Members of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) voted last night to challenge the legitimacy of the membership of Clark Pinnock and John Sanders for violating the inerrancy clause of the ETS constitution.
"I present this motion with a heavy heart," said Roger Nicole, who initiated the charges. A founding member of the ETS in 1949, Nicole had surveyed other surviving charter members and found unanimous concern that Pinnock, Sanders, and Gregory Boyd were promoting proposals "incompatible with inerrancy."
The vote at the November 20-22 annual meeting in Toronto is the latest development in a five-year controversy over the concept of open theism, which critics believe diminishes the omniscience of God.
Open theists emphasize God's self-limitation in dealing with humans. Because God desires people's free response, openness theologians say, he neither predetermines nor foreknows their moral choices. In the Bible, they say, God changes his mind, or "repents," in response to human actions.
In accordance with the ETS constitution, Nicole's motion referred the matter to the executive committee, which will examine the case carefully and determine whether the charges should be voted on next year, explained ETS president Millard J. Erickson.
After an hour of debate in a special meeting, members present voted 171 to 131 on the motion against Pinnock; 166 to 143 against Sanders. (Boyd, who left Bethel College at the end of the 2001-2002 school year to focus on his duties as senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, is not currently a member of the society.)
"It was a dramatic moment," said Pinnock shortly after the meeting. "I wasn't surprised with the result. I'm concerned that it will divide the society, whatever happens to me. I just hope that this process will work, and that next year it won't pass. I'm hopeful." Pinnock teaches at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.
Sanders, of Huntington College in Huntington, Indiana, did not want to comment in the immediate aftermath of the vote.
The debate was largely civil, with more members speaking against the motion than in favor. Those backing Pinnock and Sanders expressed concerns about a "narrow-minded" scholastic society that was chasing away members by being unnecessarily restrictive.
"We have already lost too many constituents who are no longer in our society although they are in our camp," said former ETS president Richard Pierard, an adjuct professor of history at Gordon College.
Others debated the validity of the inerrancy challenge, saying its function is to ensure that whatever conclusions are reached are grounded in Scripture. Many affirmed that arguments on both sides of the open theism controversy are grounded in Scripture, which means this is a legitimate debate within the society.
"They are not denying that God cannot choose to know in advance what creatures can do, but that he has chosen not to know everything in advance," explained Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, who distanced himself personally from the open theism position.
"I wrote a book against open theism," added Doug Kennard of Bryan College. "But this is an interpretive issue. They affirm inerrancy."
Proponents of the motion, such as John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, said the issues were "serious enough to have a year's worth of investigation. [Pinnock and Sanders] do make statements that in ordinary language would be called divine mistakes. That bears investigation."
Another former ETS president, Norman Geisler, supported the motion because the charges were serious, had been discussed for a long time without resolution, and have been deeply troublesome to a majority of members. He urged members to use the due process available in the constitution to "put the issue behind us."
But Terence Paige of Houghton College was saddened by the vote. "It says to me we're choking debate," he said, "substituting a judicial attack mechanism when we can't persuade the other to change his mind."
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See the Evangelical Theological Society Web site.
Christianity Today earlier featured "Does God Know Your Next Move?" in which Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders debated openness theology. That discussion has been expanded into a new book, Does God Have a Future?: A Debate on Divine Providence.
opentheism.info offers, among other resources, a "frequently asked questions" page about openness theology.
Earlier Christianity Today coverage of the openness theological debate include:
Theologians Decry 'Narrow' Boundaries | 110 evangelical leaders sign joint statement (June 4, 2002)
Only God Is Free | Many discussions about openness theology assume that human freedom and divine freedom are pretty much the same thing. They're not, says Geoffrey Bromiley (Feb. 12, 2002)
Foreknowledge Debate Clouded by "Political Agenda" | Evangelical Theologians differ over excluding Open Theists. (November 19, 2001)
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. 19, 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)