It would take pages to list Rev. Dr. Joseph McLelland’s accomplishments. Let it be noted, succinctly, that he has been a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada for nearly 70 years, was the Moderator of the General Assembly in 1985, has published many books on philosophy and theology, and has been a professor and administrator at Presbyterian College and McGill University, Montreal, for nearly 60 years. He was married to his beloved Audrey for 65 years; she passed away in the spring of 2013. He’s now 91—a little slower physically, a little sadder alone, with a mind still active and playful.
Last December the Record invited McLelland’s former minister, Rev. Derek Macleod, now serving a church in the United States, for a long talk. Over three hours they covered a lot of ground.
Derek Macleod: I was your pastor for almost eight years—I need to begin with this story. I was fresh from Knox College … you invited me to the faculty club at McGill. You told me about life in Montreal in the ‘50s, the priests walking in their cassocks. We had a meal and halfway through you slid a book across to me, The Clown and the Crocodile. On the inside you inscribed: “To Derek, my minister.”
Joseph McLelland: There is a marvellous quote by Elie Wiesel: “God made man because He loves stories.” I see the Bible as a book of stories. We look at the Bible as a narrative but I see it as an untidy group of stories that follow one another. It’s a case of discovering the key story and I found the key story in Abraham and Sarah.
Sarah laughs when she is told she is going to have a baby. She says: “God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” She names the baby Laughter, or Isaac.
I feel that the narrow gate of laughter is what every Christian has to come through. But instead of laughing with Abraham, we tend to laugh at God because He gives promises.
Macleod: I think what we’re talking about is what it means to be in a relationship with God. You see this as a very deep and broad relationship.
McLelland: I see humility as leading to laughter. It can lead to tears but if we’re truly forgiven our sins, then you can laugh forever.
The three great virtues would be faith, love and hope. I hope for the future.
I think we don’t spend enough time as Presbyterians talking about the last things. The fundamentalist things like joy, about the glory land and the future.
There are two theories about how God became known as Trinity. One is, you start with God, the Father, and that’s the absolute God. From that God are two emanations, the Logos, who becomes incarnate, and the Spirit.
But I see a different theory. Among Christian theologians, you start with the specific, which is Jesus of Nazareth, who suddenly appears and is a traumatic experience for his followers. The Church started with Christology and the doctrine of Jesus as the Christ. I don’t say Jesus Christ because Christ is a title not a name.
Macleod: A divided Christology; for the longest time the Church didn’t know where to land because the gospels had different approaches on what it means to be Jesus the Christ.
McLelland: Oh yes, Christology was very mixed. For a while, the Church was Aryan, which means the Logos didn’t really become Jesus. Which is bad considering what some of the gospels say.
It’s pretty hard to get a strong doctrine of incarnation. So, the Christology was pretty divided, especially on how Christ can be both human and divine. They solved that by very intricate doctrine. It says the Logos becomes Jesus but not the whole Logos.
Luther said the whole Logos is in the manger. And Calvin said if he’s in the manger, who’s running the universe? So, Jesus is only partly in the manger and the rest of him is running the universe. I like that because it means the Logos can become incarnate elsewhere.
Macleod: Sometimes I hear that … in letters to the Record, for example, that Joe’s a heretic. But I think it’s not that you have a low theology of things but that you have a very high theology. You’re articulating a very high Christology.
McLelland: I had two accusations of heresy from presbyteries that didn’t go anywhere, perhaps because of my friends.
Let me say that most Presbyterians are heretics. For example, if you worship Jesus as God, you’re a heretic because he’s divine but he’s not God.
Macleod: “Why do you call me good, no one is good except God alone.”
McLelland: Orthodoxy really says: You worship the Father through the Son. So, we worship on Sunday God through Jesus the Christ. But when people mistake Jesus for God that’s one of the reasons we threw a gauntlet to the atheists because they’re right. They’re right because that’s bad theology.
The first theory is the theory of Jesus as the Christ. And then they developed the theory of God the Father, because with Christology you have to change the doctrine of God. Then the third theory would be the Holy Spirit, which would be everywhere.
Macleod: Can you talk more about the omnipotence of God through the Holy Spirit?
McLelland: First of all, the omnipotence of God is a mistake. Because if God is omnipotent, He is also impotent. And this is where the atheists have us; if you say that God can do anything God wants, that’s a real heresy because it’s making God into Zeus; it’s taking power from physics as the analogy of God.
The Fathers were always careful, especially Thomas Aquinas. He starts with: Can you prove the existence of God by argument? And he gives what I call the Five Ways, but he does that in one little article of this huge summa and afterwards he says: Of course, we don’t know what God is, we only know what God is not.
From then on, it’s negative theology and that means you detach from these false ideas. Generally speaking, omnipotence is always qualified by things God cannot do. He cannot do things that are logical mistakes.
There is a famous parable called The Stone—can God make a stone so big that God cannot lift it? Philosophers still talk about that. (So, you can be still ignorant after being a professional philosopher.) We had that idea, it doesn’t make sense, it’s a silly thing and the atheists seize on that and quite rightly because Christians still believe that. So, if people believe in the naive idea of omnipotence, they’re asking for trouble.
Macleod: I think we’re in the midst of really important thought you’re helping us with: understanding and in fact rejecting the omnipotence of God. Is the sovereignty of God an antidote to the omnipotence of God or how does it work?
McLelland: The key analogy of God is love. God is a living God. It means that God is not simply a fix in the sky, making decisions and taking this person and leaving that one, causing a hurricane, causing a fire and all that; it’s nonsense. As a sovereign one, He exerts his sovereignty through love and therefore love would be the essential building block of the universe. All things are created out of love and all things start from Christology, that’s the model.
If we start with Jesus, then Jesus as the Christ is the model for God, and whatever you say, Jesus must be the test of God: would Jesus do that, would Jesus say that? So it’s nonsense to talk about God causing things like earthquakes. Acts of God, as the insurance company calls them, are not acts of God.
Macleod: An omnipotent God is a very cruel God. So, what is a sovereign God?
McLelland: The sovereign God would be a God who exerts His power through love—and this is the Holy Spirit again—and who is therefore a God of truly all things, not that God created them all necessarily, although that’s true, but if God created everything out of love, then we have to change our idea of God pretty drastically: to a God who loves people, suffers with people and changes with people. God suffers more now after the Holocaust than God did before.
Crucifixion is the name of God. It’s always a story of the crucified God. The cross therefore comes alive.
Macleod: I’d also like people to know that along with the title of professor, you would also claim heretic and you would also claim lover; that you’re a lover of God, a lover of people. And I would not like to dismiss your love with Audrey.
McLelland: Yes, we’d had 65 years of happily married life. She was a great woman who was more than supportive. She really liked being a pastor’s wife and unfortunately I’ve turned it into academic life, which was a little different.
Macleod: I think we take very seriously covenant theology, started with Abraham. Abraham and God, Abraham and Sarah. Your covenant with Audrey … when you become one, there’s real power in that. What happens when one dies? How did you face this?
McLelland: I wasn’t prepared for the fact that death is such a kind of ending. I felt like it was like hitting a wall and I had to rethink a lot of things.
I realized at funerals we all sever the body and soul. During our lives we don’t separate body and spirit, we live in unity. The Bible teaches us that God created us as a unity.
There is a sense, very philosophical, in which your self-identity allows you to regard your body as something you possess. But the complete split, which we find at funerals, is to say at the least misleading. Here she is in the box, and people are saying, “No, she’s on her way to a better land” and so on. It’s really difficult for a Christian to accept, or should be. If we’re created in body-soul unity, at death, we die as body.
I had a harder time with Audrey’s soul carrying on and waiting for me. This is where hope comes in. I wish we could be more like the fundamentalist students who sing about the glory land.
John Calvin has one of the best answers I know. The first theological thing he ever wrote was called Psychopannychia, which means “Soul sleep.” He said: If you have walked with God, death does not affect that walk, you carry on. At the end, there would be a general resurrection where everybody gets together, so to speak. It’s not bad. It raises other questions but nevertheless his idea is that faith is union with Christ; death does not destroy that.