause).

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Tim, welcome to TG and thanks for your comment. The difference between the fatalist and reformed theologian is perspective. I’ve tried to clarify the last paragraph of my post, whcih was written in a rush. We might ask, “why did God make a universe in which he excercises authority and controls all things yet gives us the impression of freedom?” The answer from Jonah, for example, is that Jonah’s choices are his and are contingent, so from his persepctive, free. In retrospect, however, Jonah sees the sovereignty of God at work in his life “you through me into the depth of the seas…to teach me about your grace and to change my heart.” The fatalist learns nothing because he’s worshipping the wrong God.

      Our of interest, which position do you hold of the three?


  2. Tim says:

    Hi Neil – thanks for the reply. I am more of the Open Theist persuasion myself.

    Re. Jonah – aren’t you agreeing with me? ie Jonah only had the appearance of free will – it seemed that he was making a Free will choice (“from his perspective free”) when really God was in control of everything? (According to the view you are espousing). Hence, his choices were illusory because ultimately they aren’t his choices.

    My view is that the verse you quote could equally be interpreted that God worked for good in the Jonah He encountered ie He responded to Jonah’s choices (first choice to run away, second choice to repent) – rather than his plan was all along for Jonah to get swallowed by the Great Fish and respond with repentance. This is similar to a Parent encountering certain behaviour from a child and working on and delivering a plan to deal with it. The Parent is working in the moment (though perhaps they could be the ultra well prepared parent who planned for that contingency).

    I am grateful to the reformers for a great many things – Freedom to read and Interpret scripture, their theology of work (no hierarchy of work between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’) etc. However with regard to aspects of Foreknowledge and Predestination and personal Freedom I believe they have got that wrong.

    God Bless,


    • neilrobbie says:

      Yes and no. The reformed position would say it depends on perspective. From where God sits, nothing is contingent. Where we sit, everything is contingent. Jonah’s choices were real to him and he learned about God’s grace in a transformative way. And Jonah himself acknowledges God’s sovereignty when he says “you through me into the depths of the sea.” Have I repeated myself?

      To late to blog.


  3. Bob says:

    Neil – some thoughts if I may:

    1st – I would agree with Tim in placing Calvinists fully inside the sovereignty of God (i.e. fatalist) portion of the Venn diagram. Without fail, all of my 5-point TULIP friends all claim that God has ordained from the beginning of time all that has been and all that will be. John Piper stated after a tornado ripped the roof off of a Lutheran church in Minneapolis that God was sending a message to the ELCA to not ordain homosexuals at their annual convention (I think) three years ago. There is also a YouTube video of John Piper stating that each particle of dust in the air is exactly where God wants it at any given moment. That sounds strongly “deterministic” to me. God controls and he ordains and being sovereign, does as he pleases.

    2nd: I’m not sure I agree with your definition of Open Theists seeing God’s hand of providence in all things and interacting with the world. I always thought Open Theists thought that some aspects of the future are not know, aka “open” to God. There are a number of scriptural references where God seems to be surprised and disappointed by the actions of people i.e. 1 Sam 15:10, 35.

    3rd: I find it interesting that with both of your responses above, you use the word perspective. I’ll try to say this gently – but if our beliefs are based on perspective, then how can anyone ever have conviction about what it is they believe about God and his interactions with his creation? Consider that John Piper (Calvinist) and Greg Boyd (Open Theist) have (at least to me) diametrically opposed perspectives and theological positions. Yet they’ll often use the same scriptural references i.e. Romans chapter nine & Ephesians chapter one to justify their respective arguments. I’m simply baffled and even frustrated that we perhaps CAN’T know the truth about the nature and character of God. I’ll tell you that I FEEL better about Open Theistic beliefs than I do about Calvinistic beliefs. Am I part of the elect (according to Reformed theology) or did I just happen to “discover” that the historical Jesus really might just have been raised from the dead? I hate the thought that my faith (or lack thereof) is based on how I feel about the various tenants of Christianity.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Bob, thanks for your comment, your irenic tone and welcome to TG.

    I am not sure you understand Calvinism, because, whilst the fatalist and Calvinist would both say that God determines all things, they would differ greatly with respect to their personal attitude toward life and God. The fatalist is resigned to fate and passive with respect to the circumstances of life. The Calvinist is alive to life and is fully aware of the need to make good decisions under the guidance and will of God, yet the Calvinist sees all circumstances as either for his own good/learning/growth or for the good of others. The fatalist sees life as a deck of cards which “God” deals him and he must gruding suffer/bear/enjoy, the Calvinist sees life as part of God’s plan of salvation and renewal of the earth through Christ, and all things tend toward this end.

    The open theist begins as an Arminian with respect to salvation, and so, because God’s prevenient grace makes it possible for sinners to freely choose to accept Christ or not, then God cannot know how sinners will choose. As God does not know who will be saved, then the future is open. Once the future is open, then, as God does not know the end from the beginning, everything is like a game of chess, as God tries to keep one step or more ahead of the world and the devil. In this view, God is the “risk taker” and, therefore, even risks the salavation of the believer.

    I am with you on the last point you make. Faith cannot be based on feelings about tenets of Christianity. Faith is based solely on the person and work of Christ. Open theisist and Calvinists tend to agree on this and so the doctrine of grace, electing or prevenient, and everything else is secondary and a matter of discussion, with the bible open (Epheisans 4:1ff)

    God bless


    • Bob says:

      Many thanks, Neil, for your gracious and kind comments. Although, I did have to look up irenic before I knew you were being gracious and kind.

      That said, perhaps I am not understanding Calvinism. I very much see Calvinism as fatalistic. Still, I don’t discount the “experiential difference” of the believer living life as God ordains vs the non-believer just going about in the muck and mire of it all. I’m sure we can agree that no one likes to suffer. Even Calvinists. So, why does every Calvinists I know, to greater or lessor degrees – at least from my perspective and observation, rebel against that suffering which God has apparently ordained in their lives? Why would a Calvinist ever want to argue against what God deems is best for us?

      It very well may be that my observations, understanding and arguments against Calvinism lack knowledge, insight and wisdom. However, when the likes of Paul Kjoss Helseth claim, “Reformed believers are persuaded that God actively accomplishes all his good purposes not just by preserving and passively observing what he has created but also by simultaneously working concurrently with created things to cause them to act as they do [for] his all-determining will.” (Four Views on Divine Providence pg 30-31) – then I am left with a very fatalistic view wherein some are blessed and some are cursed. To me, then, this sounds a lot like unconditional election.

      Thanks for allowing me to post my comments and ask my questions. I won’t intentionally try to “dirty up” your blog with illogical or nonsensical questions. I am where I am and I do try to be respectful in my posts and comments. I’ll plan to visit from time to time and will look forward to further discussions. Take care. // Bob

  5. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Bob, welcome back. In answer to your first question about rebellion against suffering, no suffering is pleasant but painful (Hebrews 12:11) and the psalms give us ample oppurtunity to cry out to God (Ps 77 etc). Notwithstanding these facts, the Calvinist reads scripture in a way that shows all suffering has a good purpose, though that purpose might not be for the one who is suffering. For more on this, you might like to read the 4 Js

    From your quote, Paul Kjoss Helseth seems to confuse sovereignty and providence, which is what this post aimed to clear up. Yes, God is sovereign and all things work out to his foreknowledge and authority. And, yes, God is providential, such that we face real choices and learn to trust God, learn from God, learn about God, and learn to lean on God, cry out to God, pray to God and grow in many ways into the people God calls us to be, in all circumstances. The real interaction with God in his providence is what distinguishes Calvinists from fatalists who believe in a distant, often capricious, “God”, with whom there can be no meaningful relationship.

    God bless


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