Monday, September 10, 2007

Theology by the Seasons

Right from the start, John Colwell’s The Rhythm of Doctrine (Paternoster, 2007) turns things upside down. The Spurgeon’s College theologian begins with Revelation rather than Genesis. Just as the season of Advent points us to “The One Who Comes” both at the Incarnation and again at the Last Day, so does the Apocalypse: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev. 1:8).

(See the earlier post in which I introduced this fascinating first attempt to structure a systematic theology around the seasons of the church year, rather than around the three articles of the Creed.)

Colwell unpacks this verse in relation to God’s self-naming in Exodus 3:14: “I am who I am” or better yet “I will be who I will be.” Perhaps most important, he identifies God’s freedom and God’s self-existence implicit in these self-disclosures and shows how they run counter to the vaguer, less personal, less historical notions of God that reign in many theological classrooms and pulpits. “The God of panentheism (or pantheism) cannot ‘come’ to creation since the distinction between God and creation has already been blurred if not abolished..."

God’s immanence, says Colwell, must be conceived of not as necessary, but as free. A necessary immanence not only blurs the line with creation but also destroys both love and grace. “That God ‘comes’ to his creation is an act of grace and the act of coming itself, as a free act, identifies God as gracious.”

Thus the God who freely comes to his world is the same God who came to his people in making covenant with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the children of Israel, and supremely in Jesus. There is an identity of grace between the God who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come.

In spelling out a doctrine of God by reflecting on “The One Who Comes,” Colwell strikes a note of humility. Because the kingdoms of this world have not yet become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, we do not comprehend as we shall comprehend. He casts this humility in postmodern terms, discussing the limits of knowledge—even in relationship to revealed truth. But he is no relativist, and he writes with confidence about what we can know. Because this is the God who has already come to Moses and has come in Jesus, we can hope with confidence.

Colwell is not just subdividing his theology by the liturgical seasons; he is also following his postmodern impulse to tie theology more closely to ethics than to philosophy. Thus he matches each season with a classic theological virtue. In the case of Advent, that virtue is hope. He cites Stanley Hauerwas on the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is “hope without truth.” Because we know the truth about the God who has come, “we live in hope, not overwhelmed by our sin and our propensity to sin, but continually trusting in a mercy that forgives and a grace that restores and transforms.”

Incarnation, the measure of creation

From Advent (“The One Who Comes”), Colwell moves to Christmas (“The One Who Takes Our Humanity”). Here he deals with the doctrine of Creation—normally one of the first topics in a systematic theology because the Creed and the Bible begin by confessing God the Father as “maker of heaven and earth.”

Because Colwell locates his treatment of Creation under the Incarnation, a curious thing happens—and a good thing it is. Christ becomes the measure of creation. Colwell cites Colin Gunton, who wrote that Irenaeus “views creation as God’s project, a project that only ever reaches its fulfilment in Christ.”

And then: “the perfected humanity of Christ is ever the only means of the fulfillment of creation’s perfection; creation comes to its goal here and not otherwise or elsewhere.”

From this he draws out the purposefulness of creation and the goodness of bodily existence. Also from this perspective, he is able (later, in the chapter on Lent) to bypass the old debate about whether the Son assumed a fallen human nature or an unfallen nature. In this scheme it is not Adam but the Incarnate Son who defines human nature. We know what true humanity is because we know Jesus.

Colwell continues his meditations on the virtues in this chapter on Incarnation. Here he aptly chooses the virtue of love, which entails sexuality. Worth quoting:

Few could have foreseen forty years ago how the relative reliability and availability of contraception would alter notions of public morality. Sever to such a degree the possibility and expectation of child birth from the act of sexual intercourse and the significance of the act of sexual intercourse is changed; the potentially procreational is re-envisaged as the merely recreational. ... [T]his contemporary and popular trivialisation of sex to the merely recreational represents a more pressing and more foundational challenge to Christian virtue than related issues of cohabitation, divorce, and re-marriage.

And after noting the nature of God’s love as revealed in covenant faithfulness, he writes this about human love:

It is love so defined, rather than mere sexual attraction or self-serving desire, that is the essence of marriage: a love that implies consequences but which is unconditional ... ; a love that is faithful and seeks faithfulness; a love that is generous rather than grasping; a love that is both trusting and merciful; a love that seeks to serve rather than to be served; a love that is freely for the other and that, through sexual intimacy, is welcoming of children.

But Scripture does not put the full burden of reflecting God’s love on the institution of marriage. It is the church, writes Colwell, that “is called to be the principal and most profound reflection and mediation of the faithful and merciful love that is God’s eternal nature.”

Last Things

That’s just a sample of how organizing a theology around the church year can give us a chance to view essential doctrines from a different angle. To give a thorough account of the book—with its treatments of Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, and All Saints— would take a much longer essay; so let me conclude with a few words of commendation.

First, Colwell’s method allows us to re-appropriate the Jewish context of the gospel. Because it is set in the context of Israel’s story and Israel’s Messiah, this approach pulls us away from centuries of anti-Judaism and centuries of philosophizing and asks us to engage with the particularity of the revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. Colwell makes this particular man the measure of what we mean when we say God, what we mean when we say human, and what we mean when we say perfect. That is all to the good.

Second, Colwell’s method counteracts a Flatlander’s approach to Scripture. Hebrews is very clear in pointing us to a Christological reading of Scripture—a series of revelations that culminate in Christ. In times past, says Hebrews, God spoke to our ancestors in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken through his Son, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:1-3). Despite this inspired commentary, some evangelicals treat types and shadows as if they were "the exact representation." But viewing God’s revelation through the lens of the church year reminds us that earlier revelations were indeed a foreshadowing—and that Christ is the fulfillment.

One final comment: Colwell is among those who find theories of penal substitution inadequate to explain the work of Christ. But he is to be commended for not dumping all notions of substitution. Indeed, he recognizes that the theme of substitution is woven throughout Scripture—Christ indeed makes our place his, and his place ours.

And Colwell is also to be commended for not rejecting outright Luther’s insights even as he holds a different view of Paul's purposes. He recognizes that Luther may have been making appropriate use of Paul in his rejection of “works righteousness” in the late medieval context.

Other critics of penal substitution make both of these mistakes. But I won’t write more about that until a later post. Abingdon has just published Scot McKnight’s new book, A Community Called Atonement, and I want to read and digest that before engaging further with Colwell’s argument.

The Rhythm of Doctrine is a theological sketch worth engaging and even meditating on. Bob Webber's blurb on Colwell's book calls it "cutting edge" and warns that "the older evangelical generation may not be willing to move in this direction." Since I liked the book's direction despite the fact that I am very definitely about to enter my seventh decade, I can only conclude that I must be part of the younger generation. Thanks, Bob.

(Unfortunately, the book is not currently available in the U.S. but can be obtained from several booksellers linked through

No comments: