How a man I never met inspired this blog

I only saw him once.  I was coming out of a class at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, ON, and he was walking from his hole-in-the-wall office to the men’s room.  I remember thinking that he was quite tall.  Looking back I wish that I’d skipped the remainder of my class, approached him, and asked him to go for a coffee.

I’d read some of Clark Pinnock’s books before seeing him that day, the first being A Wideness in God’s Mercy.  The book intrigued me on several levels, but most notably I felt like I was reading into the heart of a man who was truly grappling with the profoundness of the God of love, grace, and mercy.  Soon after that I read Most Moved Mover, one of Clark’s contributions into the foray of openness theology.  Now, say what you will about openness theology, but what struck me throughout the book was not so much the claims therein, but the foundation from which Clark made the claims — God’s love — and the clear love for God and love for the discussion about God which Clark demonstrated through his words.  This was a man who was deeply in love with God.  And subsequently he was deeply in love with the ongoing discussion concerning God: theology.

As those in the world of evangelical theology know, Clark took a beating from many because of his openness theology hypothesis.  The word “persecution” is not too strong as several voices in the evangelical world came down hard on Clark.  Clark, in many circles, was anathematized.

During my time at McMaster Divinity I became friends with some professors and students who were close to Clark before his death in August, 2010.  What I learned from them about Clark did not surprise me.  Clark was a soft-spoken gentle man.  He loved his wife.  He lived a simple life.  And he was very involved in his small local church.  Those in his church didn’t think of Clark as “the theologian,” they thought of him as simply Clark, the caring man who consistently demonstrated his love for Jesus and the church.  I was told that at his funeral it was made very clear that the service was a time for Clark’s family — his church — to celebrate his life and mourn their loss.  And though the academic community showed up by the dozens, the service itself reflected the life of the man for whom everyone was gathered to remember: it was simple; it was about the church; it was about Jesus.

One of Clark’s good friends described for me the years of attack that Clark endured during the heyday of the openness debate.  Clark’s faith was questioned; he was called a heretic; and it was said that he obviously did not love or know Jesus.  Clark was crushed.  My friend put it like this: “Imagine that someone told you, Aaron, that you didn’t love you wife, when the truth is you love her more than life.  That’s how Clark felt when people told him that he didn’t love Jesus.”

The preface and introduction in Most Moved Mover have never escaped my mind.  Here are a few excerpts:

Over the course of my life as a theologian, I have been a pilgrim and have sought to grow as a hearer of God’s word.  Theology has been for me a journey of discovery and, though I have respected them, I have not regarded traditional views as beyond reform.

One’s theology is a work of human construction, even when based in divine revelation, and interpretation requires strenuous effort.  Our interpretations are provisional and truth is, to some extent, historically conditioned and ultimately eschatological.  To paraphrase St Paul,“Now we know in part; then we will know fully.” (1 Cor 13:12)

I think there is always a place for asking questions and for challenging assumptions.  Our God-talk is always open to re-evaluation because mistakes can be made and need correcting.

Responsible faith always asks questions and theology is done when the community takes a real interest in the truth.  Every believer is a theologian at some level and together we can engage in the search for the fullness of the truth made known in Jesus Christ.  It is not enough to repeat traditional formulations of doctrine, which may be adequate or inadequate.  We must persist in searching for the truth to which our traditions point but which they only partially express.

Every generation needs to think about its conception of God — is it true to the gospel, does it communicate and is it adequate for living?

God is not dead, but some of the ways we have presented God are dead.

Clark’s words inspire me, encourage me, and challenge me.  Although I never met Clark, I resonate a great deal with what motivated his task as a theologian.  Clark loved Jesus.  And Clark’s love of Jesus compelled him to never stop figuring out how to put words and actions to a life of following Jesus.  He wasn’t afraid to question the theological status quo, not because he was a rebel, but because to stop figuring it out would have been like never going for a romantic walk with your wife again.  The journey — the theology in process — was both the demonstration and experience of Jesus’ love.

Sadly, Clark’s words also haunt me.  I wish that I could say “sorry” to Clark — sorry on behalf of evangelicals who didn’t process theology very well, who questioned your faith, who questioned your love for Jesus, and who never took ten seconds to get to know the man behind the words.  I pray that Clark’s story haunts me in the best of ways — that I will always remember the importance of process and that I will respect and love those who are also on the journey of figuring it out.

We don’t ever get our theology figured out.  It’s always in process.  And for me, like Clark, the process is both how I find and fall in love with Jesus.

So thanks, Clark.  Thanks for your writing, your witness, and your willingness to process in front of us all.  I can’t think of a better person to honour as I kick this blog off, and  I can’t wait to have that cup of coffee with you someday.

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8 responses to “How a man I never met inspired this blog

  1. Well written, Aaron. I remember the “Clark Pinnock Heresy” well growing up. He unfortunately was in a denomination, that doesn’t value theology or wrestling with Scripture. During my impressionable years, with this in the background, was one, of many reasons, that I left. God created us to think, to wrestle, to challenge, and explore. Creators don’t want mindless, “that’s nice, of course” as a response and our Creator is not any different. He invites us into the dialogue, into the creation to explore and theology is one way to do this…. it is worship and like you, it is how I connect with Him as well.
    Love to join the two of you for coffee one day.

  2. I remember one of my profs in my undergrad vilifying Clark. This attitude was passed on to others and to myself. However, upon coming to MacDiv, I realized that the that portrait of Clark could not be true. I never heard him speak, but the testimony and stories of others pointed to a man with a huge heart for God and for others.

  3. I have never heard of Openness Theology. Glad I found your blog (via J Coutts)

  4. Alright! A fellow Clark Pinnockian. I have a similar regret. His house is only one block from my current church, and I always intended to drop in to visit. He was a major influence in my theological journey.

  5. So nice to be reminded of Clark. When we went to TEDS in 1970, we got to live in the parsonage of the Kenosha Bible Church (EFree). While unloading our van, this tall man with thick glasses dropped in and offered to help us unload! He was indeed humble and gracious, as was his wife and daughter, and since he lived in Kenosha at that time, we often had opportunity to ride together with a third student. His classes were tough, and his strong faith deeply challenging. I also remember walking with him in some protest march, but can’t remember the cause!! He did struggle with some of the “petty” aspects of normal church.
    Thanks Aaron for excellent write up on him and his impact on you.

  6. Thanks Aaron. That was thoughtful and well articulated. It always makes me nervous when someone has all their theological i’s dotted and t’s crossed. God is way beyond complete description. And one thing that excites me after 23 years in ministry and 30 years as a believer, is that I will never run out of discoveries about Jesus. Sweet. So process on and share with us your journey…

  7. Thanks for your interaction, everyone.

    As I was talking about this post with one of Clark’s friends yesterday, he reminded me of another interesting component of the story of Clark. As you may or may not know, Clark began his professional theological journey as a die-hard Reformed guy. Over the course of his career and spiritual journey he made the shift from Calvinism to Wesleyanism. There’s little doubt that his peers whom he left in the Reformed camp were even more outraged with his openness theology hypothesis because he was once “one of them” — as in, he should have known better.

    Could you imagine if Tim Keller published a book tomorrow wherein he discussed his belief in egalitarianism? I wonder how the Gospel Coalition would cope with that disaster?

    I had a professor once tell his class, of which I was a part, that he was writing a book that was ferociously critiquing another book’s central argument. It was comical when he then told us that he was the author of the other book. Over the course of some study he’d come to realize that he profoundly disagreed with what he’d once argued.

    Call that scatter-brained if you want, but I think that it speaks to the reality of a faith that is always being figured out and that is infinite. At the same time it speaks to followers who are humble enough to admit that we can get it wrong or come up with better ways of understanding and submitting to the living Word.

  8. Our theological journey should not be static. It is dynamic. It changes. As an old Greek philosopher once said “you don’t step into the same river twice.” It’s funny bc looking back I feel the same way about that professor; I want to talk to my old self and just remind him of how arrogant and pompous he is that he thinks he got everything figured out. Thanks for the post. It reminds me that some are still indeed on a journey into the mysterion that is Christ.

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