In Memory of Clark Pinnock: A Ruthless Theologian

I published a version of the following article in tribute to Clark H. Pinnock on the occasion of his retirement some years ago. Clark suffered over the last while from Alzheimer’s and passed away on August 15. I disagreed with Clark on a few key matters over the years (not least his defense of Open Theism and his diffidence about critiquing the Toronto Blessing), but I valued him and liked him very much, as you’ll see.

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I needed advice, and I knew of only one person I could ask for it.

It was the summer before my final year of university. I had not studied as hard as I should have the year before—and I had the marks, alas, to prove it. The coming year would determine whether I could go on to graduate school and an academic career.

I was also, however, committed to leading our university’s chapter of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Over the summer, I had gotten engaged. And I was to resume teaching the high school Sunday School class at church. So I needed wisdom as to how I was to manage all of these responsibilities.

I had heard of one senior theologian who had himself graduated from a Canadian university while leading an IVCF chapter. I had read and enjoyed a couple of his books, in fact. So, although I had never met him, I wrote to him at his divinity college address and asked him for help.

A couple of weeks later, at the end of the summer, I received his reply. He had typed it himself, and it was just a page long. But it changed my life.

This accomplished teacher of Christian truth wrote that you should focus upon that to which you believed God had called you, even though others might misunderstand or even resent your priorities. Indeed, he wrote, some might think you are ruthless, but you must obey God, and not other people’s agendas.

That holy ruthlessness is, I now realize, key to every successful Christian life. The great leaders of the Church have shown this determination to do just what God wants them to do, no matter what. Our Lord Jesus demonstrates it most clearly of all: Regardless of whatever his disciples, or his family, or the crowds wanted him to do, he obeyed his Father in everything—and often in ways that astonished and even dismayed his associates.

So I took this scholar’s advice and it helped me through that crucial year. I have been trying to take it ever since.

And yet . . .

We might reflect on this story a little more and ask, What was a distinguished theologian doing, taking time from his pressing and productive schedule to type out a letter to some unknown undergraduate who needed such elementary assistance? We might wonder, Just how consistent was this professor with his own advice—I mean, how ruthless was he about his own calling?

Ah, but here’s the crucial qualification. This senior scholar was sufficiently attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit that he was able to be interrupted. He was clear enough about his vocation to recognize that this letter did, in fact, constitute part of his teaching duties that day.

I have tried to follow his example in that respect as well. Holy ruthlessness means openness to overruling even one’s own sincerely-set agendas when God brings something unexpected and unusual to do that is, nonetheless, consistent with one’s calling. One must be poised in the Holy Spirit to discern such things, and I’m sure I have overlooked more than a few. But such clarity of calling is a mark of the truly Spirit-led person. One must be ruthless, then, about modifying even one’s own plans when God calls.

My life was changed because this eminent professor took time to teach someone he had never met and might never meet. But we did meet, some years later at a theological conference, and have enjoyed each other’s company many times since, so I am glad to say that he does know he has made this difference in my life.

Therefore, on the occasion of his retirement from McMaster Divinity College as Canada’s preeminent evangelical theologian, I am glad to publicly acknowledge this one, brief, private episode in a remarkably influential career. I bless Clark H. Pinnock, my big brother in the faith and in the profession of theology, for his exemplary Christian kindness to me a quarter-century ago.