We Took a Good Stand and Made a Bad Mistake

Reflections on the Baptist General Conference Annual Meeting, St Paul

Reflections on the Baptist General Conference Annual Meeting, St Paul

One of the most significant issues before us as a Conference at the recent annual meeting was whether we would embrace open theism as part of our corporate identity. Open theism teaches that God does not know all that shall come to pass. It says that God's creatures make free choices which do not exist to be known before they are made. God does not know with certainty what his free creatures will choose before they choose. The reason this became an issue in the Baptist General Conference is that at least one influential Bethel faculty member teaches and defends this view.

What position did the Conference take on this issue? We passed two resolutions that seem contrary to each other. In fact, they are not necessarily contrary but rather point to a profound mistake in theological and historical judgment. The first resolution we passed said:

Be it resolved that we, the delegates of the Baptist General Conference (who are also the delegates of Bethel College and Seminary) affirm that God's knowledge of all past, present and future events is exhaustive; and, we also believe that the "openness" view of God's foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship's historic understanding of God's omniscience.

This is a very strong statement and gives many of us encouragement that we have not entirely lost our bearings in the sea of contemporary doctrinal indifference. It affirms the Biblical truth that God does foreknow with certainty all that shall come to pass, and that the openness view of foreknowledge is contrary to our understanding of God's omniscience. This was a good stand to take and I thank God for it.

Four days before these crucial votes were taken, the Bethel Board of Trustees passed unanimously (with one subsequent reversal) a "position statement" which took a very different view of open theism. This position statement became the content of the second resolution which we voted on. The resolution said,

Be it resolved that the statement on the doctrine of God in the 1951 Affirmation of Faith is sufficiently stated; and, in regard to the subject of open theism, as delegates of the Baptist General Conference (who are also the delegates of Bethel College and Seminary) we affirm the Position paper unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees of Bethel College and Seminary on June 24, 2000.

The critical paragraph in this Trustee position paper which the delegates voted to approve (423-for / 363-against; 54% to 46%) said,

We affirm the unanimous vote of the Committee for Theological Clarification and Assessment occurring on May 13, 1998, that [open theist] Dr. [Greg] Boyd's views did not warrant his termination as a member of the Bethel College faculty and by inference that his views fall within the accepted bounds of the evangelical spectrum.

This statement implies that open theism falls within the doctrinal bounds established by our Conference Affirmation of Faith. (Elsewhere the Trustee statement says that Dr. Boyd "enthusiastically embraces the BGC Affirmation of Faith.") Then the statement goes farther and says that, "by inference," open theism may legitimately claim to be "evangelical."

The logic does not hold. It does not follow that every view which escapes explicit censure from our Affirmation of Faith is "by inference" evangelical. Our Affirmation of Faith does not explicitly affirm that God is good or truthful or just or omnipresent or that he knows the past and present perfectly. Since open theism is not censured because our Affirmation of Faith does not affirm God's exhaustive foreknowledge, similarly God's goodness or truthfulness could be denied without censure. But such a denial would not be "evangelical." So there is a fundamental flaw in the Trustee's reasoning (expressed in the words "by inference").

More serious is the profound mistake in theological and historical judgment by the delegates of the Conference in passing both of these resolutions. To say that open theism is "contrary to our fellowship's historic understanding of God's omniscience" and then to say that it does not warrant termination from Bethel's faculty and is in fact evangelical, shows that open theism is viewed as a small doctrinal deviation on a par with charismatic expressions, for example. (Many of us would say that certain charismatic expressions are "contrary" to the historic BGC practice and conviction, yet not important enough to serve as a criterion for who can teach at Bethel or be called and evangelical).

In order for the two resolutions to cohere, open theism must be viewed as an insignificant aberration from the Biblical norm. But this is a profound mistake in theological and historical judgment, for open theism is a massive re-visioning of God. This is clear from Dr. Boyd's published works and will become increasingly clear with those yet to be published. If the Baptist General Conference does not wake up to the magnitude of the distortion of God being powerfully promoted in the writings and classrooms of one of Bethel's most popular teachers, the Conference of fifty years from now will probably not be the faithful evangelical institution it is today.

For Christ and his glorious foreknowledge,

Pastor John

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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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