Evangelical Theological Society Issues Split Recommendation on Two Open Theists

( [email protected] ) Nov 03, 2003 01:45 PM EST

NASHVILLE, Tenn. --With the Evangelical Theological Society's executive committee has issued a split recommendation on two members Clark Pinnock of McMaster Civinity College in Canada and John Sanders of Huntingdon College in Indiana who are supporting “open-theism” which is considered heretical.

Interestingly, by a unanimous 9-0 vote the ETS executive committee is recommending to keep Pinnock whereas by a 7-2 vote, the executive committee is recommending to remove Sanders.

"Open theism" -- a doctrine that says God's knowledge of the future is limited is coming out as a hot issue within ETS. Open theists say that while God knows all the possible future choices humans may make, He does not know specifically what they will do. They believe that God can change His mind that what has revealed in Scripture can also change by God’s own decision.

The actual debate over open theism is not an issue, the issue is whether or not open theism is in conflict with the society’s doctrinal statement which simply affirms the doctrines of inerrancy of the Bible and the Trinity. As long as “open-theism” is proven to be inerrant of the Bible, Pinnock and Sanders would be able to hold their membership in ETS. Yearly fee and agreement with their doctrinal statement are all it requires to be a member of ETS.

The voters all agreed not to remove Pinnock after he voluntarily decided to revise a footnote 66 on page 51 in his book, "Most Moved Mover." The old version read, in part, "contrary to Paul, the second coming was not just around the corner (1 Thes. 4:17)" -- which the committee interpreted to mean that Pinnock thought Paul was in error.

Pinnock voluntarily agreed to revise the statement, which now reads: "According to Paul, the second coming seemed to be just around the corner (1 Thess 4:17), even though we today know that it has still not come even in our day. His word was, however, perfectly appropriate, given the fact that Paul thought that the coming could come at any time."

Pinnock further clarified some of his other statements in the book to the committee's satisfaction.

"I see that I did not express my intended meaning very well and affirm their determination to search out the matter," he wrote in a statement following the meeting. "I wish to add that I am not just saying now what I ... must say to be exonerated -- my own language did subvert my actual beliefs in these matters. Let me close with something even stronger for any who still hesitate. I do not believe that God's prophets ever err. They always tell the truth when all is said and done."

The revisions satisfied both the committee and Ware, who has been one of evangelicalism's most outspokenly against of open theism.

"I give my full support to the Committee's recommendations with respect to both Dr. Pinnock and Dr. Sanders," he wrote in a letter posted on the ETS website. "Dr. Pinnock's retraction of previously written materials, and his re-writing of those materials, justifies, in my opinion, the Committee's unanimous recommendation that he not be excluded from membership of the ETS.

"Without his voluntary retraction and rewriting, however, I believe the outcome would have been exactly opposite from what is now presented to the ETS membership."

Interestingly, all the members of the committee except for two, disagreed on the views Sanders hold in his book and unanimously concluded that they are incompatible with the definition of inerrancy.

Sanders holds in his book - "The God Who Risks," that many biblical predictions about the future in Scripture may not come to pass as described," the unanimous statement read. "However, in his view, these are not errors. In the Committee's view, a statement about the future that does not come to pass is erroneous, provided that there are no other textual or historical indications conditioning the prophecy."

But the two voters, Wheaton College's Gregory Beale and Bethel Theological Seminary's David Howard Jr., who didn’t vote against Sanders, didn’t think Sanders should be removed because "inerrancy" is left undefined in the doctrinal statement.

"For such a critical word, upon which rests such a heavy burden of being practically the sole determinant of membership in our Society, we believe that the Society should provide a clearer and expanded official understanding of what it means," the minority report read. "It appears that Sanders attempts in good faith to affirm that Scripture itself is inerrant. We believe he is probably wrong, but we admit that someone who confesses 'inerrancy' conceivably could hold his perspective."

But the majority of the committee disagreed, asserting that Sanders' views of biblical prophecy, which he described as “probable” conflicts with any definition of inerrancy.

"In our view, this difference is so significant that it is not merely another option within inerrancy, but is incompatible with it," the majority wrote.

Sanders disagreed with the majority's recommendation, saying, "[W]e are all seeking to interpret the inerrant Scripture in ways that affirm its truthfulness. We disagree as to the best way of handling certain texts."

Both sides fear that the society may split no matter the outcome at the meeting. Nicole, in fact, wrote in a follow-up letter, "As I view the case the future of ETS is at stake."

The conflict began last year when one of the organization's founding members, Roger Nicole, brought charges against both men of accepting “open-theism.” After a round of position papers from both sides this spring and summer, all parties met with executive committee members in Chicago Oct. 2-4.

Several hundred members of the Evangelical Theological Society will gather in Atlanta Nov. 19-21 for their annual meeting and vote on the recommendations. A two-thirds vote of those present is required for expulsion.