Every week my desk at Christianity Today is flooded with review copies of new books. Most look a bit too familiar, modeled on other books the way the house-brand raisin bran at your grocery store is modeled on the name-brand versions by Post and Kellogg. They’re probably serviceable, but they really don’t grab your attention.
Last Monday, there was a book that caught my attention for its originality: The Rhythm of Doctrine by John E. Colwell. The book is subtitled, A Liturgical Sketch of Christian Faith and Faithfulness.
The book caught my attention, first, because the author is trying to organize a systematic theology around the seasons of the church year. I don’t know of anyone else who has done this, and Colwell says it’s such an obvious idea that “someone must have adopted this approach previously.” Except that neither he nor I know of such attempts. Most systematic theologies are organized around the three major sections of the Creed: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
Occasionally someone tries a different organizing principle. James McClendon tried organizing a systematic theology using ethics as his starting point back in 1986. And Tom Finger tried to organize a systematic around eschatology in 1985. But these are highly unusual departures.
But it wasn’t merely novelty. Colwell’s effort caught my attention for several other reasons.
One of those is that I am interested in narrative approaches to theology. And the seasons of the church year are the chapters in the story of salvation. At their best, narrative approaches to theology help us understand God in more dynamic terms than many systematic theologies do. The Bible tells us (in the words of G. Ernest Wright’s 1952 monograph) about “the God who acts.” This notion is born out in the preaching of the apostles as recorded in Acts. Their sermons are a recitation of the mighty acts of God, leading up to and culminating in Jesus. Or in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophets introduce us to the God who brings deep pathos to his interaction with a suffering world. In other words, it is through narrative that we best convey knowledge of the God who interferes in human history because he cares deeply.
The third thing, however, that caught my attention is that John Colwell teaches at Spurgeon’s College in London. That’s a Baptist institution, I thought. What’s a Baptist doing organizing his theology around the liturgical calendar. That’s what an Anglican or Lutheran might do. Or perhaps a Methodist. (The closest thing to this effort is Geoffrey Wainwright’s Doxlogy: The Praise of God in Worship (1980). But what’s a Baptist doing writing about such things?
Colwell’s answer is very personal.
I write as as Baptist and some may expect me to conform to this non-conformity of neglect. I write, moreover, as one who teaches in a college founded by a Victorian Baptist preacher who was notorious in his distaste for liturgy.
That's exactly what was puzzling me. So why did Colwell turn to formal liturgy with its prescribed prayers, its creeds, and its set rhythms of devotion?
More than any other factor, it was the experience of wrestling with the crushing darkness of clinical depression that drew me to a more formal devotional life: when you really cannot pray yourself, when every form of ‘felt’ experience has fled, when you are despairing of yourself and despairing of God, then the prayers of others become precious. … I discovered the prayers of the Church, some ancient and some contemporary, that expressed concisely and profoundly what I would have wanted to pray myself if I had been able.
I read that passage just a few days before hearing the revelations about the spiritual dryness of Mother Teresa. Perhaps you’ve seen the news stories. Clearly, without set practices of devotion, she could not have persevered in her saintly work.
And then I thought of how I begin each morning’s prayers. Using an abbreviated form taken from the Book of Common Prayer, I always begin morning devotion with these words from Psalm 51: “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” When I say those words, I realize that I do not pray. God prays through me. I cannot pray. I need God to “open my lips.” And then the Spirit helps me in my weakness.
I’m glad that in their “crushing darkness” John Colwell (and Mother Teresa) have learned to rely on the prayers of others. For Colwell and for me, that has meant learning to rely less on self and on feelings and to enter into the larger prayer of the church, which organizes itself around the chapters of the story of salvation. And that is what section four of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future invites us to: “Therefore, we call Evangelicals to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts.”
Those questions will be the subject of future blog posts. Stay tuned.