Southern Baptists Study The Providence of God
The God who knows and controls is under assault.
Self-described evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd espouse a form of inclusivism known as the ‘openness of God,’ the major tenets of which hold that God’s knowledge of future events is not exhaustive, that God is often surprised by the actions of his free-willed creatures and that he sometimes repents.
In addressing the theme of ‘The Providence of God,’ speakers at the 18th annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference July 18-21 at Stamford University in Birmingham, Alabama, took aim at this new ideology, one which appears to be creeping into contemporary evangelical circles. The Southern Baptist Founders Conference is a group of pastors and church leaders who embrace the doctrinal heritage historically known as ‘Calvinism, or the doctrines of grace’ held by various founders of the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-19th century.
Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA), Jackson, Miss., called open theism’s undermining of God’s sovereignty and providence an attempt to ‘get him off the hook’ regarding absolute control over the universe.
‘Even the denial of fore-knowledge can’t get him off the hook, because, as B. B. Warfield reminded us “it is immoral to create what you are unwilling and unable to control,”‘ Duncan said. ‘Our God is not immoral and he is not unable and he is not unwilling. It is creation which establishes his sovereignty. The only way they will be able to get him completely off the hook is deny that he is the Creator and to scale him down even further from his sovereign throne at the very head of the universe.’
Further Duncan asserted, that openness theology takes unbiblical liberty in attempting to acquit God of having any connection with evil. He said the Bible does not evidence the slightest concern regarding the problem of evil within the scope of God’s sovereignty and that Scripture does not limit his providence to that which is good.
Duncan cited four examples from Scripture:
1. The story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Said Duncan, ‘He [Joseph] did not say, “You meant it for evil and God decided to use what you have done for good.” He said, “You meant it for evil, God meant it for good.” [This is] the concurrent operation of God’s providence even against the cross-purposes of the wicked to his praise and for the good of his people.’
2. The story of Job. Said Duncan, ‘It was not Satan who had gone up and down in the earth prowling who had found Job; it was God the Father Almighty who said, “Have you considered my servant Job?” Job was brought to the attention of the evil one by the sovereign God of heaven and earth and put in boundaries into his hands. And Job evidences not the slightest qualm about the morality of the exercise of God’s sovereignty. That issue does not even breathe.’
3. 2 Samuel 24. ‘We are told because of God’s anger against Israel, he incited David to sin by taking the census. The chronicle even attributes the incitement of David to Satan and there is no apology for this in the Book of Kings. My heavens, these brothers weren’t enlightened; they had never read open theism, had they?’
4. 1 Kings 22. ‘We are told through the prophet Micaiah that the God of heaven and earth had enticed Ahab to go up to Ramoth-Gilead and be destroyed by putting a lying spirit in the mouth of his prophets. From beginning to end, the Bible is… unapologetic in its assertion of God’s sovereignty in his providence even over evil.’
Tom Nettles, professor of historic theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., delivered an exposition of Isaiah 40 in defense of God’s infinite knowledge.
Foundational in understanding God’s perfect knowledge of past, present and future is the scriptural affirmation of God’s knowledge of himself.
‘Once we affirm that God has knowledge of himself, it should be sufficient to know that his knowledge and his understanding is really infinite,’ Nettles said, ‘There is nothing that he can really know about the created order that is somehow a superior knowledge than that which he has of himself.’
Nettles showed how the traditional doctrine of God’s knowledge is bound up in the biblical assertion of the Trinity. Each part of the Trinity knows perfectly and exhaustively the other, which makes infinite God’s knowledge of all things at all times, he said.
The scriptural understanding of God as Creator further confirms that there can be nothing within the created order which is outside God’s knowledge, Nettles said. God knows everything about man and the world at all times, including the future, he said. The creation can never bring new knowledge to the Creator, because God created all things with the purpose of governing them, he said.
Said Nettles, ‘God knows everything in the created order, no matter how massive it is, no matter how small it is, no matter how many parts it has, no matter how it operates, what it is constituted of; or how it functions. All of these things are created by God and he knows everything intimately, not as a matter of investigation, but as a matter of origination and of present operation. He controls it.’
Many openness teachers deny the historic Christian teaching on the doctrine of hell. Pinnock, for example, holds to annihilationism — that the unregenerate will cease to exist upon death.
Ligon Duncan quoted a section from Boyd’s book, God of the Possible, which ties together and rejects God’s sovereignty, the existence of evil and the doctrine of eternally punishment: ‘… if God is eternally certain that various individuals will end up being eternal damned, why does he go ahead and create them? If hell is worse than never being born, as Jesus suggests, wouldn’t an all-loving God refrain from creating people he is certain will end up there? If God truly doesn’t want any to perish, why does he create people he is certain will do just that?”
Given the weight of Scripture indicating the existence of a literal hell, Duncan said the jettisoning of eternal punishment is another attempt at ‘saving God’ from a doctrine that openness theologians erroneously view as contradictory to his love.
‘The problem of hell is not how people get there,’ Duncan said. ‘It is not God’s ordination of it, it is not whether God foreknows it; the problem of hell is that people are there. That is an undeniable fact of the Scriptures.’
Duncan pointed out that God’s sovereign providence was in clear view when the most heinous act in all of Scripture — the crucifixion of Christ — was carried out.
Said Duncan, ‘When somebody comes to me and says they have a problem with God and hell, I say to them, “Let me give you a problem: God and the cross.” Because God and hell is child’s play in comparison to God and the cross.’
Duncan said open theism is such a radical departure from classical Christianity that most believers will easily spot its erroneous holdings.
‘The advent of openness theology actually provides us a wonderful opportunity for the reassertion of the biblical and classical and Reformed view of the providence of God,’ he said. ‘They have made claims that are so audacious, that even when the common people of God hear them, they are going to be startled.’
‘That is going to give you an opportunity to reintroduce a doctrine which is unfortunately a stranger to so many of our people,’ Duncan said. ‘So let us see God’s hand of providence, even in the denial of his providence, by those who would confuse and confound his people.’
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