R.I.P. Clark H. Pinnock (03 Feb. 1937 to 15 Aug. 2010)
Canadian Baptist theologian Clark H. Pinnock, who began his career as a neo-fundamentalist and Carl Henry-style rationalist but moved to a progressive evangelicalism, pioneering an “open theism” theology that occupied a middle ground between classical Arminianism and Process Theology, passed away yesterday. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. A first obituary from a colleague is found here.
UPDATE: I have been searching for obituaries with more detail since Sunday. Strangely, there has been nothing. Nothing in the Toronto papers or on Religion News Service and nothing even on the websites of any of the seminaries where Pinnock had taught (in reverse order: McMaster Divinity College; Regent College; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). I hope this is remedied soon. I find the lack of notice of Dr. Pinnock’s passing to be disturbing. So, as I have been trying to sort out my mixed emotions at his passing, I’ll try to be a partial remedy.
Clark Pinnock was neither a huge positive influence on my theology and ministry, nor one of my theological adversaries, but he did influence the environment in which I studied and worked, in both negative and positive ways. I met him only 3 times: twice at my alma mater (the pre-Mohler SBTS) and once at the Evangelical Theology section of the American Academy of Religion. He was always gracious, kind, and humble in personal contact–something that cannot be said of all theologians. (I’ve noticed no correlation between type of theology and Christian character. As a doctoral student, I once had the occasion to meet two famous theologians for about a week–names withheld out of courtesy. One was very far from my own thought and the other quite close, but I quickly decided that I would rather be on the same faculty with the one I considered heretical. I couldn’t imagine trying to serve on committees or even get lunch regularly with the person I mostly agreed with theologically–because this person was a total ass, whereas the heretic showed Christlike qualities constantly.)
Pinnock grew up in a liberal Baptist Canadian household, but it was a separatist fundamentalist Baptist congregation which presented him the gospel. He was converted and came of age in this scholastic Calvinistic fundamentalism. An early mentor was Francis A. Schaefer, one of the creators of the Religious Right in North America–and Schaefer made Pinnock an apologist. He departed enough from this background, however, not to attend a Bible school or even a conservative Christian college, but to earn his B.A. at the University of Toronto (1960). He did so well at University that he was awarded two fellowships for graduate work: A Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Harvard and a British Commonwealth Scholarship to study at any UK university. He chose the Commonwealth Scholarship and earned a Ph.D. in New Testament at Manchester University under the supervision of the great Prof. F. F. Bruce with a dissertation on the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writings. Some have viewed Pinnock’s pilgrimage, at least in part, to the gradual decline of Schaefer’s influence and the rise in influence of the spirit of Bruce’s open and engaged (world affirming) evangelicalism.
Pinnock’s career might have been very different if he had continued in biblical studies, but in 1965, as a fresh Ph.D., he was hired by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to teach, not New Testament, but Systematic Theology–for which he had to prepare quickly. It is here that Pinnock’s story first intersects my own (though I was only 3 in 1965!), because this appointment first brought Pinnock into the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention. The context was volatile: The Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of opposition to Vietnam War, the failure of the Great Society’s “War on Poverty,” and the seeds of culture change in American evangelicalism–including in the largest (and, at the time, most insular) Protestant denomination in the U.S., the SBC. Pinnock came into this and began to conclude that far too many Southern Baptist scholars were theological liberals. His early apologetics writings defended a strict inerrancy of Scripture–and led to many fights with other faculty at NOBTS (usually considered one of the most conservative SBC seminaries, even in the ’60s) and throughout the SBC. Pinnock also became a hero to some fundamentalist students at NOBTS, including one Paige Patterson, who would later lead the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC–after Pinnock had left.
Pinnock was soon from New Orleans to Deerfield, IL and the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), a seminary sponsored by the Evangelical Free Church, but actually a major interdenominational center of U. S. evangelicalism–from the right to center of the U.S. evangelical spectrum. Here, Pinnock began to change. Still a mild Calvinistic Baptist with a Carl Henry-style rationalist bent, he became less combative and more open to wider theological trends. He helped to push the Theological Students Fellowship, a graduate effort of InterVarsity Fellowship, into greater prominence, serving on the editorial board of TSF Bulletin. This effort was especially geared to support evangelical graduate students at non-evangelical institutions–encouraging them to do Ph.D. work at Harvard, Yale, at major universities in the UK and in Europe and to take this greater educational breadth back to the colleges and seminaries of their evangelical institutions–while being evangelical witnesses at “godless” Harvard & Yale (and Union/Columbia, Chicago, Princeton U. and Princeton Sem., etc.), too. As a young man in the Army struggling with my burgeoning conscientious objection, I was also wrestling with a call to ministry–and copies of TSF Bulletin, including many articles by Pinnock, were very helpful to me.
During his TEDS days, Pinnock also became a faculty mentor to a group of socially radical students led by a young Plymouth Brethren student namd Jim Wallis–the original “Post-American” community that was to become the Sojourners community and Sojourners magazine when it moved to Washington, D.C. Here, Pinnock played a very different mentoring role than he had with Paige Patterson–with very different results for American Christianity. Pinnock began to talk about the need for “an evangelical liberation theology” and to combine conservative theology with radical social ethics–and the “Evangelical Left” of the 1970s was born. I participated in that “Evangelical Left” as a subscriber to Sojourners and The Other Side, meeting Wallis and others from the Sojourners community, and Gordon and Mary Cosby of The Church of the Savior, working with Habitat for Humanity, visiting Koinonia Community in Americus, GA, The Open Door in Atlanta, GA (with its ministry to both the homeless and to death row inmates), visiting John Perkins and Voice of Calvary Ministries in Missippi, Reba Place Fellowship (Mennonite) of Chicago, and more. Pinnock wasn’t the primary influence, but his was an encouraging voice into the early ’80s when I came of age.
By 1980, while the U.S. lurched to the right culturally and politically, Pinnock had returned to his native Canada to teach, first at the ecumenical Regent College, and then at the Baptist, McMaster Divinity School. His return to Canada led him him to further steps (in different directions) in his pilgrimage. After some disappointing experiences voting for some avowed socialist politicians in Canada, Pinnock moved in a more conservative direction politically. He began to raise more questions about liberation theologies (especially the Marxist influences) and, by the mid-’80s, he quit the board at Sojourners and served for awhile on the board of the conservative think-tank known as the Institute for Religion and Democracy (the IRD worked with the CIA to undermine Christian and peasant movements throughout Latin America in the ’80s), founded by the then-Lutheran-minister-now-Catholic-priest, Richard John Neuhaus. I and others of the Evangelical Left were less than pleased by this movement on Pinnock’s part.
But theologically, Pinnock moved left instead of right. Under the influence of British Methodist N.T. scholar, I. Howard Marshall’s book, Kept by the Power of God, Pinnock broke with the Calvinist view of “eternal security” and embraced evangelical Arminian views, writing a foreward to a second edition of the book. (Pinnock could have learned this perspective earlier from the Southern Baptist giant, Dale Moody, but he had been too busy denouncing the influence of Barth and Brunner on Moody, in those days! Later, he did reconcile with Moody and the two recommended each other’s books.) He also nuanced greatly his view of biblical inspiration in his bestselling, The Scripture Principle, though choosing to keep the term “inerrancy,” which Pinnock believed would “stretch” further than I do. (He also wanted to end the controversy over inerrancy in evangelical circles by this method, which didn’t work.)
Noticing by the mid-1980s that North American evangelicals in general, and the Southern Baptist Convention especially, were in full-fledged civil war over many things, but symbolically centering around the debate over the inerrancy of Scripture, Pinnock realized that many of the conservative leaders, especially Paige Patterson, were his former students. So, when the SBC seminary presidents tried to quell the feud by holding major conferences on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, bringing in “outside evangelical scholars,” Pinnock was one of those who came. And he said to the conservatives, “You listened to me in the 1960s, so please listen to me, now. End the feud. If there were liberals in the SBC then, they have all been vanquished. There is room for broad agreement on the authority of Scripture and diversity on the details.” Patterson and others felt betrayed and Pinnock was unable to stop the rightward lurch of the SBC. That was when I first met him. I am 6’3″ and he towered over me by nearly a foot. He was deeply saddened at the way the SBC was tearing itself apart and he had little of the combative Schaeferrite influence left.
Soon after this, Pinnock became a leader in the “Open Theism” movement–a halfway ground between classical Arminian/Freewill theology and Process Theology. He rejected hell as eternal suffering for annihilationism and, while retaining Christ’s uniqueness and supremacy, began to move to an inclusive view of salvation (rather like my teacher, Molly Marshall)–arguing that God’s work in general revelation meant that some truth could be found elsewhere–and may even be salfivic, though one would continue to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ as the only sure way of salvation.
The Evangelical Theological Society tried Pinnock for heresy–but he survived by a narrow vote.
When he was hired by McMaster Divinity College, Pinnock was the first openly evangelical faculty member in some time–easily the most conservative member there. It could have led to a repeat of his experience at New Orleans BTS. Instead, Pinnock moved to a progressive evangelical theology at the edges between the evangelical spectrum and mainstream liberal Protestantism. Meanwhile, MacDiv became more conservative. By the time of his retirement in 2003, Pinnock was one of the more liberal faculty members there and today MacDiv openly advertises itself as Canada’s premier evangelical seminary in a secular university setting (downplaying it’s denominational identity as Baptist–once far more important to it than the “evangelical” label).
The mature Pinnock’s social and political commitments remained too conservative for me and I do not think the term “inerrancy” stretches as far he did. I think “inerrancy” is a bad way to characterize biblical authority. But I share his Arminian commitments and SOME of the perspectives in the Open Theism camp seem to be to be biblical and helpful while I still wrestle with other issues. But I encountered these perspectives and issues primarily from others–seeing Pinnock’s input only later. He has been a background figure and never a primary influence on me.
Still, this Pilgrim theologian who was NEVER afraid to say, “I was wrong and my last book is quite mistaken,” was a huge force in English-speaking Baptist and evangelical circles–and a controversial one–throughout my entire life. His passing leaves us all poorer and I hope that the near silence since Saturday will be soon broken. There should be tributes and reflections throughout many theological circles. I predict many a dissertation on his work, from various perspectives, in the future.