Clark Pinnock Dies at 73
Pinnock's evolving position on the authority of Scripture was one of the early indicators of his questing mindset. His early A Defense of Biblical Infallibility (1967) argued for the necessity of belief in the Bible's authority, inspiration, and inerrancy. But he did not remain static on the issue, and came to understand that the biblical text can be fully trusted in what it intends to teach and to affirm, even if it may err on matters of detail tangential to the intention of the text (The Scripture Principle, 1984).
The trajectory of his thinking also took him from a Reformed to a neo-Arminian view of salvation. Early on he had maintained "that Calvinism was just scriptural evangelicalism in its purest expression." But by the late 1990s theologians like R.C. Sproul and J.I. Packer were denouncing him. Pinnock kept pushing the envelope, championing the concept of "open theism," which emphasizes God's self-limitation in dealing with humans, including his vulnerability. He argued that God could be surprised by events and persuaded to change a decision.
This positioning was anathema to many in the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), who insisted God knows and has even planned the entire future, and that open theism undermines confidence in God. The controversy bubbled along for nearly a decade, and came to a head in 2002 when Pinnock was nearly expelled from the ETS. His membership situation was satisfactorily resolved a year later. Even his opponents acknowledged that Pinnock considered the Bible the primary source for theology, and that his arguments were anchored in Scripture.
He also challenged evangelical orthodoxy with A Wideness in God's Mercy (1992), in which he considered the inclusion of "holy pagans" in the Bible and argued for a more generous understanding of the destiny of the unevangelized.
Another important element of Pinnock's career was his emphasis on the Holy Spirit. While a cessationist early in his theological career, he later argued that Christology had been given much more attention "and the Spirit has been made a kind of junior assistant to Christ." Among the catalysts for his change of mind was the healing of one of his eyes, which had nearly gone blind with macular degeneracy. "I know from personal experience that one such incident can be worth a bookshelf of academic apologetics for Christianity (including my own books)," he later wrote. His Flame of Love (1996) was lauded by some as addressing an important neglect, and dismissed by others as "maverick theology."
"Here's an academic who was overstuffed in the brain and the heart cries out," 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."
While he was courageous in his ability to adopt new ideas and positions, Pinnock did allow that theological change has its painful aspects. "Not only am I often not listened to, I am also made to feel stranded theologically: being too much of a free thinker to be accepted by the evangelical establishment and too much of a conservative to be accepted by the liberal mainline."
Doug Koop is the editorial director of Fellowship for Print Witness, publishers of the ChristianWeek family of newspapers in Canada.