Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Baptist Theologizes the Liturgical Year

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.”

* * *

How well does Colwell carry out his attempt to organize a systematic around the church year? And what are the strengths of such an approach compared to the traditional way of writing theology?

Those questions will be the subject of future blog posts. Stay tuned.


Brad Nassif said...

I'm delighted to learn of Colwell's book. Just wondering which liturgical calendar he's following (Anglican, Catholic?) The Byzantine liturgy (sometimes very difficult to unravel) takes its entire shape from the annual Paschal service (Easter). The Resurrection is the controlling principle for the various liturgical celebrations throughout the year. Schmemann is to credit for this insight, and I think it's a good one.

Joel Scandrett said...

Fascinating. I wonder how he deals with the doctrine of Creation, since (I think) it is more implicit than explicit in the liturgical year (both East and West?). Perhaps Advent, which signifies both the coming and coming again of Christ, also points to the coming of the Word to that "nothing" out of which God created all things. "Who was, Who is, and Who is to come."

Anonymous said...

This story is also mine. Raised Baptist, I was confirmed an Anglican while experiencing depression. And this article largely validates what I've been recently thinking about. That it was precisely the experience of profoundly beautiful written prayers, the priest's procurement of forgiveness (and intercession for the day's safety during week day morning prayer times), and regular Communion that fed me and kept me going. But now that I have come out of depression, I want almost nothing to do with such an environment. Rather shockingly, since retaining my spiritual and natural faculties, I am looking for and experiencing a deeper, more personal and transformative spiritual path. And I am seemingly unable to find it in the deeply traditional/liturgical churches. To be sure, I think some liturgy is good. That some written prayers and formal structures are good things. But I believed that already having attended semi-formal Methodist and Presbyterian congregations on occasion. However, anything beyond that strikes me of actual wall-making between one's soul and the search for God. As, psychologically, the splendid liturgy and its promises within highly liturgical churches virtually relieve any deep sense of personal need, responsibility, or even blessings. Therefore, I am finding recent trends toward more liturgy to be disturbing. Moreover, I can't help notice that it is happening only in the West and as the western Church has become as spiritually weak as it has been since the Reformation. It's called "liturgical renewal." But I think of it more as a psychological form of spiritual relief than genuine renewal. When lives are being radically altered and coming into direct relationship with God, that's renewal. Whereas, feeling more centered and empathetic and generally more spiritual is simply a by-product of any meditative form of worship or centering, whether East or West, Christian or pagan. While not a bad thing in itself, it is definitely a poor substitute for a true salvation experience. Of course, I do think meditative practices can exist alongside genuine faith. But it can never be its truest or fullest expression. Not in a million years and not according to the scriptural witness itself.

Gary said...

Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

I ask you to consider these points:

1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean? Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

2. There is NO translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into ANY language, ANYWHERE on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, WHEN exactly does God give it?

4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism didn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, these early Baptists re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

God bless you and keep you!

Vicki said...

I am too the point of giving up on the majority of "church" calendars made by man to bring people to Christ in a more "worldly up to date fashion". He told us what to do in remembrance of Him, and How we were to learn of Him, and how we were to remain in Him, but us being the humans that we are had to get involved in how we learned and studied which created division, and also we had to get involved in creating celebrations which came from pagan beliefs and added them to the "church" calendar while still saying it was all given by Him the Holy Spirit that goes way beyond His Spirit and Word. We create many ways of lifting up our human spirits and calling it his. I am working toward going back and relearning His truth and not following any man other than learning from Him and spreading only His ways and teachings so hopefully He is willing to grow His church full of His Spirit as it was. We do not need anything "New" we need to go back to the original teachings of Christ and His first followers. We would be less busy and only focusing on Him, His life, crucifixion, and resurrection everyday! What a new concept, I wonder where that teaching as gone!