"All words are symbols that represent unspeakable realities. Which is also why words are magical." (Donald Miller tweet)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

in honour of Clark Pinnock

Patti's Note: Most of the time, this online space is light-hearted and mundane. I'm pretty much amusing myself and anyone who cares to stop by. However, this week Clark Pinnock passed away, and although I didn't personally know him, many of my friends did. One of my friends gave me permission to re-post a note he wrote in his honour. It is beautiful. I decided to share it with you. Feel free to comment, or if you'd like to contact David yourself, you can email him at sabbi@socal.rr.com .


I wept when I read the news flashed on a friend's Facebook page that my mentor and friend Clark Pinnock had passed from this world. In this transient age, our grief is untimely thrust upon us via uncompassionate monitors that sandwich sad news in between singing dog videos and the next American Idol ejectee. Such is our age, and as the news of his death traveled to my heart I thought back to a time when I had the privelege and honor of being in much closer proximity to this Canadian evangelical theologian. He was a man very near and dear to my heart, and I was proud to call him friend. I share my reflections in honor of his memory and send it out to all those whose ears are attuned.

I came to McMaster Divinity College at a time when its faculty leaned towards the left, itself the denominational ministerial training ground of a Canadian Baptist denomination that was deemed "liberal." I have since come to view those terms as almost meaningless, but if memory serves, they still had some value more than a decade ago. Clark Pinnock had been the lone conservative voice in that school for a long time. But a new principal had arrived with the mandate of moving the school back a little bit more to the right. However those ridiculous games are played, that was the "sitz im leben" of the college circa 1996-1998.

Seminary was a godsend to me, having emerged from a very experience-oriented church background that had not answered our theological questions very well. In fact, they hadn't answered them at all. And if you were like me, someone who always had questions to spare, more often than not you were told to just be quiet. I am not sure anyone but a fellow evangelical diaper baby can understand this, but growing up in a setting where eternal questions are put upon you at such a young age, you become a little too serious a little too fast. God is at the forefront of every thought, and theological questions about how God works in the world are constant companions. As I entered seminary, I was like a thirsty man emerging from the desert and stumbling upon The Beer Store. (Too lazy to think up a better analogy and my Ontario-based friends might find that amusing. I know Clark would have.)

I first encountered Clark Pinnock by reputation. My cousin Dan had previously attended the seminary and had suggested that Clark had been the lone conservative voice amidst a sea of more liberal minded professors. I still remember the shock I had in hearing Dan say the story of Jonah might not be true at all, and who really cares anyway? It's the moral of the story that really matters. In typical knee-jerk fashion I reacted as I'd been taught, to react with fear; "Who cares? WHO CARES? Have you gone mad? "What happened to you, man? How can you not believe it is a true story? Don't you believe in the Bible anymore?" And the kicker..."Dan...you've gone liberal!" I cringe to recall this, my little fundamentalist heart going boom-boom-boom in full panic mode. At twenty-something years of age, my head was still firmly up my ass. And in meeting Clark, he helped unlodge it. (He'd laugh at that too. I remember him writing Woody Allen quips on my papers.)

I signed up for a two-year stint honing in on church history since my undergrad degree at Wilfrid Laurier University had been in history. Somewhere along the line I had learned that reading history helped me more than anything else to figure things out. Unlike disconnected philosophical tomes or the endless biblical commentaries, I gleaned from the lives of people in the fray of existence, seeing how they reacted to this or that issue and walked it out in the microcosm of life in which they found themselves. And since I was in need of understanding how we had come to this position, those of us who called ourselves "Christians," what better way to figure it out than to incrementally work through the various stages of the church's life.

It was a slow and painful process, turning some of us who had cut our teeth on televangelist preachers and popular Christianity into more studious and critical thinkers. Early into my first year I recall a moment of chafing that culminated with my first real interaction with Dr. Pinnock, as I still referred to him. In my first church history course at the seminary, I listened to a rather long diatribe by a student who was a little too excited about the "filioque controversy" and how this small verbal addition to the Nicene creed in 589 had changed the course of western civilization. My inner idiot was rolling his eyes, mostly because I hadn't connected the theological dots yet, and this was a little too much for me at the time. How could three words change the course of western civilization? Reeling from my indignance, I then sat in for one of my first few classes with Dr. Pinnock who then proceeded into a discussion of some other arcane theological theorem by some dead white guy. Not being sure if any of this was really for me, I put my hand up and made a comment that voiced the sentiment of some of the other uber-conservative students. I was gracious but forthright; "Dr. Pinnock, my grandmother is a Lord-loving woman who has just a Bible and is never ever going to find any of this relevant to her life. I am wondering why any of this is even important?" To my complete horror, he removed his glasses and began to sob. He blew his nose and said, "I take that as a rebuke to my own life and my work. God forgive me for that." And he went right back to teaching.

I made a beeline for his office right after class. I still remember the little kleenex box he used as a doorstop, with a knitted covering his wife Dorothy had made that read "Pinnock." Through the door slat I could see him reading a book holding it inches from his face, the cost of some degenerative eye disease of some sort that was threatening to take his sight. I knocked and poked my head in the room. I began to seek his forgiveness for the exchange, my skills seeking forgiveness for making others cry had at twenty-four been somewhat honed in my limited interaction with the opposite sex. "Dr. Pinnock, I am so, so sorry. I didn't mean anything by what I said." He quickly passed it off saying, "No, no, don't worry. You and I share a Lord-loving grandmother, and when you said that I was remembering mine." And as I went out the door he said, "And David, call me Clark."

Who was this guy who broke down and wept openly among us mere mortals?

Intrigued, I began to read through the literature that he had piled up in years past. The first thing I read was an essay on annihilationism, the doctrine of belief held by a minority of Christians that the concept of hell has been more shaped by Dante and folklore than the Bible, and that the final judgment for those who finally say "no" to God is the final extinguishing of the soul ("...that whosoever believeth in him, may not PERISH, but may have life everlasting life" John 3:16). I remember thinking to myself before I read it thinking 'what is this guy thinking writing something like this?' but by the end of the essay being totally convinced that not only did this view appeal to common sense, but also to the biblical evidence. I kept coming to his office and buying his books and discussing my findings with other colleagues, my mind slowly relaxing and enjoying the newfound delight of worshiping God with the intellect.

One the main theological questions I arrived in my list-o-conundrums was the eternal condition of the evangelized, the unfortunate pagans not blessed to come across an evangelical who could explain the way to get "back to God" in a couple of easy steps. In all previous attempts to pin other evangelical teachers and leaders down on this question, I remember coming up with the hypothetical that for whatever reason started in with "some guy in China" who had never heard about Jesus or God or Billy Graham...so how was he supposed to know what "we" all knew so well? How did the great "them" become one of "us" if "they" had no exposure to "we" who could explain it to "them"? As if it was yesterday, I remember one particular teacher backing himself up against a chalkboard and repeating the a single Bible verse about Jesus Christ being the only way to God, and that "the Bible said" (how I have come to loathe hearing those words strung together) that a man "must confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord." How it frustrated me to hear this man offer up this rote answer that raised more questions than it answered.

Clark Pinnock had written an entire book on this issue entitled A WIDENESS IN GOD"S MERCY, and I devoured it in a couple of sittings. In its pages Pinnock revives the notion of the "holy pagan," teased out in Scripture (cf. Melchizedek, Cornelius, etc.) and replete throughout history, of people who have made connection with God outside of the standard body of religious folks who claim that God has approved of their motley crew, and theirs alone. For millennia, the church had suggested that outside of its walls there was no salvation. To the contrary, argued Pinnock and other historical voices. God had made many a provision to reach out to all of his creation, and it was not as tightly roped off as many Christians like to say it is. If God truly be father over all of his creation, then surely he communicates in vast and diverse ways to all of humanity on many levels, some of which we cannot even understand. And specifically, to evangelicals who tend to hold to an exclusivistic position that outside acceptance of the person of Jesus Christ as the one and true way to connect with the Almighty, there are many other ways to make that connection than to "accept Jesus" as one's "personal savior." Pushing the envelope, Pinnock argued whether Jesus could know a person's name without them knowing the name of Jesus. It was revolutionary to hear this for me. I remember as if it was yesterday, standing just outside of the small Divinity College building and thinking, "This makes complete and total sense. I get it." God became huge to me that day.

Over the next two years I became friends with Clark. He was thirsty himself to hear people's personal experiences, having been partially healed of going completely blind, but also aggressively seeking out those of us who had emerged from the Pentecostal/charismatic world who were long on experiential understanding. I remember writing a 30 page commentary of random thought shards that came to mind after reading Blaise Pascal's PENSEES. I was one of the few to take him up on the offer to share personal reflections rather than write a long form essay. He personally thanked me for being so honest, and I could see that he was genuinely interested in what I had to see. How incredible was this, a teacher who was learning from his students. He was never afraid to share whatever room he had been given. On the contrary, he often promoted any one of us at any given moment.

One day we were in class and he was talking about the Death of God movement from the 1960s, a theological issue that was thrust into the public discussion in the late 1960s by two liberal theologians, Thomas Altizer and William Hamiton. Because of the atrocities that emerged after WWII, these theologians rightly wondered aloud whether one could speak of a loving God. A couple of weeks earlier I had tracked William Hamiton down and interviewed him over the phone. I had asked him what exactly he meant when he said that God was dead, and how he could still want to be a theologian if that were true. He answered in a way that only academics can do, saying very straightly, "When you climb the ladder of ascent and approach God, you come to realize that the only way that you can say 'yes' to him is to actually say 'no.' " Having read some German theologians, where they talk of God as if they are speaking with marbles in their mouth, I have come to understand the academicspeak of the academy and love it for what it is...but as a young twenty-something, I found that amusing to no end. And said so. When I informed Clark that I had spoken with Hamilton just recently, he was beside himself with glee. He immediately turned the class over to me and asked me questions for the last half an hour. That was just the way Clark was. He made room for others.

He scribbled notes to himself in class as we were discussing something. We would quip that it would later end up in a book he was writing, but we never got the sense that he was taking advantage. On the contrary, he was generous to make room for any of us. I remember commenting to him that I didn't understand why Calvinism - a system of theological thought that I am proud to say never made one hill of beans sense to me no matter how many times I read it or how many Calvinians tell me it is plain and clear in the Bible - was taught to young charismatic/Pentecostals when that system of thought seemed almost the antithesis of the experience-oriented and fluid world that pneumacentric movements inhabit. I boiled my thought down to a pithy line stolen and reworked from an ancient source; What hath Azusa to do with Geneva? (For those unaware, the birthplace of Pentecostalism is widely accepted to be a little storefront church on Azusa St. in Los Angeles, California where the home of Calvinism was Geneva, Switzerland.) Clark loved this line, and asked me to write with a paper with him about this for an upcoming Pentecostal studies lecture he was giving. It didn't pan out, mostly because I didn't aspire to writing theology, but he included a little footnote on an eccentric Southern California evangelist that I was ferreting out way back then named Lonnie Frisbee as a nod to me for whatever meagre assistance I had offered. It was always about seeking hard after truth for Clark, wherever it led. He didn't care about accolades or looking presentable or hobnobbing or making his reputation pristine. He sought first the kingdom. And we loved him for it.

During the two years I was there, Clark was getting raked over the coals by other evangelicals who unfairly challenged his thinking as unbiblical. Some of us caught wind of a tape of one of the joyboys of the evangelical insider brigade regaling his students with a lecture how Clark Pinnock wasn't even a Christian. We who loved him were rather livid and wanted to rise to his defense somehow. He just laughed it off humbly saying, "Yeah, I can see how he would think that from his perspective." He taught me in walking out his belief that you might have to suffer through being misunderstood, and that although the harder road to walk, that is sometimes the price you pay for seeking truth no matter where it leads.

The last time I saw him was shortly after I left the college in the late 1990s. I was on my way out to Edmonton to take a job at a newsweekly magazine, and he asked me to come to lunch. He spoke to me about the Trinity and what he was working on next, what would culminate as two books, FLAME OF LOVE and MOST MOVED MOVER. It wasn't totally over my head, but enough so that I just sat and listened. There over chicken salad sandwiches Clark Pinnock broke down the most complex theological concept of them all. It wasn't so much what he was saying, but that he was saying it at all. With me. Taking the time to be open to us and investing time as best he could relate.

Clark Pinnock was my friend. He was my mentor. And much of how I think about God stems from the limited but influential time I spent in his presence. It was a privilege and an honor to know him. He gave to me an incredible gift through his keen interest and encouragement, something I have never forgotten. Nor ever will.

David Di Sabatino

Garden Grove, California

August 17, 2010


Anonymous said...

Hard, silent questions arise in our minds when traditional theological underpinnings make no sense in the real world, or when real world experiences challenge our traditional mindset and theology. The majority play it safe and continue to hold on to those traditional theological tenets, even when they make no sense.
A brave and courageous soul will step out, in faith, and trust the divine love of the Lord to lead them steadily as they seek the light of truth, no matter where it may lead them. On that journey there will be many, many questions but, no fear, and plenty of growth.

Ken said...

Christianity Today has a web-only article on Clark Pinnock at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/augustweb-only/43-22.0.html