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The Teaching of Clark Pinnock

Category Articles
Date November 20, 2001



These are crucial and strategic days for the evangelical movement, which represents the fastest-growing segment of the church world-wide. Its great watershed issue in our post-modern and relativistic era is the nature and full authority of Scripture; it threatens the unity of the evangelical movement. The question is: Can a high view of Scripture and theological novelty go well together? I believe it is impossible.

Everyone ought to be aware of this by now. In fact, can one still be called an evangelical while denying the complete trustworthiness of the Bible? I concur with the late American evangelical Dr. Harold J. Ockenga’s
(1905-1985) comment: “It is apparent that those who give up an authoritative, dependable, authentic, trustworthy, and infallible Scripture must ultimately yield the right to the use of the name ‘evangelical’.” Robert W. Yarborough even claims that “the debate about Scripture is ultimately, in fact, a debate about the nature of God.” In other words, if evangelicals would conclude that Scripture can err, then the church and her theologians will discover that without an inerrant Bible there is no solid basis for biblical authority and hence no sure word for theology or Christian living.


At the beginning of his career, Pinnock was a passionate defender of Biblical inerrancy. He declared that evangelicals confess inerrancy because it is Biblical to do so. He wrote that “the Scripture in their precise verbal form embody and comprise God’s written Word, whose binding force cannot be annulled.” He argued his case from the Bible’s own doctrine of inspiration, the view of Christ and the apostles concerning Scripture, as well as from the historic position of the Church. He declared that God’s Word does not and cannot deceive or it cannot be His. Since God is the ultimate author of Scripture, it does not err because He cannot lie. Therefore, “Scripture is to be believed in all that it teaches because of its divine authorship.” Pinnock commented that the result of denying inerrancy, as skeptics well know, is the loss of a trustworthy Bible. It is nonsense to talk about an inerrant Bible with errors in it, and a trustworthy book which lies. The foundation of theology is only secure when the Bible is considered trustworthy. When it records a historical fact we understand a real event to have occurred corresponding to it. Pinnock didn’t mince words in his defense of inerrancy. “To cast doubt on the complete veracity and authority of Scripture is a criminal act creating a crisis of immense proportions for theology and faith.”


One of the finest and most readable works on inerrancy is Pinnock’s Biblical Revelation: The Foundation of Christian Theology, published in 1971. Evangelical scholarship at its best! The well known evangelical J.I. Packer counts it as a “major triumph… of Pinnock’s first period.”

But in the 70’s Pinnock’s shifted his position. He began to question the doctrine of inerrancy. He suggested that true belief in Biblical authority is shown in hearing and obeying, not in inerrancy. When an international coalition of evangelical scholars and leaders gathered in Chicago in 1977 to map strategy for a ten-year thrust to study and defend biblical inerrancy and to educate and inform the evangelical community of the doctrine’s importance, Pinnock charged, “The last thing we need is a ten-year inerrancy campaign. Our concern should be with the blatant liberals who demythologize parts of the Old and New Testaments. The battle needs to be fought, not at Fuller Seminary (an institution which was criticized for its alleged looseness on Scripture), but in places like Chicago and Harvard divinity schools.”

Pinnock indicated the word inerrancy is “not a very helpful word” since it is merely “a modern standard of precision and scientific accuracy.”

In The Scripture Principle, published in 1984, Pinnock placed a greater emphasis on the humanness of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit. He decidedly became more willing to allow that God accommodated His Word to mankind. He now advocates that Biblical veracity is focussed on matters of salvation rather than details. Biblical reliability means that the Bible can bring “us to know and love God in Jesus Christ and to nurture us in that saving relationship,” rather than emphasizing matters of grammar or proper historiography. His approach is consistent with his recent interest in “narrative” or “story” theology which accepts the accuracy of the overall Biblical story rather than its details. For example, Pinnock argues that “We are not bound to deny the Bible the possibility of playful legend just because the central claim is historical, as if to admit a few mythical elements into the biblical story as a whole would classify the Christian story itself as myth. Unquestionably, Jesus’s Resurrection had to happen for the gospel story to be true; but the same does not hold for Elisha’s axehead or the fate of Lot’s wife.”

Ray Roennfeldt, author of “Clark H. Pinnock On Biblical Authority. An Evolving Position,” comments that Pinnock hopes that his new approach will move liberals toward an acceptance of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and conservatives toward a recognition of the Scripture’s right to present the divine Word clothed in whatever human form it desires, and both toward a faithful hearing of that Word through the power of the Spirit.

Pinnock experiments with theology and repeated changes have left many evangelicals puzzled. They have asked, “In which direction is he really going?” No wonder he has been called an “evangelical maverick.” His shift in his view of Scripture shows that his theology has become profoundly, even fundamentally experience centred. However, he is still convinced that religious experience needs the Scriptures the way any traveler needs a reliable roadmap. But in the process he has become one of the more prominent evangelicals who is convinced that the Holy Spirit is largely marginalized in the life of the Church.


During the 1970’s Pinnock changed his position on the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. He rejected Augustine’s and Warfield’s view that the gifts of the Spirit ceased with the early church. He affirmed that they are “a legitimate gift of the Spirit to the church today.” In an article “Biblical Texts – Past and Future Meanings,” Pinnock writes that the rediscovery of Pentecost in the 20th century has led to a widespread correction of cessationist traditions of Biblical interpretation.

“Openness to the full range of spiritual gifts is now the characteristic of the thinking of a large proportion of Christian people, even outside Pentecostal and charismatic circles.” He concluded that the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement is now clearly a vital reality in modern Christianity and a great influence on his life and his work as a theologian. He said that he began to realize that God wants to teach us through the Bible by means of historical exegesis combined with an openness to the Spirit. He affirmed a progressiveness of revelation. He even said that with the Spirit’s help, one “may need to go beyond Scripture in carrying out its intentions.” For Pinnock “revelation has not ceased.” He maintains that although the canon of the Bible is complete, the Holy Spirit remains in the church to speak through the Scriptures and in addressing us through each other by gifts like prophecy. He claims that he has received “a word of prophecy” on several occasions (at least), and to have “received healing from a serious macular degeneracy” in his only functioning eye in 1982.

In regard to the healing of his eye Pinnock testified, “I know from personal experience that one such incident can be worth a bookshelf of academic apologetics for Christianity (including my own books).” The widely debated “Toronto Blessing” with its “holy laughter” and other strange manifestations also made a deep impression on him. He first attended it in the summer of 1994. He thought the people there were so receptive to God that he found it a time of true spiritual refreshment. His personal testimony on the impact of the Toronto Blessing is telling: “I go to the meeting in order to wait on God and listen. There is an abundance of faith and expectancy there and the environment is conducive to encountering the Holy Spirit … I have found myself made more radically open to God’s presence and have come away with my faith enhanced.” He did, however, observe a weakness in the Toronto Blessing’s teaching ministry. He felt that it sometimes failed “to deal adequately with the purpose of the Spirit, namely advancing God’s reign by inspiring and empowering a serious following of God’s servant Jesus.”

Pinnock’s theological journey and his changed view on Scripture estranged him from the Calvinism he once espoused. John Calvin passionately defended the historic “Scripture alone” principle. He warned nothing should be added to the inerrant Scripture even by what may appear to be the direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. His explanation of his position on the essential unity of the Holy Spirit and the Bible is to the point: “He [the Holy Spirit] is the Author of the Scriptures: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Hence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there. This is not affront to him, unless perchance we consider it honorable for him to decline or degenerate himself.”


Pinnock’s breaking “new ground” as a theologian has taken many twists and turns. His interest in the doctrine of salvation stands behind a wide range of writings which cover almost the whole gamut of his writing career. He began as an ardent and enthusiastic Calvinist. He took seriously the conviction that the doctrine of election is at the heart of the Church, the centre of the Church’s faith. In his early period he could appreciate Dr. H. Bavinck’s talk about election in doxological terms, about its “glory,” and about the rich comfort of the counsel of God. He would have agreed with Dr. A. Kuyper’s assertion that election is ‘the cardinal confession of the church.” Pinnock regarded alternate interpretations of the doctrine of salvation as suspect since it would imply that sinners could somehow aid in their own salvation – which is by grace alone.

In his writings and lectures he stressed the vitality of the Reformed faith. In a 1985 essay published in “The Use of the Bible in Theology/Evangelical Options”, he still said that “Calvin’s theology is good theology because on the whole his exposition is careful and sound.”

Pinnock was a Calvinist until about 1970. The first link in the Calvinist chain of doctrines to break for him was the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Through his study of the exhortations and warnings in the epistle of Hebrews he came to believe that at least something depended on the human factor in salvation. According to Pinnock, it was this insight that broke for him “the logic of Calvinism.” He now believed that God’s will can be frustrated by human obstinacy. He concluded that for a Christian to continue in the saving grace of God depends, at least in part, on the human partner.

Pinnock’s break with Calvinism led him to reconsider “many other issues”, including election, total depravity, the atonement of Christ, and the nature and authority of Scripture.

In his early view of Scripture, Pinnock stressed the divine factor and inerrancy. When he broke with Calvinism, he thought that Scripture should be understood as the result of both a divine and a human response. He thereby jettisoned inerrancy, a doctrine he once so fiercely defended. For example, in 1986 Pinnock alleged the orthodox or old view of the Bible has tended “to exaggerate the absolute perfection of the text and minimize the true humanity of it.” He now believes that the traditional statement of inerrancy has not always been developed in the most balanced and sensible way and that it cannot be defended in the face of modern literary criticism of Scripture. Consequently, Pinnock ends up over stressing the human element in Scripture and not giving adequate place to the divine role in the formation of Scripture. This weakened view Scripture combined with his new infatuation with Arminianism helps to account for his dissatisfaction with the strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty in the views of inspiration held by such notable Calvinist theologians such as B.B.Warfield and J.I. Packer.

Pinnock’s “conversion” to Arminianism gradually emerged. As he left Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for Regent College, Vancouver, in 1974 he
explained: “I have become increasingly skeptical of the value and truthfulness of Calvinist theology. .1 am concerned that it threatens the integrity of the gospel which is offered in the New Testament without reservation to all sinners, and not to an arbitrarily selected number.”

The books on the doctrine of salvation edited by Pinnock – “Grace Unlimited
“(1975) and “The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism” (1989), in which he and other evangelical theologians present “the all-inclusive scope of God’s salvific [able to cause salvation] will,” reveal his gradual shift. Pinnock’s early position was that a Calvinist theological orientation was an essential part of valid Christian believing and evangelism. In his later view, he taught the opposite. He adopted a corporate view of election. He concluded that God has chosen a people, and individuals enter into God’s election as they choose by faith to join the elect body in Christ. In “A Wideness in God’s Mercy – Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions” (1992) he says that Abraham’s election is for the sake of all people. “It is not an election in which God arbitrarily selects some to be saved while appointing others for damnation to his glory.” Pinnock adds that “election has nothing to do with the eternal salvation of individuals but refers instead to God’s saving of the nations.” And he charges that “it was a major mistake of the Reformation to have decided to refer to grace and salvation.”

Pinnock accuses St.Augustine (354-430) of placing too much emphasis on the divine aspect of salvation. He says that “in the bitter Pelagian controversy, for example, he was driven to stress the sheer gratuity of divine grace at the expense of any human contribution.” And Pinnock supposes that it was this bitter controversy that drove Augustine to place such a strong emphasis on divine sovereignty in grace “and to accept the harsh notions which accompany it, including soteriological predestination, total depravity, everlasting conscious torment in hell, strict limitations on who can be saved.”

Pinnock’s centre of reference is no longer the glory of God, but on man’s ability, on what God can do for men. Ronald Nash sums up Pinnock’s views as “that the salvation of every human being is ultimately up to that person. God can coax and plead with the sinner; the Holy Spirit can do his best; Christ has already died for the sinner. But the sinner will never experience salvation until he or she decides to believe. Salvation is a consequence of humans participating with God. God’s part was providing a Savior; the human part involves the use of free will to accept what God has done.”

Pinnock also caricatures the Calvinism he once so fervently embraced. In a 1992 essay “The Conditional View” in “Four Views on Hell”, Pinnock says that according to the larger picture, we are asked to believe that God endlessly tortures sinners by the million, sinners who perish because the Father has decided not to elect them to salvation, though he could have done so, and whose torments are supposed to gladden the hearts of believers in heaven. In another work Pinnock dismisses the sovereignty of God as wanting “to control everything like an oriental despot,” and is “virtually incapable of responsiveness.” In “A Wideness in God’s Mercy” he claims that “insofar as certain of its representatives have presented God as a cruel and arbitrary deity, orthodox theology badly needs revision.” I believe that the evangelical Baptist John Piper’s remark is an appropriate response to Pinnock’s harsh assessment of Calvinism. Piper said that the death and misery of the unrepentant is in and of itself no delight to God. God is not a sadist. He is not malicious or bloodthirsty. Instead, when a rebellious, wicked, unbelieving person is judged, what God delights in is the exaltation of truth and righteousness, and the vindication of his own glory and honour.

When we call Pinnock an Arminian, we should keep in mind that there is “a vast distance” between Arminius (1560-1609) and contemporary Arminianism. This should not be a surprise as Arminius in the North American context is read through the eyes of John Wesley and Methodism.

As we follow Pinnock’s changing views, we can notice that in recent years there have evolved significant similarities between the theological work of John Wesley in the 18th century and Pinnock’s in the 2Oth. For example, in his 1997 keynote address to the Wesley Theological Society, Pinnock observed that there is shallowness in the rhetoric of “Scripture only” and said that over the years he had come to realize “how Wesleyan my moves in method and theism were.”

Pinnock’s changed views have also led him to wonder about the salvation of those who have never heard the Gospel. Ray Roennfeldt points out that in the light of his Arminian approach to the doctrine of salvation, Pinnock asserts that because God is one who desires all to be saved, “we can be sure that he reveals himself in one way or another to everyone, and invites them to make a decision for or against him.” In “A Wideness in God’s Mercy'” Pinnock makes some disturbing claims for one who prizes himself an evangelical theologian. Unlike the Reformers, he affirms the redemptive potential of general revelation. He says that “it is surely valid to infer that divine grace is prevenient everywhere. God’s ever-gracious Spirit is not confined to the walls of the church.” He states that he does not deny there is a knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ. “I accept general or cosmic revelation, and I believe that many people in other religions worship God, even in ways that fall conceptually short of the revelation of God’s nature which Christ brings.”

Pinnock even declares, “When Jews and Muslims, for example, praise God as the Creator of the world, it is obvious that they are referring to the same being. There are not two almighty creators of heaven and earth, but only one. We may assume that they are intending to worship the one Creator God that we also serve…People fear God all over the world, and God accepts them, even where the gospel of Jesus has not yet been proclaimed.” Pinnock does not appear to take very seriously the Biblical truth that man has as natural tendency to hate God and his neighbour. (Lord’s Day 2, 5) And his new stance does not encourage Christians to obey our Lord’s Great Commission. Why bother reaching Muslims, Jews, and others with the Gospel when people are accepted by God even where the Gospel has not yet been proclaimed?


Pinnock’s journey from St. Augustine to Arminius, and to Wesley is not finished. The newest stage in his theological wanderings is his flirtation with “the openness of God” theology. Clark Pinnock’s theological wanderings have now led him into serious error. In 1985 he still taught Biblical inerrancy and the sovereignty of God. Yet by the end of the 20th century Pinnock’s switch from Calvinism to Wesleyan Arminianism convinced him that the Reformed view of the doctrine of God needed serious overhaul. He struggled with predestination and free will, the omnipotence of God and opposition to Him. In his search for answers Pinnock became a fierce critic of the doctrine of election. He felt that Calvinists reject people rather than recruit them for the faith. “To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come to knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so – such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense,” Pinnock wrote. His next step was toward a new doctrine called “openness theology.”


Also called “free-will theism”, openness theology derives its name from the 1994 book “The Openness of God”, by Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, and William Hasker. Pinnock says that he is now drawn to a new orientation which sees God as love, away from the view of God as authoritarian and austere judge. He says that love is God’s reigning attribute. The sovereign God has chosen to make room for others and to seek real and mutual responsibility with them. God relates to us primarily as parent, as lover and covenant partner, who sympathizes and responds to what happens to the world. Pinnock now views God as One who woos and invites, not as One who dictates and manipulates. He does not believe that God determines the course of history unilaterally. He believes that the future is open and that God not only affects creatures but that creatures affect God.

In his book he notes: God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God’s will for their lives, and he enters into a dynamic, give-and-take relationships with us… We respond to God’s gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses… and on it goes. God takes risks in this give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working toward his ultimate goals.

According to Pinnock, God limits himself voluntarily. He honours the degree of relative autonomy which He grants to the world. Although Pinnock confesses God’s independence from the world, God is still “dependent on the world in certain aspects.” God is learning along with us, and changing the world in the face of new circumstances.


The most troublesome consequence of free will theism is the implication that God has no complete knowledge of the future. “If history is infallibly known and certain from all eternity, then freedom is an illusion.” God, of His own free will has given up the ability to see the future. Pinnock says that the freedom of man is compromised if God knows in advance what He will decide.

What about the prophecies in Scripture? He believes that God allows the future to be “really open and not available to exhaustive foreknowledge even on the part of God.” And “free actions are not entities which can be known ahead of time. They really do not yet exist to be known ahead of time.” Although God does not determine everything about the future, He determines what He chooses to, since He is the Lord of history.

Pinnock’s position leaves many questions. Why should the Almighty and all-knowing God create a being whose choices are beyond His foreknowledge? If God is not Almighty and not omniscient is He worthy of worship?

In Pinnock’s view, God could not have predicted salvation through the cross since Christ may or may not have been crucified at the hands of wicked men. Yet the Word of God is clear on the matter.

In his Pentecost sermon the apostle Peter said about Jesus’ crucifixion, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). And the apostles Peter and John said in their prayer, “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27,28). The crucified, risen, and ascended Christ is the King of the world. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col.1:17). Like Paul in Romans, we should make Jesus Christ our first concern so that we know our sin and the need for the Saviour. When I do this, the question of predestination is no longer a statistical problem, but a wonder of the fact that with no obvious merits of my own I am justified out of free grace, a child of God Who holds me safe in the hollow of His hand for time and eternity.


Pinnock’s intention is to remain true to the historic Gospel, but his views have left him wide open for serious criticism. R.C. Sproul has said publicly that Pinnock is a heretic for teaching limited omniscience. Norman Geisler said that Pinnock’s work is a part of “a dangerous trend within evangelical circles of creating God in man’s image.”

Pinnock leaves us with more questions than answers. How can we say that God is reliable and loving when people can thwart His will? Are we free to disobey God whenever we want to believing that there is little God can do about it? Is God so respectful of our freedom that we can rebel at will? And how can God do something about suffering if He is not all powerful and all knowing?

Pinnock attempts to read Scripture out of the context of histo ric confessional interpretations. But the Holy Spirit didn’t begin His work at the end of the 20th century. He has been at work throughout time. And Scripture is not for the academically trained only. The Bible is to be understood by all His people. The calling of Christian scholars is to help ordinary Christians to a deeper faith and a better understanding of the great historic Biblical truths.


G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “God says, in effect, that there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained.” There is so much in life we can neither understand nor reconcile in the face of widespread tragedy or personal trials, yet we confess that God is sovereignly at work in every situation (cf. HC, Lord’s Day 10).

We can only speak and write about God with fear and trembling. We may not lower Him to our level of thought. Language is not adequate to describe the majesty of God. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, To Him be the glory for ever! Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).


Reprinted with permission from “Christian Renewal” Vol. 20, No’s 3,4, & 5), P.O.Box 777, Jordan Station, Ontario, LOR ISO, Canada.

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