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What I said about Clark Pinnock at a symposium celebrating his life and career

What I said about Clark Pinnock at a symposium celebrating his life and career August 17, 2012

Clark Pinnock and the Postconservative Turn in Evangelical Theology

Roger E. Olson

            Evangelical theology has gone through several paradigm shifts and has fragmented into different paradigms.  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what they all share in common beyond calling themselves “evangelical.”  However, I will work with the Noll-Bebbington proposal that evangelicalism is marked by biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism without going into detail about these common features or family resemblances.  I have proposed adding “respect for the Great Tradition of Protestant Christian orthodoxy” as a fifth hallmark.  Evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical.  What else could it be?  Evangelicalism has no magisterium and evangelical theology has no definitive, authoritative text beyond Scripture.  My thesis is that Clark Pinnock initiated and carried out a paradigm change within evangelical theology that remained definitely evangelical while at the same time departing from conservatism just as postfundamentalist evangelical theology departed from fundamentalism.

Today there exists within evangelicalism and its theological academy a phenomenon I call “postconservative evangelical theology.”  I compare that with the phenomenon of “postfundamentalist evangelical theology” or “neo-evangelical theology” brought about by luminaries of post-World War 2 evangelical thought such as Carl Henry, E. J. Carnell and Bernard Ramm.  Postfundamentalist evangelical theology sought to go beyond the limitations of fundamentalism while remaining faithful to classic, historic Reformation belief.  Mark Noll and other historians of the evangelical movement have rightly, I judge, noted that postfundamentalist evangelical theologians did not merely repeat Reformation theology but reconceptualized it in terms of Scottish Common Sense Realism so that it brought about something called “the evangelical enlightenment.”  Unlike fundamentalism, neo-evangelical theology sought to take seriously what Ramm called the “material facts” of science, attempted to develop a distinctly evangelical intellectual tradition in conversation with culture and called for a stronger social witness than fundamentalism with its narrow, anti-communist social agenda.

The story of the emergence of this postfundamentalist evangelicalism, symbolized especially by Billy Graham and his ministries and their offshoots, has been told and retold by authors such as Joel Carpenter, Mark Noll and Randall Balmer.

My thesis is that this post-World War 2, postfundamentalist evangelical theological consensus has dissolved and is being replaced by a fractured and fragmented evangelical intellectual milieu in which various trajectories are evident and intellectuals committed to them rarely even speak to each other.  Beginning in the 1980s and increasing throughout the 1990s has been what I regard as a neo-fundamentalist type of evangelical theology that seeks to undo much of the progress made by the post-World War 2, postfundamentalist evangelical thinkers.  These neo-fundamentalist evangelicals claim to wear the mantle of Carl Henry, but conveniently forget that for all his conservatism Henry was generous with his definition of evangelical including many who did not adhere to biblical inerrancy.

Alongside this neo-fundamentalist group emerged others such as the paleo-orthodox and the neo-Puritan types of evangelical thought.  Of course, there is some overlap among these camps.  One can be both neo-Puritan and neo-fundamentalist.  The differences lie in emphasis and ethos more than in specific method or conclusions.

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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