Monday, May 23, 2011

"A Wideness in God's Mercy, A Wideness in God's Standard: How Clark Pinnock's Inclusivism Falters on the Biblical Questions" (Book Review)

Pinnock, Clark. A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Clark Pinnock (1937-2010) came from a liberal Baptist heritage but converted at age 12 to a more conservative, evangelical faith. He went on to graduate from the University of Toronto (1960), and eventually received his PhD under theologian F.F. Bruce at Manchester University in New Testament Studies. He taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (1965-1969), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (1969-74), Regent College (1974-77), and McMaster Divinity School (1977-2002). Pinnock was a leading theologian for the Openness of God movement as well as a champion for inclusivism and annihilationism.

Written in 1992, Clark Pinnock’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy is one of the most “creative”  proposals to evangelical theology of religions, only being surpassed by Amos Yong’s Beyond the Impasse (written a decade later). In his introduction, Pinnock notes that religious pluralism is “one of the hottest topics on the agenda of theology in the nineties.”[1] While it is not a new topic on the world scene, it has become a new topic of discussion for Americans because the plurality of world religions has come to the American front door.[2] So far, the response to religious pluralism has been unfortunate; instead of evangelicals meeting the challenge head-on, they have demonstrated “a refusal to rethink almost anything.”[3] It is in the spirit of encouragement toward greater interreligious dialogue, Christian humility, and open-mindedness that Pinnock takes up his pen.

In chapters one and two, Pinnock discusses what he calls “two parameters within which a theology of religions should operate”[4]: God’s universal love for all humanity (which he calls the foundation of his theology[5]), and the particularity of salvation in Jesus Christ. The first chapter, titled “Optimism of Salvation,” explains the first of Pinnock’s two parameters. Pinnock references Genesis 1-11 as testimony of the divine universal love, and names individuals of Scripture who were neither “Jews nor Christians,” counted righteous because of their response to the divine revelation they received: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Daniel, and Job.[6] While building his case for God’s universal love, Pinnock also hopes to demonstrate and eradicate the impact of Augustinian theology on evangelical theology. Several times within chapter one alone, Pinnock inserts a phrase about Augustinian theology: “Committed by tradition to the fewness doctrine, we have not been free to rejoice in God’s global covenants.”[7] Evangelicals have also overlooked the call to Abram because they have been “bewitched by the alien doctrine of double predestination.[8]

In chapter two, Pinnock discusses the other parameter of his theology: the particularity of Jesus Christ. Pinnock believes that the particularity of Jesus, while important, does not necessarily lead to restrictivism.[9] He references Daniel 7:9-14, Mark 14:36, 62, 1 Corinthians 15:3, 22, Ephesians 1:20-21, and Matthew 28:19 and concludes that “Jesus is Lord—this is the heart of the New Testament message.”[10] He then examines pluralist strategies concerning the uniqueness of Jesus: (1) a shift from metaphysical to functional categories; (2) to make Jesus “relational” instead of “normative” for all; and (3) to deny uniqueness claims, a strategy advocated by pluralist John Hick.[11] According to Pinnock, pluralists resort to such strategies because of exclusivist claims that a high Christology leads to restrictivism.[12] He lifts up the Second Vatican Council as a right model for evangelicals since it “knows how to distinguish the ontological necessity of Christ’s work of redemption from the epistemological situation of sinners.”[13] The ontological necessity (that Christ was necessary to purchase salvation for the entire world) does not lead to epistemological necessity (that one must confess and believe in Christ to be saved). One need not possess “conscious knowledge of Christ” in order to experience His salvation.[14]

Chapter three concerns religions as they presently exist in history: (1) secularism, (2) pluralism, (3) inclusivism, (4) skepticism, and (5) traditionalism. Pinnock’s view falls somewhere between the traditional and inclusivist views; while he believes Jesus Christ is unique and normative for the world, he also believes that there is “premessianic truth and goodness in other religions.”[15] Religion comes in two senses, objective and subjective; thus, Pinnock spends the remainder of chapter three detailing the subjective aspect of religion. Subjective religion can either be “true” or “false.” While the Canaanite (and even Israelite) religions worshipped wrongly, pagan saints worshipped God (and still worship today) with a proper heart response.[16] The biblical criteria for pagan saints is provided by the apostle Peter in Acts 10:35--- “whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” Both ethical and cognitive criteria apply in such cases.[17]

Chapter four details the objective side of religion. The evangelical philosophy of history is that 1) Christ is conforming everything to Himself; 2) religion is part of “everything” that is being conformed to Christ; 3) therefore, Christ is conforming even religion (and thus, the world religions) to Himself.[18] Examples of transforming religion include both Marxism and Islam.[19] In light of the eschatological reconciliation of all things, Christians should engage in interreligious dialogue and thereby usher in the future reconciliation. Paul is a premier example of one who engages correctly in interreligious dialogue: he talks with Jews in the synagogues (Acts 9:29; 17:2-4), at the Areopagus (Acts 17), and in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10).[20] In such dialogue, Paul avoids two extremes: relativism (there is no truth) and fideism (faith without reason or argument). Pinnock ends the chapter by providing three elements for good interreligious dialogue: (1) appreciation of other religions, (2) seriousness regarding globalization and its implications for theology of religions, and (3) critical investigation of other faiths.[21]

Chapter five addresses the fate of the unevangelized. Pinnock examines five common views on the subject: (1) faith principle; (2) middle knowledge; (3) special messenger before death; (4) postmortem encounter; and (5) universal salvation.[22] Last but not least, he addresses the proper motivation for missions: “The fear of hell is not the primary motivation for missions. The deepest motive of all is to see the kingdom come and God’s rule established.”[23]

To conclude the work, Pinnock “lays his cards on the table”: he advocates the Eastern Orthodox view on the Filioque Controversy; believes in the existence of “pagan saints” and that general revelation can have positive salvific value; is hopeful of postmortem evangelism and prefers “Justin to Augustine, Erasmus to Luther, Wesley to Calvin, and Anderson to Lindsell”[24] on the above theological issues. For his final stroke of genius, he ties in the title of his work (A Wideness in God’s Mercy) to its namesake song written by Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863).

There are some problems with Clark Pinnock’s work. First, Pinnock falters on the doctrine of election. In chapter one, titled “The Optimism of Salvation,” he states that “the election of Israel is a corporate election (not an election of individuals)” and that “the New Testament does not reinterpret election to mean the selection of certain individuals to be saved.”[25] The Scriptures, however, bear a different interpretation than Pinnock does. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians connects election with salvation: 1 Thessalonians 1:4 refers to their “election by God” as well as the manifestation of their divine election: “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance.”[26] The salvation experience of the Thessalonians testifies to their divine election. In Romans 9, Paul laments that his people (the Jews) have not received divine election because they do not understand that “the purpose of God according to election” is “not of works but of Him who calls.”[27] Consequently, since God has chosen an election of grace (and thus, an election of faith[28]), the Jews cannot receive divine election by works; rather, they must embrace their election by faith.[29] In 2 Peter 1:10, to “make one’s calling and election sure” is the same as adding to one’s faith[30]; and to add to one’s faith results in “entrance into the kingdom.”[31] The New Testament discussion of kingdom entrance is deemed a salvific one by other New Testament passages.[32]

Next, Pinnock disconnects the work of God the Father from the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, in salvation: “insisting that God is embodied and defined by Christ does not mean that God is…totally confined to Christ.”[33] Does not Jesus say in John 14:6 that “no one comes to the Father except through Me”?[34] Does Paul not write in Philippians 2:9-11 that the Father exalts the Son by giving Him “a name which is above every name” and that this is to the Father’s glory? The book of Hebrews includes not only the Father’s exaltation of the Son, but also the Son’s exaltation above the angels.[35] How then, can the Father not be “confined” to the Son, when the Father is glorified through the confinement of salvation to explicit confession and belief in the Son?

In chapter five, Pinnock details his faith principle regarding the fate of the unevangelized. In his view, “people are saved by faith, not by the content of their theology.”[36] At the end of the paragraph on page 108, he references Hebrews 11:6 as evidence for his position. Unfortunately, Hebrews 11:6 contradicts Pinnock’s statement. Hebrews 11:6 indicates that faith consists of theological content: the one that comes to Christ must believe in His existence (“that He is”) and that He rewards individual faithfulness (“is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him”). Both of these propositions are what constitute faith in Christ. One cannot simply “believe” without believing in something.[37] 

For Pinnock, general faith is more important to God than faith’s theological content; this explains Pinnock’s denial of necessary, explicit confession of the name of Jesus Christ in salvation. On page 158 Pinnock writes, “A person is saved by faith, even if the content of belief is deficient (and whose is not?). The Bible does not teach that one must confess the name of Jesus to be saved.”[38] The Scriptures, however, teach the exact opposite of Pinnock’s claim. What about Romans 10:9, where Paul writes that one must “confess with your mouth” that Jesus is Lord and “believe in your heart that God has raised” Jesus from the dead in order to be saved? What about Jesus’ words that “Whoever confesses me before men, him the Son of Man will also confess before the angels of God”[39]? How else does one confess the Lord Jesus if not by mouth? And, if one must open his or her mouth and say “Jesus is Lord,” how much more explicit can confession become? Pinnock’s claim that the Bible does not teach explicit confession is simply a denial of the biblical text itself. By tampering with the process of salvation so well-defined in the biblical text, Pinnock loses objectivity and impartiality with his readers.

One of the most original discussions in A Wideness concerns the pre-Messianic era. Pinnock believes that, even today, one can still reside in the pre-Messianic era: “A person who is informationally premessianic, whether living in ancient or modern times, is in exactly the same spiritual situation.”[40] The Scriptures however, never distinguish between the “informationally premessianic” and the “informationally postmessianic”; rather, God’s Word places all of humanity in the post-Messianic era: “Truly these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.”[41] The text says that “all men everywhere” are to repent, leaving no individual unmentioned, no geographical location excepted. Paul writes in Romans 3 that “in his forbearance, God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time his righteousness.”[42] The words “previously” and “the present time” reveal a distinction between the former era and the current one. While the text mentions a former time of ignorance, that time of ignorance is no more.


Pinnock, Clark H. “A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

[1] Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] Ibid., 30. Italics mine.

[8] Ibid. Pinnock’s agenda against Calvinism is quite evident. He mentions Augustinian 
theology on pages 18 (2x), 19, 23, 24 (2X), 30, 32, 35-37, and 39. Pinnock boldly asserts that such theological thought is damaging to the biblical theme of God’s universal love for the nations. Italics belong to this writer.

[9] Ibid., 51.

[10] Ibid., 55, 61.

[11] Ibid., 64-65, 66, 68.

[12] Ibid., 74.

[13] Ibid., 75.

[14] Ibid. Pinnock lists Job as such an example.

[15] Ibid., 83-84.

[16] Ibid., 92. Melchizedek, Lot, Abimelech, Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, Naaman, the Queen of 
Sheba, and Cornelius qualify as pagan saints.

[17] Ibid., 96.

[18] Ibid., 117-118.

[19] Ibid., 125-127.

[20] Ibid., 130.

[21] Ibid., 139-142.

[22] Ibid., 155-172.

[23] Ibid., 178. Italics belong to the author.

[24] Ibid., 182-183.

[25] Ibid., 24.

[26] 1 Thessalonians 1:5, New King James Version.  All Scripture verses will come from the NKJV unless otherwise stated.

[27] Romans 9:11.

[28] Rom. 11:5; 4:16.

[29] Rom. 9:30-33.

[30] 2 Peter 1:5-7.

[31] 2 Pet. 1:11.

[32] Ephesians 5:5 and Luke 9:62 are good examples.

[33] Pinnock, 77.

[34] Italics mine.

[35] Hebrews 1:5-13.

[36] Pinnock, 157. On page 105 Pinnock writes, “the issue for God is not the content of theology but the reality of faith.”

[37] Pinnock mentions the “faith/theology” divide again on page 112, but then adds, “of course, the distinction between the subjective and objective-- dimension of religion should not be taken so far as to suggest that theology does not matter at all.”

[38] Ibid., 158. Italics mine.

[39] Luke 12:8; Matthew 10:32.

[40] Pinnock, 161.

[41] Acts 17:30.

[42] Rom. 3:25-26.

No comments: