by Craig Branch – The Veritas Introduction to Areopagus Journal Vol. 4 No. 2 March-April 2004
Theological controversy has always been a part of the Church’s experience and will continue to be until Christ returns. It is something that we cannot ignore. Scripture explicitly and repeatedly warns us about false teachers who are either unlearned or unruly. The effect of false teachers is harm to the body. Moreover, there are the accompanying passages admonishing us to be of sound doctrine so that, among other things, we may refute those who contradict. Error is to be exposed so that it will be obvious to all in the Church for their protection and well being. (Read Titus 1:9-13; 2:6-10; 2 Timothy 4:1-4;2:14-18; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 12-15).
The above passages are speaking of rank heretics, both inside and outside the visible church (wolves in sheep’s clothing, Mat. 7:15). But more knowledgeable believers are also to point out “the way of God more accurately” even to fellow believers who are ignorantly teaching some error (Acts18:24-26). This is the purpose of this issue of Areopagus Journal.
One of the principles of the Reformation is semper reformanda (always reforming) which means that we should be ever diligent to test even our traditions by the Word of God via sound scholarship. But this involves always looking to Scripture to form our philosophy, theology, and practice-not to first bring our ideas to Scripture.
A persistent theological controversy has been the attempt to reconcile the parallel truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. It began with Augustine and Pelagius, and continued with Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius, Whitfield and Wesley. Today, however, this debate is taking a more radical, even controversial form. The new theological construct is being called “open theism” or “free-willism.” It was introduced more to the public in 1994 with the publication of The Openness of God, by five evangelical scholars.1I say more radical, because even most Christians who emphasize the human agency or responsibility p art of the equation (free will, Arminianism) over the sovereignty of God p art (predestination, Calvinism), also reject open theism as heretical (although it is a bit ironic in that open theism is a logical and consistent extension of Arminianism).
What is Open Theism?
Open theist s state that God limits Himself in His interaction with the human race. Because God made man with free will, He neither predetermines nor foreknows their moral choices. The “open” in open theism is described by John Sanders: “God is open to what we do. What we do makes a difference to what God decides to do”2In order for this openness to be possible, God cannot know the future actions of free creatures, nor can he control His creation absolutely. According to open theism, God takes risks in his providential oversight of creation. Moreover, since He doesn’t know the future exhaustively, He may be caught by surprise by what his creatures do. Moreover, God sometimes regrets his decisions and may make mistakes in the guidance He provides to us.
To support these conclusions, open theist s argue that if God did know the future actions of his creatures, or if he did exercise full control over creation, then our freedom would be eliminated and a real, loving relationship with God would not be possible. Also, they point to the language in the Bible where God is said to “repent” or change His mind as well as texts that, if taken literally, could imply that God grows in his knowledge (cf. Gen. 22:12).
The Current Controversy
This issue and its implications are serious enough to have dominated the agenda of the last several annual sessions of the 54-year-old Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) made up of some 800 members. The doctrinal criteria for membership are an affirmation of the Bibles “inerrancy” and the Trinity. The debate on open theism accelerated in 2001 when the ETS passed a resolution rejecting open theism and stated, “God has complete, accurate, and infallible knowledge of all event s, past, present and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.”
Last year, a founding member of ETS, Roger Nicole of Reformed Theological Seminary, brought formal charges for the expulsion of ETS members Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on the basis that the views expressed in some of their books violated the ETS view of inerrancy. During the year, the Executive Committee of ETS investigated the charges and recommended to the membership the expulsion of Sanders. Pinnock avoided the recommendation by agreeing to change some of the wording of his book. This November the ETS, after much discussion and debate, voted to retain both Pinnock and Sanders. However, Sanders barely escaped expulsion with 63% of the votes going against him, barely short of the required 67%.
A number of members, including a former ETS president Dr. Norman Geisler, resigned from ETS, stating that the society has lost claim to being evangelical. Dr Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated, “The big issue before ETS right now is whether this is a society of evangelical theologians or a society about evangelical theology. There’s a critical distinction between these two ideas.”3William Lane Craig, President of the sister Evangelical Philosophical Society, stated, “We are here beginning to sense the inadequacy of the ETS doctrinal statement as a filter for doctrinal heresy.”4 However, John Sanders called those who tried to expel him the “evangelical Taliban” and maintains that open theism is “part of a tradition of reform in church thought.”5
We do not want you to think this is simply an exercise in theological “hair splitting” that has no real consequence. Heresy doesn’t arrive in it s full form at first. It often begins very small and grows. And heresy, especially about the nature of God, will have serious consequences both immediately and for eternity.
The methodology and conclusions reached by open theists corrupts the way the Bible should be understood and interpreted. It changes our understanding of prayer, of evangelism, of trials and tragedy, and is a direct affront to God’s nature and character. For example, open theists object to the traditional view that God knows the future exhaustively by saying that there is no point in praying for a sick child if God already knows and has determined what the outcome of the illness would be. The same would be true for praying for someone’s salvation. They challenge even praying for wisdom in making a decision if God has already decided for you in advance. They ask how we can even love anyone if God has determined everything. They say, “How can I truly love if there is no true free will or choice?” So, if prayer, evangelism, and love are to have any meaning, then God must be ignorant of the future and take risks in his control of history.
John Sanders began his errant journey when his brother was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. When he asked God and his friends, “Why was my brother killed?” they responded that it was part of Gods plan to help Sanders accept Jesus as his savior. Sander in turn asked, “God killed my brother so that I would become a Christian?” Unfortunately, he is still in the dark.6
Clark Pinnock set s forth the importance of this subject in the Preface of his book, The Openness of God. He writes, “No doctrine is more central than the nature of God. It deeply affects our understanding of the incarnation, grace, creation, election, sovereignty and salvation…Ones view of God has a direct impact on practices such as prayer, evangelism, seeking divine guidance and responding to suffering.”7He also notes that open theists “were challenged by certain texts of Scripture that did not fit with the accepted understanding of the diving nature.” He points out that Christians “who believe that God cannot change His mind sometimes pray in ways that would require God to do that…[or] who make use of the free will defense for the problem of evil, sometimes ask God to get them a job or spouse, or to keep them from being harmed, implying that God should override the free will of others in order to achieve these ends.”8Open theists see themselves as providing a purer and more consistent interpretation of Scripture. They believe that the church, for most of 2,000 years, has misread the Bible due to the influence of Greek philosophy.
The contributors to this journal will demonstrate the errors of open theism both in their understanding of God and in their approach to the Scripture. Dr Bruce Ware, Associate Dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the Executive Committee of the Evangelical Theological Society, leads off with “The God of Second Guesses”. Ware sets forth the basic affirmations of open theism, contrasting them with traditional theism, and then demonstrates the faulty logic and weakness of their position.
Next A. B. Caneday, Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Theology at Northwestern College, writes, “How Open Theists Interpret the Bible.” He charges that open theists make the mistake of beginning with a “philosophically forged” view of God and then have come to the Bible for support. Caneday strikes at the heart of open theist s claim for biblical support, demonstrating their misunderstanding and misapplication of metaphor, “literal interpretation”, and anthropomorphisms in the Bible. For example: when Greg Boyd challenges the traditional understanding of Jeremiah 26:23 by saying, “If God never changes His mind, then He must be lying in this passage.” In addition to Caneday’s response, I am amazed at Boyd’s inconsistency. Boyd is a former Oneness Pentecostal who wrote a marvelous book exposing that heresy. He should be able to recognize the faulty use of language and proof texts open theists apply to the nature of God.
And lastly, we commend R. K. McGregor W right of the Aquila and Priscilla Study Center and his article, “The Key to the Openness of God.” He explains that the “The usual theory of Free W ill is of a libertarian or autonomist freedom unknown in Scripture,” and seeks to bring a balanced Biblical perspective to bear.
In closing, I must agree with Justin Tayler in his introduction to a wonderful book, Beyond the Bounds.9He summarizes what is at stake: “Does Open Theism logically undermine the essentials of our faith, including the inerrancy of Scripture, the trust worthiness of God, and the Gospel of Christ?” You be the judge.
Craig Branch is the director of the Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Alabama. (At time of publishing, 2004)
1Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994).
2Adelle M. Banks, ‘Evangelical Group Retains Two Scholars Despite ‘Open Theism’ Views,”.Religious News Service, n.d.
3See Russell Shubin “A Referendum on Open Theism,” at www.crosswalk.com, n.d.
5Quoted in Eve Gorski, “Evangelical Theologians Reject ‘Open Theism’”, Century Christian (Dec.12,2001).
6 See Bill Broadway, “Redefining Omniscience,”Washingto Post (November 9, 2003): B9.
7Pinnock, et al, Openness of God, 8.
9 Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, eds. John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003)
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Anthropomorphism. The portrayal of God in human imagery and concepts.
Compatibles . A theory of human freedom which holds that freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with at least some forms of determinism. Most compatibilists say that a person is free (and responsible) when he does some action x as long as his doing x was what he wanted to do; that is, as long as his doing x was the result of his choosing to do x. Compatibilism is the major alternative to libertarianism.
Libertarianism (or libertarian freedom). A theory of human freedom which holds that a person is free (and responsible) when he does some action x if and only if he could have done something other than x under the same conditions. So understood, libertarians do not believe that freedom is compatible with determinism. Libertarianism is the major alternative to compatibilism and is the view of freedom held by open theists.
Middle Knowledge. The knowledge that God is alleged to have of what creatures with libertarian freedom would do in any possible circumstance. Most classical Arminians have believed that God has such middle knowledge and utilize this doctrine as a way of reconciling Gods sovereignty and mans freedom. Both open theists and Reformed Christians have typically rejected the view that God has middle knowledge. For the latter, middle knowledge gives God too much control over human actions. For Reformed thinkers, middle knowledge does not give God enough control because it presupposes that humans have libertarian freedom.
Omniscience. (Lit. “all-knowing”) The attribute of God whereby he knows all things. T raditionally, the scope of omniscience included past, present, and future knowledge. Open theists, however, limit Gods omniscience to past and present knowledge only.
Prevenient grace. Grace which “comes before.” In Arminianism, prevenient grace is a special grace given to all fallen human beings whereby they are enabled to freely accept or reject the gospel call. Affirming this doctrine allows Arminians to avoid the Pelagian heresy (the view that the human will is unaffected by the Fall). Reformed Christians reject the notion of prevenient grace as being unsupported biblically.
Shibboleth. A use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group.