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

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Lark News Satirizes "Orthodox Lite" Worship

The new edition of Lark News takes a shot at--what?--blended worship? Lark is The Onion of evangelical Protestantism--a humor and satire site devoted to evangelical foibles. Its latest effort talks about evangelical churches offering "Orthodox lite" services, complete with "candles, non-specific iconography ... other religious-looking items ... generic vestments and ... a more somber manner."

The piece was supposed to be funny, but I find the phenomenon it was satirizing to be sad. So if you read it and chuckle, that's fine. But since satire is supposed to have a point, let me comment on what I take to be the barb in the Lark's "news item."

According to the fictional EV Free pastor featured in the item,

"It’s the same sermon, same worship songs in many cases, just done in a more liturgical style," Fitzgerald says. "I don’t mind changing the packaging for people. It freshens it up for them and for me."

There's the rub. As long it's about "packaging," adding liturgical elements to a service is pretty empty.

"I like the reverence and the mood," says one girl, 16. "It feels more spiritual."

"I like the candles," her friend chimes in.
"Packaging" or "feel" or "mood" are all about marketing. But liturgical worship is about other things:

  • It is about doing what the people of God have done for nearly two millennia: Word and Sacrament. (Candles and incense really are optional.) The round of Scripture reading and sacramental practices shape us and mold us--keep us from being squeezed into the world's mold (Rom. 12:2).
  • It is about worshiping as embodied souls. Physical acts (kneeling, singing, bowing, lifting our hands) and the use of physical substances (bread, wine, oil, water, incense, salt) remind us that we are not just here to learn, but to participate. The life of a Jesus follower is about believing and doing. And worship needs to order both our thoughts and actions.
  • It is about objectivity (the opposite of "feel" and "mood"). Ritual actions are designed to help us praise God whether or not we "feel like it." And they are about opening us to God's action in our lives, about placing ourselves at his disposal, rather than creating a subjective, emotional response.
  • It is about setting aside our own "creativity" and opening ourselves to God's re-creating grace. This is the "sabbath" nature of worship. We've been doing all week. With long to-do lists in hand, we've been responsible for making things happen in our homes and our workplaces. On the Sabbath, we don't need to engage in a lot of innovation. Worship doesn't depend on us. The saints are already casting their crowns before the throne and crying alleluia. The pressure on us to be original, creative, and subjective is off. All we have to do is join the chorus.
  • It is about making sure that we proclaim God's story. Non-liturgical worship can easily become oriented to felt needs or therapeutic self-help discourse: How to be a good parent. How to manage your finances Christianly. How to deal with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. All good topics, but they are not of the substance of worship. Liturgical worship ensures that we read the full range of the scriptural story and walk through the cycle of Jesus' story every year. And within that context, we will be shaped as parents and financial stewards.
  • Okay, okay, it is about mood and atmosphere, but only to the extent that it signals a break from a world that tells us stories other than God's story. In the world's stories, you are an individual who is a consumer (your worth is in what you own) or an achiever (your worth is in what you or your family accomplish) or a cool person (your worth is in your ability to keep up with trends in music, clothing, coffee, electronics, and so forth). But when you come to worship, the narration of all those stories is put on "pause," and you listen once more the God's story and how you are part of a called-out and redeemed community destined to play a role in the restoration of creation.

I could go on. But my point is made. The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future says we should have "
public worship that sings, preaches and enacts God's story" and and we must "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." This is about liturgical worship as substance, not as surface. The things we do in liturgy "shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world."

Now, I'm all for blending historic liturgical elements into worship services that also feature contemporary song and drama and elements from the non-liturgical traditions. But we must do the blending with an eye to telling God's story comprehensively to people who are daily squeezed into the world's mold, and who need instead a vision of God's way and God's future.

So, was the Lark News item funny? Well, I did laugh at the very end, when "the Bartel family of suburban Cleveland, Ohio, tried the local Orthodox church for a month, but 'couldn’t make the cultural shift long-term' ... When they walked back into an evangelical service, 'the drums and guitars sounded pretty good for once.' "

Liturgy takes work and commitment and even "cultural shift." But it doesn't exclude drums and guitars.

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Lark News updates its satirical news items the first of every month. In addition to humor, you can find religious artifacts for the cynical, including tee-shirts that say "Homeschooled & Wild," "Heard You Got into That Christian College. Bummer," and "Jesus Loves You! Then again he loves everybody."

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