Clark Pinnock and the “Wider Hope” – hope for the unevangelised?

Clark Pinnock Introduced

Clark Pinnock is a 70 year old theologian and author, who teaches at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, Canada. He started his theological career as a Calvinist, did his doctorate under FF Bruce at Manchester, and taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (whose most well-known current professor is Don Carson) in the 1970s, but has come a long way since then. His name has become increasingly well-known in recent years, particularly through his promotion of` “open theism”, the movement which denies that God has any existence above the realm of time, and asserts that he does not infallibly know the future except through wisdom and calculation, and that he “takes risks” as he seeks to guide it. Pinnock teaches a radical “free-will” position, rejects the inerrancy of the Bible, the doctrine of penal substitution, and teaches that hell is ultimately annihilation rather than eternal punishment. Dr. Pinnock provoked a crisis within the “Evangelical Theological Society” in North America when a move to expel him for denying Biblical inerrancy failed. Pinnock certainly considers himself an evangelical theologian, and makes devastating criticisms of many tenets of theological liberalism. He develops and combines a number of ideas from the boundaries of evangelicalism. By writing clearly and persuasively, Pinnock has gained a degree of prominence and influence in the evangelical world.

In this article I want to look at Pinnock’s teaching on possibility of salvation for the unevangelised and the status of other religions. This is found most clearly outlined in his book “A wideness in God’s mercy: The finality of Jesus Christ in a world of religions (Zondervan, 1992)”, and in his contribution to the debate book “Four views on salvation in a pluralistic world (Zondervan, 1996)”, in which he argues for the position “Inclusivism: Salvation is universally available, but is established by and leads to Christ.”

Pinnock’s Position

There is much in Dr. Pinnock’s teaching that is commendable. Pinnock is brilliant in exposing the errors of religious pluralism (e.g. Four views, p60-64). The contradictions between the world’s religions are real, and make them incompatible. Real discussion with other religions must begin with this acknowledgement, otherwise it becomes merely an attempt to shoe-horn opposing views into a fake conformity, acceptable only to Western relativist academics. Pinnock is clear in stating the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God to mankind. That which contradicts Jesus Christ is false. The goal of history is to bring all things into conformity to him. Pinnock rejects the current lack of interest in systematic theology, believes that God’s truth is self-consistent, and consciously seeks to develop each are of his thinking as a coherent whole.

Dr. Pinnock teaching is as follows. He begins with the axiom that God is present everywhere, and at work everywhere. And the God who is present everywhere and at work everywhere, is the true God – the Trinitarian God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. He is the God of love, who gave his Son to the death of the cross to save us. God, according to Pinnock, gave his Son for the whole human race. He has a “universal salvific will” – he desires the salvation of all, and has provided for it. This God is the God who is at work everywhere. Pinnock then goes beyond classical Arminianism by arguing that this universal provision and will are meaningless unless a corresponding universal opportunity is also provided. Why would God go to such costly lengths and then stop at the final, far lest costly, hurdle?

Pinnock, then, teaches that salvation in Christ is available to everyone. God is at work everywhere, in many of the world’s religions. Pinnock recognises that religion can be evil as well as good, and asserts that no religion can be commended without qualification – including Christianity. But, the kingdom of God has arrived in the world, and is a force which is at work in every realm – religion included. God’s purpose in the world’s religions is to bring them into conformity to Christ. No religion is there yet, but we cannot say that none of them provides the opportunity for salvation. We are saved by faith, and not works. The pagan who responds faithfully to the presence and work of God in his own experience, will be saved. There is only one true God, and good works which have been done in any other religion are accepted by God as if done to him (just as the good works done to the evil Tash were accepted by Aslan in C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia). The question is not how much we knew about God, but how we responded to him as we encountered him. Pinnock backs up this presentation by an appeal to what he calls the “pagan saints” in Scripture – people who had not heard of Jesus, yet were people in relationship with God. In this class he includes Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Jethro, Job, Abimelech and Cornelius. Pinnock is scathing in his rejection of historic Calvinistic theology, including the concepts of God’s eternal decrees, a fixed election, a particular atonement for particular people, an efficacious application of that salvation to the elect and the leaving of others to justly perish in their sin. He stigmatises those who hold to such theology as mean-spirited, and wonders why they hold on to their beliefs when so much warmer and more generous positions are available to them. Pinnock does concede that even under his scheme there will still be some who apparently do not receive the opportunity of salvation, and so speculates about the possibility (he is not dogmatic) of conversion at the judgment seat of Christ. Given the numbers who respond positively to Christ when they encounter him in life, may we not suppose that some of those who have not yet encountered Christ will also respond positively when they do so?

Pinnock And The Scriptures

Pinnock’s teaching has a superficial attraction because it uses Biblical ideas. However, in case after case, these ideas have been significantly corrupted.
The love of God in Pinnock’s theology has only a superficial resemblance to the love of God in Scripture. This is in two directions. Firstly, the love of God in Scripture is very definitely particular. God does not grant the same mercies towards everyone. Some, he freely, graciously and powerfully saves. Others, he leaves to go their own way (Romans 9:15-16). The Bible tells us that Abraham came from a family of idol worshippers (Joshua 24:2), yet God graciously chose him. God did not reveal himself to the whole world, but worked only within the family of Abraham, promising to bring his blessing to the nations in a very particular way – through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3). God chose Israel, and passed over the other nations of the world (Amos 3:2). He gave his law, and gave the means of atonement, to one nation and left the others in idolatrous darkness for many centuries. All this means that it is no surprise to discover that the coming and work of Christ were particular – for his sheep (John 10:11, 26). The Bible’s universalism is the teaching that Christ suffered for sinners out of all nations, Jew and Gentile (e.g. 1 John 2:2), not that Christ died as equally for those who go to hell as those who go to glory. Pinnock’s universalist and Arminian teaching is the foundation of his whole system, and without it, the whole house collapses.
Secondly, the love of God is subverted by Pinnock so that it is no more the Biblical holy love, but a sentimental one. His conception of God’s love is too human; it is like human love, raised to the nth degree. God desires the salvation of all because it’s the nicest thing to do. Pinnock’s doctrine of sin is correspondingly weak – “Wrath is the frustrated anger of a disappointed lover, not of an unappeased deity or angry judge” (Wideness, p180). The Biblical response to the salvation those who hear of and believe in Christ is to marvel that a God whose whole being is infinitely opposed to sin could ever be so incredibly gracious to such unworthy wretches. Pinnock’s response to such teaching is to say that if only a remnant was saved, then God appears ungenerous and mean. Pinnock’s conception of God’s personal and terrible wrath against sin is very limited, and climaxes in the shocking statement “sinners are not in the hands of an angry God” (Wideness, p177).

My feeling is that Pinnock’s harsh rhetoric against traditional Calvinism serves to paper over the weaknesses in his argument. The so-called “pagan saints” who he brings forward as biblical evidence turn out to be nothing of the kind. Each proposed “saint” fits into one of three categories. First, many received special revelation through their involvement with the line of favour running from godly Seth, through Noah, to the patriarchs. These were no pagans. A post-patriarchal second class are similar, self-consciously and deliberately worshipping Jehovah, the God of Israel – e.g. Jethro, or Cornelius. For the others, there is no proof that such were saved people; Pinnock has assumed what he is proving – that response to general revelation, such as the fear of God, results in salvation (e.g. Abimelech).

This leads us to the observation that Pinnock has perverted the Biblical concept of saving faith. In Scripture, saving faith has three essential elements: firstly to hear and understand the gospel, secondly to believe it, and thirdly to rest upon the truths and the Saviour presented in it (e.g. Romans 10:14-15). Pinnock, however, truncates this concept to mere “faithfulness” – an appropriate response to whatever degree of revelation has been received. For Pinnock, the general revelation available through the created world is sufficient. That reveals some of God’s greatness and kindness, and a faithful response to that is saving. Pinnock is strongly against the doctrine that general revelation does not have saving content, but his only argument against it is to state his assumptions: that God desires universal salvation, therefore it must be available. Scripture, however, argues in precisely the opposite direction. According to Paul, saving knowledge is not universally available, and therefore gospel preachers must be sent out. Pinnock argues from the inability of the unevangelised to believe what they have not heard, to the non-necessity of them hearing; Paul argues from the necessity of them believing to the necessity of them actually hearing. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Romans 10:14-15).

In the end, Pinnock’s arguments prove too much, and therefore they do not really prove anything. Because Pinnock recognises that even with the supposed saving availability of Christ without hearing about him the availability of salvation differs very greatly from one case to another, he feels the need to speculate about opportunities for salvation after death to make up the gap. He acknowledges that the Biblical data that could support such an idea is basically non-existent, but then argues that this biblical deficiency is overcome by the strength of the theological argument. It would have been more sound if he had wondered if the lack of biblical evidence wasn’t a good sign that his whole theological argument was up the spout. Scripture is quite clear that the opportunity of salvation is within this life only. Judgment after death is on the basis of the deeds done in the body, and nothing else (e.g. Hebrews 9v27, Luke 16v22-25, 23v43, Matthew 25v31-46, Revelation 20v12-13, 22v12).


Evangelicals need to notice how Pinnock argues, and reject such methods. Pinnock uses a great deal of emotional rhetoric to label those who hold to the historic Christian position as narrow-minded and lacking in compassion and generosity. Such words can be hard to resist, but resist them we must. True love for the lost does not consist in arguing that they are not quite as lost as we thought. It is not compassion to pretend that those living in darkness aren’t quite so badly off after all. True zeal for God’s glory does not consist in pitting his love and justice in opposition to each other. A faithful contender for the faith will realise that the lost really are in exactly the hopeless position that the Bible says, “without Christ… strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12), and then go out to work to bring them to this marvellous Saviour. Salvation is in God’s hands, and he has chosen to bring it to us through the gospel. The work of theologians should not be to undermine this truth, but to ensure that God’s people are convinced of it, and so value the gospel all the more.

May 2007

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