It’s called straining a gnat and swallowing a camel. At its annual meeting in Atlanta in November 2003, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) voted to permit Clark Pinnock and John Sanders to retain their membership in the society. The two had been charged with denying the ETS statement of belief. That statement has two parts, one affirming the inerrancy of Scripture and the other affirming the doctrine of the Trinity. Pinnock and Sanders were charged with violating the first clause, which states that “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”
These charges were first brought by Roger Nicole at the ETS meeting of November 2002. The gathered scholars, by majority vote, referred his charges to the ETS Executive Committee for further investigation. In October 2003, the Executive Committee met with accuser and accused in order to determine what report to make to the upcoming November 2003 general meeting. In regard to Pinnock, the focus was on his book Most Moved Mover, which included a number of statements that, Nicole argued, “violated the inerrancy clause of our doctrinal statement.” One of Pinnock’s footnotes (number sixty-six on pp. 50-51, now famous in ETS lore) received the most extended attention. In it, Pinnock stated that prophecies of Scripture are not always fulfilled in precisely the way they were predicted. For example, he wrote that “according to Paul, the second coming seemed to be just around the corner (1 Thessolonians 4:17), even though we today know that it has still not come even in our own day. His word was, however, perfectly appropriate, given the fact that Paul thought that the coming could come at any time.” Similarly, Jesus predicted that there would not be one stone left on another when the temple fell, which proved to be a “hyperbolic prophecy.” According to Nicole, this claim that biblical prophecy could be mistaken in details violates the Society’s statement on inerrancy.
In the case of Sanders, Nicole charged that he violated the statement on inerrancy by writing in his The God Who Risks (1998) that “some predictions in Scripture either do not come to pass at all (for example, the account of Jonah; 2 Kings 20) or do not come to pass exactly as they were foretold.” According to the Executive Committee’s report, Sanders “holds that many biblical predictions about the future in Scripture may not come to pass as described. However, in his view, these are not errors.” Sanders claims that “prophecies in the Bible that predict future activities of moral agents—such as the prediction of Peter’s denials (Matthew 26:30-34), or Paul’s prediction of human behavior in the last days (2 Timothy 3:1-5)—can only be understood as God’s expectations of probable outcomes, not as God’s trustworthy affirmations of what would happen.” Since Sanders is an advocate of “open theism,” the view that the future, being inherently unknowable, is also unknowable to God, he concludes that it is not “possible for God to give any unconditional prophecies of the future activity of free moral agents that will certainly (not just probably) come to pass.”
The Executive Committee did refer the charges back to the Society for action. For Pinnock, they recommended unanimously that the charges “not be sustained.” For Sanders, they concluded, by a 7-2 vote, that the charges should be sustained.
In the end, though, none of the charges were sustained by the members of the Society. Pinnock was able to avoid dismissal by his willingness to revise and explain the offending footnote and to address concerns raised by his other writings. He argued that “in Paul’s thought the second coming could come at any time. Therefore, even though he spoke of it as near in this passage, he would not have thought of this as being certainly bound to happen in a few months or years.” Similarly, “Jesus’ assertion that not a stone would be standing on another is hyperbolic speech. The point was that the temple would be utterly ruined, as in fact it was. Greater precision was not required.” Pinnock admitted that some statements in another book, The Scripture Principle, could be “improved on” and others “removed or modified,” and declared, “I happily disown statements I may have made years ago which fall short” of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a 1978 document that dovetails with the ETS doctrinal statement. These clarifications satisfied the Society: 432 voted to keep Pinnock, while only 212 voted for his expulsion.
As for Sanders, he too escaped dismissal, though by a less decisive margin. While the Society voted 388-231 to expel him, the margin fell short of the two-thirds majority required for expulsion.
So where is the gnat, and where is the camel? To challenge Pinnock’s and Sanders’ membership because of their views on the accuracy of Scripture is certainly not to strain out a gnat. Inerrancy has always been one of the defining features of evangelical theology, and rightly so. And it should be said that Pinnock and Sanders are correct that inerrancy does not mean that the Bible is scientifically precise. Years ago, I read a defense of inerrancy that struggled to explain the dimensions of the bronze sea in Solomon’s temple. According to the Bible, the sea was “ten cubits from brim to brim, circular in form . . . and thirty cubits in circumference” (1 Kings 7:23). The writer had trouble because dividing the circumference by the diameter did not yield pi. Apparently on the supposition that a ratio of three to one was too inexact for God, he offered a convoluted and wholly unconvincing explanation to show that the text actually did affirm pi. That kind of special pleading is wholly unnecessary for an inerrantist. By commonsense (i.e., nonscientific) standards, saying that a circle is three times as big around as it is across is perfectly true. By the same token, some of Pinnock’s claims about “inexact” prophecy are incontestable (though others I would dispute) and they really do not touch the issue of inerrancy. Inerrancy does not affirm that Scripture is as precise as it possibly could be. It affirms that Scripture is true in all that it asserts.
The real issue is different and considerably more worrying. As noted above, both Sanders and Pinnock hold to “open theism,” a form of theology that posits a God who is not omniscient concerning the “free” actions of human beings. As was pointed out in the ETS meeting’s floor debate regarding Pinnock, it’s not at all clear how an open theist can consistently affirm inerrancy; theology proper must eventually affect one’s view of Scripture. Nicole in his charges made the connection between inerrancy and omniscience explicit, arguing that the inerrancy of Scripture depends on the inerrancy of God and questioning whether Pinnock’s God is inerrant. Nicole claimed that “Dr. Pinnock has in his ‘open theism’ writings violated the inerrancy clause of ETS by representing God as canceling some prophetic statements that he made, by allowing that some prophecies remain incompletely fulfilled or even permanently unfulfilled . . . and by asserting human independence to the point of jeopardizing the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.” As Nicole put it to the Executive Committee, Pinnock’s view of God makes it impossible to affirm that the Bible “is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” To its credit, ETS is on record in opposition to open theism. In 2001, the Society passed a resolution affirming that “the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate, and infallible knowledge of all events past, present, and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.”
Yet Nicole also insisted in his charges that his “single purpose” was “to prove that . . . Dr. Pinnock’s view is incompatible with inerrancy” and that his charges were not “a discussion of God’s foreknowledge.” And the debate at the 2003 ETS meeting was wholly focused on isolated sentences culled from Pinnock’s and Sanders’ books. The camel of their basic theology was ignored as the scholars picked over a swarm of gnat-sized footnotes. So long as Sanders and Pinnock can mouth the word “inerrancy” (pronounced “shibboleth”), they can stay in, no matter what their wider theological commitments.
Given the structure of ETS—the minimalism of its doctrinal statement and the fact that it is not a church with disciplinary powers—there was little that the Executive Committee could do. I say this not to defend the final decision but merely to acknowledge that the fragility of the Society’s theological consensus entails the structural pressure toward gnat-straining. What will ETS do if faced with “biblical” docetists, who mouth the word “inerrancy” but argue that the Son only seemed to take on human flesh in the incarnation? What will ETS do with “inerrantist” defenses of sodomy? What about “biblical” denials that the Bible actually teaches a bodily resurrection?
Warning that ETS is “potentially facing a crisis of identity,” L. Russ Bush, Academic Dean of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and former ETS President, proposed that the Executive Committee “consider and recommend to the Society appropriate ways to clarify our Society’s understanding of our doctrinal basis.” That would be a salutary exercise, especially since Bush’s adverb “potentially” seems altogether too sanguine. Perhaps the Executive Committee will produce a thicker ETS doctrinal statement—say, the Nicene Creed or the Formula of Chalcedon for starters. But it is entirely imaginable that ETS will heroically retain its commitment to the accuracy of Scripture, while slowly conceding, one after another, evangelical and catholic commitments about what Scripture teaches.
Before the discussion of Pinnock at the November 2003 meeting, the chairman prayed that the Evangelical Theological Society would not act like Pharisees. I suspect that he was praying that God would preserve ETS from legalism, harshness, and rancor. In fact, his prayer turned out to be something of a cruel irony. Pharisees, after all, were not known only for their legalism. They were also known for their marvelous capacity to strain a gnat while swallowing a camel.
Peter J. Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow.