Fireworks was the metaphor du jour Wednesday as I greeted old friends on the opening morning of this year's Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting: "Have you come for the fireworks?" "Have you come to watch our fireworks?" "Are you here for the fireworks?"
One after another, theologians and biblical scholars expressed their expectation of the pyrotechnic politics at the special business meeting scheduled for 8:30 Wednesday night. The extraordinary meeting was called for members to vote whether to expel two high-profile proponents of Open Theism from the society.
Open Theism claims that God created human beings with complete free will, that in doing so he took on genuine risks, that because of human freedom the future is indeterminate, and that God cannot know the future precisely, but only with varying degrees of probability. Most members of the ETS believe such teaching not only departs from the overwhelming testimony of Christian thinkers through the ages, but also calls into question God's own accuracy in biblical prophecy. And if God can't be counted on to be accurate as he speaks through his prophets, how can such beliefs be reconciled with the ETS's commitment to biblical inerrancy?
In the event, the membership voted not to expel retired McMaster Divinity School theologian Clark Pinnock and Huntington College theologian John Sanders. The proposal to expel Pinnock received 212 yes votes and 432 no votes, thus failing to reach the necessary two-thirds majority by a wide margin. Sanders squeaked by. The proposal to expel him received 388 yes votes and 231 no votes, barely missing the required 66 2/3 percent by less than four percentage points.
There were good reasons to expect an explosion. Painful memories of the 1983 ETS meeting, which voted to expel New Testament scholar Robert Gundry, are still fresh for many members. Also fresh are the debates of the 2001 and 2002 annual meetings in Colorado Springs and in Toronto. In 2001, opponents of Open Theism worked to pass a resolution affirming God's exhaustive foreknowledge, thus officially rejecting Open Theism's keystone. In 2002, founding ETS member Roger Nicole brought formal charges against Pinnock and Sanders, setting in motion a process of inquiry that would culminate in this year's vote. Discussion at both the Colorado Springs and Toronto meetings took on an adversarial tone, with Nicole calling Open Theism "a cancer on the soul of the ETS."
But while many scholars came expecting fireworks, Wednesday morning's events created radically different expectations: Nicole began his paper with a profession of love for the two Openness theologians, saying that his "greatest desire" was that they should remain members who would be in harmony with ETS's doctrinal basis.
Nicole's paper proceeded to outline his critique of the Openness position, remarking about this minority view that "the score is 1 billion 970 million to one." Openness theology emphasizes "libertarian human freedom" to the degree that it impinges on God's freedom and God's knowledge. It credits undue adequacy to "finite human logic." It treats Scripture selectively. It acknowledges that God sometimes sets aside libertarian human freedom so that he can make and fulfill certain prophecies, but Openness gives no reason why that should not be true of all genuine prophecy. Indeed, the Openness position tends to put God in the position of the false prophets condemned in Deuteronomy. This inconsistency regarding prophecy, Nicole said, was "a leak that threatens to empty the complete reservoir."
But Nicole's disagreements with Openness Theism were high-minded and principled, and did not offer the slightest hint of animus. So moved was Clark Pinnock that he stood at the close of Nicole's presentation to say that he felt closer to Nicole now than he ever had. As the crowd milled about during their break, Nicole and Pinnock embraced.
Later Wednesday morning, Pinnock had his turn at the microphone. He talked about how much the challenge to his membership hurt. "But thanks be to God," he said, "what began as an experience of tension filled with anxiety has turned around and became something very different, an experience of grace mixed with truth." Regarding the process by which the membership challenge was handled, Pinnock said, "The exchange of ideas and the way in which I was handled by the committee was exemplary and a model of truth seeking and fairness."
"They had a chance to nail me when they spotted a careless expression," he added, "but they did not. They wanted to hear me out and not rush to judgment. … Nothing remotely like a witch hunt occurred."
The rapprochement between former adversaries was largely due to the careful process of investigation and dialogue conducted by the ETS executive committee. Following an extended discussion on October 3 with Nicole, Southern Seminary professor Bruce Ware, and the executive committee, Pinnock offered to revise an alarmingly ambiguous footnote in his book Most Moved Mover. The note appeared to deny that God fulfilled several biblical prophecies. Over the next few weeks, he produced a new footnote affirming instead that God often fulfilled his prophecies in surprising and unexpected ways. The new footnote satisfied both the executive committee and Nicole, and the executive committee voted nine to zero to recommend against expelling Pinnock from membership.
The investigation had not turned out so favorably for John Sanders. Like Clark Pinnock, Sanders clarified and retracted certain things he had written in The God Who Risks. But the October 3 discussion centered on his belief that biblical prophecies were not certain (since God does not actually know the future), but were instead probabilistic. The nine-member executive committee unanimously agreed that Sanders's understanding of prophecy meant that his affirmation of biblical inerrancy implied something quite different from what the framers of the ETS doctrinal basis meant and from what the vast majority of the ETS membership believes. Nevertheless, only seven members of the committee recommended that the charges against Sanders be sustained by the membership. Two members produced a minority report that demurred for several reasons, including the fact that ETS had never formally defined what it actually meant by inerrancy.
Debate preceding the vote was passionate, but not pyrotechnic. An orderly procession of scholars lined up at floor microphones, alternating pro and con speakers. The issues discussed included whether Open Theism was compatible with inerrancy, whether the meaning of inerrancy was clear enough for the purposes of the disciplinary action, and whether the ETS would remain an organization in which people felt free to speak freely.
Historian Richard Pierard of Gordon College, a former ETS president, worried aloud about what expelling these theologians would do to the ETS's credibility as a learned society. "This sort of action engenders the suspicion among our colleagues that we are a narrow-minded bunch of squabblers who are not serious about our scholarly obligations."
Those who spoke in favor of expelling Pinnock and Sanders were careful to affirm their integrity and good intentions. As Wayne House (another former ETS president) of Faith Seminary Tacoma said, "We are not dealing with a man's integrity, but with whether his views are compatible with inerrancy."
After the vote, both sides were eager to affirm the value of the experience, despite the pain of the confrontation. ETS President David Howard Jr. of Bethel College and Seminary said, "Open Theism has not been cleared. The issue was the connection to inerrancy. But I want to reiterate my joy that the process worked. We showed that we are capable of dealing with a serious issue in a serious way."
Bruce Ware, who assisted Nicole in prosecuting the charges, said, "What began with a degree of suspicion, ended with a high degree of confidence."
John Sanders spoke of improved relationships, particularly with Ware. "Bruce has written several books attacking my views," Sanders said, "but things have improved between us."
Ware spoke of the integrity of the committee's investigation. "There was never a hint of a desire to do someone in," Ware told me, "only to do what is right."
Because the vote to expel Sanders failed by a narrow margin, Ware called it "a chastening vote." It showed "a strong desire to uphold the traditional understanding of inerrancy," he said. "A very strong desire."
Upholding inerrancy will probably require incorporating an expanded definition of the term in the ETS Constitution. That will require an 80 percent vote and a long process, said Howard. Expanding the definition of inerrancy will open up the possibility of creating a more fully rounded doctrinal statement for the organization, said Howard. If that happens, the debate could once again become intense, but given the care and graciousness of this year's process, I wouldn't come back looking for fireworks.
David Neff is editor of Christianity Today.
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Also posted today is CT's coverage of the 1983 ETS meeting.
CT earlier covered the ETS leadership's recommendations.
Christianity Today earlier featured "Does God Know Your Next Move?" in which Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders debated openness theology. That discussion was been expanded into a book, Does God Have a Future?: A Debate on Divine Providence, which was recently reviewed in CT.
Earlier Christianity Today coverage of the openness theological debate include:
Closing the Door on Open Theists? | ETS to examine whether Clark Pinnock and John Sanders can remain members (Dec. 23, 2002)
Evangelical Theological Society Moves Against Open Theists | Membership of Pinnock and Sanders challenged by due process (Nov. 22, 2002)
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)