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The Openness Of God Rejected By The ETS

Category Articles
Date December 17, 2001


“The cost to doctrine and faith by open theism’s denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge is too great to be accepted within evangelicalism”

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP) – After three days of heated debate, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) voted November 16 overwhelmingly to affirm what almost every Christian in the history of the church has always believed – that God knows everything, including the future decisions of his creatures.

The organization, professional society of biblical scholars and theologians who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, brought the issue to the floor after a group of ETS charter members charged that the “openness of God” view being articulated by some society members is outside the boundaries of evangelical conviction.

The non-binding resolution stated that the society believes “the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all events past, present and future including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.” The resolution passed on a vote of 253 in favor to 66 opposed with 41 abstentions after a debate that lasted until well after midnight the night before.

The resolution takes issue with the concept of “open theism” held by evangelical scholars such as Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd and John Sanders. God cannot know what will happen in the future, these scholars argue, since future human decisions have not yet been made and thus do not exist to be known. Sanders, a professor of religion at Huntington College in Indiana, presented the open theist case before the society, arguing that an attempt to rule the idea out of bounds could result in an evangelical “Taliban,” enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy within the society.

Sanders’ view was opposed by a competing presentation by Bruce Ware, associate dean and professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Ware pleaded with ETS members to recognize that the denial of God’s complete knowledge is a dangerous doctrine that will damage the churches. Ware pointed to a host of Scriptures in which God declares himself to know the future, including passages in which God contrasts his knowledge of the future with the idols that have no such knowledge of future events.

“By its denying of God’s foreknowledge of future free creaturely choices and actions, open theism is vulnerable to the charge of commending as God one whom the true God declares is false and worthless,” Ware said.

The ramifications of open theism include the undermining of the gospel itself, Ware said, since God could not have kept with certainty the prophetic promises of the Old Testament, up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus. Nor, Ware said, can a God ignorant of the future guarantee the future success of his purposes. Ware took issue with statements by open theists who argue that God has made mistakes, including statements by Pinnock that even Jesus was mistaken at least once on a matter of predictive prophecy.

“The cost to doctrine and faith by open theism’s denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge is too great to be accepted within evangelicalism,” Ware said. “Thoughtful Christians, particularly Christian leaders, must speak out on the openness proposal to say what the glory of God; the truthfulness of Scripture and our own consciences require.”

Before the debate on the resolution, Ware pleaded with theists to repent of their teachings and reconsider the biblical portrayal of a God who knows the end from the beginning.

“You don’t have to go this way!” Ware said. “I won’t say, ‘I told you so.’ I will praise God! Come back to the fold.”

The vote was preceded by one charter member, theologian Roger Nicole, arguing that the founders of the organization would have been horrified to know that the issue of God’s knowledge would ever be up for debate among evangelicals, or that anyone who held such a view would even seek membership. Nicole argued that the society should vote to uphold foreknowledge, thereby signaling to open theists that they should “exercise their precious free will and resign.” If the open theists refuse to voluntarily leave the organization, Nicole said, the ETS should then move to expel them through its constitutional process.

“Open theism is a cancer on the Evangelical Theological Society,” Nicole said. “That cancer has not been resolved by chemotherapy or radiation. The only remaining option is surgery.”

Ware and Nicole, a member of a Florida Baptist congregation, were joined by other Southern Baptists in opposing the open theist position. Charlie Draper, professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary’s Boyce College, and Russ Bush, academic dean at South-eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, both argued that a denial of God’s foreknowledge is a denial of the inerrancy of Scripture, since a God who cannot know the future cannot guarantee the truth of a Bible that speaks to future events. Draper said the debate might well be “the issue of the century” for American evangelicals.

“If this line cannot be drawn, no line can be drawn,” Draper said. “If this view cannot be said to be a denial of inerrancy, then no view can be said to be a denial of inerrancy.”

The resolution was opposed by Clark Pinnock, who as a faculty member at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1960s, once championed a very conservative vision of historic Christian orthodoxy, but who has now significantly altered his convictions not only about the foreknowledge of God, but also about the meaning of inerrancy and the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation. Pinnock argued that the ETS should not condemn open theism, but instead should recognize that “the best advice about a new religious movement” comes from the Pharisee Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39. If open theism is not of God, it will come to nothing, Pinnock suggested.

The Southern Baptist Convention has addressed the question of open theism, first in a resolution offered by Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. at the 1999 SBC annual meeting in Atlanta. The resolution passed by the convention affirmed that God knows all things, including the future. The SBC then addressed the issue in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs, revising the article on God to affirm that God’s “perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.”

The ETS debate was preceded by a flurry of papers presented on both sides of the issue, and by an address by ETS President Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, who argued that sharp boundaries should not be drawn for the evangelical movement. Instead, he argued, evangelicalism may be likened to a “village green,” which is defined more by the center than by the boundaries. After the vote, ETS program chair Millard Erickson, a long-time opponent of open theism, predicted that the resolution would not end the debate over these issues within American evangelicalism.


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