“The Church is not interested in spiritual mediocrity. It’s calling people to sainthood, to be a saint means to be heroically virtuous. The family is a school of virtue, a school of sanctity, it’s meant to make us saints. We’re not interested in a dumbed down or a dialled down ideal. … And as anyone in the pastoral life know, people struggle to attain this level.
It is true that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit receives less attention than other doctrines. Historically, the institutional church looked (and still looks) upon the appeal by the masses to the Spirit as potentially subversive and in need of control. Maybe that’s partly why pneumatology is the “odd-ology” (Fabricius).
John is a pastor/scholar, a man who loves the Church because he loves God first. He was tutor in systematic and historical theology at Spurgeon’s College for fifteen years, serving in pastorates both before and after. He has written on Theological Ethics, Practical and Pastoral Theology, and among his several books, he has written, The Rhythm of Doctrine, Living the Christian Story and Promise and Presence, as well as publishing on the eschatology of Karl Barth.
What has been and now is your area of special theological interest?
“That’s a very straight forward question without a straight forward answer. I suppose because of the age we’ve lived in, one of the things that has driven me, since the 1970’s was the effect that post-modernism…let’s call it “late modernism”….let’s call it “humbled modernism”….has had on our thinking; has the effect on, not just simply Christian Doctrine, but how we read our Bible and study the Bible. So that’s been one fascination which I try to address in the things I have done. The other thing that has driven me has been to challenge the disconnectedness of theology, the ease with which a theological course becomes quite distinct and separate sub-disciplines. I suppose my theological heroes are those who have challenged that, so I can’t comprehend biblical studies that is not doctrinal, or doctrine that is not biblical or that is not liturgical and worshipful, and anything that is not focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in this world. So it is that disconnectedness that has been what I’ve tried to challenge in doing the things that I’ve done.”
You’ve just mentioned your heroes, now, apart from Rosie and Jesus, who have been your greatest influences?
“Well initially I suppose, though I never met him, Karl Barth, because I think as a student, Barth enabled me to begin to marry together my head and my heart, in a way that nobody I’d read before did. I realise most people come to Barth via Calvin; I came to Calvin via Barth. So he was my first influence, and I have been greatly blessed by being taught by people who had themselves been taught by Barth – Tom Smail especially, Tom Torrence to a lesser degree. And although he was of a younger generation, Colin Gunton was a massive influence on me. Through his books but especially through an exchange of letters Stanley Hauerwas has been a massive influence, as has Robert Jenson. Robert Jenson was Colin Gunton’s first doctoral supervisor, and so I came to know Robert through Colin. These would be my current heroes, but if you want to go back in the past, how long have you got? I’m fascinated by the theology of Irenaeus. I fell in love with Thomas Aquinas relatively late in life when I realised he said the almost diametrically opposite of what as a good Protestant I thought he said. And Jonathon Edwards the American revivalist. When you read his writings, they are profound. There has been a renaissance in Edwards Studies, but I think in earlier days, he was much much underrated.”
You are a “Baptist Sacramentalist” – not a word heard that often in Baptist circles, and well known for your writing in this regard – a rare breed it seems to me…
“Not as rare as I once was. And interestingly, this change is happening in the United States. Which if all you know about the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention is extraordinarily surprising. That’s been one of the revelations to me, how much momentum this has got the other side of the Atlantic.”
…What is “sacramentalism” and why do you afford it such significance?
“I’m not sure how briefly I can say that. It’s something I’ve written before and made the point that all theology is inevitably autobiographical, even if you’re trying for it not to be, so it’s best to admit this from the word go and be up front about it. I suppose it’s my own spiritual journey. My own very thorough and deep involvement in the Charismatic movement, but my involvement in the Charismatic movement as someone all his adult life wrestled with chronic depression. Recognising that the enormous danger – not just of Charismatic spirituality, but various spiritualities – are very feeling orientated and not promise orientated. And it seems to me what defines us as Christians is the promise of God not how we feel. That’s what the sacraments are. If we just take Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they are visible promises of God to us. And this should be the basis of how we live as Christians, not on how we feel, but the fact of what God has said.”
I guess every generation has faced this reality: feelings verses promise. It’s not a modern phenomena, but seems to be such a powerful….”I don’t feel like going to church”…….”I don’t feel God’s presence so I doubt my own faith.” We hear it regularly as pastors such is its power…
“Yes you’re right that there’s probably been this tension, but my suspicion – I’m no sociologist or anthropologist – but my suspicion is that it is much stronger in our age than it has been previously. I would link that I suppose, with what Christian pastors are often moaning about, with a sense of lowering of committment, a reluctance to commit, a lowering of a sense of duty. Previous generations have been strongly driven by a sense of duty and a sense of honour – honour a word we often hear of only in negative ways, in the worst contradictory sense of that word – it’s just not a concept that seems to be current now, so I think the older generation need to reflect on how the world more generally has become a more feely orientated age, and I think that’s very dangerous. It’s particularly dangerous – and this is where is becomes auto-biographical – it’s particularly dangerous for those whose feelings are not always positive and good, and therefore to say no, I am baptised, here at this Table there is bread and wine and at Calvary there was a Cross, and how I feel has got nothing to do with that, it’s irrelevant.”
I first met you in the crazy days of my MA module you taught at Bristol Baptist College as you know. You have been a senior lecturer at Spurgeon’s College and a pastor of several churches and no doubt a few other things. What do you see as the greatest challenge to men and women as they engage in contemporary pastoral ministry and what future challenges do you see on the horizon?
“We’ve already talked in private conversation, about the greatest challenge: it is the challenge not be a pastor but to be a Chief Executive. I’m not saying for a moment we should be deliberately inefficient, we try to lead churches. No where in the Bible does Jesus call himself the Good Chief Executive Officer or the Good Administrator, he calls himself the Good Shepherd. So the chief challenge to pastoral ministry is to remain true to that calling to be a minister of Word and Sacrament; to feed the flock of God and it seems to me, there are increasing pressures on pastors not to be that. To be coming up with 5-year plans, 10-year programs and mission statement and vision statements and policy statements….”
It’s so good to hear you say that….
“…I know, but I’m not saying these things are wrong in themselves, but I think they can be massive, massive distractions, and yes, we have an enemy who rejoices in nothing more than distracting us from what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Eugene Peterson springs to mind, William Willimon also. Who else can pastors today turn too?
“These two would be other “heroes” of mine and I would add Stanley Hauerwas too. The classic of course is Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor which I advise my students at Spurgeon’s to re-read every five years, and remind themselves what it was they were called to be doing. Only, it’s got an unfortunate title because of the ‘reformed’ and they think of reformed in the Calvinist sense – now yes, OK, that was Baxter, although he was a quite idiosyncratic Calvinist, but he’s talking about the Reformation of pastoral ministry, and what Pastoral ministry is at its heart. And when we are under this threat of all kinds of business speak, it is important to remind yourself what God has called you to be….and do note my language there, the thing God called you to benot what God called you to do.”
So if that’s a present danger, what do you see on the horizon as a coming challenge?
[Big sigh] “History is littered with unhelpful and false predictions. You’re asking me this question in the week where poll-pundits got the election predictions spectacularly wrong. There are the obvious things of living in an increasingly post-post-Christian society (I meant a double “post”), because a post-Christian society still remembers what it is it is post; a post-post-Christian society doesn’t and I think that is dangerous for society in which we live because so much of the foundation for how society is organised and run has sprung from a tradition which we’ve now departed from. I think in that sense it’s going to become increasingly difficult for the church to be the church…I say “increasingly difficult”….is that quite true….in some ways you could say it’s more exciting because it’s clear, the demarkation is clear, the church is called to be the church, but the temptation of the church is to try to be the world. I’m not saying we’re heading for a period of terrible persecution. I don’t think that’s true. I think terrible indifference will be closer to the truth. But we are being called to function as the church in an age that doesn’t have a clue what we are talking about, and I think that is a massive challenge. Yet there are so many other things in society that we haven’t quite caught up with as church, the global market and how we have Corporations that are economically more powerful than nations. That is a new world order that none of us have quite got our heads round yet, and what it means to be Christians in a world order like that. I don’t really know, but those are the challenges I think.”
Can you tell us one strength and one weakness of the contemporary UK Baptist church scene?
“This can be answered in lots of different ways. It is many questions disguised as one! Just to answer the Baptist point, I don’t think I’ve ever been more convinced about Baptist distinctives than I am now. I believe profoundly in the integrity of the local church. I believe profoundly that when the people of God gather, Jesus is present by His Spirit to guide us. I think I will go so far as to say I have a sacramental understanding of the church meeting – there’s a promised presence here for which we gather. So I’m more convinced than ever about this, yet more uneasy about the way our Baptist Union has made decisions and is travelling….I feel for the first time probably in my life, really quite not at home with certain things. I see that as a challenge. I’m still not quite sure why that is the case and I refuse to just put it down to economic crises of various orders, but that to me is a serious thing. So our Baptist strengths are what we bring to the Ecumenical table, something our forebears discovered and which we passionately believe, and which, rightly understood, keeps us with a servant understanding of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ within the world, to be Christian ministers within the world, because it is so overtly non-hierarchical – that’s our strength. The weakness is as we’ve discussed already and not limited to Baptist life: this non-committal, this reluctance to commit which is new and something I noticed after fifteen years teaching at Spurgeons followed by a pastorate, the situation of committment had massively, massively changed. Whereby many have being a Christian and going to church as a hobby mentality. I do think this is a massive problem right now, a weakness, which in countries where it’s harder to be a Christian, I suspect it’s not such a problem.”
One feeds off the other doesn’t it? If you have non-committal and the Baptist distinctive is promised presence in the gathering, which assumes committment, prevailing culture is undermining the very thing that makes us distinctive…
What do you do to relax John?
“Play the piano. One thing about being retired is you never worry if the sun will shine on your day off. If the sun is shining you go for a walk whether it’s your day off or not because you’re retired and every day is a day off! Rosie and I like walking and I like Real Ale. So a walk in the country with a really good pub at the end is our idea of heaven.”
That sounds like the perfect theologian to me John.
The year is 2276. Someone picks up a book and the Rev. Dr. John Colwell is remembered. What do you think it would say?
“It would be a blank piece of paper…”
No it won’t, I’m not having that….
“Oh it will, I mean come, come, come! You just look at the number of books that are published on a weekly basis. Most of them are in print for a very short space of time and long since forgotten. Most of us don’t even make a footnote in Church history.”
I know, but what would it say if it said something….maybe I should ask Rosie….?
“I don’t know. I’m not sure any of us can say how others might remember us. Ok, I guess books have a shelf-life longer than flesh and blood and therefore somebody may pick this up and say there was this obscure British Baptist who had some weird ideas about sacraments and the way in which theology should be done. If you’re asking me how I’d like to be remembered, I’d like to be remembered as a good husband and father and grandfather. I’d like to be remembered as a caring pastor.
I agree, but forgive me for pushing this: It has been said that students and congregations don’t remember everything they hear in the lecture hall or from the pulpit (which is shocking in itself), but what they do remember is what the tutor/pastor was passionate about. Does that help you pin point what this 2276 piece of paper would say?
“When I was inducted in the church where I was pastor, Rex Mason said in his sermon, “John, long after everybody here has forgotten everything you’ve ever said, they will remember the man you are.”
With my thanks to John Colwell, an excellent scholar, great writer, amazing preacher, good friend and mentor.
Jurgen Moltmann (whose hand I once shook), wrote the following about the place and importance of theology being the job for every Christian. We are poorer as a church if we limit theology to the Academy, or marginalise it in the life of a local church, labelling it falsely as a specialism for academics or irrelevant for ordinary people (I’ve never met an “ordinary” person in my life)! Anyway, enjoy this snippet. Did I tell you I once shook his hand…..? (It was the hand in the picture below….)
“Theology is the business of all God’s people. It is not just the affair of the theological faculties, and not just the concern of the church’s colleges and seminaries. The faith of the whole body of Christians on earth seeks to know and understand. If it doesn’t, it isn’t Christian faith. This means that the foundation for every theological specialization is the general theology of all believers, which corresponds to the Reformation’s thesis about the universal ‘priesthood of all believers’. All Christians who believe and who think about what they believe are theologians, whether they are young or old, women or men. . . .
I should not like to let this universalization of the priesthood and of theology stand in such general terms, and so I would prefer to talk about ‘the shared priesthood’ and therefore about the shared theology of all believers too. On this common ground, not everyone has to do and think the same thing. The fellowship of all believers requires that differentiation of assignments and functions which corresponds to the multicoloured diversity of the Spirit’s gifts, or charismata. Even in the shared theology of all believers there are particular commissions and delegations. Academic theology is one of them. But the community of Christians must be able to identify with its delegations. Otherwise alienations arise which have an oppressive rather than a helpful effect.
Academic theology is nothing other than the scholarly penetration and illumination by mind and spirit of what Christians in the congregations think when they believe in God and live in the fellowship of Christ. By scholarly I mean that the theology is methodologically verifiable and comprehensible. Good scholarly theology is therefore basically simple, because it is clear. Only cloudy theology is complicated and difficult. Whether it be Athanasius or Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin, Schleiermacher or Barth—the fundamental ideas of every good theological system can be presented on a single page. It is true that Barth needed more than 8,000 pages for his Church Dogmatics, and even then they were still unfinished, so that kindly disposed critics said, ‘surely truth can’t be as long as that’. But as we know, theological praise of the eternally bounteous God is never-ending. So the length of a work does not necessarily detract from the simple truth of what it says.”
“I remember one minister for education urging that ‘Britain was the only nation on earth where cleverness was despised’. In other European countries, for example France and Germany, cleverness is sought after and prized. The glorification of educational backwardness, then, is part of a localised British decadence or hedonism that is inconsistent with biblical Christianity.
On this point the stress on ‘right-pitching’ from the pulpit in our churches is potentially confused with the rebellious suppression of the truth which Paul speaks about in Romans 1:18, or with ‘keeping the congregation as babies’ in line with sinful parent-child models of leadership. Right pitching always seeks to ‘move on’ those in the congregation to the next level of understanding. If ‘pitching’ always remains low, then people are not prepared for the complexities of the trials they face in life. When trouble comes, the ‘cartoon’ Christianity they have been fed proves to be hopelessly inadequate and they often fall away. The excuse is often given by ministers that ‘people will not understand’, but this is often nothing more than a patronising assumption that people are stupid.
Some, of course, want to remain ‘as babes’ because they do not wish to be alerted to subtle distortions in their own relational patterns. Right pitching, however, combines intelligibility with the introduction of the new, the more advanced, the ‘not completely understood already’. As the famous philosopher Wittgenstein said, in order for learning and growth to occur, more than mere ‘information’ is required. There has to be a gradual increase in the sophistication of the very categories by which people process ‘new information’.
In my second year at Junior school (age 8-9), we did maths using the ‘A2’ textbook. I remember looking at the ‘A3’ text book and thinking ‘flippin’ ‘eck, that looks difficult!’ Yet, in no way was it ‘unwise’ for me to progress from A2 level to A3 level. In no sense did my teacher think, ‘hmm, yes – we’d better keep the class at A2 level because that’s what they can understand’.
In other words, advancement into the ‘at-present-unintelligible’ was right and normal. And that’s for children, let alone adults. Just as we are born, and require education, so when we are born again, we require re-education. Just as it would be wrong to prohibit education beyond 8-9 year-old level, so it is wrong to prohibit biblical re-education beyond ‘spiritual baby’ level. It may be culturally fashionable, but it panders to parent-child patterns of leadership control that are inappropriate for those progressing towards spiritual adulthood.”
Dr Robert Knowles
“The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: She believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth , and the sea , and all that are in them; and in one Christ, Jesus the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God: [announcing in prophecy] the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ, Jesus our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in then glory of the Father to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race . . . . .
As I have already observed, the Church, having received the preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.
She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.
For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the content of the [apostolic] tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.
But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all [people] that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies I, 10, 1-2, trans. A Roberts and W. Rambaut, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.I, ed. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Buffalo, N. Y.: Christian Literature Publishing, 1885); translation has been slightly modified.
A friend of mine describes the Christian life using a military metaphor that is both helpful and enlightening….I know – what a bargain!
Being a Christian is about learning the basics: Prayer; reading (i.e. exegeting and interpreting) scripture; Christ-likeness; learning the Fruits of the Spirit; living the sermon on the Mount; renewal of the mind; developing spiritual habits formed in the furnace of Trinitarian relationship, etc. These basics are like the “basic drill” an army unit performs to stay sharp. In other words, the existential reality for the army is the drill performed in peace-time: Marching; cleaning; inspection; fitness; and so on and so forth (one doesn’t want to push a military metaphor too far – there’s enough of that going on already)!
But the basics serve the special missions: Either planned or spontaneous mission/evangelism; specific seasons of ministry; short or long-term mission; local or national or international. In short, an Olympic athlete’s gold medal was forged on the running tracks of Trinidad; the swimming pools of Portugal and the cycling arenas of Argentina – the actual final in which it was won is almost a moot point! The basic drill serves the special mission.