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Controversy over God’s foreknowledge recapped by pastor in Baptist de

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Twenty years after the beginning of the struggle between conservatives and moderates in the SBC, Southern Baptists understand both the pain and the occasional necessity of controversy. John Piper, pastor of Minneapolis’ Bethlehem Baptist Church, told a group of Southern Baptists July 21 he never expected to be embroiled in a conflict over “the ignorance of God.”
Piper, also a prolific author, spoke to an informal gathering of participants at the Southern Baptist Founders Conference about his role in the recent conflict within the Baptist General Conference over the foreknowledge of God. Piper, preaching on the topic of missions to the group’s annual meeting at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., agreed to answer questions about the BGC controversy following the Wednesday evening program in an interview session with Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
The controversy stems from the writings of Gregory Boyd, a professor at the BGC’s Bethel College and pastor of the 3,000-member Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn. Boyd, author of “God at War” and the forthcoming “Satan and the Problem of Evil,” contends that God cannot know the future decisions of his creatures. Boyd couches his support of the “openness of God” movement, propagated by theologians such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, with a “warfare worldview” which sees God as embroiled in cosmic conflict with lesser “gods” who often thwart his will.
Piper, undergirded with the support of 200 other pastors, submitted an amendment to the Illinois-based denomination’s confession of faith to state that God “foreknows infallibly all that shall come to pass.” After extended debate, the resolution was defeated in a 270-251 vote June 25 at the BGC’s annual meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Piper told the gathered Southern Baptists that the BGC debate was not a quarrel between Calvinists and Arminians since both groups have historically affirmed precisely the same understanding of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. From James Arminius to John Wesley to contemporary Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, Piper cited Arminians who contend that God knows the future absolutely. Piper said that Boyd himself argues that his view is markedly different from both Calvinism and Arminianism at this point.
Piper explained the vote defeating the amendment does not mean his denomination has embraced an openness understanding of the doctrine of God. Instead, he said, the denomination decided the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge was not important enough to exclude Boyd and his followers from the denomination’s confessional parameters.
“It was a judgment call as to the relative importance of the doctrine in our self-definition,” Piper said. “We tried for months to say over and over again: Why is it narrow, why is it divisive, why is it restrictive to affirm something that all Catholics, all Protestants and all Orthodox people in all centuries have believed? They never answered that.”
Piper said he believes the doctrine of God’s omniscience is more important than many other issues over which the denomination is willing to divide. How, he queried, can his denomination refuse membership to those who reject immersion as the mode of baptism while accepting those who deny the foreknowledge of God?
“It seems like a strange order of priorities,” he said.
Piper warned the BGC’s action hangs ominously over the rest of American evangelicalism.
“We said that you can be an evangelical and a part of a very conservative Baptist denomination and believe that God does not know what you’re going to do tomorrow afternoon,” Piper said. “The wider evangelical community better wake up.”
Piper traced out the pastoral implications of the doctrine with the example of Boyd’s counsel to a young woman who had sought God’s direction in marrying a seemingly godly man committed to missions. When the man abandoned her, Piper said that Boyd told her that God had thought she had made a good decision at the time and was as surprised as she by the turn of events. If such is true, Piper charged, “God’s counsel to us becomes questionable and untrustworthy.”
Piper contended that Scripture, notably Isaiah 41-48, inextricably links God’s foreknowledge with his divinity. Likewise, Jesus in John 13:19 ties his foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal to his deity.
“I think those 271 people have said evangelicalism and our little denomination can define itself so as to embrace those who unwittingly believe doctrines that undermine the deity of God and the divinity of Christ,” he said. “That’s how serious it is to me.
“The problem in the BGC is not Greg Boyd or this view,” he continued. “The problem is that it’s not a problem.”
Despite the urging of some that he abandon the BGC for the SBC or some other denomination, Piper said he remains committed to his denomination. He said the SBC seminaries’ turnaround from theological liberalism to conservative evangelicalism has encouraged him to continue the fight for biblical truth in the BGC.
Southern Baptists have addressed the controversy over God’s foreknowledge in recent years, with both Calvinists and non-Calvinists within the denomination strongly concurring with the historic Southern Baptist confessions that God does indeed know exhaustively everything which will come to pass.
Southern Baptist theologians ranging from James P. Boyce and John L. Dagg in the 19th century to E.Y. Mullins and Herschel Hobbs in the 20th century were unanimous in their attestation of God’s complete foreknowledge of all future events and decisions. The Presidential Theological Study Committee Report adopted by the SBC in 1994 stated that Southern Baptists “reject any effort to redefine God as a limited deity.” The 1999 SBC meeting in Atlanta passed a resolution “On the Power, Knowledge, and Changelessness of God,” crafted by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. SBC President Paige Patterson endorsed the resolution from the chair, citing the proliferation of openness theology in the wider evangelical community as necessitating a strong reaffirmation of classical theism by Southern Baptists.

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  • Russell D. Moore