Can one believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and the Triune nature of God and not be an evangelical? That's a key issue behind efforts officially introduced today to amend the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).
"Right now, someone can deny the humanity of Christ and still be a member of ETS," said Ray Van Neste, professor of Christian studies at Union University in Jackson. "This is about safeguarding the evangelical character of the organization."
However, Van Neste says he does not see an onslaught of ETS members who hold heretical beliefs, and does not want a revised statement to launch dozens of challenges against theologians' memberships. He sees the effort as a long-term strategy to ensure commitment to evangelical essentials.
The society was divided during several meetings earlier this decade over whether to expel theologians Clark Pinnock and John Sanders from the group for their views of God's foreknowledge. The votes to expel them failed in 2003. Twenty years earlier, in 1983, Westmont College New Testament professor Robert Gundry was expelled for arguing that some events in the gospel of Matthew, such as the visit from the Magi, were not historical.
At issue in all of the cases was whether the scholars violated ETS's doctrinal basis, which reads in its entirety: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory." The language on the Trinity was added in 1990.
Questions over the society's doctrinal basis surfaced again earlier this year when ETS president Francis Beckwith converted to Roman Catholicism. He resigned from his position, but repeatedly noted that he could still affirm the society's doctrinal basis without reservation.
Van Neste and Dennis Burk, professor of New Testament at Criswell College, want to add further language to the doctrinal basis by attaching the belief statement of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the U.K. The change would take the doctrinal basis from 43 words to 339.
The effort faces an uphill battle. Amending the ETS constitution requires 80 percent approval from the society's members, and already opponents are talking about ways to postpone the vote, which is scheduled for next year's annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. Some, including members of the executive committee, are concerned that lengthening the theological basis would effectively turn it into a theological statement. Others are concerned that the changes would change the group's identity.
"It would change the sociology of ETS," said Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. "And nothing in this would have stopped anything we've gone through in the last 10 years."
Van Neste and Burk say their biggest obstacle isn't opposition. "The question now is how many people know about the effort." To garner support they have set up a website, AmendETS.com, and are discussing their proposal on a number of theology blogs.
Postcard from San Diego: Fighting 'Bibliolatry' at the Evangelical Theological Society | Talbot's J.P. Moreland warns that evangelicals are "over-committed to the Bible." (Nov. 14)
State of the Society | Acting president of Evangelical Theological Society talks about 'momentary crisis,' previews annual meeting (Nov. 9)
Inerrancy Is Not Enough | A proposal to amend the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society (Van Neste and Burk, Criswell Theological Review, Fall 2007)
Correction: An earlier version of this post misquoted Van Neste as saying someone could deny the divinity of Christ and still be a member of ETS. He said that someone could deny Christ's humanity and still be a member. I regret the error.