Clark H. Pinnock's life journey is over. The influential and often controversial evangelical theologian died unexpectedly August 15 of a heart attack. He was 73. In March, the long-time professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, had announced he was withdrawing from public life and revealed that he was battling Alzheimer's disease.
It was a difficult admission for a man whose mercurial mind and openness to the Holy Spirit led him to stake out theological positions that challenged evangelical orthodoxies. Renowned for exploring the frontiers of biblical truth, he was reputed to study carefully, think precisely, argue forcefully, and shift his positions willingly if he discovered a more fruitful pathway of understanding. He said he preferred to be known, "not as one who has the courage of his convictions, but one who has the courage to question them and to change old opinions which need changing."
Born in Toronto in 1937, Pinnock's mind was changing from his youth: His parents were liberal Baptists, but at age 12 converted to the more conservative evangelical faith of his grandmother and Sunday school teacher. After years of involvement in Youth for Christ, the Canadian Keswick Bible Conference, and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Pinnock graduated from the University of Toronto. He went on to study under F. F. Bruce at Manchester University, where he earned his Ph.D.
"My early interest on scholarship came about from an interest in foreign missions, specifically the Wycliffe Bible Translators and therefore the biblical languages being translated into new tongues," he said. "That led me into Hebrew and Greek."
He also came under the influence of Francis Schaeffer and worked for a time at L'Abri. Pinnock came to the United States in 1965 and taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he became an influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention's battles over biblical inerrancy. From 1969-1974 he taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and from 1974-1977 at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
He arrived at McMaster in 1977 with great hopes of becoming an agent of biblical renewal in what he described as a "comfortable mainline seminary." In his inaugural lecture, he said that evangelical theology must be both conservative and contemporary. "We should strive to be faithful to historic Christian belief taught in Scripture, and at the same time be authentic and responsible to contemporary hearers."
The blend of intellectual theological rigor and emphasis on practical application of Christian principles in daily practice and church life was a hallmark of his personality. He was extremely courteous and engaging in person, keen to worship in almost any setting (including the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship in its holy laughter heyday, which he described as gentle, with people just "blissing out"). He was eager to equip people in the churches with the theological tools they needed to engage in mission.
His career goal was to help the church worship God "with freedom, to experience the truth of the Bible in fresh ways, and to be able to share the gospel in a more effective and natural manner."
The late Stanley Grenz once observed that Pinnock "has been lauded as an inspiring theological pilgrim by his admirers and condemned as a dangerous renegade by his foes. Yet no story of evangelical theology in the 20th century is complete without the inclusion of his fascinating intellectual journey from quintessential evangelical apologist to anti-Augustinian theological reformist." In his own account of his spiritual journey, Pinnock recounts how he started right, moved left, and then ended up in the center
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.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's School of Theology, wrote on his blog on "Why Conservative Evangelicals Should Thank God for Clark Pinnock." More tributes have been posted by Thomas Jay Oord, James K.A. Smith, and others.
In 1998, Roger Olson wrote "Does Evangelical Theology Have a Future" and Pinnock responded.
Previous articles in Christianity Today about Clark Pinnock include:
Dispatch from Atlanta: What Fireworks? | Anxieties and attack turn to grace and truth as the Evangelical Theological Society votes on Open Theism proponents' membership. (November 1, 2003)
ETS Leadership Issues Recommendations on Kicking Out Open Theists | Evangelical Theological Society's Executive Committee unanimously recommends Clark Pinnock stay; majority says John Sanders should go. (October 1, 2003)
Openness Season | Theologians Pinnock and Boyd like to take the Bible at face value-but is that enough? (February 1, 2003)
Closing the Door on Open Theists? | ETS to examine whether Clark Pinnock and John Sanders can remain members. (January 1, 2003)
Evangelical Theological Society Moves Against Open Theists | Membership of Pinnock and Sanders challenged by due process (November 22, 2002)
Books: Romancing Pentecostalism | Romancing Pentecostalism: Clark Pinnock's theology of the Holy Spirit builds a bridge between divided communities within evangelicalism. (November 11, 1996)
Has God Been Held Hostage by Philosophy? | A forum on free-will theism, a new paradigm for understanding God. (January 9, 1995)
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