Clark Pinnock: My Tribute

Clark Pinnock: My Tribute November 23, 2011

I was kindly asked by Tom Oord as a leader in the Word Made Fresh group of AAR/SBL to participate in a wonderous event that paid tribute to the late Clark Pinnock. The treat to this event was a presentation by Sarah Pinnock, Clark’s daughter, on her father; Linda Mercandante reflected on her experience as a student of Clark’s; John Sanders gave a presentation on the hassle he experienced with Clark in the open theism debate, mostly notably in ETS; the final paper was by Roger Olson on the place of Clark in evangelical theology. My paper, which was shortened so I had to speak from my feet at times, is below. I didn’t enter into the open theism debate as my assignment was on Clark’s use of the Bible and I had my hands full with three other of his topics — all of them hot and debated: Scripture, inclusivism and annihilationism. The highlight of the night was when the papers were all over — six in one hour — and folks in the room stood to witness to the influence of Clark in their life.

Clark Pinnock and the New Testament:

A Man on the Move

When I was asked to offer a presentation about Clark’s hermeneutics I thought back to my college days when I bought and read his 1971 book called Biblical Revelation. That book was one of the impulses that made me think of studying at Trinity because Clark taught there, though by the time I arrived Clark had moved on to Regent and then to McMaster. The invitation also made me think of Clark’s “revision” of that book on Scripture in his book The Scripture Principle, which I still think was a courageous book in its day. (In some ways his successors today are Kent Sparks and Pete Enns.) The invitation also made me think of Clark’s stuff on hell and annihilationism. What the invitation also triggered was a conversation I had with a friend when I was a student at Trinity. My friend’s name was Bill and he said he took Pinnock for a class and, if I remember this correctly, he said, “Pinnock began as a Calvinist, midway through the course he became Ariminian, and then by the end of the semester he had become Calvinist again.” Then he said something that probably each of us both knows and admires about Clark Pinnock. Bill said, “I liked Pinnock because he was man on the move. His theology was always growing.” He then said, “… unlike …” and I shall not mention the name. The other name won, Clark did call Trinity a “ghetto,” and Clark moved on.

My time is limited so I want to make four brief points about Clark’s approach to the Bible as the means of theologizing in our world today, but first a few general comments. As I read Pinnock, I read a theologian who was essentially a biblical theologian who explored topics that matter to contemporary theologians, particularly those in the classic evangelical orbit. Maybe I can say that Clark Pinnock is what happens when New Testament PhDs decide to become theologians, which happened to Clark when he was teaching at New Orleans among the Baptists. I don’t see him as a systematician so much as a theologian who operated through the Bible’s categories, and this is what we would expect from a student of F.F. Bruce. And his approach to the Bible might be called mostly a “plain reading” of the Bible, though at times he resorts – as nearly all theologians do – to some more arcane and intricate interpretations. That “plain reading” tilts in the direction of the Arminians and charismatics though by that I don’t want any suggestion it is not anything less than rigorous. All of this has been told well in Barry Callen’s wonderful book on Clark’s light landings in moderate evangelicalism, Journey toward Renewal.

I begin, first, with this: Clark Pinnock’s approach to the Bible was courageous. Evangelicalism is a wonderful group as long as you are safe, but the moment you wander outside that safety, which is protected by alarmists positioned everywhere, made even worse by the internet and blogs … once you wander outside you are susceptible to alarms and charges and trials, some of them apocalyptic. Clark somehow managed to sustain sanity while setting off alarms in all directions. Like Aslan, Clark was not a tame theologian. In A Wideness in God’s Mercy, when Clark explored the “Bible’s view of other religions,” he transgressed the boundaries the missionary movement had established, convinced as it was of a strong exclusivist posture toward all things religious. Having read Jean Daniélou’s Holy Pagans of the Old Testament, Clark feasted on the generosity of God at work in the world outside Israel, and then was willing to probe into the implications of those holy pagans for religions today. Thus, he can say, “Some [outside the church today] intend the same reality Christians intend when they believe in God (as personal, good, knowing, kind, strong etc.)” (96). And then this: “People fear God all over the world, and God accepts them, even where the gospel of Jesus Christ has not yet been proclaimed” (97). And he digs: “One can make a faith response to God in the form of actions of love and justice” (97).  He then pokes evangelicalism in the eye: “We have tended to ignore this line of teaching in Scripture because of a control belief which blocks it out” (99). He pushes further: “World religions reflect to some degree general revelation and prevenient grace” (104). Yet, religions are part of a fallen human culture, but God uses them – and thus the Bible, Pinnock is claiming, opens up a more generous approach to the religions of the world.

Another example of his courage. Anyone who wants to talk about inerrancy has to be courageous, or foolish. Clark was the former. As he puts this in The Scripture Principle: “But the case for biblical errorlessness is not as good as it looks. Of course God cannot lie, but that is not the issue” (added) – that very comment, which goes against the grain of the deductive habit of inerrantists, is both not the point and the point. It depends on which theologian is writing. He adds, “What we might expect God to do is never as important as what he actually does” (57). He gets personal, but this has been omitted from the newer edition of The Scripture Principle (84): “I can only answer for myself, as one who argued in this way [of total inerrancy] a few years ago. I claimed that the Bible taught total inerrancy because I hoped it did – I wanted it to” (58).  He did get personal again in the second edition, in the Appendix, with these words: “I have moved from defending the Bible in a scholastic manner to understanding it in a more pietistic way” (255), and Clark uses the word “neo-evangelical” for himself (258), and so he describes his move from “philosophical” to “simple” biblicism (257). Perhaps most clearly, he said he moved from Francis “Schaeffer’s militant rationalism to [F.F.] Bruce’s move bottom-up irenic scholarship” (258).

But Pinnock wasn’t about to give in completely.  “I wish also to state my conviction,” Clark claimed at the end of his Scripture Principle book and, once again, this was revised slightly in the new edition of the book, “that it would be wise for us to continue to speak of biblical inerrancy. Though the term is not ideal by any means, it does possess the strength of conviction concerning the truthfulness of the Bible that we need to maintain at the present time, while offering a good deal of flexibility to honest biblical study” (224). Now he gets positively provocative for the inerrancy camp: “Inerrancy is a metaphor for the determination to trust God’s Word completely” (225). That is, “…Scripture can be trusted in what it teaches and relied upon as the infallible norm of the church” (225). Which puts us where many have come: “The wisest course to take would be to get on with defining inerrancy in relation to the purpose of the Bible and the phenomena it displays” (225). Or, better yet, to where Clark came when the second edition was published: “… the wisest course now is either to abandon this term altogether or to alter its common meaning to better fit the purpose of the Bible …” (250). It would be fun to stop here and chat, and I am on record saying that the word “inerrancy” to me is mostly a posture word today and that there’s a better word – truth – but we can’t pause or we’ll run over time. I do want to say that many today would argue that once we do what Clark suggested in his more functionalist approach to the Bible we have in effect abandoned what most people, most notably ETS, mean by inerrancy. Asking ETS to change its assumptive definition of inerrancy in Clark’s direction is like asking Mohler to become a moderate again.

Alongside courage, second, Clark Pinnock’s approach to the Bible was comprehensive. In a Wideness in God’s Mercy, where Clark was examining the hopefulness of the Bible, we are treated not to a verse here and there and not to some theological deduction, as one finds in some less-than-biblical-focused theologians, but instead we are treated to a wonderful sketch in fifteen pages of the expansiveness of God’s vision and what Clark calls a “hermeneutic of hopefulness” (20-35). The election of Israel is not a soteriologically-obsessed election but an election unto mission, as Chris Wright has recently articulated in his magnum opus, The Mission of God. For Clark, “this election is for the sake of all peoples” (24). It is a “corporate election… and a call to service” (24).  Then this: “This is the election of a people to a ministry of redemptive servanthood. Election does bring privileges, but primarily it carries responsibilities” (24).

To show this angle on what God is doing in the world, we get a treatment of Job, Abimelech, Jethro, Baalam, the Queen of Sheba up to the Magi and we could go on. It is Clark’s comprehensiveness that I’m concerned with here. He turns over one stone after another in the quest to sort out what the Bible says for a theological problem today: who will be saved? Is God’s mercy narrow and stingy or wide and expansive? His question is that of YHWH to Abraham, “Have you seen the stars? Go ahead,” God says, “count them. So will your seed be.” Clark takes that as gospel truth: God’s people is wide and inclusive and expansive and way beyond our expectations, and it outstrips our exclusivity. In reading Clark, I’ve been impressed time and time again with his comprehensive grasp of the Bible.

Next to his comprehensive approach to the Bible, I see a third thing: in Pinnock we find a rock-solid commonsensical approach to Bible reading. Why, he asks in Scripture Principle (xix), do Christians believe the Bible? He answers – and I love what he says: “…because it has been able to do for them exactly what Paul promised it would: introduce them to a saving and transforming knowledge of Christ.”  On the near idolization of the Bible among some sorts of Christians that leads to a neglect of God’s manifestation in other ways, Clark says this: “For my part, I cannot see how any revelation from the God of the gospel can be other than saving in its basic significance if it is truly a revelation of him [who is a saving God]” (7).  That commonsensical approach leads to his chaser comment: “If we grant that such a revelation to all peoples… then it must be the disclosure of the gracious God from whom our creaturely existence flows.” There you have it: a brief apologetic for accessibilism or inclusivism or some kind of universal revelation of God’s gracious ways to all humans who have ever been capable of comprehending the world in which God has placed them.

Clark’s approach to the Bible has been, fourth, rhetorically compelling to many. I am teaching a course on Universalism and Hell to our 4th Year Students this Fall. The first assignment was to read the principal essays in Bill Crockett’s book called Four Views on Hell. Prior to that reading I had given two lectures on the method in theology and the options on these topics. No one in the class was at that time an annihilationist. Most, so it seemed to me, had not even heard of such a view. When the students had read the Four Views, where Clark takes the annihilationist view, Clark had convinced a number of my students that the traditionalist view of Walvoord and the metaphorical view of Crockett were not adequate. I read this chp again for this paper and when we come to his conclusion, I have to say it is nothing short of rhetorically compelling to the reader: “I conclude,” he says, “that the traditional belief that God makes the wicked suffer in an unending conscious torment in hell is unbiblical, is fostered by a Hellenistic view of human nature, is detrimental to the character of God, is defended on essentially pragmatic grounds, and is being rejected by a growing number of biblically faithful, contemporary scholars.” And then this: “I believe that better case can be made for understanding the nature of hell as termination” (165). But Clark is a persuader, after all he was Baptist: “The real choice,” he says in the last words of his essay, “is between universalism and annihilationism, and of these two, annihilation is surely the more biblical because it retains the realism of some people finally saying No to God without turning the notion of hell into a monstrosity” (166). One can’t help be caught into his rhetorical web of logic in this chapter, though I have not yet myself been convinced of annihilation (though for me it is entirely within the spectrum of sound evangelical theology). [You can read what I think in my book One.Life. I took another poll of my students yesterday; only one is now an annihilationist; nearly all of my students voted for the metaphorical view as the most biblical and theologically sound.]

Well, I’ve now run out of time. One might be tempted to think Clark Pinnock was also creative, but as I read him he doesn’t offer brand new ideas, but he takes the old message of the Bible and gives it life for a new day when people are struggling with potent problems in a modern and postmodern context. In the 9th chp of his Scripture Principle, where he offers how to read the Bible, Clark offers a two-fold plan, and it is as old as it is important: first, we listen to the text as God’s Word in human language given to us, and second, we open ourselves to God’s Spirit to reveal the particular significance the text has for the present situation” (197). Clark had both an objective dimension and at the same time was unafraid of the subjective, which goes all the way back to his dissertation on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament in 1963. This subjective side made some nervous. I sort of think Clark liked that others were nervous about what he might say next, and in part this was because Clark was not afraid of pneumatology in his hermeneutics. Many are.

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