Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology

Michael Jinkins is president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He received his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 1990.

Dr. Gary Deddo interviewed him. Michael Jinkins reflects on his time in seminary and discusses his book Invitation to Theology.

Edited transcript

Gary Deddo: Mike, please tell us 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. I didn’t know what to expect. I had been a pastor for about 10 years when we went over. It was a life-changing experience in many ways. The most important thing I took away from James Torrance was his personality, his character. Almost everyone who worked with him says the same thing.

His brother Tom was one of the great minds of his generation, perhaps a genius. James was brilliant also – very creative – but 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 a stairwell in the old Kings College Quad leading up to his office.

The first visit with him, we sat down and talked. It was striking what a gracious, open, quiet per­son he was. That never changed in the many years from being his student and becoming his friend.

GD: Yeah. My own memories match yours.

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 (methodology between theology and science certainly came out) whereas James’ emphasis was connecting theology with pastoral ministry; that’s where his emphasis came through?

MJ: Without any doubt. 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 one elderly lady remembered Tom Torrance as her pastor.

GD: Really.

MJ: She said, “Often he would preach and we didn’t know what he was talking about. 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 remarkable in that.

GD: Tom also saw himself as an evangelist 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 James’s ministry was the congregation. They had a different emphasis. Even though it was a practically identical theological framework, they aimed it two directions.

MJ: That’s true. You could tell that with James, even in his interest in a research subject. He zeroed in on John McLeod Campbell, who in many ways theologically, became 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.

GD: It’s an interesting contrast. I’d like to talk about your book, Invitation to Theology. One thing you talk about in the introduction is kind of a paradigm shift for yourself. You’re 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 how that change that came about?

MJ: To put a larger picture on it, I think that real faith develops, grows over a lifetime, and any time you feel that you have come to the end of the growth, you have misconstrued the relationship with God. 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, to the mid ’80s), before going to Aberdeen I had gotten to a place where my faith was cold (I think that comes out in this book); I don’t think I believed much in God. It wasn’t so much intellectual – it was just a coldness that I had come to. I remember coming in from pastoring one day in Aberdeen. This was my first or maybe my second semester there. I took off my dog collar (in the Church of Scotland you wear a dog collar), 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. I went quietly to the 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. A funny thing happened. I’m moving everything in. I’m there by myself, 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 young charwoman, one of the maids for the dormitory. She was sitting on the stairs weeping. I sat next to her and said, “What’s wrong?” There was an illness in her family. 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, “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 a place that I have come to love. It’s one of my most important sacred places in the world, the Durham Cathedral. I went in and bowed and prayed, “God, I don’t believe you exist but I think we really need to talk.”

At that point is the journey back to faith that kept unwrapping for me, and it continues to unwrap layer upon layer. At the end of my program, 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. I didn’t like that comment at the time and I remember resisting it. About 10 years later, I was a professor at Austin Seminary. I’m teaching at Regent College and I’m realizing that I’m feeling growing pains in my theology, and where is that happening?

I happened to be reading A. N. Wilson’s book, God’s Funeral – a 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. Why am I feeling a dissatisfaction with the Trinity? This doctrine has become key to my theological life and it 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 that with Wilson, which was fascinating to me. He had written a fascinating biography of C.S. Lewis, during which he felt he (Wilson) had 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 who was extremely helpful 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?”

All of that, I’m on a long trajectory. All of us are on a long tra­jectory. The key to it is remaining humble in the face of the mystery of God.

GD: Thanks. You’re president of a seminary, you’ve taught in seminaries. Many people are skeptical about theological education – about theology itself. 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 in biblical studies. I started out in biblical studies, too, 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 – a Christian doctrine course. I got into it and I thought, “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.

I found myself stepping back one step from the immediacy of those first questions and I started reading theologians. 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.

I am now probably more in the Bonhoeffer world than in the Barth world because I continue to find, I 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, 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 would go back to this issue: this must have been around the early ’30s. Bonhoeffer is teaching in Berlin and did a wonderful series of lectures on Christology. When I came across those (titled in America, Christ the Center), I was struck that just staying in textual study of the Bible wasn’t going to be enough for me, because Bonhoeffer does this wonderful thing that James Torrance picks up from him. Bonhoeffer says we often get stuck in asking questions of how and the great question is who. The great question is asked first by Jesus Christ, “Who do you say that I am?” That question came to dominate much of my theological life.

Expanding and impressing it, 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 it can become simply a matter of speculation and curiosity. The real question is, “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? 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: As we discover who God is, then the follow-up question is, who are we in relationship to God? [MJ: That’s right.] 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, in the rationalistic movement, the 18th century especially, over and over again God is defined as a singular bare monad, and you see the 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 in community; otherwise we disintegrate. All of that traces itself back, in a way, to who God is.

GD: In theological education, many 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 say a word about how does that work in theological education, because there are things you have to do?

MJ: The example that comes 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 about 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 fascinating. I asked him to talk about it more and he said, “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.

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.

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 hard to come by that kind of time, otherwise.

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Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2019, 7:22 PM