Founders Journal


Unbounded Love
Unbounded License?

A review article on Unbounded Love. A Good News Theology for the 21st Century by Clark H. Pinnock and Robert C. Brow, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994. 189 pp.

Roger Nicole

Professor Pinnock's productivity is truly remarkable: in the same year in which a major essay from his pen appeared in The Openness of God, he produced, in collaboration with Robert C. Brow, the volume we are now reviewing!

In The Openness of God a fivefold plea was presented for the view that God's knowledge must be limited, for the decisions of free agents cannot be known in advance if the said agents are really free. The plea is not so much that Scripture presents God's knowledge as limited, but that human freedom requires it by logical necessity, and Scripture, whatever it may say, must be adjusted to this understanding. This move is very bold because it appears not only to conflict with Scripture at many points (1 Kings 8:39; Job 9:4; 12:13; 28:12-29; 37:16; Ps. 94:13, 15; 139:1-9; 147:4; Prov. 5:21; 15:3,11; Is. 40:28; 44:7; 46:10, 11; Jer. 17:10; Dan. 2:22; Mt. 6:8; John 21:17; Acts 1:24; 2:23; 15:8, 17; Rom. 11:33; 1 Cor. 2:7; Heb. 4:13; 1 John 3:20), but it overturns the universal conviction of Christians over the centuries. Indeed few have been bold enough to deny omniscience to God. We do not fully understand how the liberty of human decision can coexist with the omniscience of God, but this is a problem for the Eastern Church, Roman Catholics and Arminians, as well as for Calvinists and other Protestants. To deny that God has omniscience is to undermine the whole prophetic outlook of Scripture as well as the sovereignty of God. Surely if God created free agents without knowing what they would do, He would appear to be no wiser than a man who would exhaust his funds in buying lottery tickets! The problem would be compounded by the fact that God had already failed in this type of venture in connection with the creation of angels and the fall of Satan and his cohorts.

In this new volume Dr. Pinnock goes a large step further. He is so concerned to establish and maintain the supremacy of love over justice that he rejects the forensic element in the scriptural picture of God. Particularly in the atonement he would dispense with God's wrath and justice, with propitiation, with redemption, with sacrifice as an offering to God, and with reconciliation as reflecting anything more than our need as sinners to stop hating God and to turn to Him in a loving response to His love (1 John 4:8).

Now this approach does despite to a sound understanding of the atonement in two ways.

1. The judicial, forensic, or legal forms of language are used in Scripture in great abundance. Leon Morris states that in the Old Testament alone there are over 580 occurrences which represent God as angry,[1] and the New Testament follows suit (Mt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7; 21:23; John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; Eph. 2:3; 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Th. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Heb. 3:11; 4:3; Rev. 6:16, 17; 11:18; 14:10-19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15). The notions of justice, of judgment, and of God as the Judge are also prevalent. Abraham raised the question, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25). The answer is "Yes," not "No, because His love has priority!" The concept of justification is fundamental to the Protestant renewal in the sixteenth century and its return to the biblical base. Try telling Luther otherwise!

The idea of punishment is present from the very start of humanity (Gen. 2:17), and it reaches a climactic expression in the book of Revelation. The term occurs more than 100 times in Holy Writ. Isaiah 53:5 says, "The punishment that brought us peace has fallen upon Him."

The idea of sacrifice reflects first of all an offering to God, and Leviticus 4 and 5 stipulate a sin offering and a trespass offering. If sacrifices denoted merely consecration, the tithes that were required in the Old Testament would be the epitome of sacrifice; yet they are never portrayed that way. Surely at Calvary we contemplate the uttermost dedication of the Savior, but to validate this there must be in his death something more than just an act of consecration; there must be something to be accomplished without which human salvation would be impossible.

Dr. Pinnock thinks that in Scripture the word reconciliation refers only to the change in humanity from alienation from God to love for Him (pp. 101-104). He bases his argument on the use of "to be reconciled," which in English regularly means "to abandon objections or grievances," as in "I am reconciled with decaffeinated coffee." In Greek, however, the meaning is the reverse, as proven, for example, by Matthew 5:24, where "to be reconciled with your brother" means "Make sure that the brother who `has something against you' does not maintain his grievance." Similarly in 2 Corinthians 5:20, "Be reconciled to God" of necessity means "Make sure that God does not deal with you in terms of His righteous grievance because of your sin," and not "Stop hating God." Surely there would not be any need for Christ to "be made sin for us" if the latter were the meaning. It would be easy to advance many other examples of this usage from the New Testament, the LXX, and the Koine Greek.

Dr. Pinnock calls for fresh thinking among evangelical theologians (p. 10) and chides James Packer and Charles Ryrie for failing to have given us "mature statements" (p. 181). This is strange in view of the fact that both of these men are, as well as Pinnock, among the thirty-three scholars whose work is discussed in Walter Elwell, Handbook of Evangelical Theologians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993). Presumably, Dr. Pinnock is confident that he has exhibited more freshness and maturity than these two men, both of whom are more than ten years older than he is!

We ask, "How can Dr. Pinnock imagine that his presentation of the atoning work of Christ is fresh?" He answers that far from bearing the divine punishment that our sin deserved, Christ's purpose has been to exhibit God's sympathy with our plight so that, moved by this extraordinary, costly love of God, we may return unto Him in love and be saved. Now we do not deny that among other things Christ's atoning also produces this effect. The questions are, "Can this change result from an atonement that is a demonstration of divine love and nothing else?" and "Is this presentation something fresh in Christian thinking?"

To answer the second question first, anyone acquainted with the history of the doctrine of the atonement will immediately say, "Of course not; this is simply a warming over of the well-known moral influence theory of the atonement." Indeed we find this view already in Peter Abelard (1079-1142) whose heresies, instability, and reprehensible conduct give us little encouragement to follow his lead in understanding the saving work of Christ. This type of approach found favor in the sixteenth century with the Socinians. In the nineteenth century it was vigorously advocated by Horace Bushnell (1802-76) in his volume entitled Vicarious Sacrifice (1865), an odd name since he considered Christ's death to be neither sacrificial nor substitutionary. To his own disappointment he found that his approach was not exercising a "moral influence" leading to the conversion of sinners, while the preachers of the revival movement who presented the usual orthodox doctrine were eminently successful. This led him to revamp his position and to give more place to the divine justice in Forgiveness and Law (1874). Views similar to the early Bushnell were propounded by F. W. Robertson, John Young, F. D. Maurice, A. Ritchl, W. N. Clarke, W. A. Brown, H. Rashdall, R. S. Franks, and a whole bevy of leaders in the liberal camp. How could anyone imagine that this type of view is new?

It is not encouraging to find Dr. Pinnock relying on the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32) as a significant evidence of pardon without satisfaction (pp. 11, 12). This outlook assumes that Jesus meant to sum up the whole plan of salvation in this one parable. Yet we see in it only the Father and the sinner: there is no room for Christ here! Surely no one in the New Testament, least of all our Lord, would accredit any view of salvation in which there is no place for Him. The parable gives us a moving representation of God's gracious and forgiving attitude; it gives us no explanation regarding under what circumstances and conditions this forgiveness may be, in fact, vouchsafed in the case of God and the sinner.

The moral influence view is directly contrary to a number of Scriptures, e.g., Is. 53; Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:24, 25; 2 Cor. 5:18-21; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:14, 15, 22; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 2:2; Rev. 5:9. Moreover, it is severely flawed. It does not show how Abraham, or anyone else prior to Christ's death, could be saved by Christ. It does break the unity of the sacrifice of Christ with the Old Testament sacrifices: the immolated animals hardly demonstrated God's sympathy! It is self-defeating by failing utterly to provide any good reason why the excruciating sufferings of Christ were necessary or even useful. If my friend breaks his leg, it is hardly an appropriate expression of my sympathy for him to go and break my leg as well! Surely the cross is the supreme expression of the triune God's love if it is understood that without it all humans will be lost. Unless there is something objective to accomplish on the cross, besides showing sympathy, the sufferings of Christ are reduced to a senseless and ineffective loss of life.

2. One could have hoped that since Dr. Pinnock until the late 60s presented himself as one who advocated the Reformed view, he would show a better understanding of what this view affirms. Instead of that, he draws a veritable caricature of that position and criticizes it on the basis of his own misunderstanding.

Augustine, Calvin, Turretin, J. Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, J. Murray, and all other orthodox adherents to the Reformed faith have exalted and proclaimed the love of God. They have insisted that this love was the cause of the atonement (e.g., John 3:16). Far from thinking of God as an arbitrary tyrant who takes pleasure in condemning and tormenting the helpless sinner, they have fallen on their knees to worship a God so generous that instead of abandoning our whole guilty race to the well-deserved plight of eternal separation from Him, He has determined to save an innumerable multitude and to bear Himself the frightful punishment due unto sin by entering our race in Jesus Christ, who died in our stead and rose again, thus opening the way of life to all who trust in Him. Did anyone ever preach this truth more effectively than Whitefield and Spurgeon, who were and remained Calvinists to the end of their lives? Anyone has a right to emphasize what he/she considers strong points in his/her outlook, but it is wrong to condemn others on the basis of a caricature.

Meanwhile, two very serious difficulties must be noted in the notion of "unbounded love" advocated in this book.

1. God's dealing with fallen angels does not manifest the kind of love defined by Pinnock and Brow (Heb. 2:16; 2 Pet. 2:4). Because of what the authors have said about God's relation to humanity, they are compelled to acknowledge what they call a defect in God's character!

2. If love is presented as having a kind of preeminence in the divine nature, we are pressed on the horns of a dilemma. Either there must eventually be universal salvation including even Satan or God must be burdened with eternal frustration concerning the ultimate loss of those He loved with redemptive love and who failed to respond.

The first option is untenable since Scripture clearly manifests an ultimate bifurcation of destiny. The New Testament alone articulates this in more than fifty passages (Mt. 7:22, 23; 12:41, 42; 13:40-43; 24:51; 25:41-46; Mk. 12:9; Lk. 13:25-30; 16:19-28; 21:36; John 5:22-30; 12:47, 48; 15:6, 22-25; 16:8-11; Acts 17:31; 24:25; Rom. 1:32; 2:2, 3, 5; 5:16, 18; 14:10; 1 Cor. 5:13; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:7, 8; 1 Th. 4:6; 5:1-10; 2 Th. 1:5-10; 2:3-12; 2 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 4:12, 13; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; James 2:13; 4:12; 1 Pet. 2:7, 8, 23; 3:12; 4:17, 18; 2 Pet. 2:3-10; 3:7; 1 John 3:8; Jude 4-6, 13, 15; Rev. 14:7, 9-11, 17-20; 15:1; 16; 19:1-3, 11-21; 20:11-15; 22:15). Jesus speaks of the "unpardonable sin" (Mt. 12:32; Mk. 3:29; cf. Heb. 6:4-6; 1 John 5:10) and says of Judas, "It would be better for him if he had not been born" (Mt. 26:24), not "It would be better for God if He had not created him"!!

The second option is derogatory to God, who would be seen as having failed in His gamble in creating rational beings, angels and humans, with free will.

The book offers 158 endnotes. The authors quote some 172 different books or essays. More than one-third of the quotations come from books published between 1990 and 1994. All but three (J. Calvin, C. S. Lewis, L. Hodgson) are culled from volumes dated in the second part of this century. So one may not accuse the authors of being antiquarians. In the chapter on Scripture they do not quote or refer to any author who is a clear-cut advocate of inerrancy.

Many of the views espoused in Pinnock's book are often at variance with the path carefully defined by church creeds and confessions.[2] Perhaps it should have been titled, Unbounded License.