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Southern prof in middle of growing open theism debate

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The debate over open theism has intensified in recent months, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Bruce Ware has emerged as one of its more vocal opponents.

Ware and his position on open theism are the subject of much discussion in the latest journal published by the conservative Evangelical Theological Society, a group of theologians who affirm biblical inerrancy. The journal is basically a spillover from debate at last November’s ETS meeting, when Ware presented a paper with spirited arguments against open theism — the belief that the future is “open” in that God does not and cannot know the future free choices and actions of his creatures. ETS members then overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution saying that open theism is unbiblical.

Three open theists took exception to Ware’s argument and wrote responses that are published in the June edition of the quarterly “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.” The entire issue, in fact, is devoted to the debate over open theism. It includes the original paper Ware presented, responses by three open theists — Clark Pinnock, John Sanders and Gregory Boyd — and a rejoinder by Ware. It also includes an article by Southern Seminary professor Stephen Wellum on the incompatibility of the open view with a commitment to inerrancy.

Pinnock, Sanders and Boyd all argue that evangelicalism is a big enough tent to include open theism, with Pinnock simply saying, “There is room for us.”

But Ware — whose book “God’s Lesser Glory” critiques and opposes open theism — says evangelicalism must have boundaries.

“[O]pen theism’s denial of what Scripture teaches and what all historic views affirm constitutes a departure that is biblically, theologically, and practically so serious in nature, that Christian leaders should declare open theism unacceptable as a viable, legitimate model within evangelicalism,” he writes.

Rejecting open theism, he continues, is “not only justified, but, before God and in clear conscience, required.”

The Southern Baptist Convention has twice rejected open theism. The revised Baptist Faith and Message, passed in 2000, says that God’s “perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.” In 1999 convention messengers passed a resolution with similar language that was presented by Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Debate over open theism has surfaced this summer in Baptist circles. The Baptist Standard, the state newspaper of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, ran a two-page spread about the open theism debate in June.

Also in June, theologian Fisher Humphreys helped lead a breakout session on open theism at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. He said that while he’s not fully persuaded that open theism is biblical, “it should be given serious consideration in our churches and schools.”

In the June issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Boyd takes exception to the paper Ware presented last November, saying that he is “saddened and frustrated” by the “political agenda” that lies behind it.

“I enjoy healthy dialogue and robust scholarly debate,” Boyd writes. “But try as I might, I cannot imagine this essay fitting into this category. … Casting a position in its weakest possible form and using alarmist and inflammatory language is not the way to deepen the understanding and to further academic and Christian dialogue.”

But Ware rejects any notion that his motivation was political and asserts that such charges serve simply as “diversionary tactics.”

“Granted, it is always easier to welcome a new friend than it is to confront and exhort an old one,” he writes. “… But are there not times when faithfulness to God, Scripture and divine calling require the harder course of drawing the lines and calling something out of bounds?

“… [W]ithout possible rejection of some views, unavoidable acceptance of any view follows, and this will contribute to our undoing. Before us is a question of enormous theological and practical importance, clearly one of the most critical for our generation and those to follow.”

Ware argues that open theism runs counter to what Christians have believed for centuries.

“For countless generations and millions of Christian believers, great strength and hope has been founded on the truth that God knows every detail of what will happen in the future,” he writes. “… Christian theology has said that this view is essential to our understanding of God, and Christian faith has leaned on it during dark and stormy days.”

Pinnock, Sanders and Boyd all submit detailed defenses of open theism, presenting what they consider biblical evidence and asserting that God does not know the future because there is nothing to know.

Boyd, in fact, argues that Ware’s argument denies “God’s infinite intelligence” because it limits God to only one outcome for each future event. Boyd says that while God does not know the outcome of specific events, he knows the countless possibilities of future events and is prepared to react to each one.

“God’s intelligence is not limited,” Boyd writes. “… God can consider and anticipate each of trillion billion possibilities as though each one was the only possibility he had to consider. … In other words, for a God of infinite intelligence, there is virtually no distinction between knowing a certainty and knowing a possibility.”

But Ware disagrees that his view limits God’s intelligence.

“[H]istoric models of God have seen God’s consideration of this vast realm of possibilities as taking place in eternity past, in relation to the formation of his decision of just what world to create,” he writes. “… All the celebration Boyd gives to this notion of infinite intelligence seems a bit overdrawn in light of the fact that even God, with ‘virtually certain’ knowledge of possibilities, can get it wrong.”

Ware argues that the implications of open theism are enormous. One of the bigger implications, he asserts, is the compromise to the doctrine of the atonement — the belief that Christ died for future sinners.

“Scripture has always been understood very personally here: Christ died for you and he paid for your sins,” Ware writes before quoting 1 Peter 2:24, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.”

“This [doctrine] is lost in open theism, and more importantly, the open view here is not what the Bible teaches.”

Boyd argues that Christ paid the price for “possible” future sins and that he “over-paid” for all the sins of the world.

Sanders and Boyd both argue that Ware’s arguments against open theism can be equally applied to Arminianism, a model accepted within evangelicalism that, among other things, holds that God’s election of sinners is based on foreknowledge.

Ware, though, asserts that all his arguments against open theism apply to it and it alone. He adds that even Arminianism rejects the open theistic view of God’s knowledge.

Ware argues that in open theism God looks back on his past actions and determines that what he “previously decided may not in fact have been the best decision.”

“What is unique to open theism … is God learning now, in this moment as choices are made and actions are performed, that perhaps what he thought would be best turns out, in retrospect, not so to have been,” he writes. “… But these are not problems faced in classic Arminianism, where God knows fully and certainly all that the future holds and what consequences follow from any and every action and event.”

Both Ware and Wellum assert that open theism undermines the inerrancy of Scripture.

Boyd, though, disagrees, saying that “since open theists hold that God is able to unilaterally settle as much of the future ahead of time as he desires, there is nothing in principle preventing us from affirming any specific decree of God…. Our view simply holds that God leaves open whatever aspects of the future he sovereignly chooses to leave open.”

But Wellum asserts that open theism does in fact undermine “any kind of guarantee that either the human authors will freely write precisely what God wanted written, or that what God predicts will in fact come to pass. … I do not see how any coherent and rational defense of an inerrant Scripture can be made on the foundation of open theism.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BRUCE WARE and JOURNAL OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY.

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  • Michael Foust