The Evangelical Theological Society has voted to challenge the membership of theologians Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. The development at the November 20-22 annual meeting in Toronto is the latest in a five-year controversy over open theism.

"I present this motion with a heavy heart," said Roger Nicole, a founding member of the ETS in 1949, who initiated the charges. Nicole, of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, had surveyed other surviving charter members and found unanimous concern that Pinnock, Sanders, and Minnesota pastor Gregory Boyd were promoting proposals "incompatible with inerrancy." Inerrancy and the Trinity constitute the doctrinal basis of the society.

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.

Action next year

In accordance with the ETS constitution, Nicole's motion referred the matter to the executive committee. It will examine the case and determine whether ETS will vote on the charges next year, according to ETS president Millard J. Erickson.

Members present voted 171 to 137 on the motion against Pinnock, and 166 to 143 against Sanders. (Boyd left Bethel College in May 2002 to devote more time to pastoring Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is not currently a society member.)

"I wasn't surprised with the result," Pinnock said. "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 taught systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, until his retirement last spring.

Sanders, of Huntington College in Indiana, said the real issue for critics is not inerrancy, but control. "I don't think it's ever been a theological question," he told CT. "It's a political question, and it goes way back."

At their 2001 annual meeting, ETS members voted 253 to 66 (with 41 abstentions) in favor of a resolution that denied open theism: "We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate, and infallible knowledge of all events past, present, and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents" (CT, Jan. 7, 2002, p. 21).

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Civil debate

The November 2002 debate was largely civil. More members spoke against the motion than in favor. Those backing Pinnock and Sanders expressed concerns about a "narrow-minded" scholastic society that was chasing away members.

"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, adjunct professor of history at Gordon College.

Others debated the validity of the inerrancy challenge. They said the society's inerrancy affirmation only requires that members ground their theological conclusions in Scripture. Many said that those on both sides of open theism do that.

"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," said Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, who distanced himself from the open theism position.

Baylor University's Roger Olson, not an ETS member, told CT that if the society expels Pinnock and Sanders, "It would demonstrate to the world at large and to evangelicalism in particular that the ETS has departed from its historic moderate and irenic posture."

Last year, Olson and other scholars issued "The Word Made Fresh," a manifesto calling evangelicals "to affirm the genuine diversity and fresh reflection, rooted in the authority of the written Word and centered on the Word incarnate, that has always been the hallmark of the true evangelical spirit." More than 100 scholars signed the document (CT, June 10, 2002, p. 18).

Proponents of the motion to challenge Pinnock and Sanders, such as John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, said the issues merited a year-long inquiry.

"They do make statements that in ordinary language would be called divine mistakes," Piper said.

Norman Geisler, another former ETS president who supported the motion, said the charges had been discussed for a long time without resolution and have deeply troubled ETS members. He urged members to use the due process available in the constitution to "put the issue behind us."

Related Elsewhere

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.

Article continues below offers, among other resources, a "frequently asked questions" page about openness theology.

See the discussion between John Sanders and classical theist Stephen Williams in our sister magazine Books & Culture.

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)

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