Rob Bell, meet Clark Pinnock

I just finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In short, Bell makes the case for a post-mortem opportunity for those who didn’t receive the Gospel during their earthly lives. His gift at turning a phrase helps to hide the weaknesses of his arguments. Take for example his handling of our Lord’s denunciation of the cities of Capernaum in Matt 10 (“It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you”). Bell interprets Jesus to be teaching that there still is hope for Sodom and Gomorrah. Oh come on. It’s hard to take this stuff seriously.

I found myself thinking, “Clark Pinnock did a much better job arguing for all this.”

Pinnock, who passed away last August after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 73, was by far the most articulate and forceful recent evangelical voice for embracing inclusivism, annihilationism, and the possibility of salvation after death. In his A Wideness in God’s Mercy, Pinnock takes basically the same position as Bell, but with arguments more cogent and well thought out. When one considers where he was theologically at the end of his life, it’s difficult to believe that Pinnock started his theological career as an arch-conservative, inerrancy-affirming, 5-point Calvinist. Pinnock’s theological journey was one of the more convoluted odysseys in evangelicalism.

Years ago, when I was a theology student in the doctoral program at Southeastern studying under Paige Patterson, I was digging through Dr Patterson’s personal files which were located (at that time) in SEBTS’s archives. I stumbled across the class notes he had taken while he was a student at New Orleans Seminary (circa1969). He took Clark Pinnock’s classes often. As Dr Patterson explained to me, the conservative, early Pinnock played a formative role in his theological development; and in ways I am not at liberty to elaborate on a blog, Clark Pinnock rescued Paige Patterson from some very unfair treatment at New Orleans Seminary.

In those days, the liberal element of the New Orleans faculty viewed Paige Patterson as a “fundamentalist troublemaker,” but he and other conservative firebrands knew they had an ally on the faculty in Clark Pinnock. Pinnock had studied under F. F. Bruce at the University of Manchester, and was recognized by both friend and foe as a brilliant scholar. He presented a clear, logical framework for adhering to the Bible’s infallibility and defended the doctrine of the inerrancy in an environment where such views were ridiculed. Bible believing students loved Pinnock while many of the other professors considered him a loose cannon.

Perhaps he was a loose cannon; he certainly careened across the theological landscape. I wish that Dr Pinnock had continued to hold to a consistent doctrine of biblical inerrancy through the remainder of his academic career. Alas, he did not. His early works, A Defense of Biblical Infallibility (1967) and Biblical Revelation (1971) are classic presentations of the historic doctrines of biblical authority, infallibility, and inerrancy. However, though the 1970’s and 80’s Pinnock’s view of Scripture shifted, and he argued instead for what might be called an inerrancy of purpose.

Other changes followed. He moved from Reformed theology to classic Arminianism and eventually to Open Theism. Pinnock advocated neo-Pentecostalism and third wave theology. And as I said before, he embraced inclusivism, annihilationism, and post-mortem evangelism. For conservatives within the SBC that he had helped in the early days of the controversy and who had counted him as an ally, Pinnock’s theological wanderings were difficult to watch.

I would encourage anyone tempted to take Bell’s position to consider the sad twists and turns of Clark Pinnock.