Why Conservative Evangelicals Should Thank God for Clark Pinnock

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I was sad to see Gregory Boyd’s announcement that his fellow theologian Clark Pinnock has died. Clark Pinnock led me to faith in Christ. Now, it’s true, I never met Pinnock until many years after I came to know Jesus. But the gospel I believed came through preachers who were trained by Clark Pinnock. More than that, the nation’s largest evangelical denomination would never have turned back to biblical inerrancy had it not been for a man who would later reject the concept.

At my home church in coastal Mississippi, two of the most significant pastors in my young life were trained at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1960s. There they sat in the classroom of an impressive young scholar, Pinnock, who was willing to challenge the bureaucratic morbidity of his adopted denomination. Pinnock, concerned that Southern Baptists like other Baptists before them were sliding into theological liberalism, presented a strong case to his students for the complete truthfulness of the Scriptures. More than that, he presented an overall narrative of God’s work in Christ Jesus that many students found compelling. Beyond the classroom, Pinnock’s students were zealous, pressing the gospel in some of the roughest parts of the French Quarter and beyond.

My boyhood pastors were only a small part of Pinnock’s audience during his short time at New Orleans Seminary. A list of his former students during that time is amazing to anyone with any grasp of the history of Southern Baptists and the inerrancy controversy: Paige Patterson, Jerry Vines, Adrian Rogers, and on and on. I cannot think of a single figure of crucial importance in the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention who is more than two steps away from Pinnock’s direct influence.

Pinnock didn’t stay long, of course, at New Orleans Seminary or within the mainstream of conservative evangelicalism. In the 1970s, he began to question his previous understanding of biblical inspiration. At a conference on biblical inerrancy, one of Pinnock’s former students, Adrian Rogers, lamented the trajectory of his professor. Rogers responded to Pinnock’s argument that evangelicals should unite around our common commitment to forgivness through the “shed blood of Jesus Christ” rather than around a common understanding of Holy Scripture. Rogers wondered how long such a commitment would last.

“Many existential theologians today and in the recent past have concluded that the whole concept of blood atonement is repugnant to modern civilized man and that the biblical materials on blood atonement represent unfortunate syncretistic accretions from Israel’s pagan neighbors,” Rogers said. “How do you know as an evangelical certainty that they are not correct, Dr. Pinnock? I suggest that your belief in blood atonement is more a function of your conservative past than of your current philosophical and theological methodologies.”

Rogers, of course, was prophetic on this point. Pinnock moved from doubting the verbal inspiration of Scripture to questioning the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy from almost every vantage point. He led the short-lived movement toward “open theism,” questioning the historic church’s belief that God knows everything, including the future free decisions of his creatures. He abandoned his belief that conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation, and began to see the Spirit at work in the other world religions. He denounced the concept of everlasting punishment as cruel and contrary to the nature of God. Unhinged from Scripture and tradition, Pinnock became the vanguard of evangelical innovation on doctrine after doctrine after doctrine. That’s lamentable.

But, as we remember Clark Pinnock, he should be more to us, especially those of us on the more conservative side of evangelical Christianity, than simply a parable of doctrinal downgrade. Adrian Rogers was probably right that Pinnock’s remaining evangelical commitments may have been more a result of his conservative past than his later trajectory, but let’s give thanks for that past.

As I write this, I’m about to go into a classroom to teach 150 future pastors and missionaries. We’re in an institution committed to biblical authority and the centrality of the gospel. This would not be possible if Clark Pinnock hadn’t taught Adrian Rogers and Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines. And I can’t help but wonder if my boyhood pastors hadn’t had such a vision of truth and gospel laid out for them by that young Canadian, would I have ever heard the gospel?

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God,” the Scripture says. “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). Sometimes the outcome of a life isn’t what we would have hoped for, and sometimes there are many parts of a man’s life that we can’t imitate. But we can still give thanks that the word of God was taught, clarified, held forth, even by a man with whom we disagree.

I’m here because of some lectures a good man delivered in a classroom on Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans, Louisiana. He may have regretted some of those lectures, but I’m thankful for them. Let’s pray for the Pinnock family and let’s thank God for the good things God did through him. Let’s remember that the last chapter of a man’s life isn’t written in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, but in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

That’s good news for sinners like us.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).