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Prof’s motion aimed at refining ETS statement, avoiding split

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–With the future of the country’s only association of evangelical scholars in doubt, L. Russ Bush, dean of the faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, hopes the Evangelical Theological Society can avoid a fatal fracture.

Bush’s motion at a November meeting of the group to clarify its doctrinal stance on the inerrancy of Scripture could be the only way to quell a swelling movement of dissatisfaction among some members of the society, commonly known by the acronym ETS.

“There likely will be a new society, but I have appealed to some of the leaders of that movement to wait a year to see if we can rescue the society that we have,” Bush said.

The society primarily is composed of professors from professing evangelical Christian seminaries and colleges, including representatives of all six Southern Baptist seminaries.

The controversy that prompted Bush’s motion involves the espousal by some evangelicals of so-called “open theism.” It has been simmering for years and finally came to a head Nov. 21 during the ETS annual meeting in Atlanta.

The open theism view has many facets, but at its core is a denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of future events. Open theists argue that because people have free will, the future is unknowable; it is, so to speak, “open” to both humans and God.

The chief proponents of this view within the society have been Clark Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, Canada, and John Sanders of Huntington College in Indiana.

ETS has only two requirements for membership: belief in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and the inerrancy of the Bible in its original autographs. The many outspoken critics of open theism charge that the writings of Pinnock and Sanders reflect a less-than-inerrant view of Scripture.

Roger Nicole, a founding member of the society and a well-known scholar, charged that Pinnock and Sanders had violated the ETS constitution and asked that they be removed from membership. The ETS vote for removal failed, and both men were allowed to continue as members of the organization.

With a two-thirds vote required for removal, only 32.9 percent of 600-plus members voted to remove Pinnock. The vote for Sanders was much closer, as 62.7 percent of members voted for his removal.

Even though the overwhelming majority of society members reject open theism as heresy, some believe that the doctrinal statement on inerrancy is not clear enough to warrant dismissing the two men.

Bush’s motion is intended to refine the statement. Two days after the historic membership vote, Bush moved that the ETS executive committee spend the next year clarifying its doctrinal statement so that a clearer understanding of inerrancy may be reached.

The motion was approved unanimously.

“I sincerely hope we can find a way to overcome the sense of loss so many feel over the inability to deal with the issue of open theism,” Bush said.

The motion was an effort by Bush — who has been president of both ETS and its sister group, the Evangelical Philosophical Society — to rescue a fraternity that has been important to him in his growth as a scholar and a Christian.

“I do believe the society is in jeopardy,” Bush said. “Surprisingly, many took the position that our doctrinal basis was unclear. I am personally at a loss to understand what is unclear, but some have lost the concept that biblical truthfulness depends on God’s truthfulness.

“If, in fact, the doctrinal basis is unclear, then we have lost our identity as a society.”

Like many Southern Baptists, Bush has spoken out against open theism. The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, a publication of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., devoted an entire issue to decrying open theism in 2001, and Faith and Mission, Southeastern Seminary’s academic journal, is set to follow suit early next year. Bruce Ware, a theology professor at Southern Seminary, has written two books critiquing open theism: “God’s Lesser Glory” and the recently published “Their God is Too Small.”

In terms of denominational affiliation, Southern Baptist representation on the ETS executive committee also is significant, with three of its nine members at Southern Baptist schools. Andreas Kostenberger and John Sailhamer both teach at Southeastern Seminary and Craig Blaising is provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

What now for the society?

The next 11 months are crucial, Bush said. While some of the more disgruntled members will wait before withdrawing their membership, if the executive committee does not present a positive solution to the doctrinal crisis, he sees no alternative to a split.

Although Bush does not want to see that happen, he said he also understands the need to maintain doctrinal integrity.

“I would like to see the society grow, but not at any cost,” he said. “It cannot be the case that inerrancy can mean anything that one might suppose without regard to the intent of the founders [of ETS] and without regard to the history of issues that have been associated with the concept of inerrancy.

“I believe the society is facing a crisis of identity.”
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  • Jason Hall