John E. Sanders
John E. Sanders is an American Christian theologian. He currently serves as professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. Sanders is best known for his promotion of open theism but he has also written in defense of inclusivism.
Sanders was born to Methodist parents in Central Illinois in 1956. He earned a doctoral degree (Th.D.) at the University of South Africa in 1996, a master of arts degree in theology from Wartburg Theological Seminary in 1987, and a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Trinity College (Illinois) in 1979. He currently serves as professor of religious studies at Hendrix College in Arkansas and previously taught at Huntington University in Indiana and Oak Hills Christian College in Minnesota. He was the Frederick J. Crosson Fellow at The Center for Philosophy of Religion (1997–1998) at the University of Notre Dame. He and his wife have five children, two of whom are biological and three are adopted from India.
In The God Who Risks, Sanders tells the story of how he began to reflect on divine providence. The watershed moment was when Sanders, a photographer for the local newspaper, stopped at the scene of an accident between a semi and a motorcycle. As it turned out, the motorcyclist who was killed was one of Sanders’ older brothers. Sanders went home, sat down at his bedside, and prayed, “God, why did you kill my brother?” Yet, later when some Christian friends suggested that God had ordained his brother’s death so that Sanders would become a Christian he rejected that idea. Additionally, in college he read some theology books which asserted that God was strongly immutable and impassible such that our prayers never affect God. This made Sanders wonder whether his understanding of prayer (prayers could affect God) was correct. He spent a good portion of the next twenty years seeking to resolve such issues. Eventually, he became a proponent of open theism and contributed to the scholarship on the topic along with other open theists such as Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and William Hasker.
His publications on both open theism and the destiny of the unevangelized were well received in some evangelical circles. However, conservative Calvinist evangelicals sharply criticized his work and he, along with Clark Pinnock, became controversial figures in evangelical theology. Pinnock and Sanders sought to reform evangelical theology, advocating what Brian McLaren calls “a generous orthodoxy.” Some referred to them as “postconservative evangelicals” or “postmodern evangelicals.” The lightning rod issue was Sanders’ and Pinnock’s affirmation of “dynamic omniscience” which denies that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events. In 2002 Roger Nicole, a conservative Calvinist and founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), put forward a motion to expel Sanders and Pinnock from the Society on the grounds that their affirmation that God can change the divine mind is incompatible with doctrinal basis of the Society.
The Executive Committee of the ETS held formal hearings with Sanders and Pinnock and decided that they had no problems with Pinnock but said that they could not approve of Sanders’ belief in “probabilistic prophecy”, which claims that some biblical predictions about future events are not guaranteed since they are conditional upon what beings with free will decide to do. At issue here is the truth value of statements about the future actions of free creatures. At the 2003 annual ETS meeting the membership voted overwhelmingly to affirm Pinnock’s inclusion but fell 25 votes short of the 2/3 majority necessary to expel Sanders. Also in 2003 several Calvinist pastors in the tiny denomination which owned Huntington University put pressure on the Administration to remove Sanders from the faculty (he was professor of religion and philosophy). Even though William Hasker (one of the authors of The Openness of God with Sanders) had taught at Huntington for thirty years and some other faculty members affirmed open theism, only Sanders was examined by a “denominational commission.” In November 2004 the President of the university announced that the Board of Trustees had decided to dismiss Sanders. The President informed the faculty that the problem does not seem to be Sanders’ beliefs (since other open theists remain in the school’s employ) but rather his notoriety in promoting them. Despite advocacy on his behalf by a Huntington student group called “Page 6” (referring to a statement on page 6 of the university catalog protecting academic freedom), Sanders was terminated from the University. Subsequently, he was hired at Hendrix College.
Sources and Method
In The God Who Risks Sanders has a section where he delineates his sources and four criteria for a successful theological proposal. First, he says a theological model must agree with the major themes of Scripture. It need not agree with each and every biblical text, however. Second, it must find consonance with Christian tradition. He notes that there are multiple streams of tradition so a theological model is not likely to agree with all of them. Third, it must have conceptual intelligibility which includes logical consistency and comprehensiveness. He rejects theological ideas that are self-contradictory since they are “literally ‘nonsense’ and unintelligible.” Fourth, a good theological proposal must help one live out the Christian life by providing meaning to real-life situations. He acknowledges that these criteria do not offer a definitive way to resolve all theological differences and that theological diversity should be expected. This is why he says we need to practice dialogical virtues.
Sanders on Open Theism
Sanders situates open theism as a form of freewill theism which goes back to the early church fathers and, in Protestantism, is prominent in the Arminian-Wesleyan traditions. In freewill theism God does not micromanage the creation (as is the case in theological determinism) but, instead, exercises “general sovereignty” by which God enacts the overarching structures in which creatures operate. Humans have libertarian freewill such that for a free act the individual could have acted otherwise than he or she did. God does not determine or tightly control what humans do which means that God takes risks that humans might do things (e. g. sin) that God does not want them to do. The divine will, for some things, can be thwarted. Freewill theists have emphasized reciprocal relations between humans and God when it comes to salvation and prayer. They believe that God graciously initiates the call to redemption by granting enabling grace but humans are free to accept it or reject it. When believers petition God in prayer what the believer prays can have an effect on God. Some divine decisions are contingent upon our actions. In other words, God responds to what creatures do—what happens in history makes a difference to the way God acts in history. When these ideas are applied to the divine attributes, it means that freewill theists reject “strong” divine immutability (God cannot change in any respect) and “strong” impassibility (God cannot be affected by what creatures do). Freewill theists do affirm “weak” impassibility (God is not overcome by emotions as humans are apt to be) and “weak” immutability (the divine nature—love, faithfulness, power, etc.—never changes).
According to Sanders, open theism affirms the core doctrines and practices of freewill theism but believes that freewill theism needs to be modified on two points in order to better explain certain biblical passages and to be logically consistent. First, the majority (but not all) of freewill theists have affirmed that God is atemporal—does not experience time. Open theists believe this is incompatible with the biblical portrayal of God interacting with creatures in which there is a before and an after and a give and receive in the divine experience. Also, Sanders believes that divine atemporality is incompatible with the core tenets of freewill theism since an atemporal being cannot be said to receive or respond to anything because an atemporal being simply cannot change in any respect. Since freewill theists believe that some of God’s decisions are responses to human actions (e. g. in prayer and salvation) which implies change in some of God’s actions, they should not affirm divine atemporality. Open theists hold that God is everlasting (always was, is, and will be) rather than atemporal.
The second point of contention between freewill and open theists is exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events. Freewill theists have traditionally affirmed what is known as simple foreknowledge according to which God, prior to creation, just “sees” or knows all that will ever happen in history. Sanders argues that the simple foreknowledge view has conflicts with types of biblical texts mentioned below and has two philosophical problems. The first problem is the old debate about whether or not divine foreknowledge entails determinism. Open theists argue that exhaustive definite foreknowledge is incompatible with the freewill of creatures. The other problem with simple foreknowledge is that it is useless for God to possess it since once God knows what is going to happen God cannot change it from happening. Sanders argues that simple foreknowledge cannot explain such things as prophecy, divine guidance, or why God did not prevent particular evils. Instead, open theists affirm “dynamic omniscience” (a term coined by Sanders). God knows all that has happened in the past and all that is happening in the present. God knows those future events that are determined to occur and God knows all that could possibly happen but does not know as definite what creatures with freewill will do. God has anticipatory knowledge (foresight) of what we are likely to do so God is not caught off-guard.
This does not mean that Sanders believes God’s knowledge of the future is “limited” as some critics have charged. Rather, Sanders holds that what is referred to as “the” future is not an ontological reality—it does not exist. If it is does not exist then there is literally “no thing” or actually for God to know. Open theists are not saying that there is a reality about which God is ignorant (which would be limited omniscience). The denial that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future contingent events has been the single most controversial aspect of open theism.
The term “open” in open theism involves two important ideas: (1) God is open to what creatures do (God is affected by creatures) and (2) the future is open in that there are multiple possible futures (the branching tree model of the future or like a create your own story book). Because God is open to us God enters into genuine give-and-receive relations with creatures. For example, God truly responds to our prayers. God responds to what we do and adjusts the divine plans, if necessary. For Sanders, God has flexible strategies for accomplish divine goals (there is more than one route to the destination). There is not a blueprint which God is following for the construction of the kingdom. Rather, it “is a lot like jazz, a melody with a good deal of improvisation.” Open theists are clear to affirm with other freewill theists, however, that even though God has changing emotions, plans, and actions, the divine nature does not change. God’s love, wisdom, power, faithfulness, etc. are unchangeable.
According to Sanders, there are several types of scriptural texts that support the open view of divine providence.
- "The Bible portrays God as authentically responding to his people’s petitions" (e.g. 2 Kings 20; Mark 2:5, 6:5-6; James 4:2).
- "The Bible portrays God as being affected by creatures [e. g. grieving] and as sometimes being surprised by what they do" (e.g. Genesis 6:6; Ezekiel 12:1-3; Jeremiah 3:7).
- "The Bible portrays God as testing people in order to discover what they will do" (e.g. Genesis 22:12; Exodus 15:25, 33:5).
- "The Bible portrays God as changing his mind [altering plans] as he relates to his creatures" (e.g. Exodus 32; 1 Samuel 2:30, Jonah 4:2, Judges 10).
- The Bible portrays God as anticipating specific events that do not happen (e. g. Ezek. 26:1-16, 29:17-20).
Sanders provides a documented historical list of proponents of the dynamic omniscience view in order to show that it has had some support in theological tradition. The view had few adherents in Christianity until after the Protestant Reformation. In the Christian tradition he lists Calcidius (fifth century), a number of Methodists such as Andrew Ramsay, Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, and Lorenzo Dow McCabe. Others include Samuel Fancourt (18th Century) and in the Nineteenth Century Isaak Dorner, Joel Hays, and T. W. Brents (Restoration movement). In the Twentieth Century Sanders sites biblical scholars Terence Fretheim and John Goldingay along with many theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann, John Polkinghorne, Paul Fiddes, Michael Welker, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, Hendrikus Berkhof, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Barry Callen, and philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, Vincent Brummer, William Hasker, Peter Van Inwagen, J. R. Lucas, Peter Geach, and Keith Ward. Sanders also cites some non Christians who held the view including Cicero, Alexander of Aphrodisias (Second Century CE), Porphyry, and two significant Medieval Jewish theologians named Ibn Ezra and Gersonides.
Sanders on Inclusivism
In his What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Sanders tells a story about a college student who rejected Christianity because, he claimed, it “damns to hell all those who never hear about Jesus.” Sanders replied that though some Christians held that position there are several other views which have been affirmed by Christians throughout history. In his book, No Other Name, he discusses a range of views affirmed by Christians. Sanders coined the term “restrictivism” for the view that Christian salvation is possible only for those who have heard about the gospel of Jesus and put their faith in Jesus prior to their death. Those who die without knowing about Jesus cannot inherit eternal life. The second view he discusses is universalism (or apokatastasis) according to which every human who has ever lived will be redeemed. Between these polar views are what Sanders calls the “wider hope” and he spends the most time on two views in this category. One is what he calls eschatological evangelization or postmortem salvation. In this view if a person dies without having heard of Jesus then he or she will encounter Jesus after death and be provided an opportunity to put their faith in Jesus. The final position Sanders covers is the one he affirms: inclusivism. The unevangelized are saved by the work of Jesus if they respond in faith to God based on the revelation they have available.
For Sanders this question is part of the “soteriological problem of evil. How can God be said to be all-loving. . . if those who die never hearing about Jesus have no opportunity to be saved?” He says the problem arises out of two beliefs commonly affirmed by Christians: (1) that Jesus is the only savior and (2) that God desires all people to be saved. He believes that inclusivism holds these two beliefs together and that it best accords with how God seems to have worked in history. He admits, however, that no position, including his own, is free of difficulties.
In support of inclusivism he provides several types of arguments. First, he cites biblical texts which he takes to affirm “God’s radical love” for humanity such as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). God ignores our insults and longs to embrace us. God genuinely wants all people to be redeemed (2 Peter 3:9). Second, Sanders holds that all people are included in God’s grace and those who are excluded are those who exclude themselves as in the story of the king’s son’s wedding (Matthew 22). Third, he speaks about the “great reversal” in Jesus’ teaching in which Jesus “gave hope for those considered outsiders while challenging the assurance of those who considered themselves insiders.” Fourth, Sanders argues that people in the Old Testament era were saved if they responded in trust to God. He calls this “the faith principle.” It is not how much you know but whether or not one responds positively to the revelation they have. He says that God reaches out to people “via general revelation, conscience and human culture. God does not leave himself without witness to any people. Salvation for the unevangelized is made possible only by the redemptive work of Jesus, but God applies that work even to those who are ignorant of the atonement.” The Holy Spirit is actively seeking people even where Christians are not present. He cites C.S. Lewis: “every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god…is accepted by the true God,” and “Christ saves many who do not think they know him.” Sanders gives four reasons why he does not believe that inclusivism deprives Christians of the motivation to evangelize. First, Jesus wants us to do so. Second, those who have experienced the love of God in Jesus should desire to share it with others. Third, there are those who do not believe in God and they need to be lovingly challenged. Fourth, God not only wants people to experience life after death, God wants them to experience the blessings of a transformed life now.
Sanders has also edited a collection on violence in relation to the atonement and recently has done some work applying cognitive linguistics to theological discourse.
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- Dave Schultz, "His philosophy is based on God's love," The Herald-Press (Huntington, IN), December 27, 1998.
- Judy Williams, Provost announces faculty additions, promotions. (Hendrix College, July 6, 2006).
- Schultz, "His philosophy is based on God's love."
- Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, second edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 12-13.
- For example, a couple of his books No Other Name and The Openness of God placed in Christianity Today magazine’s Book of the Year awards.
- Burton Bollag, “Can God See the Future?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2004.
- Roger Olson, “Postconservative Evangelicals Greet the Postmodern Age,” Christian Century (May 3, 1995):480-483 and Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), 134-150, 159-162
- Doug Koop, "Closing the Door on Open Theists? ETS to Examine Whether Clark Pinnock and John Sanders Can Remain Members," Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2003, 24 and Sanders, John, “1994-2004: An Overview of the Debate on Open Theism in Evangelicalism,” http://www.opentheism.info/pdf/sanders/history_evangelicalism.pdf
- David Neff, "Open to Healing: Anxieties and Attack Turn to Grace and Truth at ETS Meeting," Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2004, 21-22
- John Dart, "College to Close out 'Open Theism' Scholar," Christian Century, December 28, 2004. See also, Burton Bollag, “Huntington College Offers Golden Parachute to Religion Professor,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2005 and Stan Guthrie, "Open or Closed Case? Controversial Theologian John Sanders on Way out at Huntington," Christianity Today, December 22, 2004).
- God Who Risks, revised edition 30-33. The following chapters in the book seek to show that open theism satisfies the four criteria.
- God Who Risks, revised edition, 32.
- For an elaboration of his claim that there is no definitive way to settle these issues see Sanders, “How Do We Decide What God is Like?” in And God saw that it was good: Essays on Creation and God in Honor of Terence E. Fretheim, ed. Frederick Gaiser and Mark Throntveit, (Word & World supplement series 5, April, 2006): 154-162.
- He and Chris Hall (a critic of open theism) sought to model dialogical virtues in a series of conversations which first appeared as “Does God know your Next Move?” the cover story for Christianity Today, May 21, 2001, pp. 38-45 and June 7, 2001, pp. 50-56 and then were later enlarged into Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future? A Debate on Divine Providence.
- God Who Risks, rev. ed. 197-199 and “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” in Bruce Ware ed., Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views (Broadman & Holman, 2008), 196-202.
- God Who Risks, rev. ed., 197
- See God Who Risks, rev. ed. 199-209 and the chart on 218-219. Also, Sanders “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” 225-228.
- Sanders, “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” 228-231.
- For example, if God “foresees” that Tom will inflict harm upon Bill at a particular time God cannot prevent that event from occurring since that would then mean that God’s foreknowledge about what will actually happen was wrong. God Who Risks, rev. ed. 209-217.
- See Sanders, God Who Risks, rev. ed., 208-9.
- Sanders affirms the dynamic rather than the block theory of time. God Who Risks, rev. ed. 203, 207.
- God Who Risks, rev. ed., 244-247.
- God Who Risks, rev. ed. 245.
- See Sanders, “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” 215-224 and God Who Risks chapters 3-4.
- Sanders cites many more names than those listed here. God Who Risks, rev. ed. 166-169.
- Sanders, God Who Risks, rev. ed. 321 notes 119 and 121.
- Sanders ed., What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 21.
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 22.
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 9-12.
- No Other Name, 305.
- These arguments are a summary of Sanders’ chapter in What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 33.
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 36.
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 45.
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? 54.
Publications by Sanders
- The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, revised edition (IVP, 2007). First edition 1998.
- With Chris Hall, Does God have a Future? A Debate on Divine Providence (Baker Academic, 2003).
- With Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, David Basinger, and William Hasker: The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. (Paternoster inU.K., IVP in U.S.A., 1994)
- No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Eerdmans, U.S.A., SPCK in U.K., 1992).
- Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation (Abingdon Press, 2006).
- What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views. (IVP, 1995).
Journal Articles and Book Chapters
- “Theological Muscle-Flexing: How Human Embodiment Shapes Discourse About God,” in Thomas Jay Oord ed., Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (Pickwick Publications, 2009).
- “Divine Suffering in Open Theism” in D. Steven Long ed., The Sovereignty of God Debate (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2008).
- “Divine Providence and the Openness of God,” in Bruce Ware ed., Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views (Broadman & Holman, 2008).
- “An Introduction to Open Theism,” Reformed Review, Vol. 60, no. 2 (Spring 2007).
- “How Do We Decide What God is Like?” in And God saw that it was good: Essays on Creation and God in Honor of Terence E. Fretheim, ed. Frederick Gaiser and Mark Throntveit, (Word & World supplement series 5, April, 2006).
- “Response to the Stone Campbell Movement and Open Theism,” in Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement, Vol. 2, ed. William Baker (Abilene Christian University Press, 2006).
- “The Destiny of the Unevangelized: the Major Views” in Salvation in Christ: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Mormon Perspectives eds. Roger Keller and Robert Millet (Brigham Young University Press, 2005): 299-325.
- "A Freewill Theistic Response to Talbott’s Universalism” in Universal Salvation? The Contemporary Debate, eds. Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge, (Paternoster in U.K. 2003; Eerdmans in U.S.A. 2004).
- “On Reducing God to Human Proportions” in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark Pinnock, eds. Anthony Cross and Stanley Porter (Paternoster, U.K. and Eerdmans, U.S. 2003), pp. 111–125.
- “Is Open Theism a Radical Revision or Minuscule Modification of Arminianism?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 38.2 (Fall 2003): 69-102.
- “On Heffalumps and Heresies: Responses to Accusations Against Open Theism” Journal of Biblical Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 1-44.
- “Be Wary of Ware: A Reply to Bruce Ware” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2002): 221-231.
- “A Tale of Two Providences.” Ashland Theological Journal 33 (2001): 41-55.
- “The Assurance of Things to Come” in Looking to the Future, ed. David Baker, (BakerBook House, 2001): 281-294.
- “Does God know your Next Move?” with Chris Hall, Christianity Today, May 21, 2001, pp. 38–45 and June 7, 2001, pp. 50–56.
- “Theological Lawbreaker?” Books and Culture (January, 2000) pp. 10–11. Reprinted in Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Religion, Daniel Judd, ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2002).
- "Idolater Indeed! Response to Paul Knitter's Christology," in The Uniqueness of Jesus: A Dialogue with Paul Knitter, ed. Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, (Orbis, 1997).
- "Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than the Openness of God," Faith and Philosophy 14, no. 1 (Jan. 1997): 26-40. Also published in Kevin Timpe, ed., Arguing about Religion (Routledge, second edition, 2009): 362-373.
- "Evangelical Responses to Salvation Outside the Church," Christian Scholars Review. (Sept. 1994): 45-58
- "God as Personal," Clark Pinnock ed. The Grace of God, the Will of Man (Zondervan, 1989), 165-180.
- "Is Belief In Christ Necessary for Salvation?" Evangelical Quarterly 60 (1988): 241-259.
- "Mercy to All: Romans 1-3 and the Destiny of the Unevangelized," Proceedings of the Wheaton College Theology Conference 1 (1992): 216-228.
- "The Perennial Debate," Christianity Today (May 14, 1990): 20-21.