- December 5, 2003
- By John Rutledge
Theological society won't oust two 'open theists'
By Adelle Banks
Religion News Service
ATLANTA (RNS)--The Evangelical Theological Society voted last month to retain two members whose status had been challenged after they published controversial views supporting open theism--the belief that God may not always know the future.
The memberships of scholars John Sanders and Clark Pinnock were sustained when the society's members failed to vote by a two-thirds majority that either should be removed.
Both scholars said they were "relieved" by the votes, which had questioned whether they had violated the society's commitment to inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is without error.
Outgoing society President David Howard Jr. said the votes by more than 600 scholars attending the annual meeting in Atlanta did not focus on the merits of open theism. Rather, they addressed whether the two men agreed with the group's "doctrinal basis," which consists of two sentences affirming inerrancy and the Trinity.
The society's executive committee had recommended 7-2 that Sanders be removed from membership. In a report issued prior to the meeting, it said his book "The God Who Risks" leaves one "with a Bible that one cannot affirm teaches anything about the future except for stating probabilities."
In an interview, Sanders discussed an example he cited to the committee, the reference in 2 Kings 20 to King Hezekiah, who was expected to die but then did not after he prayed to God. The prophet Isaiah, who had previously said Hezekiah would die, then said he would recover from his illness.
"That's the 'open' of 'open theism,'" said Sanders, a philosophy and religion professor at Huntington College in Huntington, Ind. "God is open to what we do. What we do makes a difference to what God decides to do."
The secret ballot about Sanders came close to the necessary two-thirds, with 62.7 percent favoring expulsion and 37.3 percent opposing expulsion. Some considered it a warning for scholars like Sanders to rethink some of their arguments.
The executive committee had recommended unanimously that Pinnock's membership be sustained after he made changes to a footnote of his book "Most Moved Mover."
Pinnock said in an interview that he had not denied inerrancy in that footnote but was declaring that "prophecies can be pretty vague sometimes." The reference was to Paul's statement in 1 Thessalonians about the return of Jesus.
"According to Paul, the Second Coming seemed to be just around the corner (1 Thessalonians 4:17), even though we today know that it has still not come even in our day," he wrote in the revised note. "His word was, however, perfectly appropriate, given the fact that Paul thought that the coming could come at any time."
Pinnock, professor emeritus of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, Canada, also was retained, with 33 percent voting in favor of expelling him and 67 percent voting against expulsion.
"I think it was a vote of moderation," Pinnock said in an interview after the vote. "In recent years, the tendency had been to turn always to the right, and this was saying: 'No, this is enough. Let's stop ... hurting each other.'"
Both scholars say they are simultaneously inerrantists and open theists. Although the vote was technically on whether the men had violated the sentiment of the society about inerrancy, there is a debate within the group as to whether open theism and inerrancy can be compatible.
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was disappointed with the outcome of the votes because he believes the two concepts are "absolutely incompatible."
"If the Evangelical Theological Society does not muster the courage to define its own convictions and to determine its own membership on the basis of those convictions, then there will be, eventually, nothing evangelical about the Evangelical Theological Society," he said.
The faculty and trustees of Mohler's seminary in Louisville, Ky., had adopted a resolution opposing open theism ahead of the meeting in hopes of influencing the vote.
Mohler said the society should develop a definition of inerrancy. Some charged during the debate that there was not a clear definition of inerrancy to use as a basis for charges against Sanders and Pinnock.
Howard, the outgoing president and an Old Testament professor at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., said some in the organization argue that it is not a church, but rather an academic society where hard issues--including open theism--can be debated.
After a yearlong process that included issuing reports and responses on the society's website, he was satisfied the group had proved it can handle such debates.
"A lot of people came ... expecting to see a good fight," he said. "There was vigorous debate, but it was all done in great dignity and decency and in order. Ultimately, I guess, we're all wanting to advance the cause of Christ."