Remembering John Hick


I just read in the Christian Century that John Hick died in February, at the age of 90.  I saw him as an important conversation partner at various times in my own academic pilgrimage. Early on in my teaching days, I assigned his little Philosophy of Religion book to my undergraduate classes. When he started writing about the Incarnation as a “myth” I read him as an interesting thinker to disagree with. Then when he began concentrating on religious pluralism, I often used him as an example, in lectures and articles, as someone whose views had to be challenged.

But 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. And 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. Which leads to me to say that if Hodge was right, then I hope that the same Jesus who loved Schleiermacher has also chosen John Hick to sing in the celestial choir.