Theological debate spills into secular press

Theological education found its way into the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education in late November 2004 when staff writer Burton Bollag explored the controversy within evangelicalism over the question "Can God See the Future?" Running under the tag-line, "Some evangelical scholars are taking worldly heat for suggesting that divine knowledge has its limits," the article referred to charges of heresy, dismissal of at least one faculty member (John Sanders at Huntington College in Indiana), and censure votes within the Evangelical Theology Society.

At the heart of the debate is an approach known as Open Theism which declares that God and humans, with their free will, together determine the future. And that has opponents concerned. In the words of Bruce A. Ware, senior associate dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as quoted in the Chronicle article, "Open Theism undermines people's confidence in God. It makes God pathetic."

For much of the Christian community, Bollag noted, the argument over God's foreknowledge is old hat. The Chronicle article quoted Matthew S. Collins, a New Testament scholar and a senior official of the Society of Biblical Literature, as claiming that "most of the rest of the Protestant world would agree that the future is open and depends to a varying extent on free will."

Similarly, Bollag cited John F. Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, as saying: "Contemporary Roman Catholic theologians have generally come down on the side of free will."

However, according to Bollag, within evangelicalism, "some see the debate over Open Theism as a proxy for a struggle over who will lead the evangelical movement -- free-will-believing liberals or old-fashioned Calvinists."

Bollag suggested that philosophical viewpoints color the biblical proposals of both camps. The "change" or "unscripted" camp shows some influence of Alfred North Whitehead. The "changeless," "scripted-future" party draws on Plato. Theologically, Bollag pointed to the influence of Reformed theologian John Calvin, advocate of God's foreknowledge and pre-destining power and role.

Within the past ten years, three books in particular have helped fuel dissension within the evangelical ranks: The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Clark Pinnock, et. al., InterVarsity Press, 1994); The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (John Sanders, InterVarsity Press, 1998); and, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness (Clark Pinnock, Baker Academic, 2001). Pinnock is retired as professor of theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

Writing about the Bollag piece in Sightings, his online newsletter, Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, concluded: "There are psychological and sociological overtones in the debate which would affect the public, including the non-religious, non-Christian, and non-evangelical world. ... Under the flak and counterflak, serious probing and exchange of conference papers goes on, and that's a good sign. ... In the end, who will win? God only knows. Or doesn't know -- yet."

Sources: The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004, "Can God See the Future?" and Sightings, November 29, 2004, "Open Theism"

Lilly Endowment Awards $43 Million to Seminaries

As 2004 drew to a close, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment announced almost $43 million in grants to twenty-three theological schools. The recipients of the grants will establish new programs and expand existing efforts to call a generation of young people to Christian ministry, educate them well, and nurture excellence among practicing clergy.

The programs include collaborations to enrich the "ecology of ministry" that is developing among people and institutions responsible for the quality and care of congregations -- ministers, parishioners, theological schools, colleges and universities, denominational officials, and other agencies that serve churches.

The largest grant, $3 million, was awarded to the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the Lutheran School of Theology at Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), the Lutheran School of Theology at Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), and the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina -- to strengthen collaboration among a variety of institutions to develop a new generation of parish ministers. Other grants, ranging from $1.6 million to $2 million, went to organizations in fourteen states and the District of Columbia.

"Theological schools in this program have reached out and found eager partners, sometimes in surprising places," said Craig Dykstra, the Endowment's vice president for religion. "This new initiative aims to help seminaries keep the momentum going and enable them and their partners to take the next steps to continue to improve the quality of ministry."

Source: Lilly Endowment press release, 12/14/04

Professorship Honors Former Trustee

The William Cooper Procter Fund of Cincinnati, Ohio, has awarded The General Theological Seminary (GTS) a grant of $1 million to endow a professorship addressing contemporary issues in social ministry of the church. The gift honors the Right Reverend Herbert Thompson, Jr., retiring eighth Episcopal Bishop of Southern Ohio. A 1965 graduate of GTS and former trustee of the school, Thompson currently serves as co-chair of the seminary's "Leaders for the Church" capital campaign along with the Reverend Daniel P. Matthews, the retired rector of Trinity Church Wall Street.

Bishop Thompson has been hailed for his vocal commitment to social justice and to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable members of the communities in which he has ministered under his personal motto, "To reconcile, to heal, to liberate, to serve." It is fitting, then, that the holder of the Thompson Chair will also direct General's new Archbishop Tutu Center for Reconciliation, a learning center offering lectures, conferences, courses, and publications in the areas of peacemaking, reconciliation, and social ministry.

The Procter gift marks the fourth contribution of $1 million received by GTS since the beginning of its capital fundraising in 2001.

Source: GTS Press Release

Changes at the Top

■ Reverend Dr. Phyllis Anderson has begun service as the seventh president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, succeeding Timothy Lull who died unexpectedly on May 20, 2003 from complications following surgery. The first woman elected to lead a Lutheran seminary anywhere in the United States, Anderson comes to PLTS from Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry where she was associate dean and director of the Institute for Ecumenical Theological Studies. PTLS's new president is known widely and respected in Lutheran circles for her ten years (1988-1998) as director for theological education in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. During that time she led a church-wide study of theological education, which developed a comprehensive plan for a system of theological education in the newly formed ELCA. Interim President Ted Peters has returned to his faculty position at PLTS.

■ In early January, Reverend Dr. Gary R. Hall stepped into the role of dean and president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. In addition to serving parishes in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in positions including vicar, rector, and senior associate for education, Hall has been a lecturer and adjunct professor at Yale Divinity School, Claremont School of Theology, and the Department of Religion at Cranbrook Schools. He succeeds former dean and president James B. Lemler who accepted a national position with the Episcopal Church as director of mission.

■ Also assuming duties as president in January 2005 is Molly T. Marshall, the tenth president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and the first woman to hold a presidency at any Baptist-affiliated seminary accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. Marshall has been with Central Seminary for nine years, serving as professor of theology and spiritual formation and most recently as acting academic dean. Previously, she was associate professor of theology and associate dean in the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

■ After a two-year search process, Oblate School of Theology has announced the next president of the school. Reverend Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, will begin his term as president on August 1, 2005. Father Rolheiser is a well-respected author, newspaper columnist, speaker and retreat director. His book The Holy Longing (2000) won the USA Catholic Press Book Award for the best hardback book in spirituality. He is a regular weekly columnist in more than thirty newspapers in United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, and New Zealand. His column won the Catholic Press of America award for 2002 as the best column in spirituality. Throughout his priesthood, he has taught theology and philosophy at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and at Seattle University in Washington. He will succeed Interim President Father Warren Brown.

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More