On July 1, 2021, Dr. Mark Garcia (PhD, University of Edinburgh) joined the faculty at Westminster as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology. Dr. Garcia has been in various teaching roles throughout the years, has served as a minister at Immanuel OPC in Coraopolis, PA for the last fourteen years, and is Executive Director and President of The Greystone Institute. This summer, Dr. Alfred Poirier, Professor of Pastoral Theology, had the opportunity to interview Dr. Garcia. Their conversation included a splendid variety of intriguing topics such as being a sommelier, the theology of the Lord’s Supper, and the role and importance of systematic theology in the church today. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity. To listen to the full-length interview, please visit wts.edu/Garcia.
Alfred Poirier: Let’s begin by getting some sense of who you are, your family, and anything else you’d like to share.
Mark Garcia: I am married to Jill, and we have four children, two daughters and two sons. Our eldest, Adriana, was born when I was a seminary student here at Westminster, just nearby at Abington hospital in the year 2000. And our second daughter, Elisa, was born when I was in Edinburgh, Scotland doing my PhD work, which I left Westminster to do in 2001. She was born in 2002. After three years of study there, we returned to the US, and I was a pastoral intern for a year. I stayed on to do some adjunct seminary teaching for Reformed Theological Seminary and a variety of campuses. I was ordained and was an associate pastor for that second year as well in Orlando. And we moved from there back overseas to Cambridge University, where we had our third child, my first son, Mark Andrew, Jr.
I was there on a research project working with Dr. Van Dixhoorn of Westminster on the Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly. And from there we moved to Pittsburgh, on the extreme other side of the state from Westminster, where we had our fourth child, Thomas. I moved to Pittsburgh to become the pastor of Immanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And just earlier this summer, July 4, was my last day of ministry there as I anticipate my transition to Westminster. And that also marked exactly 14 years of pastoral ministry at Immanuel. So, we have four children that we like to say are four different souvenirs of places we’ve lived over the years. I grew up in Southwest State County in Miami, Florida, the son of a Baptist pastor. And I grew up under his Spanish speaking Baptist church ministry for all my years growing up before becoming a pastor myself.
AP: Spanish speaking? What’s your family background?
MG: My father is Cuban, and my mother is American; both are American citizens. But he came to the US during the time of Castro’s transition into power. But in God’s kind providence, his family had resources back then and he required open-heart surgery. And the family was able to work out on arrangement with the emerging government at the time, and to allow the family as a whole to make their way to the US legally in exchange for all their Cuban assets. So, they turned everything over to Castro’s new government, and that’s how my father ended up in Miami with his family. I grew up in a context where I didn’t have a first language except for Spanglish. So, my father and his family spoke primarily Spanish, and my mom’s, English. The school I went to, the church I attended was also very, very much a blended situation.
AP: Apart from your pastoral and academic interests, we’ve heard that you have an interesting relationship with wine. Tell us about that.
MG: Well, I am a sommelier, having gone through the training programs and so on. A sommelier is a wine specialist and wine instructor. . . While I always enjoyed a good glass of wine and knew that there was something interesting historically, philosophically theologically, and culturally about wine, I was also coming through a very difficult time as a pastor. I had been just fiercely and heavily engaged in pastoral crises, heavy pastoral labors, and theological labor, doing a lot of work at the time on important questions. And I reached a point where I thought this has become all of me and it might be good to develop a hobby. It might be good to have a wholly non-theological hobby for a while, and I thought wine would be fascinating to study. And so, I dove head first into the deep end of wine study, found it far more exhilarating and interesting than I thought it would be without taking it too seriously either. And would you know that what I found most fascinating and enriching about the serious study of wine was, go figure, it’s theological significance and character. So, at Greystone I run a regular series of wine and Christianity seminars that brings the public in to hear the gospel’s special relationship to wine biblically and historically and so on. But I also give them wine instruction, and it’s a good, fun thing to do.
AP: You’ve written an article on Christ and the Spirit and you touch there on the Eucharist the Lord’s Supper. Tell us about how most churches use grape juice, and some churches use wine, the Lord’s Supper in general, and what you’ve come to appreciate more about it as a pastor and as a theologian.
MG: There may be no feature of the Christian faith and life that has become more precious and substantive in its importance for me than the Eucharistic and Lord’s Supper aspects of the church. Some many years ago now, I happened upon a series of studies that persuaded me that the first ever use of the word catholic in the
Christian tradition was from Ignatius of Antioch and his letter to the Sumerians. In that context, he says, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. These studies I think quite persuasively demonstrated what Ignatius meant there in the polemical context of the early church was wherever the Eucharistic Christ was, there is the catholic church in as much as what the church confesses and professors to believe is happening at the Lord’s table.
This excludes a wide range of heresies about Christ and about his church. You cannot be unorthodox in your Christology at that basic level and still come to the Lord’s table. You can’t wobble on his real humanity or divinity. You can’t be hesitant about his saving relationship to his people as the heart of the church’s identity in life. From that day, several years ago, to now, I’ve become more and more persuaded biblically that we, in the reformed tradition especially, have a wonderful heritage and tradition of appreciating the special centrality of the Lord’s table to the being and well-being of the church. This is not to suggest for a moment that we should downplay or mitigate the centrality of the preached word, but that we should recover the language of Peter Martyr Vermigli and others that the Lord’s table is the visible word and enjoined to it ordinarily.
So, at Immanuel where I’ve been pastoring 14 years, we did move to weekly communion as a way of accenting our confidence that the church is a fundamentally Eucharistic reality, not because the Supper is everything, but because she is what she is, maybe most poignantly, at the table. And we did in fact move to wine only. One thing that was quite important for us was appreciating how biblical the element is; not merely the grape but the wine. That is, in fact sacramental, symbolic, meaningful, and effective in the way that Scripture depicts the Eucharistic scene. There is something special and important about wine biblically in terms of the conveying of the wrath and grace of God that you don’t quite get with anything else.
AP: That’s beautiful. I want to ask a little bit more about how you came to know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Also, tell us about how you came to sense your calling to pastoral ministry.
MG: Well, I did, as I mentioned, grow up under the ministry of my father as my pastor in a Spanish speaking church, an independent fundamentalist Baptist church of the sort I have not quite found anywhere else in terms of its unique identity, tradition, and way of thinking and doing things. It’s certainly quite different from the one in which I serve and operate now, and there are a number of things that I think would merit concern about it. I don’t disparage my upbringing for all of the theological issues I might have with it, because for all of its weaknesses, I will tell you this: I grew up believing and hearing constantly that Jesus is the only way of salvation that the world needs, that whatever the Bible says is true, that the church exists among other things to worship God, to glorify God and to preach his word, and that God is our father in Jesus Christ, that God is Trinity, and that there is a ministry and presence of the Holy Spirit. God, in his kindness, drilled these things deeply into me which have become, somewhat ironically, the reasons why I went into the reformed tradition. When I explained to my friends, family, and my father in particular, that’s something that
they respect because they hold such a high view of the Bible. I am grateful for those things.
It was in that context that I was converted and grew from a very young age. And yet I was never going to be a pastor. From the time I could hold a pencil, I was going to be an artist. My father himself was a cartoonist and had a job offer from Disney. His family was very excited about this. And then he decided to go into the ministry instead; everyone was devastated. Everyone thought he had such a gift, so why would he choose to throw his life away and go into this poor man’s life of a pastoral ministry for a small Spanish speaking church in Miami?
But as I was growing up, they all got excited, you know, his father wouldn’t do it, but he’s going to do it. And then I just broke everyone’s heart when about halfway through college, the only thing I’d ever really saw myself doing gave way to an external and internal call of great power to serve the church. What that looked like, I wasn’t sure yet. I knew I wanted to preach and to teach and write in whatever configuration that might prove possible, but I wanted to see what the Lord’s providence would look like and trained for whatever his service would entail. And through the Lord’s Providence, I’ve been able to do all those things, and I’m grateful for that. But I still look at my father as the example of Christ-like service to the church and allegiance to Christ’s word no matter what.
AP: That’s great that you so appreciate your father. In what ways did the service as a pastor help you to come to know Christ better?
MG: My ministry of 14 years, which is classically considered rather brief, was shaped not only by my seminary training which is ultimately the beginning of one’s theological formation, but also through life, service, and worship. Indeed, it comes through the life of the church. It is within that context that the force and importance of certain questions, biblically and theologically, ethically, and pastorally have been impressed upon me precisely because of my pastoral experience.
AP: Can you give an example?
MG: The issues of spousal abuse, marriage, divorce theory, domestic violence, and gender. I always had a certain understanding of these things, but that has evolved throughout the course of my ministry. This evolution, however, is one formed by the wisdom of the Christian tradition, the power of the Scriptures, the richness of the gospel, and the urgency of pastors taking such questions seriously as properly biblical and theological ones. These are sophisticated and difficult questions which require humility and patience.
AP: To the pastors in our readership who might be dealing with these very dilemmas, what encouragement would you want to give them?
MG: As situations vary, counsel will vary accordingly. Nevertheless, there are some persistent truths that seem helpful for pastors always to hold fast. Firstly, we’re not the first to face them. There’s an abnormal normality. Secondly, and more fundamentally, it is no surprise to Christ. He remains as ferociously protective and compassionately gentle as the shepherd of his sheep, and it is a healthy thing to remind ourselves that we are under- shepherds, not the Shepherd.
We must love the people of God with our whole selves at the same time, remembering that they are not ours, but the Lord’s. He will do with them what he pleases. Our call is to be faithful, and the Lord will do what he will do. We must be honest and prepare ourselves to hold our reputations, our very ministries, even our very lives loosely enough, that we could lose all things for Christ’s sake and not be lost ourselves in the process. This requires humility. . . And there’s a way of wisdom in dealing with conflicts and difficulties of this sort that the Scriptures commend to us. James puts it memorably: be quick to hear and slow to speak. If we were to ask one more question than we think we need to, if we were to adopt as our ordinary posture, that of listening and listening well and patiently, and taking the long view of listening, we might learn a great deal about those who are suffering, about our brethren who are wrestling with these questions. And we must be listening to our brethren, listening to Christ’s voice by his Spirit, through the church, generation upon generation, taking the wealth of our tradition into view and not just our friends.
AP: Amen. You have written a great book on union with Christ and much of what you’re saying really goes together with that theology. Why don’t you take a bit of time just to tell those that are reading, what is this union with Christ? Why write a dissertation on it and publish a book on it?
MG: In as few words I think is as possible for now, it is Paul’s shorthand for the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 1, it is God’s doing a most wonderful and liberating truth. You’re in Christ Jesus. Christ has been made to us, or for us, wisdom from God.
And those familiar with the extraordinary depth and riches of the wisdom tradition rejoiced to hear that Christ has been made wisdom for us by his Father. Paul continues on to righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, each of which are distinguished by him. So, they shouldn’t be collapsed into each other. We don’t collapse the concerns of justification into sanctification and vice versa. They are importantly distinct. They are also inseparably joined. And they, separately joined not by some theological trick, but because they are what they are, only as they belong to Christ himself. And to the extent we are his, they are ours. And the more we locate the blessings of the gospel personally, rather than just logically in Jesus Christ himself, the more extraordinarily beautiful it appears to us that we have not been given a benefit of Christ in the abstract.
We have not been given a blessing of justification or whatever. We have been given Christ. Every spiritual blessing comes to us from him. These are Pauline, but also deeply biblical expressions, each of which in their own way, cast light on something. We will never exhaust its power and glory, our union or fellowship, our communion with the Son of God, with Jesus Christ by the Spirit.
AP: I want to understand you better, because I think what you’re teaching is so profound, namely that we just don’t get an impersonal blessing, or an impersonal grace from Christ, it is Christ himself. Christ Himself is expressed by these other words, grace or wisdom or righteousness, but it is him himself.
MG: Indeed, just as we would say in contrast to the Roman Catholic tradition that we must not reify grace and turn it into a “thing.” It’s not a thing any more than merit is a thing out there. These are personal things. There is Christ who is the gift in whom we receive the many infinite facets of Christ as gift, which we call grace by the word gift. And every one of these graces is derivative of him, aspectival of him, and an expression of our life in and with him. They lift us to heavenly glory and fellowship with Father, Son, and Spirit. Grace is a deeply and exhaustively personal thing rooted in the Son of God.
AP: Share with us your vision for Greystone Theological Institute.
MG: I serve as the founding president of Greystone. Greystone has its base of operations in Pittsburgh on the west side of Pennsylvania and will continue to be based there, Lord willing. Greystone is quite unusual, and yet with a lot of traditional features. We focus our energies on advanced level course modules, ThM and PhD level modules for most of our courses. We also run a series of study days, study weekends, workshops, postgraduate seminars, special lectures, things of that sort. But we focus a great deal on the mentorship facet of theological formation for ministers, ministers in training, interns, and students, but for all thoughtful Christians wanting to take the next step from wherever they are one step further in their understanding.
Through various conversations with people in different global contexts, we learned that there are gaps in current seminary education and decided we would only do that and not try to duplicate what anybody else is doing well. So, what we’ve done is partnered with seminaries, with other organizations, to supplement their offerings with our own offerings but also provide regular contexts in which thoughtful Christians can get together; and in a fairly advanced, rigorous way, pause over great texts of the tradition and imbibe from them the richness of the tradition.
AP: Is this something that’s done residentially, virtually, or combination of both? If one of our listeners would say, “Hey, can I take a course?” How would you answer?
MG: It’s residential because you need that for that kind of mentorship focused approach, not just there in Pittsburgh, but we have learning community sites in London and Cardiff, one in formation in Eastern Europe, a new one about to launch in South Africa, opportunities as well in Canada, and a few others in the United States, but primarily right there in Pittsburg. We also have a carefully crafted online presence through greystoneconnect.org.
AP: What would you say the importance is for a pastor to be trained in this systematic theology?
MG: Many have said in different contexts for some time now being a theologian isn’t an option. Everyone is a theologian. Here at Westminster, we have reasons for saying so that I think reflect Westminster’s distinctives, but also tap on a deep-running widely Christian conviction. Systematic theology, and there are a variety of legitimate ways of capturing it, but systematic theology is the faithful determination to live, to speak, to think, to act with the grain of how God has revealed himself. In my experience, I have found that the idea of a theologian as someone who knows they are under authority, who speaks, and who writes as one under authority to be strangely liberating. It’s an expression of fearing God. And because I fear God, to use Calvin’s famous line, I must go as far as scripture goes; I must also go no further.
AP: You’re going to be training men to be pastors in the church. What are some of the challenges that you see that they’re going to face?
MG: We live and work in a very strange and challenging time. This may be a time in which there’s a special urgency to exhibit our confidence that the church is the arena in which God is advancing the concerns of his glory, and he will serve the world through the church, but it requires that the church be the church. And that’s not the same thing as allowing the world to determine what the agenda is and what our topics of interests are. We must be about Christ and his gospel. The church is its own culture, a culture the Spirit is cultivating by Word and Sacrament and prayer. I think it’s especially important for us to adopt the mode of a fruitful, faithful, and courageous humility. In that posture of thoughtful humility, we walk and speak courageously based on God’s word. The Lord needs faithful servants. The world is in his hands; nothing is a surprise to him. He has not changed his call upon us as ministers. And that call is to be ready to be faithful and to be willing to lose everything.
AP: Thank you very much, Dr. Garcia, for this interview. We are again so glad that you have chosen to hear our call and to come teach our young men and women for the ministry of the gospel.
MG: It is an honor to be here. It really is. Thank you.