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Debate over what God knows may split theological society

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Is it possible to hold to the inerrancy of the Bible while also believing that God’s knowledge of the future is limited?

That question is at the heart of a debate within the Evangelical Theological Society over what should and should not be permitted within the 54-year-old organization. Several hundred ETS members will meet in Atlanta Nov. 19-21 and decide whether to expel two of its members — McMaster Divinity College’s Clark Pinnock and Huntingdon College’s John Sanders — who embrace a theological view called “open theism.”

Open theists claim that God does not know the future decisions of humans because those choices have yet to be made. In other words, they say, there is nothing to know. Critics call their views heresy.

Two years ago the society passed by a vote of 253-66 a non-binding resolution opposing open theism.

ETS membership requirements are minimal: In addition to a small yearly fee, members must agree with a short two-sentence doctrinal statement, which simply affirms inerrancy and the doctrine of the Trinity.

For Pinnock and Sanders to be expelled, it must be proven that open theism is incompatible with inerrancy. Other facets of open theism are not at issue in the ETS debate.

Both sides claim the future of the body is in danger and that a split could occur.

“Many do not want to deal with this issue, believing that it is unnecessarily divisive,” L. Russ Bush, past president of ETS and current academic dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on the ETS website. “My response is simply that open theism is the source of this division, not those who are seeking to preserve the integrity of the membership boundary set by the commonly accepted doctrinal basis.”

In recent months the two sides have made their cases in papers posted on the ETS website (www.etsjets.org). Roger Nicole, one of the founding members of ETS, brought the initial charges last year and has since posted papers on the website explaining his position. Pinnock and Sanders posted responses. Other members of the society — including past presidents — also voiced their opinion.

An initial vote took place last year, when the society voted 171-131 to investigate Pinnock and 166-143 to investigate Sanders. A nine-member committee will present its recommendation in Atlanta; a two-thirds majority vote of all members present is required for expulsion.

“It will be a sad day if I am expelled from the ETS on these charges,” Pinnock wrote. “I am on trial here, but in a way, so is the ETS itself. I hope that we may yet step back from the brink to which Roger’s motion has taken us.

“… If I am ejected, some members will bolt and if I am not ejected others will bolt. The blame lies on Roger — he is ruining the ETS.”

Nicole’s charges focus on two books — Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover” and Sanders’ “The God Who Risks” — that detail the two authors’ beliefs. Those who are for their removal say that a belief in open theism conflicts with a belief in an inerrant Bible. But Pinnock’s and Sanders’ supporters say that while they may disagree with open theism, such views fall within the society’s doctrinal boundaries and should be allowed.

“The doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society is limited,” wrote Haddon Robinson of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “That serves the Society well. ETS is not a church; it is not a seminary. It is a Society for evangelical scholars with widely divergent views to come together to hear one another out.

“… Voting people out of the membership with whom we disagree not only works against a purpose for which the Society exists, but, ultimately, it could destroy ETS completely.”

Another past president, Reformed Theological Seminary’s Bruce Waltke, has sided with Pinnock and Sanders, saying that while he believes their views are heretical, they must be allowed to stay and the society “must be allowed to breathe.”

But others assert that one cannot believe in both inerrancy and open theism. Southeastern Seminary’s Bush pointed to the ETS doctrinal statement, which says in part that the “Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

Open theism conflicts with that statement in two areas, Bush argued.

First, open theists “do not believe that God can speak inerrantly about the actual future,” Bush argued, because they believe that the “future is truly and fully open.”

Such a belief means that the Bible cannot be inerrant, Bush argued. “[The Bible] might be inerrant if God in fact got it right, but we could not know it is always right even if we know it is an authentic word of God, because God simply does not and cannot know everything about the actual future.”

Secondly, Bush wrote, open theists “believe that God can change His mind in such a way that something He has purposed and revealed in Scripture might be significantly changed by God’s own decision.” Thus, “God is not utterly trustworthy; He might reveal His will to us but then change His mind in such a way that what He previously revealed would prove to be wrong or false.”

Bush pleaded with Pinnock and Sanders to resign from the organization so that a split may be avoided.

“This is exactly what Pinnock, Sanders, and all other open theists should do,” Bush wrote, warning that if they do not resign they “will divide the Society, and they may destroy it. They will be famous, but they will not persuade the majority of the rightness of their position. The controversy will rage on, many leading conservatives will leave, and no good can come from that.”

Wayne House, president of Oregon Theological Seminary, also argued that Pinnock and Sanders must be removed.

“[T]he implications of failing to remove them from ETS are great,” he wrote. “I believe the failure to do so will bring a major rift in the Society, and removing them will cause only a few to leave.”

If Pinnock and Sanders are allowed to remain, then all doctrinal requirements should be removed, House said.

“At least in this way we may maintain our integrity,” he wrote.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust