“Open Theism” is Incompatible with Inerrancy

Founders Journal · Spring 2003 · pp. 14-21

“Open Theism” is Incompatible with Inerrancy

Roger Nicole

The present paper is not intended to provide a full criticism of “Open Theism,” nor even of that feature of it whereby God’s advance knowledge of future decisions of free agents is denied. This would obviously be lengthy and superfluous since it has been done very ably in book form by members of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) and others.[1]

What I intend to do here is to point out to one feature invariably advanced by “Open Theists,” which by itself alone is sufficient to disqualify any of them from membership in ETS, because it is in flagrant contradiction of our confession of the inerrancy of Scripture.

I hereby address this paper to my fellow members of ETS and I proceed to warn them of a grievous conflict between ETS basis of faith and the so-called “Open” view. I am at this point not addressing any “Open” theistic friends, and I am therefore not observing the principles that I have set forth for myself in dealing with those who differ. I am dealing here with those who agree with me that the Bible is inerrant because it is the Word of the inerrant God.

  1. “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” This is the statement of faith established in the first meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in December 1949. It has remained in force ever since with annual subscription by all the members of ETS.

    There are at least three notable advantages to this statement that I wish to underline here.

    1. The statement represents a consensus of the ETS founders and affirms the divine authority of the Scripture as a watershed of evangelical faith (John10:45). This was later notably expanded in the “Chicago statement of Biblical inerrancy” (1978).
    2. Although some have objected to this statement as making the divine authorship of the Bible hostage to the discovery of even a single mistake in the autographic text (James Orr, et al.), this has not prevented the founders of ETS from adopting this formulation. Similarly, the demonstration of a single sin in the whole life of Jesus Christ would inevitably cancel the propriety of affirming His deity.

      By virtue of its extreme sensitivity this statement may serve as a test of evangelical legitimacy, even as a fuse tests excessive amperage in an electric line, when the current is higher than acceptable it interrupts the circuit and prevents serious damage. Similarly, the denial of inerrancy may be the signal that some unevangelical factor has been immixed in the conception.

    3. The statement rightly indicates that it is not based on an exhaustive treatment of all possible mistakes in the autographs. Rather it emphasizes that it is a necessary implicate of the proposition that the Bible is the Word of God: “and is therefore inerrant.” Thus it articulates a fundamental unity between the inerrancy of Scripture and the radical truthfulness of God. It is a statement of faith, not the induction from an all-embracing scientific investigation.
  2. God is Truth. One of the most important perfections of God, abundantly asserted in His Word, both positively and negatively, is Truth.
    1. Positively.

      In the Old Testament, the true God is called the God of truth, the God of Amen; His truth is repeatedly emphasized[2] His words, His judgments, His counsels, His witness are true.[3] Truth is often enjoined to God’s servants and the words of truth are used almost as frequently as the word chesed, lovingkindness.[4]

      In the New Testament God is called “the true God” and is recognized as truthful.[5] Jesus said, “I am the truth” and came to testify to the truth, full of grace and truth. He is true, and could always say I tell you the truth.[6] The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who guides the disciples into all truth and sanctification by the truth.[7]

      The word or words of God is truth. The gospel is the truth of God and of Christ. God’s judgments, law, commandments and ways are true.[8] Truth is to be known, acknowledged, believed, obeyed, walked in, established in and rejoiced in.[9] Truthfulness is to be expected of the disciples at all times and their message is the truth.[10]

      The word “Amen” occurs 150 times in the New Testament, most often on the lips of Jesus, who said “Amen, amen” not “Possibly, possibly” even with respect to future events and decisions.

      Aletheia occurs 111 times in the N.T., nearly as often as agape (116 times).

    2. Negatively

      In the Old Testament God identifies any prophecy that does not come to pass as an outrageous claim of divine authority, the word of a false prophet who deserves to be executed as an idolater or a blasphemer. Elijah is commended for putting to death the 450 prophets of Baal.[11]

      The ninth commandment forbids false witness. 60 passages condemn falsehood, described by 6 different Hebrew words. Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.[12] There are at least 66 texts relating to falsehood and 120 dealing with lies and lying.

      In the New Testament, Jesus made especially clear that Satan is at the root of all lies: “he was a murderer from the beginning, not holding the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44). No lie comes from the truth and those who reject the truth are in peril of damnation.[13] More than 70 times God warns us against falsehood, false prophets, false apostles, false doctors and false brothers.[14]

  3. Now the two cases on which the whole matter of the propriety of an “open” theist’s membership in ETS may by themselves be resolved is the account of the miraculous healing of Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-11) and the prophecy of Jonah concerning the destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-4:3).

    The “open” theist invariably points to these two incidents as a proof that the future is not hermetically sealed in God’s mind, but that there are occasions when God actually changes His mind in order to take account of a human prayer or a drastic change in the disposition of those He addresses.

    Their interpretation runs basically as follows: In the case of Hezekiah, God expressed His intention in the words reported by Isaiah: “Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover” (2 Kings 20:1). Hezekiah then pleaded with God for a more extended life and God forthwith sent Isaiah back with the message that God had now decided to grant him an extension of 15 years.[15] There is a manifest conflict between “being at the point of death” (v. 1) and “having 15 more years to live” (v. 6). It is therefore manifest that God here “changed His mind.” He cancelled the original prediction and substituted a new arrangement. Therefore the event shows that God does not have a fixed, invariable plan for the whole future, but that He does take account of prayers and tears to the point of changing His own decisions.

    In the case of Jonah, God had given a deadline in time for the fulfillment of His prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). “The Ninevites believed God” in that they acknowledged their own predicament, but they did not believe that God was immovable, and therefore they proceeded immediately to a period of national repentance and reformation which led God to change His mind and to cancel the threatened destruction. This case also proves that God does not function with immutable designs, but that He reacts to human attitudes when they occur and not by virtue of a foresight of what they will do.

    These two cases are pivotal for the open theists because they think that they document a change in God from a purpose that was attested in Holy Writ and from which God did in fact depart.

    I say this interpretation is false[16] and cannot be anything but false since it runs counter to the express statements of Scripture (for instance Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isaiah 14:34; 31:2; 46:9, 10; Mal. 3:6; 2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 6:17; James 1:17) and since it puts God at loggerheads with His own statements. If God truly “changed His mind,” this would of necessity mean that an earlier statement of His mind would be displaced by the later statement, which would inevitably mean that the earlier statement had been false:

    “You will not recover” (2 Kings 20:1)
    “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4)

    In fact, Hezekiah did recover, and 40 days elapsed and Nineveh was spared for another 150 years! Obviously, then Isaiah and Jonah could be liable to the death penalty for claiming as God’s Word something that did not come to pass (Deut.18:20,22). Even more grievous is the inevitable implication that something that God had said turned out to be false. This is the very opposite of inerrancy. By ruining the inerrancy of God, this position also destroys the inerrancy of Scripture, since some statements of which God was asserted to be the author turned out to be erroneous.

    I say therefore that this position is incompatible with inerrancy. Anyone who holds it has forfeited the legitimacy of membership in the ETS. If one does not perceive it by himself or herself, discipline is mandatory if our membership is to remain what the constitution requires.

    This is not my opinion alone, but I have in my possession the signatures of all the founders and charter members of ETS who are still with us to the statement “the denial of God’s foreknowledge of the decisions of free agents is incompatible with the inerrancy of Scripture.” As one of our most distinguished deceased members said in his presidential address in 1965:

    Let goods and kindred go
    Some memberships also.

Appendix 1

Interpretation of 2 Kings 20:1-11 and Jonah 3 – 4/2

The case of Hezekiah’s sickness in 2 Kings 20 is supplemented by the parallel passages in 2 Chronicles 32:24-26 and Isaiah 38:1-22. These passages reveal that by the 14th year of his reign, Hezekiah yielded to pride in spite of God’s goodness to him and to Judah, protecting them from the disaster that befell Samaria through the Assyrian conquest. To deal with this defect, God announced to Hezekiah that if he continued in his self-sufficiency, his life was at an end, for no human power could overcome his deadly terminal disease. Only by a miracle could his life be continued. So Hezekiah “repented of the pride of his heart” (2 Chron. 32:26) and God graciously extended his life by 15 years: “I will heal you” (2 Kings 20:5) He said and the rest of the passage deals with the confirmation of God’s miraculous power that would apply both to Hezekiah’s personal life and to the protection of Judah from Assyrian attacks (2 Kings 20:6; Isaiah 38:6). This is articulated very clearly in Hezekiah’s song recorded for us in Isaiah 38:10-20. That this whole process does not reflect a change of mind on God’s part is manifest from the fact that in that same fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, God had promised him at least three more years of life (2 Kings 9:29) and that the birth of his son Manasseh, necessary for the fulfillment of God’s promise to David ( 2 Sam. 1:12-16), also took place 3 years later in the seventeenth year of his reign (2 Kings 21:1).

The case of Jonah’s prophecy is even clearer for the Ninevites understood well that Jonah’s announcement did not mean “whatever you do, I have determined to obliterate you within forty days” but rather “forty more days of your rebellious conduct and I will “let you have it!” The Ninevites, led by their king, responded in due repentance and abandonment of “their evil ways and violence” (Jonah 3:8). They rightly used the 40 days’ reprieve as a time of humiliation and renewal. Thus they gained another reprieve of some 150 years!! It is noteworthy that Jonah himself had anticipated this development (Jonah 4:2) and that is why he wanted to flee to Tarshish, being eager to see the discomfiture of Israel’s enemy rather than their continued existence. From beginning to the end God’s purpose was the same, to wit a moral renewal in Nineveh!

When such a sounder interpretation of the texts is acknowledged, the validity of claiming these cases as documenting a change of mind on God’s part has vanished. If this is acknowledged, not only is their proof against God’s fixity of purpose lost, but in the process their construction of the word Nicham as implying such a change is jeopardized. (Found 100 times in the Hebrew, it is translated as repent only 45 times in KJV. The translation “change one’s mind” found 16 times with reference to God in NAB and NRSV is probably wrong, although 7 of these state that God “does not change his mind” Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29 (twice), Ps. 110:4; Jer. 4:28; 20:16; Ezek. 24:14).

Appendix 2


The term prophecy in the widest sense encompasses the whole range of speaking in God’s name. This is the meaning in 2 Peter 1:20: “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own initiative. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit.” The prefix “pro” in this sense is the equivalent of “forth” and “prophecy” indicates “speaking forth” in God’s name.

One special form of prophecy relates to an announcement concerning the future. This may refer to individual human forecasting, which is affected by human frailty due to the fact that the human eye does not truly penetrate the future, although it is true that human past experience does give us some insight into probable developments in view of present observation as in weather forecasting, or as in the work of pollsters, or as the effect of cocaine on a physical organism, etc. Much of human science is dedicated to observing in order to anticipate good or harmful likely developments.

At the divine level prophecy relates to an announcement on divine authority either of the implications for the future of present conduct, which may be called conditional prophecy, or simply of what is going to happen in the future by virtue of God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future. It is this particular sphere of prophecy that is the exclusive prerogative of God Himself, and may be called unconditional prophecy.

Examples of conditional prophecy abound in the Holy Writ, as for instance in the second, third and sixth commandments, (Exodus 20:5, 6, 7, 12) or again in Deuteronomy 4:1-40 or again in Matthew 20:29.

Unconditional prophecy also abounds as in the dreams of Joseph (Gen. 37:7, 9) and of others around him (Gen. 40:9-22; 41:17-32), or in God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 13:14-17; 15:5, 12-16; 17:4-8, 16, 19-21; 18:10, 14; 22:16-18), or again in the coming of Christ (Isaiah 7:14, Matt. 1:21, 23), in the prophecies of the end of time (Matt. 24; 2 Peter 3:7, 10; Rev. 21).

It is unconditional prophecy that is jeopardized by the open theistic affirmation that God does not know in advance the decisions of free agents. In that view, His decisions must await the prior decisions of his free creatures and are on that account conditioned rather than unconditioned. An effort is made to safeguard the propriety of some unconditional prophecy, but this appears to be illusive or to interfere with the vaunted principle of the free will of the creatures! For instance, how could God prophesy anything about Isaac in advance of his conception, since Abraham and Sara had to remain free to have or not have intercourse?

In any case the mastery of God over the future is clearly asserted in such passages as Isaiah 44:7, 8, 26-28; 46:10, 11; Acts 2:23.

By contrast with God’s unconditional prophecies which always come true, the claims of false prophets are sometimes revealed as fraudulent by the fact that what they announced does not come to pass (Deut. 18:22; Isaiah 44:25). This false claim is so grievous a sin that the false prophet had to be put to death (Deut. 18:20). Now if all prophecy were conditioned by the decisions of free agents so that prophecy should really declare only “what might be” rather than “what will be,” there would never arise a situation where the false prophets would be unmasked! If someone claims to prophesy the winning numbers in a lottery, it is never enough for him to list 6 numbers that might come out–any school child might well do that–but it is requisite that he announce in advance what numbers will be winning.

The principle of open theism really ruins the Biblical outlook on unconditional prophecy. In its terms, James’ warning to people who rashly anticipate the future (4:13-15) could apply to God Himself: “Don’t say I will do this or that at such a time.” Instead you ought to say “If human free will allows, I might do this or that!” In many cases they reduce the actual divine prophecies to this level!!


1 Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000
John M. Frame, No Other God. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2001
R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996.
Robert A. Morey, Battle of the Gods, Southbridge, MA, 1989.
Norman L. Geisler, Creating Man in the Image of Man. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1997.
I may also mention my own book review of The Openness of God and God of the Possible reprinted in my collected essays Standing Forth. Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2002.

2 The true God: 2 Chron. 15:3; Jer. 10:10
God of truth: Deut. 32:4; Ps. 31:5
God of Amen: Isaiah 65:16
The truth of the Lord: Ps. 117:3
His truth: Ps. 91:4; 96:13; 100:5
Your truth: Ps. 25:5 and 10 more times in the Psalms; Isaiah 38:18, 19; Dan. 9:13.

3 His Word is true: 1 Kings 17:20; Ps. 119:43, 120; Prov. 20:21
His words are true: 2 Sam. 7:28
His laws are true: Neh. 9:13; Ps. 119:142
His judgments are true: Ps. 19:9
His counsels are true: Ps. 119:151
His witness is true: Jer. 42:5
The Book of truth: Dan. 10:21

4 “Buy no truth and sell it not.” Prov. 23:23

5 The true God: John 17:3; 1 John 5:20
God is truthful: John 3:33; 7:28; 8:26; Rom. 3:4; Rev. 6:10.

6 I am the truth: John 14:6; 16:7
I came to testify of the truth: John 18:37
Full of grace and truth: John 1:16, 17
He is true: Rev. 3:7, 14; 19:11
The true teacher: Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:32
I tell you the truth: Luke 4:25; 9:27; 12:44; John 8:40, 45, 46

7 The Spirit of truth: John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6
He guides into all truth: John 16:13
He sanctifies by the truth: John 17:19
He is the truth: 1 John 5:6

8 The word[s] of God is truth: John 17:17; Acts 26:25; 2 Cor. 6:7; Eph. 1:2; Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15; James 1:18; Rev. 19:9; 21:5; 22:6.
The Gospel of truth: Gal. 2:5, 14
The truth of God: Rom. 1:25; 3:7; 1 Th. 2:13
The truth of Christ: 2 Cor. 11:10; Eph. 4:21
God’s judgments are true: Rom. 2:2; Rev. 16:7, 16; 19:2
God’s laws are true: Rom. 2:20
God’s commandments are true: 1 John 2:8
God’s ways are true: Rev. 15:13

9 Truth is to be known: John 8:32; acts 2:20; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 3:7; Hebrew 10:26; 1 John 2:21; 3 John 1
Truth is to be acknowledged: 2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 1:1
Truth is to be believed: 2 Thes 2:13; 1 Tim. 4:3
Truth is to be obeyed: Rom. 2:8; Gal. 5:7; 1 Peter 1:23
One should walk in the truth: 2 Peter 2:2; 3 John 3
One should be established in the truth: 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Peter1:12; 3 John 2
One should rejoiced in the truth: 1 Cor. 13:16; Matt. 5:33-37

10 Christians should tell the truth: Matt. 5:33-37; Eph. 4:25; 5:9; 6:14; James 3:14
Their message is the truth: Rom. 9:1; 15:8; 2 Cor. 4:2; 7:14; 11:10, 31; 12:6; 13:8; Gal. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:7

11 False prophets to be executed: Deut. 18:20, 22; 1 Kings 18:40

12“Thou shalt not bear false witness”: Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20
“Lying lips are abomination to the Lord”: Prov. 12:22
“I hate and abhor lying”: Ps. 119:163

13 “No lie comes from the truth”: 1 John 2:21
Those who reject the truth are in peril of damnation: Rom. 2:8; Gal. 2:14; 2 Th. 2:10, 12; 1 Tim. 4:3; 6:5; 2 Tim. 2:18; 3:8; 4:4; Titus 1:14; James 5:19; 1 Peter 1:6, 8; 2:4; Rev. 21:8, 27; 22:15

14 Warning against false prophets: Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 16:13; 19:20; 20:10
Warning against false apostles: 2 Cor. 11:13
Warning against false doctors: 1 Tim. 4:2; 2 Peter 2:1
Warning against false brothers: 2 Cor. 11:26; Gal 2:4

15 It is not clear how on “Open Theism’s” premises God could make such an announcement 15 years in advance since the continuation of Hezekiah’s life surely depended on many decisions of free agents, including himself.

16 I have ventured to provide in Appendix 1 an interpretation of those two passages, which is conformable to divine inerrancy and clearly related to the context. It is not necessary to accept that interpretation, or even to present another alternative in order to declare false the “open” theistic explanation. One is not obliged to have a plausible explanation of the baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29) in order to perceive that the Mormon understanding of this passage is false.


One of the worst mistakes one can commit with reference to finding and promoting truth is to confuse fact with surmise. Fact is unassailable, but surmise is always open to discussion and to change. It is intolerable that with respect to prophecy we should now be told that some of God’s prophecies are merely his surmises and do not have the firmness of facts announced in advance. The effort of the open theists to assert that some prophecies are unshakeable but that others may or may not occur casts a veil on the whole prophetic enterprise, since there is no way by which we can distinguish in advance which is which. Consequently, there is no way by which in retrospect we could identify a false prophet.