Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflection on "Flame of Love" by Clark Pinnock

In the wake of Clark Pinnock's death I thought I'd dig up a seminary "reflection paper" that I had to write in 2006 after reading his Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Here it is in its entirety, for those who may not have ever read the man, or who want a bit of a reminder of one of his theological contributions. I am not going to bother saying at the outset whether I now fully agree with everything I said then, but I have highlighted some key statements, and if you read this and want to discuss the content further I will more than happy to take such things up there. Mostly I just post this as a tribute to Pinnock's legacy, at least where it touched one person in the Canadian Christian wilderness.


It is indicative of both the influence of the author and of the rapid changes in theology that Clark H. Pinnock’s “risky” suggestions in 1996's Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit have now earned a comfortable home in theological discussion. “Risks were taken in interpretation, with the intention of stimulating discussion” (248), he says, and even he seems surprised at the results, concluding, “I was not thinking that a constructive vision of Spirit would take shape. But it did” (247). Pinnock displays a sincere desire to better understand the mysterious and oft-overlooked (yet presumably not completely incomprehensible) Holy Spirit. He presents a compelling and refreshing vision of the Spirit and also explores its ramifications for other areas of theology. Whether or not they agree with all of Pinnock’s assertions, readers of this book are bound not only to better appreciate the Spirit, but also to have a fuller theology of the Trinity, creation, Christ, the Church, the nature of salvation, culture, and Scriptural Revelation.

As the basis for his inquiry into Spirit theology, Pinnock focuses intently on the relational dynamic of the Godhead as testified by the incarnate Christ and witnessed by the New Testament. When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (John 15:9 NRSV), he is revealing the “triune love that flows among the persons of the Godhead” (30) and overflows as an expression of the free love of God toward His creation. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the imposition of theology on the Bible nor is it the fabrication of human philosophy, rather, it is a direct result of the implicit teaching of the New Testament about the “relationality” (30) of God. Though there are echoes of the Trinity within the Old Testament, the “trinity was revealed when the Father, seeking to show his love for lost humanity, communicated with us through Word and Spirit” (30).

Pinnock feels that Trinitarian theology is not containable in human propositions nor reducible to human analogies, but is significantly comprehensible to those made in the image of God. As a result we expect to better understand God by thinking of Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we expect to better understand each of these three persons by thinking of them within this Unity; this perfect communion of three persons. Although no person of the Trinity can be understood without the others, something can still be known about each of them and, thanks to God’s gracious revelation, each of them can be known. Since God is Triune, in fact, He can not really be known without all three. With this in mind Pinnock seeks a clearer profile of the person of the Spirit. He is careful to explain that even the word “person” is not to be thought of in merely individualistic or rational terms, but in the relational terms of “intersubjectivity ... mutuality and reciprocity” (36). He asserts that this is a biblical approach and that if there has been any accommodation to culture or philosophy in theology it came with those who insisted on viewing God as the Unmoved Mover: simplistic, deterministic, and detached. This is not the God of the Bible, and such a misapprehension of God may be partly to blame for the lack of Spirit theology, since Spirit is where God most directly interacts with humanity.

Pinnock shows an authentic humility before the Word of God by admitting the limitations of Spirit theology, but he also shows confidence in the graciousness of God’s Revelation when he refuses to allow those limitations to hinder a genuine search for understanding. He shows refreshing candor in facing head-on the obstacles of spirit terminology in the Bible and the intentional aloofness of the Spirit. While the Bible does not always explain whether it is talking generally about God as Spirit or specifically about the person of the Spirit, Pinnock does not shy away from gleaning what it does have to say about the third person of the Trinity. As a matter of fact, one of the most central attributes of the Trinity is this self-effacing humility. Like Father and Son the Spirit clearly wishes to exalt the others above self, however, in the economy of the Trinity the Spirit seems even more disposed to fade into the background. Rather than taking this as a reason to avoid the issue altogether, Pinnock rightly takes this and enfolds it into his understanding of the person of the Spirit.

Humble and self-giving in love, the Spirit has been for good reason confused with the force that brings the Trinity together. Taking his cue from the Scriptures Pinnock does not settle for such an impersonal concept and sees the Spirit as the person who enacts the communion of the Trinity as well as the overflow of that communion into creation. This overflow into creation enacted by the Spirit is understood by Pinnock as the “ecstasy” (38) of God. Although by virtue of His internal communion the Triune God is not dependent upon creation in any sense, it is out of His benevolence–even His playfulness–that God creates a cosmos and a people in His own image with whom He may share communion. At integral moments in this creation Spirit is present, hovering over the waters at creation and over the virgin at the incarnation; bringing cosmos out of chaos and a new creation out of the fallen one.

Moving from an understanding of the Spirit’s involvement in creation, Pinnock rightly demonstrates that the Spirit has not stepped back like a watchmaker but is still involved in moving creation toward His goals. In this way the Spirit brings continuity to creation and redemption. Embarking on an idea experiment of sorts, with Pinnock we begin to see the interconnectedness of Son and Spirit in redemption, viewing “Christ as an aspect of the Spirit’s mission, instead of (as is more usual) viewing Spirit as a function of Christ’s” (80). Without denigrating the Son of God to the status of a merely spirit-filled human, Pinnock does well to emphasize Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit. “He was the Son of God who nevertheless emptied himself to live in solidarity with others, as dependent on the Spirit as any of them” (85). Jesus’ trust in the Spirit not only represents what human life is meant to be like, but is also an indicator of the vicarious humanity of Christ within which the Spirit wishes to enfold us by faith, as we become participators in the Son’s communion with the Father.

The most controversial part of this book comes when Pinnock applies all this theology to our understanding of the universality of redemption. Pinnock would agree that the grace of God in redemption is unlimited in scope and unconditionally given. However, he would assert that God does require faith and does not coerce this faith from people. In direct contrast to the determinism of Anthony Hoekema and the election theology of Donald Bloesch and James Torrance [these were other authors we were reading in this class], Pinnock proposes an openness in God’s providence that allows real human freedom so that real love and communion can thrive. God provides prevenient grace to all in a way that awakens in them the possibility of saying yes to God, but does not force them to do so. God respects the free will of humans because it is integral to the communion that he created us to have. Pinnock does not believe this to be what some have called a “low view of God” but sees it as God’s free and sovereign decision that speaks highly of his power to enact redemption resourcefully. This is a far more compelling and biblically cohesive understanding of redemption than those offered by the authors mentioned above.

Pinnock is not quite as convincing in his treatment of universality, but makes a good argument for hope in the wider mercy of God. Truly we do not know exactly what God may be doing in any human heart and it is entirely possible that God could choose to save people outside the church–even those in other religions. It is possible that the Spirit may impress an understanding of the Mediator upon people who have never actually heard the “four spiritual laws” or even the gospel per se. However, it is stretching the biblical warrant to suppose that we can lean on this hope in a significant way. The New Testament presents us with a vitality and urgency of mission that is diluted somewhat by any sort of reliance upon this wider hope. Having said that, Pinnock speaks a much needed corrective into the narrow-mindedness of evangelical Christians who often lack in listening skills and miss important bridges in sharing the gospel as a result of a deficient appreciation of what the Spirit is doing in the hearts and lives of other people and cultures, and even religions. For this and other insights, Clark Pinnock is to be thanked: What began as a risky idea experiment certainly blossomed into a helpful and inspiring approach to Spirit theology.

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