Open Debate in the Openness Debate
Not long after he began his pastorate in Amsterdam in 1587, Jacob Arminius was asked to refute a pamphlet attacking the doctrine of predestination. Arminius read the document, but instead of producing the expected scathing reply, he found himself drawn to the pamphleteer's position.
John Milton, an avid pamphleteer himself, lamented 57 years later that "the acute and distinct Arminius was perverted merely by the perusing of a nameless discourse written at Delft, which at first he took in hand to confute." Yet when the British Parliament sought to censor printing, Milton argued passionately that ideas—even heretical ones—needed to be exchanged.
"That infection which is from books of controversy in religion is more doubtful and dangerous to the learned than to the ignorant," Milton wrote in his 1644 tract Areopagitica, "and yet those books must be permitted untouched by the licenser."
The advent of fast, cheap printing technologies around the time of the Reformation transformed theological discourse. But ideas had always found ways to spill out of narrow, approved channels—and they still do.
In the first major Supreme Court decision related to the Internet, Reno v. aclu in 1997, justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that, "Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders [listservs], and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer."
Since that decision, scholars have explored the effects of the Internet on commerce, politics, and numerous First Amendment concerns. But how does the Internet affect theological discourse?
If there are any experts on this emerging topic, they are concentrated in the Baptist General Conference (BGC) and at Bethel (Minn.) College. Within these institutions, people at the epicenter of the "open theism" debate are learning firsthand the positive and negative power of electronic communication.
Letters about a skeptic
Open theism, the idea that God does not fully know the future because humans have not yet made the choices that will affect it, has been called everything from "an enlightening new paradigm" to "merely an extreme form of Arminianism" to "heresy." Open theism did not originate in—and is not limited to—the BGC (the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, added an anti-open theism clause to its Faith and Message at its June 2000 meeting). But so far it has created more turmoil in the BGC than in any other Christian body.
The leading proponent of open theism in the BGC, Gregory Boyd, teaches at Bethel and pastors Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, one of the five largest churches in the conference. Last June, he found himself fighting for his theology—and his job—as his denomination debated whether it could be open to openness.
Though Boyd had long espoused openness views, these views invited relatively little debate until five years ago, when BGC pastors started asking about this sentence in Boyd's 1994 book Letters from a Skeptic: "God can't foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people he creates until he creates these people, and they, in turn, create their decisions."
The complaints increased in volume and frequency until, in 1996, Bethel formed an internal committee to evaluate this position and its effect, if any, on Boyd's employment status. The committee found Boyd's views "within the bounds of evangelical Christian orthodoxy and compatible with the theological commitments expected of faculty members at Bethel." Boyd thus retained his teaching post.