Open theism vote won’t disrupt theological society, most say

Communications Staff — November 21, 2003

ATLANTA (BP)–One night after the membership voted against the ouster of open theists Clark Pinnock and John Sanders for holding aberrant views on the inerrancy of Scripture, a business-as-usual quiet returned to the 55th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

But does the peace signal calm waters in the coming days for ETS?

Only 32.9 percent of the membership voted Tuesday night to expel Pinnock while 62.7 percent cast ballots in favor of the ouster of Sanders. Both were charged with violating the article on the inerrancy of Scripture in ETS’s confessional statement. Members are required to sign a two-sentence statement of faith that affirms two doctrines — the inerrancy of Scripture and the Trinity. A two-thirds vote was needed for expulsion, with the recommendation for Sanders’ ejection failing by a mere 27 votes.

In wake of the vote, society leaders past and present face the future with mixed emotions. Bruce Ware, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, hopes Sanders’ close encounter with expulsion will serve as a warning to members that the society has doctrinal boundaries and takes them seriously.

Ware assisted the nine-member ETS executive committee in the investigation of Pinnock and Sanders. Pinnock teaches at McMaster Divinity College in Canada, Sanders at Huntingdom College in Indiana. Both hold to “open theism” — a view that says God does not know the future exhaustively, which was not at issue in the vote. The committee unanimously recommended that Pinnock not be expelled, but voted 7-2 to revoke Sanders’ membership.

“I’m hopeful that, even though John Sanders was not voted out, I thought and continue to think it should have been done,” Ware said. “It was a high enough vote that it sends a shot across the bow that the society does have limits. I think it will have the effect of anchoring the society a bit from continued freefall or continued unthwarted movement to the left, which might have been the case otherwise.”

Norman Geisler, who served as ETS president in 1998, saw the failure to oust Pinnock and Sanders as a sign of foreboding and predicted a split within the society. Geisler was conspicuously absent from Wednesday night’s presidential address where he was to receive a plaque honoring him for his ETS service. ETS leaders said Geisler of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Chartlotte, N.C., left the meeting Wednesday morning.

“Ultimately, there will be two or three societies instead of one,” Geisler said shortly after Tuesday’s vote. “Because when over 60 percent of the people lose — 60 percent is a significant majority — and the 30-some percent has taken over and has [said,] ‘We don’t care what the [ETS] founders said [about inerrancy],’ that’s a really tragic day. … It puts [ETS’ future] in jeopardy eventually unless this problem is rectified, which I don’t see it being easily rectified. I think there’s going to be two or three societies — one or two that will emerge from this society.”

However, outgoing ETS President David Howard said the future of the ETS seems to be on sound footing.

“I’m really encouraged for the future of ETS,” Howard said. “I was fearful that this would result in a great split one way or the other, with a large group leaving no matter which way the vote went. … We may lose a handful of members on one edge or the other, but I don’t fear that the society will split. I am very excited about the future of the society. I think it is vibrant and I think the scholarly part of it is terrific.”

One issue the society may have to examine is the depth of its doctrinal statement. Many ETS members opposed the expulsion of Pinnock and Sanders on grounds that the brief statement of faith is ambiguous in defining inerrancy. The executive committee voted 7-2 to expel Sanders but the two dissenting members — Howard and Wheaton College’s Gregory Beale — opposed his dismissal because of a perceived fogginess in the confession’s definition of inerrancy.

Howard said the society needs to consider adopting a fuller-orbed definition of inerrancy. One possibility is the detailed Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, which both Pinnock and Sanders say they affirm. A change in the confession must be approved by 80 percent of the membership.

“I think, at the very minimum, we need to adopt a definition of inerrancy,” Howard said. “Whether it be the Chicago Statement or something [else], but we need to officially adopt it. I‘m not quite so convinced we need a full doctrinal basis [for membership].

“I think we will go to that and my only concern is that we don’t write it so narrowly that we start writing out large groups of people, that we don’t start trying to do so in terms of conduct or social issues or things like that. It has to be brief enough that it would protect where we are but it wouldn’t narrow the focus of the society.”

Roger Nicole, a founding member of ETS, said the organization is not in jeopardy because it has served notice through the proceedings against Pinnock and Sanders that doctrinal integrity is of paramount importance to the society. Nicole, who originated the charges against Pinnock and Sanders, told members Tuesday night that he may be unable to attend future ETS meetings due to health and travel issues.

“I think the future is good,” Nicole said. “It is a society that can discipline itself. The people who belong to it are now under notice that they cannot just play hide and seek with our confession of faith, that we mean what we say and we are going to stick with it.”

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