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Southern Seminary journal critiques ‘open theism’ as false doctrine

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A group of theologians are re-creating God in their own image.

That is the conclusion of writers in the Summer 2000 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, the theological journal of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The journal’s subject is “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God,” and three of the essays deal with the controversial subject of open theism.

The theological controversy has been fueled by the recent release of “God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God,” a book by open theist and Bethel College professor Greg Boyd.

According to open theists, God is ignorant of future events, is impotent in the face of evil and sometimes even repents for being unable to control his creation. When it comes to carrying out his will, he is vacillating and tentative.

And yet, many of those who believe in the updated god and the related theologies — known as open theism — claim to take a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Even the widely regarded evangelical publication Christianity Today has begun to question the traditional doctrine of God, SBJT editor and New Testament professor Thomas Schreiner writes in his lead editorial.

Commenting on a Feb. 7, 2000, editorial, “God vs. God,” Schreiner asserts, “What is surprising is that the editorial begins by speaking very negatively of the classical view of God … and a very positive estimation of the benefits of open theism. Indeed, despite some closing words about the importance of church history, we are given the impression that both open theism and classical theology are equally plausible.”

Schreiner concludes, “When I read an editorial like this, I wonder if some segments of evangelical Christianity are rootless, lacking any sense of the teaching of the church through the ages.”

It is against this rising tide of erroneous doctrine the SBJT writers seek to build a strong dam of biblical truth.

“Some openness theologians claim to be radical biblical literalists, contending that traditional evangelicals have failed to interpret the Scriptures in accord with its most likely meaning,” Schreiner writes.

“Hence, open theists insist that when Scripture says, ‘God repents,’ the text means exactly what it says. God really and truly changes his mind. This claim should be examined seriously since we are summoned to review our hermeneutical approach. The biblical strength of their view, however, is exaggerated.”

Schreiner and other Southern Seminary professors, along with four guest essayists, explore the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and suffering. The guest essayists are John Piper, senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis; D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill.; Scott Hafemann, Hawthorne professor of Greek at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago; and Bill Haynes, pastor of First Baptist Church of Sweetwater in Longwood, Fla.

Open theism goes even further than stating a case for the repentance and imperfect knowledge of God. Southern theology professor Bruce Ware outlines and weighs the biblical veracity of several of open theism’s other tenets in his article, “Despair Amidst Suffering and Pain: A Practical Outworking of Open Theism’s Diminished View of God.”

Open theists hold that God does not know in advance the future free actions of his moral creatures; that tragic events occur over and through which God has neither control nor purpose; that God sometimes gives guidance, only to later realize that his “will” has led to unintentional hardship and suffering in the lives of his people. At times, God is unable to bring even some good from suffering because he is always uninvolved in its origin.

Writes Ware: “When human tragedy, injustice, suffering, or pain occurs, open theists stand ready with their words of comfort and pastoral counsel: God is as grieved as you are about the difficulties and heartache you are experiencing, and he, too, wishes that things had worked out differently. Because God does not (and cannot) know, much less control, much of what the future holds, and because many things occur that are contrary to his good and loving desires, we must not blame God for the evil things that happen in our lives … .”

Lest anyone take this re-defining of God’s sovereignty to be just another theological wrestling match over a fringe Christian doctrine, Southern professor Stephen J. Wellum spotlights its critical nature in his essay, “The Importance of the Nature of Divine Sovereignty for Our View of Scripture.”

Writes Wellum: “… theological doctrines are much more organically related than we often realize and that is why reformulation in one area of doctrine inevitably affects other areas of our theology. This is important to remember, especially in evaluating old and new proposals regarding the nature of divine sovereignty.”

Schreiner writes that open theists “see another advantage in their paradigm, namely, God is not responsible for suffering we experience, for he did not know or ordain that it would occur. It is fair to say that open theists think that one of the great advantages of this new paradigm is that it solves the problem of evil.”

The journal further ties together suffering and sovereignty in articles by Piper, Carson and others. Piper’s essay — titled, “To Live upon God That Is Invisible: Suffering and Service in the Life of John Bunyan” — uses the life of Bunyan to demonstrate suffering and sovereignty. Carson does much the same with the biblical account of Job in “Job: Mystery and Faith.”

In his sermon, “Never Alone in Suffering: Protected by God’s Sustaining Grace,” Haynes argues that Christians will be prepared to endure hardships when they understand properly God’s sovereignty.

“They [the biblical writers] are not promising that Christians will be protected from sickness, trouble, or unpleasant situations,” he notes. “The Word of God makes clear that if you are in Christ, God protects your faith. God protects your inheritance in Christ, and while all the world may be falling apart around us and may explode in chaos, our God is in the midst of it all, protecting those who are His. …

“What does God promise?” Haynes asks. “I will never leave you. I will never turn My back on you. I will never forsake you. But I will never give you a life of ease either.”

Excerpts of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology can be viewed online at www.sbts.edu. The journal can be purchased by calling 1-800-626-5525, ext. 4413.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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