Saturday, August 25, 2007


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, a book 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.

Another thing 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 Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life). But a Baptist?

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?

Right from the start, The Rhythm of Doctrine 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).

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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."