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Cooperative Baptists, Texas partners ponder whether God knows the future

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Does God know what will happen at next year’s Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly? Maybe, and maybe not, concluded a June 28 breakout session at this year’s CBF national meeting.

The session, led by theologian Fisher Humphreys and pastor Phil Wise, called on Cooperative Baptists to give serious consideration to the idea that God might not know the future after all.

The CBF session comes on the heels of a series of articles on open theism by editor Marv Knox in the BGCT’s Baptist Standard newspaper.

Humphreys is a professor at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and Wise is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dothan, Ala. The open theism workshop, which was filled to overflowing, featured a detailed presentation by Humphreys and Wise on the biblical, doctrinal and historical underpinnings of open theism, along with an analysis of the current state of the debate.

They noted that all faculty members of the six Southern Baptist seminaries believe in the complete foreknowledge of God, in keeping with the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement which explicitly rejects any limitation of God’s knowledge.

Contrary to the position held by Southern Baptist leaders and other conservative evangelicals, they noted, evangelicals such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders and Gregory Boyd suggest that God does not know the future because the future does not yet exist to be known. The open theists likewise hold that God sometimes in the Bible is surprised, learns new information and changes his mind accordingly.

While Humphreys and Wise were not quite ready to give open theism a blanket endorsement at the breakout session, they called on Cooperative Baptists to explore the possibility that God’s ability to know all things past, present and future just might be unbiblical.

“We’re not fully persuaded that open theism is biblical,” Humphreys said. “But we think it should be given serious consideration in our churches and schools.”

“Open theism may be the ‘least worst way’ to understand God’s knowledge,” Wise said, citing Anglican theologian Rowan Williams’ characterization of the Trinity as the “least worst way” to understand the Godhead.

The session leaders and participants seemed amused by the gravity with which conservatives reject the open theism proposal. Wise pointed to the title of “Making God in the Image of Man,” an anti-open theism book by theologian Norman Geisler. “Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?” he said, to which the room responded with laughter. He then pointed out the “equally threatening title” of “God’s Lesser Glory,” written by Bruce Ware, professor of theology and associate dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Participants likewise laughed as Wise quoted the assessment of Roger Nicole, a Southern Baptist, that open theism is “a cancer” on American evangelicalism.

“He’s not a surgeon I’d want to have,” Wise quipped.

Wise also pointed to the arguments of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary academic dean L. Russ Bush at last year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting that open theism undermines the inerrancy of Scripture. A God who is ignorant of the future, Bush argued, could not guarantee an errorless Bible because God makes specific prophecies that, in the open view, he is not certain will be fulfilled.

“I’m going to leave that one,” Wise said, to the laughter of the audience.

Wise compared the conservative opposition to open theism to the arguments over the Bible in the SBC’s move toward biblical inerrancy. The room filled with laughter when Wise contended that conservative arguments against open theism sometimes “use the slippery slope argument, which, of course, we’re all very familiar with.”

Wise said that some reject open theism simply because they are uninformed of the theological and biblical arguments for the position, simply trusting the “ad hominem arguments” of open theism’s opponents. Wise recounted that a professor friend of his, when told recently of the open theism debate, responded that he believes “God knows everything.”

“After we talked, he conceded that he had a prejudicial view,” Wise said.

During the question-and-answer time, most participants seemed willing to embrace the open theist viewpoint. One participant commented, “When something hasn’t happened yet, it’s not there, and nobody knows it, not even God.” Another pointed to a quote by theologian Frank Tupper that “God always does everything He can” to prevent bad things from happening. Tupper is a former theology professor at Southern Seminary who now teaches at Wake Forest Divinity School, a CBF partner institution. Tupper’s book, “A Scandalous Providence,” argues that God is limited not only in his knowledge of the future, but also in his power to prevent evil.

One participant thought the open theists to be too conservative in their reading of Scripture. Dan Stiver, a philosophy professor at Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University, pointed out that the open theists were, after all, biblical inerrantists, just like their critics. As a result, he said, both groups tended toward an overly literal understanding of the Bible that relies on proof texts.

“I kind of lean toward the open theists,” Stiver said. “But I’m uncomfortable with their flat Bible approach.”

Another questioner said the open theist understanding of God’s gaining new information and changing his mind might help to understand the doctrine of salvation.

“God said to Abraham, ‘I’ll bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you’ and then God threw Abraham a curve ball, and says, ‘I’ve changed my mind — you’ve got to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved,” the participant said. “There’s got to be another way to understand this.”

Knox’s articles in the Baptist Standard included a series of sidebars on biblical and theological support for open theism written by John Sanders, one of the chief proponents of the openness of God. It also included a commentary by Howard Payne University professor Wallace Roark denying God’s knowledge of the future. Roark writes that God sees the future just as a checkers player views the game board. He can anticipate the future possibilities, but “God does not know the actual future until it happens.”

Knox interviewed, among others, Roger Olson, a professor at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, who defended the “openness of God” against charges of heresy by conservatives. Olson, who calls himself “open to open theism,” denies that he is an open theist, but calls the new view more biblical than the traditional orthodox view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful and unchanging.

In a review on the Amazon.com website, Olson endorses open theist Gregory Boyd’s book, “God of the Possible,” noting that “inquiring Christian minds” would love the book while “closed minds” would despise it. In the book, Boyd argues that God not only changes his mind and is ignorant of the future, but he sometimes makes mistakes and gives inadvertently bad advice to his children. Olson says he found the book’s arguments “difficult to resist.” A 2000 issue of the Baylor University student newspaper, The Lariat, reported that Olson’s influence was being felt on the campus as students embraced the open theist doctrine.

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  • Russell D. Moore