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A Referendum on Open Theism?

  • Russell Shubin Salem Communications
  • Updated Nov 20, 2003
A Referendum on Open Theism?

The 55th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) has concluded all actions related to two somewhat controversial theologians, Clark Pinnock and John Sanders who had been the subject of a year-long inquiry. Both had been charged that their writings were outside the pale of the society's doctrinal statement.

Votes taken by the full body confirmed that, whatever reservations members may have about the doctrinal position commonly referred to as Open Theism, they were unwilling to dismiss either theologian for violation of the doctrinal statement.       


"We are here beginning to sense the inadequacy of the ETS doctrinal statements as a filter for doctrinal heresy," said William Lane Craig (Talbot Theological Seminary) in an open session to ETS members. Both Pinnock (McMaster Divinity College, Ontario, Canada) and Sanders (Huntington College in Huntington, Indiana) have been active proponents of Open Theism-believing that God limits Himself in his relationship with humans, and is limited in His knowledge of future events.

Many hold that any embrace of Open Theism, by definition, places one outside of the society's commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible. Yet the charges brought against Pinnock and Sanders were not related to this doctrinal position in general, but-especially in Pinnock's case-specific portions of their writings, with a narrow question of whether those passages were compatible with a belief in Biblical inerrancy.


As the special business meeting began late Wednesday evening, November 19, the ballroom of the Atlanta Hilton quickly filled the 2,300 attendees-an ETS record number. With independent votes on each of the two theologians, 67 percent of ETS members (excluding associate members) rejected the motion to dismiss Pinnock, a 38-year veteran of ETS. The motion to dismiss John Sanders was also rejected, but by a minority of 37 percent (any vote to remove a member would have had to pass by a two-thirds margin). In voting to retain Sanders, the full body also rejected the recommendation of the Executive Committee, which felt that Sanders' views were incompatible with the doctrinal statement on inerrancy.


Many viewed the ETS doctrinal statement as lacking sufficient specificity for judging potentially heretical views. It has just two points: one on the inerrancy of the Bible; a second on the Trinity. Whether or not such a sparse statement was ever adequate, critics-on both sides of this current debate-expressed the need to expand it in the face of these and other dynamic challenges facing the church in North America. Some complained that statement of inerrancy itself was inadequate, as a definition of the word is not provided. This has allowed for a "porosity" with room for a range of views on what "inerrant" can mean. As for Pinnock, he said "I guess I'm of inerrancy of the nuanced kind."


While the occasion was not without tension, both Pinnock and Sanders commented on the nature and tone of deliberations-even prior to knowing the final verdict. "It has not been an altogether unpleasant experience. The matter has been handled admirably," Pinnock said; similar sentiments were expressed by Sanders. Current ETS president David Howard (Bethel Theological Seminary) began and closed the business meeting with an exhortation from Micah 6:8-"to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."


While the current actions by the body of ETS members leave some wondering where the scholastic society stands, others-even some of the more conservative ETS members-did not view the vote as a referendum on Open Theism. Critics of Open Theism admired the courage of founding ETS member Dr. Roger Nicole who brought the charges, but a number of them recognized that the narrow specificity of the charges made broader resolution on the issue of openness unlikely.


R. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky said, "the problem is, we're dealing with ideas, we're dealing with doctrines. And we have to separate the teaching from the individuals and deal with the ideas, the concepts, the doctrines themselves. Then, we just have to have as a general principle the understanding that anyone who holds or teaches such things is to be excluded from membership."


Earlier in the day, Pinnock spoke to a standing-room only crowd, where he admitted, "The issue is not me. It is whether the society wants to be of a certain kind, or another kind." In the wake of this year's events, that kind of introspection may well be taking place.


Mohler says, "The big issue before the ETS right now is whether this is a society of Evangelical theologians or a society about Evangelical theology. There's a critical distinction between those two ideas." While not despondent, he sees a significant challenge in front of the group. Mohler said, "If the society does not find a way to deal with the issue of Open Theism, in short order they'll be nothing 'Evangelical' about the Evangelical Theological Society."


Immediately prior to the report of the final vote, the aging Roger Nicole told the packed ballroom that this could well be the last annual meeting he would be able to participate in. His charge to the group was that, "Inerrancy is a treasure for us. That word is a treasure...tied up with the inerrancy of God Himself.... They cannot be separated.... The Bible cannot be, in it's original autographs, in error any more than God ever can be. And so ... I commit this to you, to your conscience, and to your mind." Through accented English, and to a standing ovation the native Swiss Reformed theologian left the society he helped found with something to think about.

Russell Shubin is the Editorial Director for the National News and Publics Affairs division of Salem Communications.