Response to the Packet of Material Sent out by Bethel College and Seminary Dated 3-19-99
DC: For lack of a better name let's use DC (for Document Creator) to refer to the author of the unsigned beige paper, "How Do We Decide Orthodoxy in the BGC?"
BEB: Refers to the letter signed by George Brushaber, Leland Eliason, and Jay Barnes
The Problem with the Paradigm: Doctrine vs. Theories of Doctrine
In the section titled, "How does one know what's essential and what's not?" DC attempts to establish a paradigm of how to decide what is essential and what is not, by setting up a paradigm of what is doctrine and what is a theory about a doctrine. Doctrines, DC says, are essential and must be agreed on, and theories about doctrine are not essential and do not need to be agreed on. Then he says that "God knows all" is doctrine, and whether God can know all that will happen in the future is a theory about the doctrine. You must agree with the doctrine in the BGC, but you don't have to hold to the "theory" that God knows all that will happen in the future.
There are manifold problems with this paradigm that make it unhelpful and an easy cloak for serious false teaching and even heresy.
It falls into the trap of saying that doctrine is the words you use, but theory is the meaning of the words. Therefore you have to agree to say the words, in order to be orthodox, but you don't have to hold any particular view of what the words mean. This is very modern and very destructive to the cause of truth.
Thus, for example, we must say the words, "God knows all" but we can make the word "all" mean different things. Some can take "all" to include "all that will come to pass in the future" (which is what classical Arminianism and Calvinism have said it means), and others can take "all" to include "all that will come to pass in the future except what free persons decide to do in the future" (which is what openness theology asserts).
Thus the so-called agreement on the "doctrine" that "God knows all" proves NOT to be an agreement at all, because we don't agree on the meaning of the words that state the doctrine. Defenders of openness theology know that openness theologians are asserting a view of God's foreknowledge radically out of line with historic Arminianism and Calvinism and all Christian orthodoxy. Yet they keep insisting that we are all really agreeing on the doctrine because we all are willing to say the mere words, "God knows all," even though we give radically different meanings to those words. This is an evasion of the utterly crucial question of what God can know. Can God know all that will come to pass in the future? That is the question before us, and that is the key question in the doctrine of God's foreknowledge. The centrality and importance of that question is obscured by this paradigm.
Nothing in DC's paper explains how we decide what qualifies as doctrine and what qualifies as theory about doctrine. DC asks on page 2 at the bottom, "How does one know that Dr. Boyd's unusual view is not at the level of doctrine, but at the level of a theory about doctrine?" Good question. But then DC simply asserts, without argument, that Boyd's view is not a doctrine, but only a theory. This will not do. What are the criteria?
In other words, this paradigm that DC has set up to put Boyd's view in the category of non-essential theory proves to be a wax nose. You can make anything you want a non-doctrine, if you can think of a higher doctrine that it happens to be an explanation for.
For example, most would agree that the incarnation is a doctrine that should be believed in order to be orthodox, that is, that the eternal, divine Son of God became fully man. But would DC agree that the virgin birth is a theory about how the incarnation can be explained? Why or why not? It certainly is part of the theoretical structure of the doctrine of the incarnation. It is one explanation of how the Son of God could become man. There have been other theories, and they have been defended by quoting the Bible. So why would DC consider the Biblical teaching that Christ was born of a virgin doctrine (which we hope he would) and not a (non-essential) theory about the doctrine of the incarnation?
Another example to show where this paradigm will lead us: the inspiration of the Scriptures is a doctrine that DC would affirm. But one theory about this doctrine is that the Bible is infallible and inerrant. There are other theories about inspiration that exclude inerrancy. Would DC say then that these theories about the doctrine of inspiration are not essential because they are theories about an essential doctrine?
Another example would be the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is an essential doctrine. One theory about this doctrine is that "by faith alone" justification happens through infused righteousness (Roman Catholic). Another theory about this doctrine is that "by faith alone" justification happens through imputed righteousness (Protestant). Does DC think that these theories are "peripheral things" and "non-essentials"?
There are many other examples. The point is, this paradigm of distinguishing "doctrine," which must be agreed on, from "theories about doctrine," which are "peripheral things," is of no help in deciding whether a "theory about a doctrine" is in fact important enough to be itself essential, as are the virgin birth and the inerrancy of Scripture and the imputed righteousness of Christ. Why is it so obvious to DC that the doctrine that God foreknows all that will come to pass is not a doctrine?
How to decide whether God's exhaustive definite foreknowledge is a defining doctrine of the BGC is not answered in DC's paper. He simply assumes it is not a "doctrine," asserts it, and then creates a paradigm of strange categories that make the real issue harder to see.
It is a strange paradigm indeed. Where in the history of the church has "doctrine" ever had such a meaning as this? Where has "heresy" ever been defined the way DC defines it? "Heresy is the denial of doctrine" (page 3). Historically and linguistically "doctrine" means teachings of the church. Some have been considered essential and some have been considered less essential. But DC has set up a strange, new paradigm with the result that he can call "God knows all" a "doctrine," and he can call "God knows all that will come to pass" a "theory about a doctrine." Then, by defining doctrine as essential and theories as non-essential, he gives the impression of having shown us something helpful. But it is not helpful. It is a camouflage of an unresolved, important issue. Why is the statement, "God knows all that will come to pass" not a historic, Christian, orthodox doctrine that should unite the Baptist General Conference? It has always been such. Why is it no longer in that esteemed position?
DC's paradigm will prove very confusing to most people, because many "theories" about doctrine have themselves historically been considered "doctrines." Calling them "theories" does not settle the issue of whether they are essential, as we saw in the preceding point concerning the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture and imputed righteousness.
Why Is Boyd's Open View Contrasted with Calvinism and Not Arminianism?
Why does DC contrast the openness "theory" of foreknowledge (THEORY D) with a Calvinistic view of foreknowledge (THEORY C) and not with a Classical Arminian view of foreknowledge (DC, p. 3)? Is it because DC does not want to draw attention to the fact that the openness view of foreknowledge is so unorthodox that no orthodox movement in the history of the Christian church has ever espoused it?
Both the letter by Brushaber, Eliason and Barnes, as well as DC's paper, consistently portray the openness view over against a Calvinistic view of the future of "predetermined" acts. Why? The fourth indented paragraph of BEB, beginning at the bottom of page 1, contrasts openness theology with Calvinistic theology by stating that openness theology says the future is "partly undetermined." This is emphatically not the issue at hand, and misses the point of the dispute. All classical Arminians agree with this - that the future is partly undetermined by God. But all classical Arminians disagree with openness theology. Because that is NOT the issue.
BEB have confused the issue in this letter by describing Boyd's view of the future in "classical Arminian" terms which conceal what is at stake in this controversy; namely, Boyd's openness view of the future radically departs from classical Arminianism in denying that God infallibly foreknows who will believe on him (Romans 8:29). Arminius wrote: "[God] has known from eternity which persons should believe according to such an administration of the means serving to repentance and faith through his preceding grace and which should persevere through subsequent grace, and also who should not believe and persevere" (quoted in Carl Bangs, Arminius, 1971, p. 352). Yet Arminius and his heirs would not believe that God "determined" that individuals would have faith. Therefore, BEB have portrayed Greg Boyd's teaching only in terms that make it identical with classical Arminianism. That is not accurate and misses the entire point of the controversy.
NOTE THIS WELL: Not one sentence about Greg Boyd's view in the letter from Brushaber, Eliason and Barnes states the views of Greg Boyd in a way that would distinguish him from classical Arminianism. Every historic Arminian could sign on to what BEB have said about Boyd. This strategy of avoiding what the true issue is will not succeed in a Conference of discerning pastors and lay people.
What is the issue? The issue is that openness theology goes way beyond saying that the future is partly undetermined by God, and says also that it is "partly unknown" by God (but, in fact, the "partly" is as vast as all future free choices). BEB do not state the issue for what it is. They state the position of openness theology in a way that conceals the very issue that is disputed between Arminians and Greg Boyd.
The fact is that all classical Arminians and all Calvinists and all other historic branches of the Christian church have disagreed with openness theology on the point of God's foreknowledge, but DC and BEB have stated the position of openness theology so that it simply appears to be a classical Arminian contrast to Calvinism.
What Do DC and BEB Mean by Saying that in Boyd's View the Future Is "Partly Open" and "Mostly Closed"?
To say, as DC and BEB do, that in openness theology the future is "mostly closed and determined" or that God has a "perfect knowledge of a mostly definite, partly open, future," is very misleading. Openness theologians teach that all free choices of God's creatures are unknown until they are created by the self-determining acts of the creature's will ("If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don't exist. Thus, in my view at least, there simply isn't anything to know until we make it there to know. So God can't foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn create their decisions" [Greg Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, p. 30]).
Ponder for ten seconds how vast the sum of these choices are: billions upon billions daily. For people to understand the true meaning of the openness view of God's foreknowledge, we are going to have to get beyond these misleading words "partly open" and "mostly closed." Whatever technical meaning they may carry, to the ordinary reader, they are misleading, because "partly" implies a small and insignificant amount. In reality, the "part" that is open is as vast as all the free choices that will ever be made in the future. That is what is open, and this is what God does not know with certainty. Yes, he knows them as possibilities, but not as what will in fact come to pass. And yes, he can take away "self-determining freedom," and thus render some future choices certain. But that is precisely what openness theology believes he will not do for the most part, lest he render freedom meaningless. It is, therefore, a strange and misleading statement that "the vast majority of the future is definite, while part of the future is yet indefinite" (DC, p. 3).
Does Greg Boyd "Repeatedly and Without Qualification Affirm God's Exhaustive Foreknowledge"?
BEB, in their first indented paragraph (p. 1) say, "Dr. Boyd repeatedly and without qualification affirms God's exhaustive foreknowledge." That is astonishing. We know of no such repeated assertions. Up till now the point has always been, "Boyd without qualification affirms God's omniscience," but does indeed qualify his affirmation of God's foreknowledge and does NOT call it "exhaustive." Where in Boyd's private or published writings has he "repeatedly" affirmed "God's exhaustive foreknowledge"?
It is misleading when BEB say this. For Dr. Boyd devotes the entirety of his unpublished paper, "The Bible and the Open View of the Future" (quoted with permission) to showing that "exhaustive definite foreknowledge" is wrong. This is his term for what he does NOT affirm. He calls it EDF. He says his aim in a forthcoming book is to overview and critique "two primary Arminian understandings of exhaustively definite foreknowledge (EDF)" (emphasis added). Then he spends the 19 pages of this paper repudiating exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Here are some sample quotes:
The obvious question that cries out for an answer is this: if the Lord has eternally foreknown in exhaustive detail every event that shall ever transpire, how is it possible that the Lord is speaking forthrightly in this passage? How could the Lord genuinely think that Israel would do one thing if in fact he eternally foreknew that Israel would not do this? (p. 13 emphasis added).
On this view, the Lord can be heard as expressing his surprise at the improbable happening. He genuinely thought his people would behave differently. If EDF [exhaustive definite foreknowledge] is true, however, then there are no real possibilities or probabilities for God, for all is eternally certain (p. 13, emphasis added).
How could God make such accurate prophetic predictions, it is frequently argued unless he possessed exhaustive knowledge of what was to come? (p. 5, emphasis added). [Boyd goes on to deny the assumption that God possesses "exhaustive knowledge of what is to come.]
In other words, the term "exhaustive" is one of the terms that Dr. Boyd regularly uses to describe the foreknowledge that he REJECTS, not the foreknowledge that he affirms. When BEB take the very word that Dr. Boyd has used to describe what he REJECTS about foreknowledge, and use it to describe what he "repeatedly" and "without qualification" AFFIRMS about foreknowledge, something misleading is happening.
Most of us understand that Dr. Boyd affirms that "God knows all reality," and that he does not believe future choices of free creatures have any present reality, and are, therefore, not knowable by God in advance, except as possibilities. We understand that he wants to make this view of reality part of the doctrine of God's omniscience. But it is news to us, and doubtful to us, that Dr. Boyd has "repeatedly" affirmed that God's foreknowledge is "exhaustive." This would simply be more confusing than is necessary. And it seems to us that Dr. Boyd, to his credit, has avoided that kind of confusion. Where BEB find this "repeated" use in his writings or speeches is a mystery to us.
Just Say Yes to the Amendment
The point of the amendment in question is simply to state in the clearest way possible what the Christian church has always considered Biblical. If it were a new or strange doctrine or if it were a party line or if it were a broadly disputed point in the history of the church, the delegates of the BGC would be wise to lay it aside, or to choose another route. But it is not strange or new or a party line or Calvinistic or Arminian or broadly disputed in the history of the church. If the view of openness theology is as innocent as DC and BEB seem to say, then we may calmly proceed to affirm with the amendment what is and always has been Christian orthodoxy and not fret that it will infringe on anyone's proper place in an evangelically defined institution.
©2015 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2015 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org