In a surprise move one month before the Evangelical Theological Society is scheduled to again discuss open theism (the belief that God neither knows nor usually predetermines human actions), the society's executive committee issued differing recommendations on whether two major proponents of the theory should remain members.
Last year, ETS founding member Roger Nicole brought charges against Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, claiming they published books that violate the society's doctrinal statement.
Calling itself "a grand jury of sorts … [with] no binding power upon the Society," a majority of the executive committee recommended that charges be sustained against John Sanders, and recommended to ETS members that they vote for his dismissal from the group at their annual meeting next month.
However, after Clark Pinnock offered to change a controversial passage in his 2001 book Most Moved Mover, the executive committee unanimously recommended that he not be removed from the society.
The only requirement for membership in the ETS is the ability to subscribe to the doctrinal statement, "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory." Thus the belief in open theism itself is not explicitly forbidden. Anyone who wanted to challenge open theists' membership had to frame it as a violation either of inerrancy or trinitarianism.
Agreement on Sanders, but disagreement on inerrancy's meaning
The executive committee unanimously found trouble with Sanders's open theism as it relates to inerrancy.
"Dr. Sanders holds that many biblical predictions about the future in Scripture may not come to pass as described," said the nine-member committee. "However, in his view, these are not errors. In the Committee's view, a statement about the future that does not come to pass is erroneous, provided that there are no other textual or historical indications conditioning the prophecy. On the basis of these considerations, it is the judgment of the Committee that Dr. Sanders' view is incompatible with the Doctrinal Basis of ETS as understood by the framers and as broadly understood by ETS members."
However, two members of the committee, ETS President David M. Howard and President-Elect Gregory K. Beale, while calling his teaching "idiosyncratic, esoteric, perhaps even strange," said that this did not require that Sanders's be banished from the group because not all ETS members agreed on the definition of inerrancy.
"We believe that the full intention of the framers about inerrancy is not as perspicuous as it could be," they said. "This is because the ETS has never defined inerrancy officially. For such a critical word, upon which rests such a heavy burden of being practically the sole determinant of membership in our Society, we believe that the Society should provide a clearer and expanded official understanding of what it means. … We believe that it is most likely incompatible with the ETS Doctrinal Basis, as it stands now, but not necessarily so."
Significantly, the committee did not say that open theism is necessarily at odds with inerrantist views, nor did their critique of Sanders focus on The God Who Risks, the 1998 book that provided the basis of the complaint against him. Instead, it was Sanders's comments during a meeting with the committee on October 3 that "proved crucial for many on the Committee," the committee members said. "The day ended in John Sanders' case without a mutual understanding. This was a source of sadness and frustration to all present."
In a response from Sanders issued by the ETS executive committee along with its recommendations, the Huntington College theologian reiterated his views on prophecy, saying they are not a challenge to inerrancy. "I affirm inerrancy, that what the Scripture teaches is correct, but this must not be confused with a dispute about what it teaches," he said. "We disagree about whether Scripture affirms that all prophecies are certain/definite or whether some are definite and others are indefinite. The majority's explanation assumes that to say prophecies about the future are true is the same thing as saying they are certain to occur. This is a linguistic and metaphysical assumption that I reject."
The chief complaint against Pinnock, who retired from McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, mainly focused on a footnote on "unfulfilled" prophecies, especially its assertion that " "contrary to Paul, the second coming was not just around the corner (1 Thes. 4:17)." Pinnock said that his language in that note "Unintentionally and unfortunately … strays beyond what I was getting at, and is thus objectionable. … I do not believe that God's prophets ever err. They always tell the truth when all is said and done."
While Sanders's conversation with the committee convinced some members that he did not truly believe in Scripture's inerrancy, Pinnock's explanations in a later meeting the same day had the opposite effect, the committee said, convincing them that he agrees with the society's standards of doctrine. A rewriting of his footnote, along with an explanation of the changes, satisfied even Nicole.
The committee's recommendations all but guarantee that Pinnock will not be excluded from membership at the November 19 meeting. Last year, the vote to challenge his membership at all passed by a narrow 171 to 137 margin—which, ironically, was 11 votes wider than the 166 to 143 decision to challenge Sanders's membership. In a post card to Howard after reading the recommendations, Nicole wrote, "I expect that the annual meeting will not dismiss Pinnock, but that there may be an adverse 2/3 vote for Sanders. I am sure that both of these men will henceforth be more careful about what they write!"
All sides of the debate emphasize that the November vote is not a referendum on the truth of open theism or whether it is an acceptable theology for evangelicals. In 2001, ETS members overwhelmingly passed a resolution criticizing the doctrine. The statement, "We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate, and infallible knowledge of all events past, present, and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents," passed by a 70 percent margin, with 11 percent of members abstaining.
Ted Olsen is online managing editor of Christianity Today.
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Christianity Today earlier featured "Does God Know Your Next Move?" in which Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders debated openness theology. That discussion was been expanded into a book, Does God Have a Future?: A Debate on Divine Providence, which was recently reviewed in CT.
Earlier Christianity Today coverage of the openness theological debate include:
Closing the Door on Open Theists? | ETS to examine whether Clark Pinnock and John Sanders can remain members (Dec. 23, 2002)
Evangelical Theological Society Moves Against Open Theists | Membership of Pinnock and Sanders challenged by due process (Nov. 22, 2002)
Theologians Decry 'Narrow' Boundaries | 110 evangelical leaders sign joint statement (June 4, 2002)
Only God Is Free | Many discussions about openness theology assume that human freedom and divine freedom are pretty much the same thing. They're not, says Geoffrey Bromiley (Feb. 12, 2002)
Foreknowledge Debate Clouded by "Political Agenda" | Evangelical Theologians differ over excluding Open Theists. (November 19, 2001)
Has God Been Held Hostage by Philosophy? | A forum on free-will theism, a new paradigm for understanding God. (Jan. 9, 1995, reposted online May 11, 2001)
Truth at Risk | Six leading openness theologians say that many assumptions made about their views are simply wrong. (Apr. 23, 2001)
God at Risk | A former process theologian says a 30-percent God is not worth worshiping. (Mar. 16, 2001)
Did Open Debate Help The Openness Debate? | It's been centuries since Luther nailed his theses to a church door, but the Internet is reintroducing theological debate to the public square. (Feb. 19, 2001)
God vs. God | Two competing theologies vie for the future of evangelicalism (Feb. 7, 2000).
Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists? | The SBC's new Faith and Message brings needed clarity—but maybe at the cost of honest diversity. (Aug. 8, 2000)
The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)
The Future of Evangelical Theology | Roger Olson argues that a division between traditionalists and reformists threatens to end our theological consensus. (Feb. 9, 1998)
A Pilgrim on the Way | For me, theology is like a rich feast, with many dishes to enjoy and delicacies to taste. (Feb. 9, 1998)
A Theology to Die For | Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith. (Feb. 9, 1998)
The Real Reformers are Traditionalists | If there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy. (Feb. 9, 1998)