Gary Deddo: Mike, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your time in Aberdeen and sitting with James Torrance and what that was like, and what you took away.
Michael Jinkins: It was a wonderful experience. That’s the first thing I have to say. I didn’t know what to expect. Leaving the United States at that time, I was a pastor and had been a pastor already for about 10 years when we went over. It was such a life-changing experience in many ways. I think the most important thing that I took away from James Torrance was his personality, his character. I think almost everyone who ever worked with him says the same thing.
His brother Tom was without a doubt one of the great minds of his generation, perhaps a genius. James was brilliant also – very creative – but I think the thing that meant the most to me was his personality, his extraordinary grace. He had the uncanny ability to accept you where you are. I still remember the first time I met him on that stairwell in the old Kings College Quad leading up to his office.
The first visit with him, we sat down and talked and it was just striking what a gracious, open, quiet person he was. That never changed in the many years from being his student and becoming his friend. That never changed.
GD: Yeah. My own memories match yours just as well.
MJ: Very much the pastor in many ways. A great theologian, but very much the pastor.
GD: Yes. Some people ask us to compare Thomas F. Torrance, his older brother by 10 years, and James. Would you say this is fair, that Tom’s interest was in the intellectual connections (and methodology between theology and science certainly came out) whereas James’ emphasis was connecting theology with pastoral ministry and that’s where his emphasis came through?
MJ: Without any doubt. It was funny because I served the church that Tom Torrance served before he went to Edinburgh. I served Beech Grove Church as the pastoral assistant while I was in PhD work. I remember doing pastoral visits one time. I did them week after week and this one particular elderly lady remembered Tom Torrance as her pastor.
MJ: She said, “Often he would preach and we didn’t know what he was talking about and then he would bow to pray and it was just clear and beautiful and we always said he was boiling things down so that God could understand them.” [laughter] That was Tom. Tom never stopped being this first-rate mind who was relating theology to science, to physics especially, but James related to human beings. He was really remarkable in that.
GD: I think Tom also saw himself as an evangelist to the academy, to the academic world. To evangelize the mind, might be a phrase that he used (I can’t quite remember), to evangelize the world of the mind, and I think James’s field of ministry was the congregation.
MJ: I think so.
GD: I think they had a different emphasis even though it was practically identical theological framework.
MJ: Practical identical.
GD: Yet they aimed it two directions.
MJ: I think that’s true. James, even in his interest in a research subject, you could tell that. Zeroing in as he did on John McLeod Campbell, who really became his, in many ways theologically, his alter ego. Someone who had served primarily as a pastor, and who saw the human relationship as the primary paradigm for understanding the being of God. You see Tom entering in a different trajectory altogether.
GD: It’s an interesting contrast. I’d like to talk a little bit about your book, Invitation to Theology. One of the things you talk about there in the introduction is kind of a paradigm shift for yourself. That you’re kind of in a crisis for a little bit, but then you have this reconfiguration of how you viewed things and viewed theology and viewed God in Christ. Can you say a little bit about that change that came about?
MJ: To put a larger picture on it, I think that real faith develops, grows over a lifetime, and I think that any time you feel that you have come to the end of the growth, you have misconstrued the relationship with God. I think the pilgrimage with God and the pilgrimage of faith is for a lifetime, and in many ways the key to being human is humility toward that knowledge that continues to unwrap.
When I was a pastor (this goes back a long way, but the mid ’80s), before going to Aberdeen I had gotten to a place where my faith was cold, and I think that comes out in this, that I don’t think I believed much in God. It wasn’t so much just intellectual, it was just kind of a coldness that I’d come to. I have told this story a million times, but I remember coming in from pastoring one day and I was in Aberdeen. This was my first semester or maybe second semester there. Very early. I took off my dog collar. In the Church of Scotland you wear a dog collar, and I took off my dog collar and threw it on the bed and said to my wife, “Debbie, I don’t believe in anything anymore.” She said, “I know. I can tell.”
I had come to a point, and you know it well, because we were friends and we would talk about this a lot. I said to you, “It just doesn’t add up. You put this statement to this statement to this statement, it just doesn’t add up.” I remember you saying to me, we played this little exercise, “Imagine that Jesus Christ is a pair of spectacles and you put them on, does life come into focus better?”
I played with that some, but in many ways, the critical event occurred that summer when I began to explore other vocational options. Very quietly I went to University of Durham for a summer program in literature and history (I have a lot of interest in both literature and history). Two things occurred. I found myself right after moving in, this is a very funny thing that happened. I’m just moving everything in. I’m down there by myself, completely incognito. Nobody knows me as a minister. I’m putting my bags away and I can hear someone crying out on the stairwell. I thought, “What is that? That’s sad.”
I opened the door to the stairwell and I stuck my head around. There was a very young charwoman, one of the maids for the dormitory. She was sitting on the stairs just weeping. I sat down next to her and I said, “What’s wrong?” There was an illness in her family and I listened to her and she just poured her heart out and I said, “Would you like to pray?” She said, “Yes, I would,” so I prayed with her.
I got up from that conversation and I said, “Now what the heck is going on here. I’m not sure I believe in God and yet I found myself drawn into a pastoral relationship that was the most natural thing in the world.” I go into this class and I consistently found myself unhappy when the class found itself stuck. We were studying Shakespeare’s plays, the Henry IV, Henry V cycle, and I found myself consistently frustrated with the lack of transcendent reference. For Shakespeare there was, and in the class there was resistance to finding a transcendent reference.
I found myself thinking, “Well, I’m not happy with this either. I’m not happy with not having this transcendent reference.” I found myself about a day later in the place that I have come to just love. It’s one of my most important sacred places in the world, the Durham Cathedral. I remember going in and bowing and praying, “God, I don’t believe you exist but I think we really need to talk.”
I think at that point is the journey back to faith that kept unwrapping for me and it continues to unwrap and just layer upon layer. If anything that happened at the end of my program, you’ll remember this well, too, but during the viva voce [oral exam], my external examiner, Colin Gunton, one of the most distinguished theologians of his generation (and he died so young) said to me, “I feel that there’s a kind of Victorian coziness in the theology of the Trinity that’s being described by John McLeod Campbell.” He said, “It doesn’t feel as expansive as it should.”
I found that very critical and I didn’t like that comment at the time and I remember resisting it. Then about perhaps 10 years later, I’m teaching at Regent College. I was a professor at that time at Austin Seminary. I’m teaching up at Regent College and I’m realizing that I’m feeling growing pains in my theology and where is that happening?
I just happened to be reading A. N. Wilson’s book, God’s Funeral. Brilliant book, which tells the story of the loss of faith in 19th-century England at the explosion of scientific thought. I thought, “I’m going through another crisis, it’s true. Why am I feeling a dissatisfaction with the Trinity? This doctrine has become key to my own theological life and I think is key to orthodox Christianity. Why am I feeling this tension here?”
I realized that once again, my sense of God wasn’t large enough, and I found with Wilson, which was fascinating to me. He had written this fascinating biography of C.S. Lewis during which he felt that he had kind of drifted from faith by the end of that book. He writes this book on the loss of faith in Britain and he finds himself coming back to faith.
I found in William James a conversation partner that was extremely helpful then in pressing out and reconfiguring once again, “What do I mean by Trinity? It isn’t a cozy Victorian family. What do you mean by Trinity at that point?” All of that, I think I’m just on this long trajectory. I think all of us are on a long trajectory and the key to it is remaining humble in the face of the mystery of God.
GD: Thanks. I want to talk a little bit about you’re president of a seminary, you’ve taught in seminaries. A lot of people are skeptical about theological education – about theology itself, actually. I was, years ago. I only believed in biblical studies, when I was in my first years in seminary and didn’t come to appreciate the place of theology. Not that it’s everything. What is the place of a theological education for those doing pastoral ministries but possibly also for lay persons? What do you think about the place of theological education?
MJ: That’s a wonderful question. I didn’t know you started out in biblical studies. I did, too. I started out in biblical studies as well in college and probably for the same reasons. I grew up in an evangelical church and I’m thinking to myself, “What do you study? You’re going into ministry, so you study the Bible.” I did my undergraduate degree in biblical studies with a minor in New Testament Greek.
In my last semester of college, I took my first theology course. Very first time. It was a Christian Doctrine course. I got into it and I thought, “Now these are questions I’m wrestling with. These are questions at the heart of the Bible. Who is God? What is God like? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live in community? What does God require of us?” In many ways the fundamental questions that are being asked again and again in the Bible are the questions that are the bread and butter of theology.
What I found myself is stepping back one step from the immediacy of those first questions and started reading theologians. It was funny, my first theologian, as a serious theologian to read, was Karl Barth. My second was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Those two have remained touchstones for me throughout my life now.
I am now probably much more in the Bonhoeffer world than in the Barth world because I continue to find, I just found Bonhoeffer to be a mind that traversed such a wide range and it felt to me at some point, disappointingly, that Barth seemed to draw in the questions a bit. For Bonhoeffer, I think it was that engagement with culture that continued to open him up, so I find him to be such a winsome character.
For Bonhoeffer, I guess I would go back to this issue: this must have been around the early ’30s. Bonhoeffer is teaching in Berlin and he did that wonderful series of lectures on Christology. When I came across those (titled in America, Christ the Center), I was absolutely struck that just staying in textual study of the Bible wasn’t going to be enough for me when I came across those lectures, because Bonhoeffer does this wonderful thing that James Torrance picks up from him. Bonhoeffer says we get stuck so often in asking questions of how and the great question is who. He says the great question first of all, is asked by Jesus Christ, “Who do you say that I am?”
That is the question that came to dominate so much of my own theological life. Expanding and impressing it then, what does it mean to stay with the “who” question? Not “how is Jesus Christ both God and man?” That’s a mystery. It’s wonderful, but in a way it can become simply a matter of speculation and curiosity. The real question is the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Then we turn that question on ourselves. If Jesus Christ reveals this God, what does it mean to be one who follows Jesus Christ? You get those questions; those are the core theological questions. Anytime theology gets off the track, it is stuck in asking “how” or “why.” When theology is doing its job, it’s asking the question, “Who?” That goes to the heart of being a human being.
GD: Uh huh, because the two questions are, as we discover who God is, then the followup is, who are we in relationship to God? [MJ: That’s exactly right.] Which tells us we discover the nature of our humanity in relationship to who he is.
MJ: All the core questions of God are linked up in that. For example, you come out of the rationalistic movement, 18th century especially, and over and over again God is defined as a singular bare monad and you see the entire movement of individualism coming out of that. The lack of community that we still wrestle with, so identity becomes an individualist issue. If you’re grounded in a God who has revealed himself to be Father, Son and Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, Spirit, Lover, Beloved, Love – any of those images draw you into community, which means that we find our identity in relationship to others. That’s a radically different way of thinking about God and then about the necessity of church, as challenging as it can be to live in community. We find ourselves as human, really, in community; otherwise we disintegrate. All of that traces itself back in a way to who God is.
GD: In theological education, I find a lot of people feel a tension between theology and the mechanics of ministry – the “how to do ministry.” You talk in your book about the “trap of utility” and all that. Can you just say a word about how does that work in theological education, because there are things you have to do?
MJ: The example that comes back to mind, actually came from one of our alumns. About 10 or 15 years ago, I was talking to an alumn of the theological school I was serving then. He graduated in like 1980. He said, “Every course I took that had ‘relevance’ in the title or in the subtitle or in the course description, every one of those courses was irrelevant in five years. Every single one of them. All the courses I thought as a student were most irrelevant are the only ones I still draw upon.”
GD: That’s interesting.
MJ: I found that really fascinating. I asked him to talk about it more and he said, “Well, I took a course in Galatians, now how relevant is that?” He said, “What I really needed to learn [I thought] was how to do an every-member canvass of the congregation. That’s what I needed to learn because I’m going have to do stewardship programs and nobody was teaching me how to conduct an every-member canvass of the congregation.”
He said, “What I discovered is, theological education was three years of intensive reflection on God, on the Bible, on the history of the Christian movement. All of those things that took so much time and distracted me from what I thought I really needed to know as a pastor, those were the foundations. The other things I was able to pick up in a weekend.”
It’s like what Eugene Peterson once said: “Most of the skill-based things we need to be a good pastor, you can pick up on a rainy Sunday afternoon, reading a book or going to a conference.” The process of slowly soaking in a theological perspective on the world, you really need theological education to make that happen. It’s very hard to come by that kind of time, otherwise.
GD: Mike, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for joining us.
MJ: Thank you, Gary.