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).