SBC Life Articles

What Kind of God, What Kind of Salvation?

At a national meeting of evangelical theologians and biblical scholars with the theme of eschatology, one might expect familiar intramural debates on the timing of the rapture or the nature of the millennium.

Instead, the fifty-first annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society also included controversy over such questions as whether God knows the future and whether faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Two Baptist theologians, Bruce Ware and Clark Pinnock, stood on opposing sides of the ever-widening chasm among evangelicals on what many believe were once considered unassailable Christian doctrines of God and the gospel.

ETS, founded in 1949, is the national organization for theologians and biblical scholars who hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. More than 1,100 of the organization's 2,850 members attended the annual meeting in the suburbs of Boston, Nov. 17-19.

Bruce Ware, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., presented a paper which vigorously challenged the increasingly popular "openness of God" theology which argues God does not have foreknowledge of future events and sometimes repents of actions He has taken. The "openness" view has been articulated by theologians such as Pinnock and John Sanders, both of whom were present for Ware's presentation. Sanders is professor of philosophy and religion at Huntington College in Huntington, Ind. and has written a book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence which outlines an openness view of God.

The 1999 Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta passed a resolution repudiating the openness view of God and affirming instead God's infinite wisdom, power, and knowledge.

Ware argued the open view of God is a heretical notion which cannot guarantee the Bible's assurance that God's purposes will prevail in the end. He cited the writings of openness theologians who claim that God was "surprised" by the fall of Adam, that God was mistaken in the severity of His judgement in the Noahic Flood, and that Jesus "negotiated" the cross with the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. The openness view renders prayer meaningless and devastates Christian hope because with it the believer is always in doubt as to whether "God's perspective is best and whether His will should be followed."

"If God is not sure what He does is best, can we be sure that He really knows what He is doing?" Ware asked. "The simple fact is that a God who can only speculate regarding what much of the future holds, at times second-guesses His own plans, can get things wrong, can falsely anticipate what may happen next, and may even repent of His own past conduct is a God unworthy of devotion, trust, adoration, and praise."

Ware countered openness theologians' assertions that their view preserves the personal, interactive relationship that God has with His creation. By trading "God-as-Lord-over-life" for "God-as-friend-through-life," openness thinkers have done away with the Bible's promises that God not only knows what is best for believers, but that He will triumph in the end over every evil rival to His rule. The traditional view of God, Ware argued, does not negate His responsive care for His creatures.

"Many Christians have sung What a Friend We Have in Jesus along with Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise with no conflict and, in fact, with mutual reinforcement," Ware said. "No loss of friendship and nearness of God is necessary when affirming His sovereign rulership over creation since the God of the Bible is both."

Ware said in the historic view held for centuries by both Calvinists and Arminians, God's promises of His final triumph "are not guesses, projections, probabilities, speculations," but stand as "God's inviolable and certain word."

Pinnock, professor of theology at the Canadian Baptist McMaster Divinity School in Ontario and a chief proponent of the openness model, presented a paper calling for a "more inclusive" evangelical understanding of the last things which includes the salvation of many who never come to faith in Christ. Calling himself a "universal opportunity person" rather than a universalist, Pinnock said "God has more than one covenant and more than one people."

Pinnock, who in the 1960s was a conservative professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a critic of the then-moderate SBC leadership, underwent a theological transformation in the 1980s which led to highly unorthodox understandings of such doctrines as biblical inspiration, God's foreknowledge, and the nature of hell.

Speaking of "various paths to Jesus Christ," Pinnock said that "for Jesus, saving faith is not only remotely possible to pagans but is operative among them" since "many already belong to the kingdom of God." Rejecting the doctrine of justification through faith alone, Pinnock said God's standard of judgment is the individual's "participation in Christ's loving way of life which manifests itself in the service of others."

"Not everyone can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ because many have not been reached by the proclamation," Pinnock said. "In their case what counts is whether their conduct agrees with the will of God as Jesus explained it." Pinnock said the Bible implied that some of the men of Sodom will be in heaven.

During the question and answer session, Ware told Pinnock his view contradicted numerous biblical passages, including Jesus' command in Luke 24:47 that repentance and forgiveness of sins be preached "in His name among all nations." Pinnock replied that such explicit faith and repentance would not be necessary for those who are "geographically B.C." where Christ has not yet been named.

"But that's exactly who He's talking about," Ware countered. "The nations … where Christ had not yet been named."

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  • Russell D. Moore