Theology - General

On thinking charitably about unorthodox theologians

You have probably heard about the recent death of John Hick, whose theological pilgrimage took him out of the evangelicalism of his younger years into fairly classical liberalism and then on to the relativistic pluralism for which he was probably best known. We evangelicals naturally grieve a bit when a fellow evangelical rejects what we consider to be the core truths of orthodox Christian faith. But not everyone expresses that grief in the same way, and sometimes relationships become acrimonious. With this in mind, I was encouraged when I read Richard Mouw’s characteristically gracious musings.

Richard Mouw’s example

Mouw recalls his generally friendly relationship with John Hick:

 I also liked John Hick as a person. While he was teaching at Claremont Graduate University I got to know him personally. He was always gracious—in spite of the fact that he knew that I agreed with those of my Presbyterian friends (including some Fuller colleagues) who actively opposed his quest to have his ordination credentials accepted by a local presbytery.

Well, actually, there was one evening when he wasn’t his usual gracious self toward me. We ran into each other at a convention, and we agreed to have dinner together, just the two of us, at a nearby restaurant. The evening began pleasantly enough, but soon we got into a discussion about our disagreements about what I was insisting is the truth of the gospel. John had been an evangelical in his younger days—a member of InterVarsity during his undergraduate years—and some of my language seemed to trigger a fairly strong reaction on his part.

When the meal was over, we were walking from the restaurant to our convention hotel when I saw a message scrawled on a telephone pole.  The two word message, illuminated by a street light, was “Trust Jesus.” I put one hand on John’s shoulder and pointed with the other. “John,” I said quietly, “I think the Lord is sending us a message.” John’s response was not so quiet: “Oh, I will trust Jesus alright—but not your Jesus, not your Jesus!”

I thought about that encounter when I read about John Hick’s death.

Mouw concludes his recollections with an expression of hopefulness that Hick’s theological error did not grow out of an alienation from God himself. He writes:

 I hope that the same Jesus who loved Schleiermacher has also chosen John Hick to sing in the celestial choir.

Charles Hodge’s example

As Mouw thought about John Hick’s life on earth, he moved on to reflection about what may have come next for Hick, and this, in turn, had reminded him of things written by Charles Hodge:

 I also thought about what Charles Hodge, the great “Old Princeton” Calvinist, wrote about Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a footnote in his Systematic Theology, after identifying a variety of heresies in Schleiermacher’s theology. Hodge said that, when studying in Germany, he had attended services where Schleiermacher preached, and had been impressed by the German theologian’s love of Christ-centered evangelical hymns. Hodge said that he was sure that Schleiermacher, who had been dead for a few decades, was now singing those hymns in the presence of Jesus.

I have long taken comfort in that kind of openness on Hodge’s part to a wideness in God’s mercy that can overlook some serious theological errors. I’m not always clear how to put that theologically, but since my theology is very close to Hodge’s, I at least hold out some hope for that merciful wideness.

It was this memory of Hodge’s attitude to Schleiermacher that led Mouw to hope that, “if Hodge was right,” then “the same Jesus who loved Schleiermacher has also chosen John Hick to sing in the celestial choir.”

I share Mouw’s hopefulness about Hick, as I do Hodge’s about Schleiermacher, and I was reminded of another enjoyable recent post, this one by Andy Jones,  identifying “9 lessons from the life of Charles Hodge.” The seventh of those lessons was:

7. Extend the boundaries of your fellowship beyond the boundaries of your theology. 

 Though he boasted that he never taught any truth outside the Westminster Confession of Faith, Hodge treated any Christian he met as his sibling in the Lord. Accused of being narrow and rigid in his beliefs, Hodge was anything but narrow in his fellowship. He even considered German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, with whom he publicly disagreed on many important points of doctrine, to be numbered among the children of God. His best friend was Bishop John Johns, a leader in the Episcopal Church. Hodge’s catholicity leaks out in a letter he wrote to the pope in 1869. Composed in what would be the last decade of his life, Hodge wrote, “although we cannot return to the fellowship of the Church of Rome, we desire to live in charity with all men. We love all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.”

In Hodge’s letter to Pius IX (linked above), explaining why the two General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in the USA were declining the invitation to send delegates to the first Vatican Council, Hodge’s final words were:

We regard as Christian brethren all who worship, love and obey him as their God and Saviour, and we hope to be united in heaven with all who unite with us on earth in saying, ‘Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Rev. 1:6).

Amen indeed!


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

5 replies on “On thinking charitably about unorthodox theologians”

I totally disagree. According to Scripture, heretics like John Hick should be “handed over to Satan” in the hope that they will be taught not to blaspheme (1 Tim 1:20). If they repent, we will praise God. If they do not repent in this lifetime, we do not hope to see them saved on the Last Day. We will praise God for His righteous wrath. It will be to the glory of God that “the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev 21:8).

PS: “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). I suppose that John – and the book of Revelation too – would be accused by many as being rather “uncharitable” in relation to various “unorthodox” theologians.

Thank you for sharing these charitable thoughts. While I share the concern many believers have for proclaiming sound doctrine, I think we would do well to remember that in the end it is not our grasp of orthodoxy that saves us, but the grasp of the One who is able to make us stand (Rom. 14:4). Have a blessed Easter season!

Thanks so very much for this kind appraisal and report summary from Mouw and Hodge’s formula of extending our fellowship beyond our theology. I couldn’t agree more.

I did my thesis critiquing Hick’s Christology and, though disagreed with his conclusions, did so appreciate his earnest quest for articulating his findings and prolific publications in this area. Were it not for Hick’s writings, I would not have come to embrace the breadth and depth of a Chalcedonian Christology, which is faithful to Scripture.

When someone has so much awareness of the Holy Scriptures, and so much access to the Holy Scriptures, but yet they do not believe in the central truths of the Gospel – Jesus as God, His sin-bearing death, His bodily resurrection, His final judgment and second coming, etc. – its not that I don’t desire for such people to be saved, but I simply cannot affirm that they are “in fellowship” with God. They are unregenerate. They are not born of the Spirit. What fellowship has darkness with light? The truly loving and charitable thing to do is desire the repentance of such people, and to firmly warn others about following in such errors which mark the way of eternal death. The unloving thing is to pretend like their can be fellowship with darkness and light.

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