Dr David Jenkins was the Bishop of Durham when I was an undergraduate at university over thirty years ago, and he certainly succeeded in his ambition to get people to talk about religion in pubs and elsewhere. Both then and now I remain completely sure that he was wrong, very wrong, in his approach to dogmatic theology.
His much quoted statement about the Virgin Birth, namely: “I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if He wanted, but I very much doubt if He would”, still strikes me as not just mistaken, but shallow. God does not “arrange” things the way we human beings do. He has a plan that springs from His eternal wisdom. What He plans is complete and entire, and every part of that plan means something. To see the Virgin Birth as some sort of afterthought or extra, as something contingent not necessary, is to miss the point about the nature of God and what His revelation entails.
Long before the ordination of women, David Jenkins was one of the reasons why many people decided to abandon the Church of England. As one good man, who had spent decades as a Naval Chaplain, and who was later ordained a priest in the Catholic Church, put it to me: “The Bishop of Durham professes the historic Christian creeds, but he also believes he can interpret them as he pleases. This means that the profession of the Creed is now meaningless, because it can mean whatever we want it to mean.” This idea – the malleability of religious truth – is what drove Newman out of the Church of England too.
Everyone agrees that the late bishop was a very pleasant man, and a kind and caring pastor. It is also frequently said that as an academic, he was more used to discussions in Senior Common Rooms, where grandiloquent phrases have their natural habitat. This is something that theologians need to be wary of: we need to talk about God remembering that there is little we can know about Him unless He tells us. We need to contemplate Divine Revelation, not dismiss it.
One recalls Newman’s words in the famous Biglietto Speech:
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith…
The Blessed John Henry would not have approved of David Jenkins, even if they did belong to the same university. Indeed, Newman’s speech seems to prophesy the coming of men like Dr Jenkins, who deny the objective facts of Revelation.
Meanwhile, may the good Bishop (for he was a good and kind man by all accounts) rest in peace!
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