Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content

Open Letters on Open Theism

We have been discussing MissionSHIFT: Mission Issues in the Third Millennium over the last two months (the articles are linked on Monday's post).

The book is a conversation, and such dialogues include affirmations and critiques. In the third section of the book, Ralph Winter presents some new and challenging views. Many of the respondents were concerned about those views, including my co-editor David Hesselgrave.

In that critique of Ralph Winter, David made a comment (which I did not catch and correct) indicating something that we have both learned was wrong.

We were first contacted and asked, "What can we do to make it right?" So, Beth Snodderly wrote an open letter (now published in several places) and David Hesselgrave wrote a response.

Since our conversation is now turning to the third section of the book, it seems only appropriate to say here: Ralph Winter never indicated he was an Open Theist and I apologize for publishing that in the book. It will be corrected in future editions, and many of you who read missiology journals are already aware of this letter... but I wanted to share it here.

Here are the two letters, published here as we talk through part 3 of the book:

An Open Letter to David Hesselgrave about a misunderstanding stated in MissionShift about Ralph D. Winter: With a Response from David Hesselgrave

Dear Dr. Hesselgrave:

Congratulations to you and Ed Stetzer for your new book, MissionShift. I consider this to be a landmark volume with three great missiologists (Van Engen, Hiebert, Winter) giving past, present and future assessments of evangelical mission. (Well, Winter could never resist bringing in history, so we get a perspective on the past a second time, as well as his assignment to talk about the future!). The responses and responses to responses are thought provoking and challenging, giving the feel of a friendly, enriching dialog.

Thank you for including Ralph Winter's thinking, some of it controversial, in your new book. This is a wonderful way to share his legacy with the mission world. I have always appreciated your kindness and fairness in interacting with Dr. Winter even when the two of you had to agree to disagree. Your summary of Ralph Winter's meta-scientific narrative is fair and balanced, in all but one point.

You were writing after his death so Winter was unable to read your response to his article. He would certainly have corrected your statements about himself on page 290 related to Open Theism. Those of us who worked with him on a daily basis realize it is not a fair assessment of Winter to state, "along with undercutting the omniscience of God, Winter's open theism would seem to undermine the full authority of Scripture and emasculate the biblical gospel."

Winter agreed wholeheartedly with Boyd's thesis about Satan's activity in this world, but he disagreed with Boyd's thesis about God's foreknowledge. I wrote about this in 2005 in an article about Winter's "Wartime Missiology." Boyd himself admits that his views on God's foreknowledge are not essential to understanding the warfare worldview that postulates that God's sovereignly chosen self-limitations leave free choice to creatures to potentially use their freedom for evil purposes. (Gregory A. Boyd. Satan and the Problem of Evil [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001], 86, 87.)

In corresponding with a pastor who objected to the fact that Mission Frontiers had published an excerpt from one of Boyd's books, Ralph Winter replied by email (Nov. 11, 2008):

Hardly any magazine excludes documents on the basis of what else the author might believe. If we did that we could not publish anything by Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Moody, etc. I personally have absolutely nothing to do with so-called Open Theism. I think it is ridiculous. [emphasis added]

But I am very eager to see Evangelicals give up a certain pervasive fatalism which does without a Satan and allows God to be blamed for every evil act of every being to whom God has given freewill, angelic or human, and who chooses to do wrong, and then explains the evil as God's mysterious will.

See, if you believe cancer is sent by God and is always His mysterious will, then you have no basis upon which to seek out the causes of cancer and remove them.

I highly respect you, and appreciate your willingness to give the academic missions world a chance to see Ralph Winter's position on God's foreknowledge and the authority of Scripture. Winter stated in a lecture to his Sunday School class in 2005 ("Growing Up with the Bible"), that "the Bible's influence is probably the most important single strand in the tapestry of my life." His family and I would like for him to be remembered and written about in years to come with that in mind.

For the Glory of God,

Beth Snodderly

EMS Southwest Regional Vice President

Provost, William Carey International University

Response by David Hesselgrave

Dear Dr. Snodderly,

I want to express my sincere thanks for your generous endorsement of our new book, MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium. A compilation of the works of fifteen outstanding evangelical missiologists, it's publication is mainly due to the untiring efforts of my coeditor, Dr. Ed Stetzer, and his accomplices of the B&H Publishing Group.

More importantly, however, I thank you for correcting my misperception and setting the record straight concerning Dr. Ralph Winter's position relative to open theism. I obviously misread his intentions when, on a number of occasions and in various venues, Winter commended Dr. Gregory Boyd's theology and books. For example, Boyd's writings are cited no less than seven times in Winter's Frontiers in Mission: Discovering and Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei (sec. ed., 2005, WCIU Press). Now while it is certainly true that to applaud an author and his works does not necessarily imply total agreement with him as Winter says (see op. cit. p. 200), I do believe that in this particular case more was required.. It was well known at the time that open theism was a major issue in the proceedings of the Evangelical Theological Society. Boyd's answers to the question "Is God to blame when bad things happen to good people"--namely, that Satan is unusually powerful and God's foreknowledge is limited--was also well known. To make extensive use of Boyd's argument for Satan's power without dealing at all with his argument for a limitation of divine foreknowledge was, I think, unwarranted. Winter himself acknowledged as much in the letter from the questioning pastor you quoted in your letter. In that letter and with reference to Boyd's article "Is God to Blame?" Winter wrote, "I agree that we would have done well to put a disclaimer saying, 'Here is a very thoughtful article but you should know that we do not endorse everything he teaches.'" Even that admission is vague. Nevertheless, though Winter disavowed Boyd's open theism in private correspondence and conversation, there is no indication that he did so in public venues. As I say, I think he was obligated to do so under the circumstances that prevailed at that time.

Ironically, had Ralph Winter not passed away prior to the time when I wrote the concluding chapter to MissionShift, it is very likely that this particular conversation would not be taking place at all. Subsequent to introducing his "radically new interpretation of the Lord's Prayer and the Great Commission" (Winter later observed that "radically new" was probably an overstatement) and with a deep-seated desire to understand his kingdom mission, I submitted almost everything I wrote about it to my colleague Ralph Winter in order to make sure that I was not misrepresenting his new position. Moreover, he and I carried on an extended and sometimes rather intense dialogue almost up to the time of his homegoing. (Incidentally, I hope to see that dialogue made public at some point in the future.) However, though over time we exchanged views on a wide range of related topics I cannot find any reference to open theism as such. It did conflict with the position of the ETS on inerrancy so I inquired as to his view on that. He wrote assuring me that he was a firm believer in the complete integrity of the Bible autographs and we left it at that.

Dr. Snodderly, as you know, the bond between Ralph Winter and I was forged way back in the 1960s when he was associated with Donald McGavran and his School of Church Growth. It was fostered during long years of association with him while serving on the Board of Directors of William Carey International University; and while supporting his leadership in the A.D 2000 movement to complete the task of world evangelization. The bond was actually furthered during our extended debate as to the validity of aspects of his new kingdom mission. When one day soon I follow him to the other side of the valley and, by God's good grace, see my esteemed friend and mentor it will be resumed. With that meeting and the greater good of the body of Christ in mind and heart, I want to do whatever I can to set the record straight. Ralph Winter did not espouse open theism. I reasoned that he did on the basis of inference from silence rather than solid evidence. That was inadmissible and even inexcusable. I can only hope that it was not also unforgivable.

Thank you for bringing the matter to my attention. And thank you for continuing fellowship in advancing the cause of world missions.

In our Lord,

David Hesselgrave

Lindenhurst, Illinois

August 5, 2010

The Exchange is a part of CT's Blog Forum. Support the work of CT. Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

More from The Exchange

Christianity Today

Open Letters on Open Theism