Part 1:Introduction | John Sanders 1 | Chris Hall 1 | Sanders 2 | Hall 2
Part 2:John Sanders 3 | Chris Hall 3 | Sanders 4 | Hall 4 | Sanders 5 | Postscript
Both of us believe the early church provides both helpful and unhelpful models for handling and adjudicating theological controversy. Think, for example, of issues and events surrounding the Arian controversy. In the fourth century, a presbyter by the name of Arius argued that the Son was an exalted creature but not God. As Arius put it, "There was a time when he [the Son] was not." The church rejected the teaching of Arius and affirmed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all equally one God and shared the same divine nature. The final criterion for the church's rejection or acceptance of Arius's position was whether it fit well with the Scripture and with the church's worship.
However, the final decision regarding Arianism involved years of theological turmoil and debate. Some Christians treated their opponents with respect and integrity, while others acted acrimoniously and deceptively. While acknowledging the key role Roman politics played in the struggle, we believe the final outcome was reached through a thorough reading of the Scripture, years of concentrated thought and lively debate, and viewing the issue through the lens of the church's own worship. In its best moments, the debate was surrounded by prayer and by deep dependence upon the Spirit's guidance. In the debate's worst moments, personal attacks and agendas, political machinations, pride and anger, and, yes, even demonic attack threatened to subvert the search for truth.
How might these early controversies and councils guide us as we debate the openness position today?
First, we observe the importance of solid biblical exegesis. The bottom line for any position must be whether it faithfully represents the prophetic and apostolic revelation given to us in the Bible.
Second, does the proposed theological model recognize and preserve the insights given to us by the Christian communion over the centuries? In what manner does the model modify the decisions of key ecumenical councils, creeds, and confessional statements? An important issue in the openness debate is the role of theological tradition. Care must be taken to preserve the insights of the past; at the same time, we must be prepared to separate the chaff that may remain. Are these modifications the openness model advocates legitimate developments or illegitimate distortions?
Third, we need not fear a hearty and forthright argument. There is always a time for charitable polemics. If we think a theological model or position is a bad one or is superior to another, we need to say so directly. It is often during the debate itself that the implications of a theological model rise to the surface. Allow time for the debate to unfold. Avoid premature conclusions.
Fourth, the evangelical community must work hard to resolve theological debates communally. This is a particular challenge for the evangelical world, as it contains many ecclesial bodies. Hence, the importance of continuing to provide forums in which we can debate issues such as the openness model fairly, honestly, charitably, and directly. These forums can occur through the medium of print (the publishing of books through publishers such as IVP, Baker, Eerdmans, and Crossway, and articles in magazines or journals such as Christianity Today, Books & Culture, The Journal of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship, and The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society). We can continue to sponsor public debates and papers through scholarly societies such as the Christian Theological Research Fellowship, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the American Academy of Religion. Church communities can also provide forums for discussion and debate, as has been occurring recently in the Baptist General Conference.
Fifth, we need to practice intellectual empathy toward those with whom we disagree. We must say no to the temptation to caricature their position. We need to help one another come to the point where we can state the position of our opponent to our opponent's satisfaction. We have tried to provide an example of such intellectual empathy in our e-mail exchanges. Empathy does not legitimize shoddy thinking or necessitate that we treat each other with kid gloves. It does call us to listen carefully to the position with which we often strongly disagree. Moreover, in our exchanges we must note our areas of agreement, not merely our disagreements. Too often we evangelicals forget the incredible amount of faith and practice we share in common.
Sixth, after these five steps have been vigorously, faithfully, truthfully, and charitably pursued, we must acknowledge that there is surely a time to accept or reject a theological model. Some within the evangelical community, such as Michael Horton, are already convinced that the openness model is illegitimate; others, such as Gilbert Bilezekian, believe it is the freshest air since the Reformation. The debate needs to continue so that the issues can be further clarified. Our exchange represents just such an effort.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
opentheism.info offers, among other resources, a "frequently asked questions" page about openness theology.
Other Christianity Today articles on openness theology include:
Has God Been Held Hostage by Philosophy? | A forum on free-will theism, a new paradigm for understanding God. (Jan. 9, 1995, reposted online May 11, 2001)
Truth at Risk | Six leading openness theologians say that many assumptions made about their views are simply wrong. (Apr. 23, 2001)
God at Risk | A former process theologian says a 30-percent God is not worth worshiping. (Mar. 16, 2001)
Did Open Debate Help The Openness Debate? | It's been centuries since Luther nailed his theses to a church door, but the Internet is reintroducing theological debate to the public square. (Feb. 16, 2001)
God vs. God | Two competing theologies vie for the future of evangelicalism (Feb. 7, 2000).
Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists? | The SBC's new Faith and Message brings needed clarity—but maybe at the cost of honest diversity. (Aug. 8, 2000)
The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)
The Future of Evangelical Theology | Roger Olson argues that a division between traditionalists and reformists threatens to end our theological consensus. (Feb. 9, 1998)
A Pilgrim on the Way | For me, theology is like a rich feast, with many dishes to enjoy and delicacies to taste. (Feb. 9, 1998)
A Theology to Die For | Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith. (Feb. 9, 1998)
The Real Reformers are Traditionalists | If there is no immune system to resist heresy, there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy. (Feb. 9, 1998)
John Sanders earlier wrote an article for Christianity Today titled "The Perennial Debate | Christians have never agreed on the salvation for those who have never heard of Christ" (May 14, 1990).
Christianity Today articles by Christopher A. Hall include:
What Hal Lindsey Taught Me About the Second Coming | At UCLA, amid war protests and police helicopters, teachings on an imminent end made a lot of sense. (Oct. 25, 1999)
Adding Up the Trinity | What is stimulating the renewed interest in what many consider the most enigmatic Christian doctrine? (Apr. 28, 1997)
Into the Abyss | Reconciling faith with catastrophic loss. (Mar. 3, 1997)
Recovering the Church's Memory | An alternative to the willful amnesia of modern theology. (Dec. 9, 1996)
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