My brief essay on Clark Pinnock (from The Word Made Fresh event)

My brief essay on Clark Pinnock (from The Word Made Fresh event) November 22, 2011

On Friday, November 18, many of us gathered in San Francisco to celebrate the life and contribution of theologian Clark Pinnock.  Five of us read papers about Pinnock, including his daughter Sarah who teaches theology at Trinity University.  Other presenters were Scot McKnight, Linda Mercadante and John Sanders.  Below is some of what I said about Clark, one of my theological heroes, who passed away last year:

“Clark Pinnock pioneered a new way of being an evangelical in theology.  I call that new way “postconservative”—a label Clark himself used in Tracking the Maze(Harper & Row, 1990) for certain post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic thinkers and for what he called “another group of theological moderates from the Protestant end of the spectrum.” (66)  What is clear to me is that Clark laid out the charter for this postconservative type of evangelical theology in his programmatic 1979 Christianity Today article entitled “An Evangelical Theology: Conservative and Contemporary” the subtitle of which was “Scripture is normative, but it always needs to be read afresh and applied in new ways.” (CT, January 5, 1979: 23-29)  To be sure, Clark used the label “conservative” positively there, but he also called for an approach to evangelical theology that transcends mere repetition of past doctrinal formulations and even mere restatement of traditional doctrinal formulation for cultural relevance.

Clark’s call in the CT article for a new approach to evangelical theology would wrongly be interpreted as simply repeating Millard Erickson’s “translation” model expounded in Christian Theology:1.  There Erickson, a mainstream, postfundamentalist, conservative evangelical thinker, argued for restatement of the essence of traditional doctrines in new forms for the sake of cultural understanding.  Erickson presented only two possibilities for a contemporary theology—either “translation” or “transformation.”  The difference lies in their preservation or rejection of the permanent essence of doctrines.

Clark seemed to be working with a similar model for a truly contemporary evangelical theology in his CT article, but I find there something more dynamic and exciting.  And he spent the rest of his theological career working it out in terms of restatements that amounted to faithful revisionings of traditional doctrinal loci from the doctrine of Scripture to the doctrine of God to the doctrine of salvation.  In his CT article Clark criticized both the “classical approach” to theology for “neglect of the contemporary situation” (24)and the “liberal experiment” for “losing continuity with Scripture and tradition.” (26)  Overall he sides more with the classical approach which he described as “characterized by a concentration upon fidelity and continuity with the historic Christian belief system set forth in Scripture and reproduced in creed and confession.” (24)  However, he expressed dissatisfaction with that approach represented especially by B. B. Warfield and Francis Schaeffer.  He wrote “Much of the modern contempt of classical Christianity is due, not to its stand on Scripture, but to its nonessential narrow-mindedness in regard to the gifts of common grace that God has freely given us.” (25)

Clark’s own proposal in the CT article is the forging of a new evangelical theology that is genuinely conservative, in the best sense of faithful to given revelation, and at the same time contemporary in the best sense of responsible to culture and authentic in relation to truth. (27)  One finds in the last few paragraphs of the article the difference from Erickson’s translating model of a contemporary evangelical theology.  Pinnock calls for “creativity” in evangelical theology without accommodation to secular (especially naturalistic) thought forms.  He declared “I am not advocating static conservatism.  Fidelity does not consist in simply repeating old formulas drafted in an earlier time.” (28-29)  If he were following Erickson, one would expect him then to say something about restating the old formulas for cultural relevance, but he goes beyond that.  Next he says “It includes the creative thinking required to make the old message fresh and new” and “I see a kind of theological synthesis possible in which the Bible remains normative, but in which it is read afresh under the illumination of the Spirit who makes it live for us.” (29)

Clark’s program for a truly postconservative evangelical theology is only tentatively set forth in the CT article, but a close reading of it reveals something new in evangelical theology.  Clark was calling for theological creativity without capitulation to non-Christian norms.  He spelled it out in more detail in Tracking the Maze where he labeled it “postconservative” and compared it with post-Vatican 2 Catholic thought that affirms the essentials of the faith, basic Christian orthodoxy, but is willing to make some changes in theology that go beyond altering the ways in which they are expressed.  Among these changes he mentions “more openness to the humanity of the Bible,” willingness to “talk about diversity in the biblical teaching,” “open discussion about the nature of the deity and the possible need to place more emphasis on the openness of God to temporal process,” and “a growing tendency to allow for the possibility of the salvation of the unevangelized.” (67-68)

Of course, these are changes Clark himself explored in later monographs on particular doctrines.  All throughout his exploration of this postconservative paradigm of evangelical theology and his attempts at working it out in particular areas of theology Clark remained firmly planted in the evangelical tradition of biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, activism and respect for the Great Tradition of Protestant orthodoxy—even as he found it necessary to alter and adjust some aspects of these in light of fresh and faithful reflection on the Word of God in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing, dynamic presence among us.

That Clark’s theological pilgrimage since 1979 has been condemned by neo-fundamentalist evangelicals is not surprising; the postfundamentalists like Henry, Carnell and Ramm were condemned by the old fundamentalists.  Courage in creativity is always going to be criticized and even condemned by the gatekeepers of tradition.  What concerns me is not that neo-fundamentalists have condemned Clark and his pilgrimage in theology but that many mainstream evangelical leaders and spokesmen have in a cowardly manner neglected or refused to speak up in his defense.”

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  • JenG

    Do you know where one could find the “An Evangelical Theology: Conservative and Contemporary” article to read online?

    • rogereolson

      No. If it’s not in the archives at Christianity Today’s web site, I don’t know where it would be.

  • “Here’s an academic who was overstuffed in the brain and the heart cries out,”(Clark) Pinnock said of his passion for charismatic renewal. “It’s possible that I like strong charismatic forms partly because it’s so unnatural to me and it meets a deep need.”

    And therein lies a great mystery and an unfathomable well of spiritual drink. It is so tragically ignored by our Calvinist brothers, but it is to their detriment. I consider myself a Baptist mind with a Pentecostal heart. Systematic theology, even when unassailable in its doctrinal purity, must never be the exclusive stream from which we draw all of our life giving buckets.

    The ministry of the Spirit, especially as it concerns deep and penetrating and liberating worship, must find a significant place within our journey. We must not be dissuaded by those whose practice is outside Biblical parameters and seemingly in the flesh. For as Pinnock once observed, “…the Spirit has been made a kind of junior assistant to Christ”. I am not an expert on Brother Pinnock, however I do associate myself with his quest to expand his understanding of Christ and His kingdom without becoming untethered to orthodox theology.

    And as your previous post seemed to indicate, our laundry list of cardinal doctrines must be pure and absolutely core to redemptive truth. It is my understanding that Brother Pinnock dabbled in the open theism genre and because of that he was attacked. (See R.C. Sproul) And to that I say “Who cares”. It’s as if we can boast in our understanding of the mind of God and are able to carefully unpack all the sets and subsets of God’s attributes, identify where they work in a union set with a chronological sorting, and having laid them all out through systematized volumes, we can now go without the camp searching for any and all who have a different understanding. And finding such doctrinal miscreants we can bring them to theological justice and pronounce sentence!

    Such nonsense the church plays sometimes while the world is another day closer to eternal death. But hey, at least we will know how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin, unless you are a Baptist like I. Then they do not dance. They just quietly tap their feet. 🙂

  • I thank the Lord for honest souls like Clark Pinnock (and Roger Olson). Even where they are sometimes wrong (and who isn’t it?!), their courageous, all-out search for the truth inspires us to believe that our God can handle our questions — even welcomes them.

  • james petticrew

    As a young undergraduate stepping into the world of theology I heard Clark speak several times when I was at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester and Clark was I think doing doctoral studies in Manchester. What impressed me more than anything else was his “posture” as a theologian, the way he entertained questions, interacted with people even those who were frankly quite rude to him, it was a contrast to the very dogmatic presentation of theology I had encountered in Scotland. Deeply thankful for his work and example

  • Dear Sir… (sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

    I couldn’t agree more with your last statement, that it is unfortunate (perhaps even shameful) that many failed to stand up in Pinnock’s defense and affirm that he is, indeed, a Christian brother and should be treated as such. My hope is that the next generation of evangelicals–myself included–will be more open to creative thinkers and, more importantly, that we will learn to act with respect, grace, and love towards those we disagree with!

    Thanks Roger for being willing to stand up for thinkers like Clark, even when you don’t agree with everything that say. It has set an example that I hope many of us will emulate in the way we relate to the next wave of “Pinnocks.”

  • I met Dr. Pinnock at the national ETS meeting in Toronto the year that he and John Sanders were under fire for their Open Theism. My mentor and I had been working on a (rather nasty) paper about Open Theism and we wanted to meet him in person, to get his thoughts. I went as a cocky 19 year-old undergraduate student from Criswell College, rather certain that Pinnock et al were one their way down a “slippery slope” to paganism (or something maybe worse: “liberalism”). I can’t express to you how much meeting Dr. Pinnock in person meant toward challenging my fundamentalism and forcing me to think outside my categories. He ate dinner with us and made me feel immediately at ease. He was gracious, kind, humble, long-suffering, and very interested in me as a Christian and young scholar. He continued to correspond with me by email following our meeting, even after our quite uncharitable article appeared in print! Later, when I came to Truett Seminary and realized the error of my ways, I sent him an email of apology, which he graciously accepted. Looking back, I think meeting Clark Pinnock was the first “domino” to fall, leading to my eventual exodus from fundamentalism. I’m so blessed to have had that life-changing experience so early on.

    • rogereolson

      By all accounts he was a gracious man who accepted constructive criticism (perhaps all criticism) with a gentle and open spirit–at least to the persons making the criticisms. I’m glad you had that encounter with him. I, too, was always impressed by how he handled conflict situations (unlike certain Calvinists I know who condemned him as non-Christian because of his open theism).

  • P.S. His book, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, is the book that convinced me I wanted to be a theologian and not a New Testament scholar. It was so beautiful and so creative–a combination of deep thinking and fervent worship. To this day, it is one of my favorite contemporary theological works.

  • I was honored to have Clark as a professor during graduate studies (1999-2001) and later as a colleague at McMaster Divinity College. I was privileged during this time to work with him and another professor, Steven Studebaker, to plan the College’s first Pentecostal Forum (Defining Issues in Pentecostalism: Classical and Emergent – Pickwick, 2008).

    His life, writings and teaching have impacted me from the first day we met, until now. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude and will never forget his kind spirit and gentle, affirming posture.

    Here is one of my favorite quotes from Clark that I’ve posted on the main page of my blog —

    “In theology, mind and heart – study and prayer – are both important. With the mind we analyze data, while in the heart we wait for illumination on it. We place the truths discovered in God’s Word into the sanctuary of the soul for pondering. The mind attends to analysis; the heart dreams and listens to God” ~ from ‘Flame of Love’

    I think this captures his style and approach to theology very well.

    • rogereolson

      I’m glad you had that experience with him. I wish I had had opportunity to get to know him better on a personal level. We dined together at professional society meetings and served on panels together and corresponded often, but I didn’t really know him personally in the way I wish I had. By the way, you mention that you were his colleague at McMaster. During my seminary days I chose McMaster theologian Russell Aldwinckle as a theologian with whom to wrestle (intellectually) and I wrote my master’s thesis on his Christology (which was mostly expressed in his book More Than Man: A Study in Christology). I was looking for a relatively conservative theologian to counter process theology. During my seminary days I took a course at another seminary (a Lutheran seminary by extension in the same city) on process Christology. We read and discussed Cobb’s Christ in a Pluralistic Age which dismayed me. And yet I was attracted to the idea of God having a history with us because of Christ and his incarnation. My thesis actually dealt with many modern Christologies but focused especially on kenotic Christologies. Aldwinckle used both the kenosis motif and process theology in his Christology while avoiding the more egregious results of process theology and even correcting them. Pinnock was Aldwinckle’s successor at McMaster, as I recall.

      • He was a good man and will be deeply missed.

        I was unaware of your theological ‘connection’ with McMaster. Small world.


  • Krister S

    My introduction to the great Dr. Pinnock, beyond vague knowledge of him as a controversial theologian, was ironically when I read an early obituary. One of the neo-Calvinist bloggers posted news of his death. In the post, the blogger focused on Pinnock’s theological journey which descended, in his view, outside of evangelicalism and even Orthodoxy. The post then mourned Pinnock’s error and offered hope that God does indeed extend a wideness of mercy, so as to embrace an errant academic.

    With raised eyebrows, I commenced to see what Comments might appear in response. I read comment after comment that questioned Pinnock’s salvation, and I detected confident anticipation that God would judge the theologian harshly.

    Appalled, I set out to get to know this man. First, I read kinder obituaries from the likes of McKnight, Oord and Olson.

    Then I read his books – those mentioned above in Scot’s paper, and also his work on Pneumatology, Flame of Love.

    I shall forever be changed. I now read the Bible in a “comprehensive” manner, and see my God in a new, loving light. Here’s a thank you, Dr. Pinnock, from a guy who showed up late to your party. I am thrilled the SBL saw fit to pay tribute to his life and contributions which are able to so profoundly influence our understanding of a God who is mighty to save many and not just a few.

  • Bob Brown

    Brother Clark was a friend to SDA’s since he agreed with their position on hell and free will. What impressed me was that he wasn’t afraid to let himself be identified with SDAs since many view SDAism as sectarian and some as cultic. That revealed his courage to me and a freedom within him that soared over the labels of men.

    And if they can ridicule and condemn John Stott for ‘suggesting’ there is no conscious eternal punishment then it’s much easier to understand why they treated Clark the way they did.

    You can get a sense of a person in their writings. Clark seemed like an affable caring man with little self righteousness or judmentalness about him. I have all his books and refer to them often for his arguments. There’s a heaven and he’ll be there shining much brighter than his critics.

    Thank you Brother Roger and all those who defended him. I didn’t agree with all his points but I recognize the freedom of the Spirit in him and a sincere searcher for truth as he held on to the gospel. He was THE evangelical role model for ‘faith seeking understanding’. God used him to help us. Thank You God!