Theological society retains open theists Pinnock, Sanders

Communications Staff — November 20, 2003

ATLANTA (BP)–Members of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) voted Nov. 19 to allow open theists Clark Pinnock and John Sanders to remain in the organization, overturning charges that the two scholars hold views on the inerrancy of Scripture not in line with the organization’s confessional statement.

Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College in Canada received the most support with only 219, or 32.9 percent, of the members voting for his expulsion. A two-thirds vote is required to expel a member, but 432 members voted against ousting Pinnock from the 54-year-old society at ETS’ 55th annual meeting.

Sanders of Huntingdon College in Indiana skimmed by with 62.7 percent (388 members) favoring his expulsion. He avoided removal by 27 votes in the secret-ballot vote Wednesday evening.

The conflict arose last year when an ETS founding member, Roger Nicole, brought formal charges against Pinnock and Sanders seeking their removal for violating the society’s confessional statement on the inerrancy of Scripture. Members of ETS are required to sign a two-sentence confession that affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and the Trinity.

Though both men remain in the society, the 88-year-old Nicole said he was pleased with the way ETS handled the matter.

“All the proceedings were done in a very remarkably good order, so there were no things that were left undone,” Nicole said. “The matter showed the evenhandedness with which the whole matter was pursued and that is, of course, very important. … I must say I am not disappointed with the voting. Pinnock got very substantial support and the other [Sanders] was almost at the edge of the precipice, so I hope he may figure something about that.”

Nicole’s charges and an ensuing investigation by the nine-member ETS executive committee focused on one book from each man. Pinnock, in his book “Most Moved Mover,” was charged with violating inerrancy when he wrote that a number of scriptural prophecies were never fulfilled.

The charge against Sanders stemmed from his book “The God Who Risks” in which he asserts that some predictions in Scripture do not come to pass or do not unfold precisely as they were foretold.

Pinnock and Sanders answered the charges in position papers and before the ETS executive committee during an October session in Chicago.

In that meeting, Pinnock agreed to revise a footnote within Most Moved Mover and clarified a number of other statements, which satisfied committee members and led to their unanimous recommendation against Pinnock’s expulsion.

The committee recommended 7-2 that Sanders be expelled from the society. In the majority report, all nine members concluded that Sanders views are incompatible with inerrancy, but the committee split on its recommendation for action when two members held that Sanders should not be removed because inerrancy is undefined in the doctrinal statement. The dissenting members were Wheaton College’s Gregory Beale and Bethel Theological Seminary’s David Howard Jr., ETS president-elect.

Pinnock and Sanders have become controversial figures within the organization in recent years for their embrace of “open theism” — a doctrine that asserts that God’s knowledge of the future is limited, that He knows all the future possibilities but does not exhaustively know the choices His creatures may make. ETS has affirmed God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and the debate over open theism was not at issue in its Nov. 19 vote.

Bruce Ware, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., assisted the committee in its deliberations. He expressed mild surprise at the vote on Sanders but, like Nicole, said the matter was addressed in a positive manner.

“The process was eminently fair,” Ware told Baptist Press. “Everyone on all sides can agree with that. The outcome was the decision of the ETS and it is different, in the case of Sanders, than what was recommended by the majority [of executive committee members] and supported by Dr. Nicole and myself.

“And yet we gladly accept the will of the ETS and do not begrudge this decision, though we believe it should have been otherwise in the case of John Sanders. I do believe the process has been healthy, that all people writing will be more circumspect in ways in which they talk about Scripture and its accuracy. In particular, open theists will be more careful and this will have an altogether beneficial effect. I honestly believe that in this the Lord was honored in the way it was conducted and for that I am grateful.”

Given the committee’s recommendation against his expulsion, Pinnock said he was not surprised that the vote went in his favor and acknowledged there are other issues he needs to clarify in the future. Pinnock said the issue with both he and Sanders pertains more to hermeneutics than inerrancy.

“I am especially pleased with Roger [Nicole] who brought the charges, that he has become such a happy person,” Pinnock said. “He’s satisfied. At the same time, we’ve been satisfied. I thought that was amazing. On the other hand, it would have sent a mixed signal because [Sanders] isn’t really against inerrancy at all, it’s hermeneutics. [Sanders’] vote [was] so close it is almost a warning to him about being more careful. It kind of puts this behind us now. I think people will be relieved by that.”

Sanders agreed that the primary disagreement between the parties is one of hermeneutics. He said the ETS executive committee’s recommendation of his expulsion came about because of an unspecified misunderstanding between the two sides at the Chicago meeting.

“I was at peace with whatever way the vote would have gone,” Sanders said. “… I really think the Holy Spirit has a lot to do with that aspect of it…. There was misunderstanding both ways [in Chicago]. I was not understanding something that they were asking me.”

During the ETS proceedings Nov. 19, charges were presented and both Pinnock and Sanders made brief statements, mostly thanking the society for its equity in processing the charges. Members were allowed to make brief statements for and against the expulsion of both men at microphones on the meeting floor.

Many who spoke against the ouster of Pinnock and Sanders argued that the ETS statement of faith is too brief and nebulous in its definition of inerrancy, the same argument the two dissenting executive committee members had used in opposing Sanders’ removal.

Others in favor of their expulsion argued that the intended meaning of inerrancy when ETS founding fathers penned the statement is clear and needs no further qualification and that both Pinnock and Sanders stand in violation of it.

Norman Geisler of Southern Evangelical Seminary, who served as ETS president in 1998, admonished the executive committee to consider more indicting evidence on Pinnock within his other writings.

At an ETS session Tuesday morning on open theism, Geisler presented a response to the executive committee. In it, he argued that the committee’s investigation was seriously flawed because it considered only one Pinnock work; it applied a revisionist hermeneutic to define inerrancy; and it arrived at conclusions that were factually incorrect. Geisler read several examples from other Pinnock writings that undermine inerrancy and presented 12 reasons why open theists should not be members of ETS.

“This is the most tragic day in the history of ETS,” Geisler said following the vote. “We have now a large minority of people who no longer believe that what the [ETS] founders meant by the statement [of faith] is what the statement means. …

“If the framers’ meaning isn’t the meaning, then whose meaning is? Any reader can give the meaning in a revisionist interpretation. Thank God the guys who voted this way and are teaching our young people in their seminaries don’t do that with the Bible. If they use that same hermeneutic on the Bible, we’re going to have all of our preachers coming out preaching anything they want it to mean. … It’s tragic hermeneutically, methodologically, it’s tragic institutionally because here we have the founders who, as (Roger) Nicole said, sacrificed so much to make this organization what it was and now it is being taken over by people who no longer believe what the framers meant.

“To me that’s dishonest and lacks integrity,” Geisler continued. “If they didn’t believe this way, why didn’t they start their own society? If you don’t believe in a round earth and you are a square-earther, start a square earth society. Don’t join the round earth society and say, ‘Well, round is square and really they are the same.’ That’s dishonest.”

Minutes before the vote on Sanders, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, urged members to consider the society’s past, present and future when deciding how to vote.

“This society has a past, a present and, I believe, we all hope, a future,” Mohler said. “In the past, we understand its membership criteria. The inerrancy of Scripture is deeply rooted in a historical assertion. We really do have a common understanding of what the founders meant by that, not exhaustively, but at least to a point of accurate, objective accuracy, that we have some foundation on which to stand.

“In the present, I believe that Dr. Nicole bravely and rightly brought charges out of legitimate theological concerns. … As I understand reading both the majority and minority reports of the executive committee, unanimously, all nine members found that Dr. Sanders’ understanding is incompatible with that of the founders. That being the case … the only way to be found in conflict with our criteria is to find oneself in conflict with the criteria.

“I ask about not only the past and present, as important as they are, but the future, what is next?” Mohler said. “Where would this society, if not here, ever draw the line if this is incompatible, whether or not the member himself or herself finds it thus?”

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