The (Almost) Accidental Theologian

In February of 1975 I made an almost casual, spur-of-the-moment decision that set me on the path that has now led to my appointment as Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College. During my undergraduate years I had worked full-time for Gaylord Entertainment (not something I recommend). I worked 30-35 hrs/wk during the school year and 90 hrs/wk in the summer. As I concluded five years with them, my boss called me into his office and offered me a “career path” with Gaylord. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I said. “I want to continue my education.” My boss replied, “Oh, that’s fine with us. Put in three years in management, then we’ll pay for your M.B.A. anywhere in the country.” “No, you don’t understand, I want to study God. I have some questions about him that I haven’t gotten answers to.” A bit sad, he responded, “Well, I don’t think that we would pay for that.”

Vancouver
Later that summer I flew to Vancouver, BC, to begin a master’s program at Regent College. I had no particular career goals, but I knew that Regent was where God had directed me. The directions came in an unusual way. In my third year at Free Will Baptist Bible College, a new faculty member arrived. Doug Simpson was a Bible College grad who had done two Ph.D.s, one at Bob Jones University and another at the University of Oklahoma. After the second doctorate, he taught for several years at Memorial University of Newfoundland. While there he heard about the founding of Regent. One day in my fourth year, Dr. Simpson asked me what I was planning to do after I graduated. I told him that all I knew is that I wanted to learn more theology but I wasn’t sure that a seminary was the place for me. “Have you heard of Regent College?” he asked. I had not, but in that moment I knew that Regent was the place for me. It is one of three times in my life that I received that kind of clear, obvious direction from God.

So I arrived at Regent with a thick southern accent and a lot of insecurities about my education and my abilities. The faculty, staff and students at Regent nourished me intellectually and spiritually; they were incredibly generous with their attention. I discovered how little I knew of the Old Testament and worked closely with Bruce Waltke to learn more of this foundational Scripture for our faith.

Just as important, I was drawn to the ministry of First Baptist Church, Vancouver. My fellow students and I did a lot of shameless church hopping for a while. But gradually I was drawn to the preaching of Roy Bell with its faithful declaration of the gospel and its realistic encounters with life. After several months of steady attendance at First Baptist, I became convicted that I should participate in the mission of the church. I became the teacher of the High School Sunday School class. Then a few months later, I began directing the Friday Night Coffee House at Hobbit House, the innovative outreach base that the church had established.

Canadian Baptists
At First Baptist Church I was introduced to Canadian Baptists and given an understanding of the gospel that was more than sufficient to meet the challenges of the world. This was a great gift to me. Though I am deeply grateful for my Free Will Baptist heritage, it had not seemed to me to be sufficient for the intellectual and social world in which I lived. (I realize that this also says a lot about me.) Located in the midst of a world-class city and daunting urban environment, First Baptist trained me for ministry under the guidance of Roy Bell and Doug Ward in particular.

When I joined the staff of the Tuesday night Hobbit House outreach to teenage male prostitutes, the director of the program was a vivacious young woman from Nova Scotia, Marti Crosby. We became friends in the midst of the ministry, came to admire one another, and quickly recognized our love for each other. We married in June 1979.

At the same time that our relationship was blossoming, my plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Old Testament were painfully disintegrating. My supervisor of my Master’s thesis and I had a misunderstanding and he declined to write recommendations for me. Marti loved me through this painful time.

In the midst of this disappointment, Doug Ward told me, at one of our weekly breakfasts at Bino’s Pancake House, that the church had recognized gifts for ministry in me and wanted to explore my call to ministry with me. I served for the summer on the church staff under the guidance of a discernment committee. At the end of that summer, Linda Palmer, Christine Charter, Phyllis Metcalfe and others confirmed my gifts and calling. I will be forever grateful for their proactive work in calling me to ministry. When I have doubted my own sense of calling, I have remembered their certainty. I am convinced that this process that brought me to ministry should not be unique to me but should be the normal practice of our churches. Who among us has gifts for ministry that should be identified, affirmed, and directed to the cause of Christ?

Edmonds Baptist Church
After persisting through my disappointment about doctoral studies and completing my degree at Regent, I was called to pastor Edmonds Baptist Church, Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver. Marti and I had initially resisted their interest, but I agreed to fill the pulpit one summer Sunday while their pastor was vacationing just before his late summer retirement from ministry. After that service in which I was guest preacher, Marti and I discovered that we had had a similar experience. As she entered the sanctuary from the narthex and I entered from the vestry, we both sensed that this is where God was calling us. The church also sensed our call and a short time later I became the pastor of Edmonds.

At the time, Edmonds was 76 years old. It had always had a membership of 50-60. The worshipping congregation numbered around 30; almost all were over age 55 and very few had graduated high school. It was almost exactly the opposite of First Baptist, Vancouver. While Marti and I struggled to understand them and they us, we all began to discover that God was teaching us to love one another.

The church turned out to be a good place for us. I had a lot of time to continue reading and growing intellectually. Given the nature of the congregation, there were a surprising number of pastoral challenges. I discovered that tragedy touches every life in this sinful world.

Edmonds’ members were very traditional lower-middle class and middle-class Christians, most of whom had lived their entire lives within 5 kms of the church. But the building was located in the midst of the highest concentration of single-parent families and recipients of social assistance in the entire lower mainland. Gradually some of those neighbours began to come to the church. They sensed the love that had grown among us; and even though they were “strangers” to the long-time church members, they were welcomed and many came to Christ.

At the end of our six years at Edmonds, the worshipping congregation had grown to about 125. During our last Christmas celebration, when we highlighted the different cultures among us, we discovered at least twelve cultures, including Egyptian Copts, Ghanaian political refugees, Native Canadians, Quebecois, African-American, southern American, Indonesian, Hong Kong Chinese, African-Canadian, Caribbean, and Pacific Islander, along with a bunch of Anglo-Canadians.

As the church grew, Marti and I recognized that we were reaching a turning point in our own ministry. One day, in the midst of our struggle to discern the next step, we drove into Vancouver. On the thirty-minute drive back to Burnaby, Marti told me, with some hesitation, that God had been directing her in prayer to tell me that I was a good pastor but I would be a better professor. I should revive my interest in doctoral work. I was 34; if I didn’t do it soon, it would be too late. I immediately recognized that her words were indeed from the Lord.

Duke University
A year later, we said good-bye to the congregation and set off in a U-Haul with our five year-old daughter, Leah, between us and our ancient Datsun towed behind us. We were headed to Duke University for Ph.D. studies in theology.

I went to Duke to study with two major scholars. Stanley Hauerwas is a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and the leading theological ethicist of today. Geoffrey Wainwright is a committed churchman and great systematic theologian who has made worship the centre of his theology. I planned to work with these two scholars either on “baptism and discipleship” or “ethics and atonement.”

But when I arrived at Duke I was assigned as a research assistant to Tom Langford, a philosophical theologian who had done significant work early in his career but had devoted much of his academic life to administration. My disappointment soon turned to deep gratitude. Tom (who died in 2000) is one of the wisest and most gracious people I have known.

Soon after we arrived in Durham, Marti, through persistence and imaginative effort, obtained a teaching position in the most deprived elementary school in the city. It was her dream job. But we soon learned that the stresses of our life could not be managed successfully with me in graduate school and her teaching in that environment. She made the great sacrifice of resigning from her teaching position and endured a series of unrewarding jobs that got us through the next three years.

Our daughter also carried some of the family burden. At five years of age, she endured and then conquered the challenges of a foreign culture and the cruelty of children toward a stranger. She now lives with her husband in that same city—Durham, NC—and carries on a wonderful ministry in a very poor neighbourhood where they have founded a Christian community, Rutba House (www.newmonasticism.org).

During my first years at Duke, I realized that the kind of dissertation that I had planned to write would take a few years. As one of the oldest students in the programme and going into debt each year, I had incentives to finish quickly. So I chose to write my dissertation on one theologian—Julian Hartt. Hartt is an under appreciated theologian who taught at Yale and Virginia, where he influenced the leading theologians of today. (And, yes, he is related to the New Brunswick Hartts.) This choice of topic opened to me a storehouse of treasures on which I continue to draw for my own work.

Westmont College
As our time at Duke was coming to an end, I submitted my name for pastorates in western Canada, but I received no contacts at all. Then Westmont College came calling. After trying and failing to hire six candidates ahead of me, Westmont capitulated and offered me a position as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. When Marti, Leah and I had been driving away from our pastorate in Burnaby, Marti and I had a conversation about where our path might lead. I acknowledged that I wanted to return to a pastorate in the BUWC. But if that didn’t work out, I said that I expected to teach in a seminary, given my pastoral experience. “And the only other place I could imagine myself,” I said, “was Westmont College.”

And so it came to be. We were at Westmont for fourteen years. During that time our daughter graduated from high school, went off to Eastern University, married, graduated university, and moved back to Durham, where her husband (another Jonathan) graduated from Duke Divinity School. While she was growing up, Marti and I grew through the challenges of college politics, California culture, ill health, and a continuing desire to return to Canada and to teach in a seminary.

After wrestling through a number of issues and circumstances, Marti and I decided that Westmont and Santa Barbara were not such bad things after all. We accepted that we would be there until my retirement. This decision was challenged in 2002 by two friends from Canada who called urging me to submit my name for the theology position at Acadia Divinity College. We were up to the challenge and refused to do so. Then a series of events and conversations compelled us to contact Acadia and in 2003 I was appointed Professor of Theology and Ethics at Acadia Divinity College.

Canada Again
We had three wonderful years with the students at Acadia and the churches in the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches, then we were called back home to serve in Western Canada. In June 2006 I became the Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College, as successor to Stan Grenz. The Pioneer McDonald Professor is appointed to serve as “denominational theologian” with primary responsibility at Carey Theological College.

Through Marti’s prayer ministry and my teaching, we seek to serve the cause of Christ for the sake of a lost and suffering world that God in Christ loves to the greatest extent possible. Our understanding of the gospel is still that larger-than-the-cosmos vision we were taught at First Baptist. Our understanding of ministry is still guided by the quest for mutual love among the members of Christ’s body that we learned at Edmonds. The gifts that we bring are those that have been honed through years of training, struggle and suffering. The vision that we have is for a church able to present the good news of Jesus Christ in fresh and faithful language so that people who think that they know Christianity and have written it off as boring, untrue and irrelevant, will take a new look and discover the one true God who loves us in Christ and is the true joy of all our desiring.

Jonathan R. Wilson
Carey Theological College

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2 Responses to “About The Theologian”

  1. dougtheslug Says:

    Hi Jonathan, just tonight I stumbled on the news of Marti passing. Like ships passing in the night, I was in and out of VGH during September 2010 for treatment for HCV. Little did I know that Marti was a resident there.

    I watched your Carey vids on YouTube.

    Hey, welcome back to Canada, yankee.

  2. dougtheslug Says:

    Many Professional-Christians stumble on the concept of “being called by God” at every turn — as though they have a direct line to God and his wishes for Planet Earth. How bizarre. How incredibly arrogant.

    Personally, I suspect God is a very busy guy, with little time for the average person. (He has a universe to run, after all.) Many Professional-Christians absolutely don’t get this concept. Their “personal calling” is about all they can grasp, intellectually. Even a PhD can’t separate them from this childish, myopic folly. Is this what butters their bread? Pays their rent?

    From an evangelical standpoint, it’s a tough slog when these Professional-Christians attempt to reach out to non-christians (95% of North America)…without turning them off with these head-in-the-sand, blind-as-a-bat professional christian failures. What a thing. Is this what Christianity has been reduced to?

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