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Evangelical Theological Society braces for debate over evangelical identity

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Only God knows what is going to happen at next year’s Evangelical Theological Society debate on what it means to call oneself an “evangelical.”

Or does he?

The Evangelical Theological Society, meeting in Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 15-17, heard papers and plenary sessions on this year’s theme, “Israel: Past, Present, and Future.” Heated panel discussions and hallway conversations revealed, however, that most minds were focused more on what promises to be a lively debate centering around next year’s topic in Denver, “Evangelical Boundaries.”

Theologians already were grappling with questions of evangelical identity, including several controversies focused on recent Southern Baptist statements and activities. Conference participants vigorously debated whether God knows the future, whether women can be pastors and whether explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.

The most controversial was probably the question of “open theism.” This movement among some reformist evangelicals teaches that God does not know the future free actions of his creatures, that God sometimes gains new information and changes his mind, and that God’s purposes are sometimes defeated by humans and demonic beings.

The charge for open theism was led at this year’s meeting by Gregory Boyd, professor of theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn., and pastor of one of the fastest-growing churches in Minnesota. Boyd, clad in blue jeans and a mock turtleneck sweater, demonstrated his engaging communications skills that have led some critics to dub him the “Pied Piper of open theism.” Boyd has come under heavy criticism for suggesting, among other things, that God sometimes gives “bad advice” to his creatures because he cannot predict with certainty how the future is going to turn out and that God is locked in warfare with other “gods” who sometimes get the upper hand.

In a panel discussion on open theism, Boyd opened a Bible and spoke with the fervor of a revival preacher, pointing to texts that seem to suggest that God learns new facts by observation. Boyd was opposed by Bruce Ware, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Ware pointed to biblical texts in which God speaks of his knowledge of the future and his almighty power as that which distinguishes him from the idols. Ware suggested that Boyd and other open theists are inconsistent because their biblical interpretation, if consistently applied, would lead them to interpret such passages as Genesis 18:21 to mean that God does not know the past or the present and that he is not omnipresent. In the passage, God says that he will “go down to Sodom” to see what wickedness has transpired there. Boyd acknowledged to Ware that he might need to do more study on that particular passage.

Crossway Books, an evangelical publisher based in Wheaton, Ill., passed out free copies of Ware’s new book, “God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism.” In the volume, Ware warns that the misreading of Scripture by open theists such as Boyd has dangerous consequences for the church’s understanding of prayer, last things and, above all, the glory of God. In the book, Ware, a Southern Baptist, hails the SBC for adding an affirmation of God’s exhaustive power and knowledge to the Baptist Faith and Message adopted at the convention’s annual meeting in June.

The open theism debate also entered recent discussions over the decision by the Baptist General Convention of Texas to defund the SBC seminaries because of seminaries’ commitment to the doctrinal boundaries of their confessions of faith. A recent issue of Baylor University’s Lariat newspaper reported that open theism is gaining ground at Baylor’s Truett Seminary due to the influence of theologian Roger Olson, who has praised the work of Boyd while calling himself “open to open theism.”

In response to such discussions, the ETS executive committee voted this year to place discussion of whether open theism is consistent with evangelicalism on the docket for next year’s meeting. Speculation abounded at the meeting as to whether an attempt would be made in Denver to add God’s foreknowledge to the ETS doctrinal statement or to rule that open theism is inconsistent with the current doctrinal statement on the authority of Scripture and the Triune nature of God.

Another question of controversy at the ETS meeting was the role of women in the life of the church, a discussion made more heated by the SBC’s passage of the Baptist Faith and Message which states that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

Responses to the BFM statement were found in the display booths of competing interdenominational organizations devoted to gender issues, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which affirms biblical differences in male/female roles in the church and home, and Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), an evangelical feminist organization. CBMW passed out theological defenses of the BFM written by theologians such as Ware and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Peter Schemm. The CBE booth passed out copies of its publication “Priscilla Papers,” which included critiques of the SBC’s commitment to male leadership in the church and home by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ethicist Joe Trull.

Southern Baptists were also at the center of this year’s debates over the theological basis of evangelism. With the conference focused on Israel, the question of Jewish evangelism surfaced in several presentations. Many attendees of various denominational backgrounds sought out Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. to thank him for his defense on such television programs as CNN’s “Larry King Live” of the International Mission Board’s commitment to Jewish evangelism. Likewise, Southeastern Seminary Dean L. Russ Bush defended the SBC’s policy of “Politically Incorrect Witnessing” in a conference session. Southern Baptists have come under criticism among some on the evangelical left for their insistence, reiterated in the new BFM, that sinners may only be saved by trusting in Jesus Christ.

ETS founders such as evangelical leaders Carl F.H. Henry and E.J. Carnell could not have foreseen such questions. ETS, a professional society for evangelical theologians and biblical scholars, began in the late 1940s with a minimal doctrinal statement affirming biblical inerrancy. Later, because cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed to hold to the same authoritative canon, ETS expanded the doctrinal statement to include a belief in the Trinity.

Now some ETS members are wondering whether that is enough. This question fits in the context of a larger debate between conservative traditionalists and “post-conservative” reformists within the evangelical movement. Traditionalists such as theologians Mohler, Millard J. Erickson and Wayne Grudem argue that evangelicalism must be first of all a commitment to orthodox doctrinal belief on such questions as the attributes of God, the person of Christ and the nature of the gospel. Reformists such as theologians Stanley Grenz, Roger Olson and Clark Pinnock argue for a much looser definition of what it means to be an evangelical.

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  • Russell Moore