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ETS executive committee issues split decision on open theists

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–With the Evangelical Theological Society’s future possibly at stake, the organization’s executive committee has issued a split recommendation on two members whose views many consider heretical.

By a unanimous 9-0 vote the ETS executive committee is recommending that Clark Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College in Canada not be expelled from the 54-year-old society. But the executive committee, by a 7-2 vote, is recommending that John Sanders of Huntingdon College in Indiana be voted out.

Both men have come under fire in recent years over their embrace of “open theism” — a doctrine that says God’s knowledge of the future is limited. Open theists say that while God knows all the possible future choices humans may make, He does not know specifically what they will do.

Appearing before the committee, Pinnock voluntarily retracted several previous statements and agreed to revise a footnote in his book, “Most Moved Mover.” However, Sanders and the committee were unable to come to a conclusion.

Several hundred members of the Evangelical Theological Society will gather in Atlanta Nov. 19-21 for their annual meeting and vote on the recommendations. A two-thirds vote of those present is required for removal.

At issue this year: whether open theism conflicts with the society’s doctrinal statement, which is only two sentences and simply affirms the doctrines of inerrancy and the Trinity. For Pinnock and Sanders to be removed, it must be proven that their beliefs are at odds with inerrancy. The actual debate over open theism is not at issue.

Membership requirements are minimal, simply requiring a yearly fee and agreement with the doctrinal statement.

The conflict began last year when one of the organization’s founding members, Roger Nicole, brought charges against both men and said they should be expelled. After a round of position papers from both sides this spring and summer, all parties met with executive committee members in Chicago Oct. 2-4.

Pinnock and Sanders appeared before the committee and each was questioned for more than an hour; much of the discussion focused on their books. Nicole and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Bruce Ware argued the case against the two men.

The committee’s recommendations were posted on the ETS website (www.etsjets.org) Oct. 29.

Interestingly, all nine members of the committee issued a statement of agreement about Sanders, unanimously concluding that his views are incompatible with the definition of inerrancy as understood by the society’s founders and most of its present-day members.

“Dr. Sanders holds that many biblical predictions about the future in Scripture may not come to pass as described,” the unanimous statement read. “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.”

But the committee then split on its recommendation, with the minority — Wheaton College’s Gregory Beale and Bethel Theological Seminary’s David Howard Jr. — saying Sanders should not be removed because “inerrancy” is left undefined in the doctrinal statement.

“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,” the minority report read. “It appears that Sanders attempts in good faith to affirm that Scripture itself is inerrant. We believe he is probably wrong, but we admit that someone who confesses ‘inerrancy’ conceivably could hold his perspective.”

But the majority of the committee disagreed, asserting that Sanders’ views of biblical prophecy conflict with any definition of inerrancy. They pointed to testimony where Sanders said that in some instances, biblical prophecies must be interpreted as “probable,” but not certain, to occur.

“In our view, this difference is so significant that it is not merely another option within inerrancy, but is incompatible with it,” the majority wrote.

Sanders, the author of “The God Who Risks,” disagreed with the majority’s recommendation, saying, “[W]e are all seeking to interpret the inerrant Scripture in ways that affirm its truthfulness. We disagree as to the best way of handling certain texts.”

The committee surprised some observers by coming to a unanimous conclusion against Pinnock’s removal. But this came only after Pinnock agreed to revise footnote 66 on page 51 of “Most Moved Mover.” The old version read, in part, “contrary to Paul, the second coming was not just around the corner (1 Thes. 4:17)” — which the committee interpreted to mean that Pinnock thought Paul was in error.

Pinnock voluntarily agreed to revise the statement, which now reads: “According to Paul, the second coming seemed to be just around the corner (1 Thess 4:17), even though we today know that it has still not come even in our day. His word was, however, perfectly appropriate, given the fact that Paul thought that the coming could come at any time.”

Pinnock further clarified some of his other statements in the book to the committee’s satisfaction.

“I see that I did not express my intended meaning very well and affirm their determination to search out the matter,” he wrote in a statement following the meeting. “I wish to add that I am not just saying now what I … must say to be exonerated — my own language did subvert my actual beliefs in these matters. Let me close with something even stronger for any who still hesitate. I do not believe that God’s prophets ever err. They always tell the truth when all is said and done.”

The revisions satisfied both the committee and Ware, who has been one of evangelicalism’s most outspoken critics of open theism and has written about it extensively.

“I give my full support to the Committee’s recommendations with respect to both Dr. Pinnock and Dr. Sanders,” he wrote in a letter posted on the ETS website. “Dr. Pinnock’s retraction of previously written materials, and his re-writing of those materials, justifies, in my opinion, the Committee’s unanimous recommendation that he not be excluded from membership of the ETS.

“Without his voluntary retraction and rewriting, however, I believe the outcome would have been exactly opposite from what is now presented to the ETS membership.”

Both sides fear that the society may split no matter the outcome at the meeting. Nicole, in fact, wrote in a follow-up letter, “As I view the case the future of ETS is at stake.”

Three Southern Baptists sit on the executive committee: Craig Blaising of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Andreas Kostenberger and John Sailhamer of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Michael Foust