J. Michael Feazell: Welcome to You’re Included, the unique interview series devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian theology. We’re talking with Dr. Daniel Thimell, Associate Professor of Theological and Historical Studies at Oral Roberts University. Dr. Thimell earned his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1993. He has 30 years of pastoral experience and has taught at Trinity College in Bristol, England, and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. In 1997, Dr. Thimell won first place in a nationwide preaching contest sponsored by Pulpit Digest, and he’s a regular contributor to Clergy Journal. He and Trevor Hart co-edited the book Christ in Our Place: Essays Presented to Professor James Torrance, published by Pickwick in 1991 as part of the Princeton Theological Monograph Series.
Dr. Thimell, thanks for being with us today.
Daniel Thimell: Delighted to be with you.
JMF: I wanted to begin by asking you to talk about your Christian journey and how you came to be a Trinitarian theologian.
DT: It was during my time at Westmont College, particularly under the tutelage of Ray Anderson, when I began to reflect more deeply on my understanding of Christ. I had come to know him as Savior years earlier, but it was during those wonderful classes that I took from Ray Anderson that I began to discover the theology of John McLeod Campbell, a Scottish pastor and theologian who, when he would make his pastoral rounds, discovered that his people didn’t have any joy in believing.
JMF: What was his time frame?
DT: McLeod Campbell was a pastor in the early 1820s, in Scotland. He found that as he made his pastoral rounds, the people would dread his coming because they were afraid that he would inquire after their spiritual condition, and they felt so unworthy. He found that they had no grounds for rejoicing in God, and he thought this strange, that here we had this wonderful good news of what God had done in Christ, but the people were not finding any joy in it.
JMF: Sounds somewhat like today, doesn’t it?
DT: It has amazing parallels to today. He found that the problem was that they were so wrapped up in themselves and in their adequacy to be “eligible” for grace. They understood that Christ had done something wonderful on the cross, but all their doubts were as to themselves: Have I repented enough? Am I sincere enough? Have I believed enough? Am I worthy enough?
So he sought to direct their attention away from themselves, hunting in themselves for some kind of worthiness, and instead pointed them to Christ and to see how God felt toward them, and to see what God and Christ had already accomplished for them.
This really switched on some lights for me. It helped me see that in Christ, we have a full revelation of God; that God has come in our humanity to disclose his heart to us. In Christ we see a God who loves us unconditionally, who will go to any length to bring us back.
JMF: Why is that hard to get our minds around?
DT: Because it’s counterintuitive. In our society and world today, everything is based on performance, whether it’s the job we have, perhaps the relationships we have, we’re always trying to win a relationship. We’re trying to earn a job, earn a raise. So when we’re told that God loves us unconditionally, that we’re already loved and accepted by him, that’s astonishing.
Grace is an alien word in our culture. We think that we must do certain things, perform certain things. We must bring a certain amount of merit so that God will accept us. So when McLeod Campbell began to proclaim the gospel that God and Christ had already done it all, his people were astonished, and some of them felt liberated for the first time in their lives, and others began to murmur and complain.
Eventually he was forced to leave the ministry of the Church of Scotland for daring to preach a universal pardon available through Christ. But he went on to become one of Scotland’s finest theologians with his work The Nature of the Atonement.
JMF: So Ray Anderson brought this to your attention as part of the class?
DT: Exactly. He helped us see that Christ reveals the Father, and we began to appreciate the depth in God as being a Triune God, that within God there’s this Father/Son relationship that’s been existing from all eternity. God is a God of relationships. Ray also emphasized the fact that the Holy Spirit is another of the three persons in that communion.
JMF: So if there’s relationship in God, then that translates over into how everything is made, including us, our relationships with God and with each other.
DT: That’s a crucial point. Within God, God being from all eternity a triune communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, experience an abundance of love through all eternity. It was out of the overflow of that love that God through Christ brought the world into being. We were made in love, and for love.
After the fall, Christ the Creator becomes the Redeemer. God comes to reclaim that which he had made. He was not willing to live without us. In love, he went all the way to be incarnate in our humanity, in our skin and bones, to live life as we live it, with the same temptations we face, the same struggles. Yet through it all, Jesus was faithful to his Father. Then he died our death and rose in triumph in our humanity. Now he presents us in himself as those who are loved by the Father, who have been redeemed.
JMF: Didn’t Campbell have a great influence on Thomas and James Torrance?
DT: He did. Campbell had been branded a heretic by the Church of Scotland in his day because at that time, the Church of Scotland was enamored by the high Calvinist idea that only some are predestined to salvation and that Christ only died for some. Calvin himself (but that’s another story) taught that Christ died for the world. But McLeod Campbell, when he began to state that Christ’s atonement was universal, that he died for everyone, raised the eyebrows of his peers and he was defrocked from the ministry.
But later, he was awarded a doctor of divinity by the University of Glasgow before he died. By the time he died, the majority of the Kirk, as we call the Church of Scotland, had come around to his point of view of a universal atonement.
Both Tom and James Torrance loved the writings of McLeod Campbell. They found particular help in his emphasis on the priesthood of Jesus, that Jesus not only did a priestly work by his death on the cross, but that he represented us in his humanity, that our humanity was assumed by Jesus so that as he lived his life, we were there in him, and when he died, we died, when he rose, we rose.
Paul writes to the Colossians, in chapter 3, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This is a present reality, because Christ goes on bearing our humanity. We’re included in the priesthood of Jesus. “When I go to pray,” James Torrance was fond of saying, “I’m not left to struggle God-ward with my prayers hoping that I’m worthy enough or pious enough or good enough to get a hearing, but rather, Jesus Christ ever lives to make intercession for us, as Hebrews 7 puts it so memorably.” This dimension of the priesthood of Jesus has been emphasized greatly by the Torrances. It helps us understand our ongoing relationship to God today.
JMF: Most people have the idea that Jesus was human while he was here on earth, but after he died and was raised, that he’s no longer human; he’s fully God but not fully human anymore, but that works against the scriptural witness.
DT: It does. One of the most memorable passages is 1 Timothy 2, where Paul writes to this young pastor he is mentoring and reminds him that there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. He puts it in the present tense. Jesus’ mediation today with the Father is as a human. He goes on being human. This is important because the humanity of Jesus is our bridge to God. It’s through his humanity that we’re included in the life of God and the communion of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s through the humanity of Jesus that I can come right into the Father’s arms even though I don’t deserve so glad a welcome.
JMF: So getting back to your journey, these things were brought up, you were introduced to them through Ray Anderson, and then how did things go after that?
DT: After serving in the pastorate for a few years, it was my privilege to go to Scotland in 1985, where I studied under James Torrance. These were transformative years for me. James Torrance was a wonderful man of God, Christ-centered, a tremendous warmth about his pastoral way, but he brilliantly reflected on the nature of God as a triune God and as a communion of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
He also made much of the fact that in our life in God, grace is the first and primary thing, that God’s expectations of us are the second thing. The first thing is his grace. As J.B. (To his face, we called him Professor Torrance; to one another we affectionately called him J.B.) said, you could summarize a paradigm for the Christian life as being grace, law, consequences. God’s grace comes first, and then he enables us to keep his expectations through his grace. Then as a consequence, we live our lives in Christ. It was a very freeing thing to see and experience this.
JMF: I love Paul’s letter to Titus, where he says, “Grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness.” Often what we hear is, “say no to ungodliness,” but Paul’s point is that it isn’t law that teaches us to say no to ungodliness — it’s grace, the fact that we’re already accepted, forgiven, and clean in Christ, that is what teaches us, that’s the springboard toward saying no to ungodliness.
DT: Right. Grace is the basis for our life in God, not our works. Paul says to the Galatians that he’s astonished that they’re deserting the gospel, that having begun in the Spirit they wanted to continue in the flesh, that having received the free grace of God, now they thought they were on probation or that they were on performance, that they had to somehow or another be obedient enough or keep enough rules in order to be in good with God. Paul wants to draw them back to the gospel of grace in Christ.
JMF: The place where the rubber meets the road with that, we might say, is when a person has sinned.
JMF: Maybe they’ve sinned again. Maybe they’ve done the same thing they’ve been struggling with for decades or whatever. There’s a sense at that moment of, “I am never going to overcome,” and there’s a sense of, “God has left me. I am forsaken,” but that’s where the real gospel can meet us with hope and joy in the face of our sin.
DT: That’s important. One of the greatest enemies of the Christian life is our preoccupation with ourselves, our unworthiness and our failings. Luther said that the condition of the sinner is that he is incurvatus in se ipsum, he’s curved inward on himself. That’s the bondage we face sometimes because of our brokenness. We don’t look up to God and his grace— we look inside ourselves and we see our hurts, we see our failings, we see wrongs we’ve committed, and we feel despair.
But the gospel invites us to look away from ourselves to what God in Christ has done. It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us, when we were powerless that Christ died for us. Our life in Christ continues after conversion, where we’re continually upheld by the faithfulness of Christ, continually upheld by the grace of Christ.
That’s why Paul writes to the church at Corinth. He says in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “Christ is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification.” He is all of those things. If we try to find it in ourselves, we’ll only be discouraged. Sometimes this is an ongoing thing. We don’t get a magical mastery over all our sins when we suddenly get the right insight or when we hear the gospel of grace. We’re broken people, and that brokenness will not be completely healed until the next life.
JMF: Doesn’t that mean that there’s a significant difference between our faith and Christ’s faith? In other words, what we tend to do is say, “My faith is weak. I want to believe what you just described, and yet I find a hard time believing it, because you don’t know how bad of a sinner I am,” but we’re dealing with, not the quality of our faith, but Christ’s own faithfulness. Our trust is in him, not in our faith.
DT: That’s a vital point that isn’t emphasized enough today. This was one of the great teachings of Tom Torrance. Early in his career, in 1957, he wrote an important article called “One Biblical Aspect of the Concept of Faith.” He pointed out that in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, there’s this continuing contrast between God who is faithful, true, stable, and unchangeable, and man, who is frail and changeable as a flower that is vital and full of life one minute and withering and blowing away the next.
The Bible encourages us to take refuge from our own frailty and instability in God, who is faithful. Tom Torrance points out that this is continued in the New Testament with the emphasis on the faithfulness of Jesus. That’s why Paul says, “When we are faithless, he is faithful. When we are vacant of faith, he is full of faith. He is faithful.”
Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul was not impressed with his own faith, but he was very impressed with the faith of Jesus. Paul didn’t have the feeling that it was the vitality of his spirituality, or his faith, or his sincerity that guaranteed him a place in God, but he was very impressed with the faithfulness of Jesus. That’s what kept him going.
JMF: That’s freeing and comforting to know, that it’s entirely the love of God and his faithfulness toward us, Christ’s atoning work for us, that we depend on and rest in. We don’t have to (as Tom Torrance puts it) look over our shoulder all the time wondering if we’re doing good enough, believing well enough…
DT: That’s right. A centurion went to Jesus, his daughter is desperately ill, but he says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus didn’t say, “Go away until you get more faith.”
JMF: Yeah. The church does sometimes…
DT: Right. But he could come to Jesus in his brokenness and his half-belief and say, “Lord, I don’t even know if I believe. My faith is so fragile that I’m just desperate.” Jesus met him right there and wonderfully healed his daughter.
JMF: You wrote an article that was published in Princeton Theological Review called “Torrance’s Theology of Faith.” In that, you use an illustration, along the lines of what you just said, about a drowning man.
DT: This is a vivid way of putting it. Calvin describes faith as an empty outstretched hand, and the place of a sinner before God is like that of a drowning person. That person is going down. They’re losing their life, and there’s nothing they can do to save themselves. The lifeguard can come and save that person, but the person needs to stop struggling. Instead of taking swimming lessons at the time, he needs to relax in the arms of another who will carry him to safety.
The analogy that Tom Torrance used, which I find to be a vivid one, he employs in his Mediation of Christ. He said when his daughter was very young, he would sometimes walk her some place, and she would put her tiny weak hand in his and she was secure in the strong hand of her daddy. He says, “That’s the picture of faith.” It wasn’t the strength of my daughter that kept her secure, that guided her to the right places, it was simply my strong hand around her weak hand. He says, “In Christ’s faithfulness, we’re being undergirded by the faithfulness of Jesus every day of our lives.”
JMF: So getting back to…you had gone to Aberdeen, you had studied under James Torrance, and how did things go from there?
DT: It was during that time that I began to study in depth not only McLeod Campbell, but also Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. I was seeking to understand how one’s understanding of God affects one’s understanding of salvation and of the Christian life.
Aquinas has many wonderful things to say. He was one of the great theologians of the church. But when it came to his understanding of the gospel, he began to insert conditions. He said that God will meet you if you meet him halfway: “If you do what’s in you, if you try your best, if you’re sincere enough, if you confess enough, if you comply with the conditions the priest sets forth, then you can receive grace.”
Aquinas was convinced that Christ had done a great work on the cross, but he argued that God meets us halfway, and the classical definition of that position is semi-Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that we’re saved by works, but Thomas Aquinas said that’s not quite right. We’re not saved by works, we’re saved by works-plus-grace, and that’s known as semi-Pelagianism.
I wondered how he would have such an understanding that our works contribute to salvation. I wondered what in his doctrine of God led him to that position. I discovered that he was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and his understanding of God was one of absolute will, and God who decreed the way he’s going to work with the world. God can do whatever he wants, and he decided to set up a situation in which those who perform sufficiently along with his grace would receive salvation. To my mind, that didn’t square with the gospel, didn’t square with the God revealed in Christ.
Then I moved on to look at John Calvin. John Calvin has a much more Christ-centered theology. He understood grace as being totally unconditional. He points out that when John the Baptist said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” that John was saying that because the kingdom of God has come with all of the grace that Jesus is bringing, you are enabled to live a new life in Christ. Repentance wasn’t a condition of salvation—it was a way of living out the new life in Christ.
Calvin was much more helpful because he had a Christ-centered understanding of God the Father. His doctrine of God led to a much better understanding of salvation and the gospel. The problem for Calvin, in my view, is that he had an understanding of God’s grace being limited from all eternity to certain elect ones, and those were the ones who received salvation. In that respect, he departed from his Christ-centered point of view, because you don’t find a God who only loves certain ones in Christ. You find Christ opening his arms and saying, “Come to me, all you that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
Last, I looked at McLeod Campbell, and I saw that McLeod Campbell was an advance over both Aquinas and Calvin because he was thoroughgoingly Christ-centered in his understanding of Scripture and of God.
JMF: When James Torrance retired, you ended up teaching in that position for a semester.
DT: I’m still amazed to think of that. It feels pretentious to even admit it. But after I had completed my study under Professor Torrance and I had gone back to the States, he retired and he telephoned me and invited me to come and teach his classes. I was astounded and overwhelmed, but it was a wonderful experience to come back and stand in the classroom where he had stood. Not imagining that I was in any sense his equal or a worthy replacement, but joyfully proclaiming the same gospel and the same theology and quoting him without apology, frequently.
JMF: But you only stayed one semester.
DT: Right. I could have stayed longer. They were still in the process of finding a professor, but I had the longing to get back to the States and back into the pastorate again.
JMF: You were on a leave of absence from the church.
DT: Yes. There was a church that I was serving in North Dakota at the time which graciously allowed me to have that time, and I felt I couldn’t keep them waiting, so I returned back to the States.
JMF: We’re out of time, but it’s been enjoyable. Thanks for being with us.
DT: It’s been a joy.
JMF: We’ve been talking with Dr. Daniel Thimell, Associate Professor of Theological and Historical Studies at Oral Roberts University. I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.