Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“The truth will make you free”: a response to Chuck Colson

In a blog post published yesterday on Christianity Today (“Doctrinal Boot Camp”), Chuck Colson argues that the church needs to treat catechesis the way the military treats new cadets: “Just like the Marine Corps, the church has learned what works and what doesn't, what is right and what is wrong. And the goal of Christian discipleship is to conform to the truths of the Christian faith, just as a marine has to conform to the truths of the corps.” According to Colson, there is an instructive analogy between boot camp and discipleship: in both cases, the “old man [sic]” is destroyed and a new person is created with “a new set of beliefs and standards.”

Let’s examine this thesis. Colson’s post is situated in the context of an ongoing dispute with the so-called “younger evangelicals”—which is the term he uses, borrowing from Robert Webber’s typology. Colson has long struggled to oppose the rise of what calls “postmodern” or “emergent” forms of Christian faith and practice. Back in June, 2006, I wrote a blog post responding to another column of his on a similar theme (“Emerging Confusion”). Then and now, Colson is concerned with the notion of “truth.” As Pilate puts it in the Gospel of John, “What is truth?” Today, there are no shortage of answers to this question, and Colson defends a popular version of it, viz. the “cognitive-propositional” type, to use George Lindbeck’s famous typology. The examples he gives of such truth include the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the recent Manhattan Declaration. Truth, on this model, is a logical statement or propositional sentence that makes a particular claim about something; it is either true or false, and there are no ambiguities. Either one affirms the truth, or one (sinfully) denies it. The attempt by these “younger evangelicals” to redefine the meaning of truth is considered a failure to be a faithful Christian.

I find it especially odd that at this point, Colson turns to the analogy of a Marine boot camp to convince his readers. Surely, this is a rhetorical error on his part. Those younger evangelicals seeking to think differently about truth are precisely the ones least likely to find a military example compelling. But let’s ignore the misstep in presentation and focus on the content of the analogy. And for the sake of argument, let’s think within this analogy instead of too quickly dismissing it. (The time for dismissal will come later.)

Colson compares the “truths of the Christian faith” to the “truths of the corps.” Just as the troops must obey the truths of the corps, so too the Christian must obey the truths of the faith. For this analogy to work, however, we need to come to some understanding about what the “truths of the corps” actually are. But immediately we come up against a serious problem. For the truths of the corps are not at all a set of propositions about the Marine corps (or anything else for that matter). They are instead the commands of the drill sergeant. These commands are concrete, contextual, and relational: they are grounded in a personal relation between the commanding officer and the obedient cadet, situated within a particular context determined by a concrete time and place. To obey the “truths of the corps” is thus to obey a living voice, a commanding presence, that meets us within our particular historical situation. I am the one commanded. In short, the “truths of the corps” are ethical truths—related, that is, to the question of concrete human agency—not cognitive truths. If anything, boot camp is about stripping away cognitive knowledge and forming a purely ethical agent, one who is conditioned entirely by the relation of command and obedience.

Let’s assume then that Colson simply hasn’t thought through the analogy. What are the specific reasons he gives for using it? In what ways does he actually draw out the comparison? Here it will help to form a list:
  1. “I asked him about younger evangelicals who believe that we oldsters aren't being sensitive enough to their concerns. ‘Can you imagine,’ he asked, ‘what would happen if a scruffy young recruit were to tell his Marine drill instructor at Parris Island that he ought to be more sensitive to his needs?’ We both chuckled, knowing what would happen to the poor recruit. If he survived, he'd be doing 100 pushups a day for weeks.” Conclusion: the truths of the faith are to be blindly adhered to without critical scrutiny and without concern for the individual.

  2. “The psychology of boot camp is instructive. The first six weeks are spent—figuratively speak-ing, mostly—beating out of recruits every habit, attitude, and preconceived notion about life and the world. You are told you are worthless and are ‘not a special snowflake,’ as Campbell says. ... After the drill instructors get rid of the old man—there's a good analogy—the instruction changes dramatically. They now tell you that you're a marine and can achieve anything if you live by the rules.” Conclusion: catechesis is about creating a blank slate (i.e., brainwashing), getting rid of all prior conceptions and practices, and learning to follow a new set of “rules.”

  3. “This is what becoming a Christian means. We put off the old man, get rid of the old habits, and embrace a new set of beliefs and standards defined in Scripture and lived out over 2,000 years. Just like the Marine Corps, the church has learned what works and what doesn't, what is right and what is wrong. And the goal of Christian discipleship is to conform to the truths of the Christian faith, just as a marine has to conform to the truths of the corps.” Conclusion: the truths of the faith are the doctrinal beliefs and standards that the “church” has determined over the years (i.e., sacred tradition) in its struggle against heresy.

  4. “Come to think of it, isn't the church today in a far more serious battle than any the Marines have fought? Aren't we called to make disciples who will advance the kingdom of God in an extremely hostile world? Haven't we inherited 2,000 years of very hard-earned lessons?” Conclusion: Christians are in a spiritual battle that can only be won through blind obedience to the doctrinal tradition that we have “inherited.”
It is crucial to see what Colson has done here. Even though the article repeatedly states that the analogy is between the “truths of the Christian faith” and the “truths of the corps,” he nowhere discusses the actual “truths” in each case. There is absolutely no doctrinal content anywhere in this article. Instead, the analogy merely concerns the form in which the content is delivered and obeyed. The form of the Marine truths is a “psychological” beat-down that destroys the old person and fashions a new totally obedient servant of the armed forces. The “form” of the Christian truths, according to this analogy, is a “psychological” brainwashing in which the catechumen is stripped of all prior ideas and compelled (under threat of hell, I suppose, comparable to dishonorable discharge) to adopt whatever teachings are given by the authorities.

What is the nature of the obedience presented here by Colson? Quite clearly, it is a purely formal obedience and thus a purely formal authority. Rudolf Bultmann’s description of Judaism in his book, Jesus (ET Jesus and the Word), is perfectly applicable here:
Obligation to obedience depended no longer upon content but upon formal authority; not what was commanded determined the will of the person acting, but the fact that such and such was commanded. ... The commandments were kept because they were commanded. ... The fundamental desire is to be obedient to the sacred Law, without reference to what it commands. Obedience is the essence of Jewish morality. ... The fundamental idea of the Jewish ethic [is] blind obedience. ... The will of God is the formal authority of Scripture; ethic is therefore not distinguishable from law. (Jesus and the Word, 66-7, 70)
Bultmann goes on to sharply distinguish between Jewish morality and the ethic of Jesus, calling the latter “radical obedience”:
What God’s will is, is not stated by an external authority, so that the content of the command is a matter of indifference, but man is trusted and expected to see for himself what God commands. God’s requirements are intrinsically intelligible. And here the idea of obedience is first radically conceived. For so long as obedience is only subjection to an authority which man does not understand, it is no true obedience; something in man still remains outside and does not submit, is not bound by the command of God. ... In this kind of decision a man stands outside of his action, he is not completely obedient. Radical obedience exists only when a man inwardly assents to what is required of him, when the thing commanded is seen as intrinsically God’s command; when the whole man stands behind what he does; or better, when the whole man is in what he does, when he is not doing something obediently, but is essentially obedient. (Jesus and the Word, 76-7)
Why this excursus on Bultmann and the ethics of Jesus? There are a few reasons. First, the model of Christian discipleship that Colson is promoting is indistinguishable from, and in fact identical to, the formal legalism that the New Testament opposes from Jesus to Paul to John. It is a “blind obedience” imposed “from above” with no concern for the specific situation of the one who obeys. Here gospel has been conflated with law. Bultmann notes that such legalism coincides with a kind of meritoriousness (think: works-righteousness), i.e., the notion that we have some claim upon God’s favor through our action. And is this not precisely what we see in evangelical legalism, the notion that our obedience and morality wins us the favor of God and the church? As one who grew up within this culture, I can attest wholeheartedly that such is indeed the case.

Second, there is a more subtle, but far more serious, problem lurking within legalism. It is a problem of mission. Here, again, the comparison with Judaism is insightful. The mission of Israel has always been one of expansion or absorption: according to the prophetic visions of the New Zion, all the nations will submit to the Law of God and find their center in the city of Jerusalem. Beginning with the Abrahamic covenant, the mission of Israel is global in scope. The whole world is to become Israel. Now, within such a vision, it makes perfect sense for there to be a universal law that is applicable for all times and places. In the legalist framework, mission takes the form of extending the normative law-code to new people groups; mission is simply the subsumption of other cultures under the one normative culture defined by the law. It is a mission of diffusion and expansion. When such a mission is forcefully carried out (as it was throughout much of Christian history), it is a form of imperialism.

All of this changes, at least in theory, with the coming of Christ and the pneumatic calling of the church. In the New Testament framework, exemplified by the Council of Jerusalem and the work of the early apostles, mission takes the form of contextually proclaiming the christological “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), the scandalous gospel of the crucified and risen Lord. This gospel does not come attached to any particular culture or nation; it comes instead as an apocalyptic invasion of the world, as the event of a heavenly reign that does not arise out of or become inscribed into the prior conditions of the world. For this reason, the community called to participate in the mission of God is not one institution or nation among others, competing with other cultures or nations or ideologies. The ecclesial community is wholly and radically free with respect to the various historical-cultural contexts that it encounters. The church’s mission is not the assimilation and absorption of other cultures into its monolithic institution, but instead it is the ongoing concrete translation of the gospel into new cultures and contexts. Mission thus occurs as the gospel is proclaimed and heard in each specific culture. When we ask what unites the churches in Galatia, Rome, and Corinth, for example, it is not that they share the Greek language or Paul’s leadership; it is instead the simple fact that they share “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name” (Rom. 1:1-5). It is this kerygmatic word of Jesus the Messiah that indigenizes itself into each new context and transforms that context in light of God’s eschatological hope. The gospel does not come prepackaged with a set of rules. On the contrary, it disrupts the entire logic of abstract rules and regulations and establishes a new logic of radical indigenization and contextualization (see Andrew Walls). In sum, what differentiates law and gospel are two different conceptions of mission: a mission of absorption and diffusion versus a mission of translation (cf. Sanneh). The former turns the gospel into a piece of propaganda—defining propaganda here, in agreement with John Flett, as the ideological extension of a particular cultural form. A mission of translation differentiates between the gospel and every cultural instantiation.

Ethically, this means that the command to love others—which is the only command of the NT, all others being contextual applications of this one command—is not an abbreviation of the Levitical law-code. On the contrary, the crucial significance of this radical recapitulation and summarization of the Torah is that the Christian community does not know in advance and in the abstract what it must do in every conceivable situation. Christian faith is not a totalizing worldview that prescribes how every believer must live in the world. It does not provide us with an abstract casuistic ethical system that can describe in advance how everyone ought to act. This is precisely what Jesus attacks in his conflict with the Pharisees. What exercises Jesus is the fact that the Pharisees have established an oral law designed to account for every conceivable problem or issue that might arise in a person’s life. The Pharisees seek to systematically organize life according to the law, whereas Jesus comes as the liberator from formal legalism and the giver of God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit illuminates the concrete content of God’s will in each specific situation.

Doctrinally—and here we return to the core issue raised by Colson—this means that we are not given a timeless doctrinal “law” to which we must assent. Revelation is not a set of abstract propositions whose concepts and claims are universally valid. In other words, the Christian community does not know in advance and in the abstract how it must speak the kerygma in every conceivable situation. The contextual form of the gospel is intrinsically open to new conceptual formulations. Scripture witnesses to a gospel message that is infinitely translatable. The Spirit is the one who empowers this ongoing work of translation, liberating us from a formal obedience to a particular confessional law-code. To use the helpful formulation of John Franke, the truth of the faith intrinsically embraces a plurality and multiplicity of possible contextual translations. Christian truth requires a “manifold witness.”

The truth of the gospel frees us from every worldview (Weltanschauung)—whether ethical or doctrinal. Worldviews are universal ideas, beliefs, or norms that claim to determine what is true or right in advance and in the abstract. But Christian faith knows of no worldview binding for the believer. There is no universal doctrinal formulation to which all must blindly assent, nor any legalistic command which all must blindly obey. And this is because worldviews are inherently untranslatable, and thus antithetical to the translatable mission of God; they are inevitably a form of diffusion and absorption. Worldviews are always a form of propaganda. Contrary to every worldview, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a liberating truth. It frees us from every ideology, every law (i.e., formal legalism), every cultural-historical claim upon the apocalyptic revelation in Jesus Christ. To know the truth is to know that we are set free from these powers and principalities, even when they masquerade as “biblical truth” and “church tradition.”

With a proper missiology in place, we can assess Colson’s deeply misguided position. My thesis can be stated as follows: Colson promotes, on the basis of his militaristic analogy, a form of doctrinal legalism in which it is not what we believe that matters, but the mere fact that we believe. Missiologically, the implication is that the truth of the Christian faith is a form of propaganda. Colson is, to put it simply, a propagandist. According to Colson, Christians are supposed to blindly assent to whatever the church teaches. Discipleship is the process by which the “old man”—and here it includes everything that is particular about a person, including their cultural-historical context—is destroyed so that we will accept with open arms whatever we are told by the church authorities. Discipleship is thus diffusion. It is a process of colonization. Everything that is culturally specific about a person is nullified so that each person can be remade in the image of the colonizing (i.e., catechizing) power. This is not merely a formal authority, in which content is irrelevant and only our blind, abstract obedience is demanded; this is also an imperialistic authority, in which those in power violently subjugate others for the purpose of replicating their culturally-defined beliefs, norms, and practices. In every conceivable respect, this is the antithesis of the mission of Jesus Christ, who kenotically abandoned all pretensions to such power, going into the far country in total abandon, offering himself in submission to others to the point of death—even death on a cross. Colson’s is a theology of glory and self-aggrandizing power. The way of Jesus Christ is the way of the cross. Colson promotes a blind obedience to an abstract authority. Christ seeks concrete obedience to a crucified Lord. The chasm between Colson and Christ is the chasm between the Roman Empire and the Christian community, between propaganda and gospel, between a world turned in on itself and a God turned out toward the world. Chuck Colson’s Christianity Today column is titled “Contra Mundum” (“Against the World”). The God of Jesus Christ, by contrast, is always and eternally pro mundo, “for the world.” Between them, there is an Either/Or.

Besides the fact that Colson’s online column is a shockingly blatant recommendation of individual brainwashing and cultural imperialism as the mode of catechesis, there are a number of other issues to address.
  1. Who are the authorities? Which church is Colson referring to? In his blog post, he mentions the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession, and the Manhattan Declaration. Surely, he realizes that some Christians accept one or two of these, but not all three. Does he believe that one must affirm all three of these in order to be a faithful believer? Can one accept Nicaea but reject Westminster, or affirm Nicaea and Westminster but reject Manhattan? Colson gives no guidance on this problem. He seems to suggest that these are all “rooted in Scripture” and therefore self-evidently correct. But then he would find himself in the very awkward position of flatly opposing many conservative evangelicals who strongly support his view of truth and yet are not Reformed, and so do not accept Westminster, or at least not all of it. Throughout this column, Colson tosses around the terms “church” and “the Christian faith” as if their meaning is entirely obvious. As if we know precisely what “truths” to which we are supposed to assent. All of this stems from the larger problem of his abstract doctrinal formalism. Colson pays no attention to the content of our faith, because that isn’t apparently a question in his mind. He seems to think that all Christians who uncritically affirm whatever their (denominational) tradition stands for are “good” Christians, regardless of what they actually believe. So a Wesleyan Christian and a Westminster Christian are both properly faithful believers as long as they blindly assent to their traditions. The actual content of the debate over predestination, for example, is essentially irrelevant.

  2. Closely related to this first problem is the issue of the relation between scripture and tradition. Colson’s piece is a striking parable of the state of evangelical Protestantism. He mentions scripture explicitly twice: once to say that the Manhattan Declaration is “rooted in Scripture,” and another to say that becoming a Christian means to “embrace a new set of beliefs and standards defined in Scripture and lived out over 2,000 years.” Far and away, these vague references are overshadowed by references to what we might call the “Tradition.” He refers to the fact that we have “inherited 2,000 years of very hard-earned lessons,” analogous to the 230 years of Marine Corps training. He says that “the church has learned what works and what doesn't, what is right and what is wrong.” He speaks of the “rules” that we must learn to obey. He refers repeatedly to doctrines and “dogmatic statements.” At the end, the reference to catechisms comes before the Bible in a list of things the church has to get serious about.

    1. But let’s back up. The two main references to scripture are incredibly problematic. First, in what sense is the Manhattan Declaration “rooted in Scripture”? If one looks at that document, one quickly notices that there is no exegesis anywhere. In fact, the only use of scripture is the quotation of two verses before each section. This form of proof-texting presupposes that the meaning and significance of these verses is self-evident, when of course that is not the case at all. There is no defense of the verses it employs. More egregiously, many of the arguments actually employed are rooted in natural law theories, especially in the section on marriage. In fact, there is little basis for the claim that the Declaration has a grounding in scripture at all. It is merely the formulation of a particular set of cultural norms and practices, baptized in the language of Christian faith. Some of what it says might be quite justified, but as it stands, it barely escapes the label of propaganda discussed above.

    2. The other reference to scripture is even more problematic. What exactly are the “beliefs and standards defined” in scripture? Surely, Colson does not abide by many of the laws in the Levitical code. And where, might I ask, does one find the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union in the biblical text? Colson might respond, “There are biblical reasons for no longer abiding by OT laws and there are texts in the NT which give support to these doctrines.” Yes on both counts. But what are the criteria by which we decide what laws to follow and which doctrines are legitimately supported by scripture? Colson uses the word “defined,” but that simply cannot be the case. The word “trinity” is not defined anywhere in the Bible, much less words like “homoousias” or “predestination.” Not even core Christian practices such as baptism are given a clear definition. What Colson and other evangelicals sorely lack is the articulation of a hermeneutic by which to read and interpret scripture. But the real issue is that they do not seem to even see the need for a hermeneutic. And that is the crucial problem here. Without a defined hermeneutic, Colson remains trapped in a cesspool of contradictions. He’ll say, on the one hand, that his positions are supported by scripture. But on every material point, he either refers to something defined hundreds of years later by the church’s tradition, or he cherry-picks passages to accept and others to ignore. The result is a muddled picture that lacks coherency.

    3. All of this would be different if Colson came out as a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, where “Sacred Tradition” does indeed stand on equal level with scripture as the normative authority for faith and practice. But no Protestant, and certainly no evangelical Protestant, can say such a thing without betraying the heritage of the Reformers. Colson is an excellent representative of the deep contradictions within current Protestantism. They want to claim the label sola scriptura, but they cannot help elevating some extra-biblical text as equally authoritative. It’s interesting that Colson refers to the neo-Reformed movement sweeping the nation, because they of all people have been the most blatant offenders. Their elevation of the Westminster Confession to the status of regula fidei is just a Protestant mirror of Roman Catholicism. Colson, it seems, wants something along these lines.

    4. We can put it this way: Colson’s doctrinal legalism implies also an ecclesiological traditionalism. The truth of the faith for Colson is not a gospel message that transcends every particular cultural-historical form, including the Bible itself. Instead, the truth of the faith has been confined to particular historical confessions and declarations. The goal here is to eliminate uncertainty so as to gain control of the faith. A revelation that refuses to be determined by a particular historical form is a revelation that cannot be used to colonize; such a revelation always resists petrification and manipulation. But Colson needs a revelation that can be used to create an army of formally obedient Christians to then take over the world (“contra mundum,” remember). Colson needs an ideology, not a kerygma. And for that reason, he needs the static words of logical propositions and creedal formulae. He has no need for a divine word that speaks to us today; he does not need the kerygmatic witness of the community. He needs only a set of traditional beliefs and standards about right and wrong. And as we’ve already established, the actual content of these beliefs is irrelevant, so long as they are capable of commanding conformity.

  3. Finally, Colson seems to think that those who have rejected the Manhattan Declaration have done so purely out of a lack of comfort with dogmatic statements and doctrinal propositions. But on what evidence? He cites “one young evangelical,” but he could easily be misrepresenting this person’s view. And certainly it is impossible to extrapolate from this one example and say that all young evangelicals who reject the document do so for the same reason. That would be a gross logical fallacy. Yet Colson does not seem to appreciate the possibility that there might be good biblical reasons for refusing to affirm what it says. He seems to be under the illusion that there is only one right way to be a Christian, only one right answer for every question. He thinks that the “young evangelicals” who reject the Manhattan Declaration do so out of a weak faith. He doesn’t consider the possibility that it could in fact come from a much stronger faith! This is the problem with an orthodoxy that has made “being orthodox” into a badge of honor: it becomes doctrinal works-righteousness. To be a true Christian means to unquestionably affirm everything that your “elders in the faith” affirm. Critical thinking is discouraged and is seen as the mark of a sinful ego that has not submitted to Christ. So long as Christians continue to identify orthodoxy with anti-intellectualism, the result will be a dead faith in a dead god.
Having probed the numerous problems with Colson’s militaristic analogy for Christian discipleship, we can finally turn to the most obvious problem, the one that we held off criticizing at the start: specifically, the fact that Colson has the audacity (in the worst possible sense) to compare the church with a military power. Disciples are compared with soldiers; discipleship is compared with boot camp; the struggle of the church is compared with a military conflict; evangelism is implicitly compared with colonialism and military invasion. It’s probably not worth condemning this; it should be self-evident how inappropriate it is to describe the truth of the Christian faith in these terms. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of peace. Jesus came as the prophet, priest, and king of a new peace that puts to rest the violence of the nations. To use an analogy like this is an act of disobedience to the very Lord that Colson claims to serve. It misrepresents the church—confusing its mission with the false missions of the authorities of this world—and it misrepresents the lordship of Jesus Christ—confusing the power of God with the powers and principalities that keep this world in bondage.

In conclusion, it is time to return to where we began, viz. with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Colson speaks repeatedly of “truth,” and as I stated earlier, it is always in a cognitive-propositional manner. But is this faithful to the biblical witness? Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). The truth isn’t a doctrine about Jesus; it is simply and concretely Jesus himself. But perhaps this is too obvious of an answer to satisfy some people. So let’s look a bit further. In the fourth gospel the truth is identified as Jesus’ own word: “because I tell the truth, you do not believe me” (Jn. 8:45). The Spirit is called the “Spirit of truth,” and yet the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears” (Jn. 16:13). Again, it is the word of Jesus himself, the word that Jesus himself is, to which the Spirit testifies. But even if this truth is about Jesus, it is nothing more than the truth “that Jesus is the Messiah” (Jn. 20:31). Looking beyond the gospel of John, what do we find elsewhere in the NT? Paul refers to the “truth of the gospel” in Galatians 2:5 and 2:14. In Ephesians 1:13, we read about “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (cf. Col. 1:5). And later we read of “speaking the truth in love,” and the fact that “truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:15, 21). I could go on and on, but the point has been made: “truth” in the NT refers not to doctrinal or logical propositions, but rather to the saving knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah. But this is an existential or personal knowledge. It is not a cognitive fact but a translatable proclamation.

To clarify, I am in no way suggesting that doctrines do not matter or that we can just dispense with dogmatic statements. On the contrary, I have long advocated on this very blog for catechesis and theological training in the church. I am an ardent supporter of confessional statements that clarify our faith. We need much more education and catechetical instruction—on that critical point I am in firm agreement with Colson. But there is a crucial difference! He elides the distinction between revelation and the human testimonies to and clarifications of revelation. And this is because he thinks revelation is a set of dogmatic-doctrinal statements. The fact that scripture does not contain any of these statements obliges him to elide the distinction between scripture and tradition. The end result is that Colson cannot help but elide the distinction between Christ and the church. Though he probably does not intend it, his position eventually requires one to call the church the “prolongation of the incarnation.” Revelation is no longer the apocalyptic event of God’s reconciling grace in Jesus Christ—the position we find articulated in Paul’s epistles. Instead, revelation is the “sacred deposit” of the church, the various rules and statements established by the church over the centuries. This leads us to the following conclusion: the commanding authority that Colson sees as the analogue of the drill sergeant is not Jesus or God, but rather the church. It is the authority of the church, not the authority of Christ, that demands our formal, blind obedience. Colson’s theology is the deification of the church, and thus the deification of a particular cultural form. Despite his best intentions, the gospel on such an account is simply propaganda.

Evangelicals have given Chuck Colson a pass for far too long. It is high time that we see his statements for what they are: the battle-weary cries of an evangelical who cannot accept that there might be ways of being a faithful evangelical Christian that do not involve doctrinal legalism (much less ethical legalism). He cannot see the “younger evangelicals” as anything but “wussies” in the faith, unwilling to really commit to the boot camp of discipleship. But in his fight for the truth, he has wandered into falsehood. In his concern for formal obedience, he has forgotten about the actual content—and so missed the truly radical obedience to which Jesus calls us. He is unable to see that his reactionary struggle contra mundum has led him away from the gospel: “For God so loved the world...”


bruce hamill said...

That's an impressive effort to respond to a rather silly idea

W. Travis McMaken said...

The silliness is so widespread, and so insidious (as David documents), that it requires nothing less than this sort of systematic response. Well done, David!

Joel said...

It's also worth recalling that much traditional catechesis consisted in the Apostles Creed, the Decalogue, the Our Father, and instruction about the sacraments.

Given the liturgical and sacramental contexts within which these functioned, such catechesis was much more on the "cultural-linguistic" end of the spectrum than "cognitive-propositional."

jridenour said...

WTM is right that Colson's beliefs are too widespread. The problem I see is that the very people who need to hear this type of sophisticated response, probably do not have the capacity or knowledge to follow your argument.

Steve Hayes said...

I got as far as the [sic] after "old man" and stopped.

It seemed to reinforce Colson's point -- if readers, who are presumably Christian, are not sufficiently familiar with the Bible to recognise the reference to St Paul, but might confuse it with an injunction to assassinate senior citizens, then perhaps a "boot camp" really is needed to teach the basic elements of the Christian faith.

David W. Congdon said...


Are you accusing me of not knowing the Pauline reference? Surely not, I hope!

The reason for the [sic] is actually my playful way of making an academic jab at Colson. He didn't use gender inclusive language, and therefore it should read "old person" or "old human being." Many formal academic publications use [sic] when quoting older sources that weren't alive to such issues.

Now, my use of it here is more of an inside joke. I intentionally did not use the [sic] later when quoting Bultmann. The reader attuned to such details would then recognize that my earlier use of it was not because I am deeply sensitive to gender inclusiveness (though I actually am), but because I was trying to make a little jab at Colson at the start.

Jon Coutts said...

what I'd give to see Colson respond thoughtfully and humbly to this.

James said...

I agree with much of what you said and think Colson (and others who embody his particular type of evangelical thinking) are stuck in a particular cultural rut when it comes to thinking about truth. He's clearly misrepresented "younger evangelicals" and he's less than charitable in ascribing motives to them. I think his vision of Christian truth is quite narrow and limited.

However, I also think you're being less than charitable and reading a lot into Colson's very short piece. I really don't see him advocating "blind obedience" here. Though he doesn't mention the "content" of faith but only the form, I'm sure if we asked him he'd have a clear answer for us, whether we like his answer or not. So your conclusion (in bold), seems off base to me. For Colson, it does matter *what* we believe, not just *that* we believe. Otherwise why would he be so ticked about the Manhattan Declaration's lack of traction?

Also, I think your outright rejection of his choice of a military analogy is simplistic, given that scripture makes use of military imagery (i.e., put on the armour of God, suffer like a good soldier, fight the good fight, etc.). Though this obviously has to be used sparingly and carefully, you imply that military analogies are completely out of place, even going so far as to say that Colson's choice of analogy is an act of disobedience to Christ.

In light of this, and as an outsider to the current "apocalyptic" strain of theology, I've sometimes wondered how those participating in this discourse deal with the language of "invasion," which you used in your piece. I assume that you would say that the difference between Colson's marine analogy and your use of apocalyptic invasion language is the fact that in Colson's analogy, the military power is compared to the church, whereas in apocalyptic theology, it is God who invades. However, I still see a tension here; why does God "invade" if God is pro mundum? Could you comment a bit on this?

Anyway, I'm no Colson fan, and I'm glad you've taken the time to respond so extensively. Just thought some parts of your critique were a bit over the top.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Colson's article and his ideas are obviously ridiculous, especially to those of us who have spent time in either the church or the academy. But there are several problems with your response. First, it is just as propagandist: Colson is here placed on the side of all those things that are trendy to despise: colonialism, cognitivism, legalism, propositionalism, militarism, traditionalism, sexism and on and on. In what sense can Colson really be dubbed a colonialist, for example, especially when what he wishes to impose - through writing in a magazine and through the free exchange of ideas, not violent subjugation, mind you! - are not forms of life but, as the labels cognitivism and propositionalism suggest, ideas, abstractions. Secondly, Colson's claims are crass and crude. Thus it would be a mistake to think that in exposing his error you have thereby exposed the error of evangelicalism as a whole. There are way more sophisticated versions of this mentality than Colson's. For the record, I despise both and think evangelicalism is deeply problematic. But if you really want to challenge the perspective which Colson represents, you should tackle the strongest case, not this simple-minded version. One would do better to go after a Hodge or a Warfield than a Colson. Maybe even David Clark's To Know and Love God... Finally, this piece is just as alarmist as the worst of fundamentalist tracts. Here we read that Colson has "wandered into falsehood." One gets the sense that the time is now to stand up and defend the truth. We learn of an "Either/Or" between Colson and God...!!!

And the reason why this is a problem is because it is, well, to use your hobbyhorse against you, that it is not missional! You don't tell us how to engage Colson, only why we should reject him. All you have done, in coloniast, cognitivist fashion, is force a dichotomy between people, argued for the superiority of your view, and given us a drill-sergeant-like command to fight the Colsons of this world. The problem is, David, is that these people are my friends, my family, my parents who have cared for me my life - how does this help me relate to them on the deepest level, the level of Christ? So while I agree that this position is absurd and to be rejected, I disagree that an adequate response to it is anything less than mission which requires making connections and finding commonality...

David W. Congdon said...


I entirely agree that Colson would indeed insist that the content of faith is important. But a conversation about the content would require a complete overhaul of his column. He could not use the Marine corps analogy at all, I don't think. And I suspect he really has no interest in talking about the content. This is probably for a few reasons (here I'm speculating of course): (1) he thinks the content is obvious and self-evident, (2) he knows that discussing the content requires nuance and risks alienating many who share his political and cultural goals but disagree on doctrine, and/or (3) he doesn't know how to discuss the content. In any case, my point is not that Colson himself doesn't care about the content but that his column presents the truth of faith as entirely formal in nature. I'm making a logical critique based on the text, rather than making a claim about what Colson the man actually thinks.

As for the military analogy bit, I think there is a total discontinuity between the military imagery in parts of the NT and the one that Colson has used. It seems very clear to me that the NT uses this imagery in a way that bursts any connection to actual worldly militaries. Ephesians 6 is a classic example. And the battle imagery of Revelation is heavily symbolic, not to mention the fact that it is anti-Roman in nature. All that's to say, whatever military the NT wishes to conjure to mind, it is unlike any military that the world knows. It is the power of God's reign that the NT wishes to bring to mind, and it uses the symbols and metaphors at hand. Colson, by contrast, makes a positive correlation between the Marine corps and the church. The Marine example actually provides him with the template for how he wishes to understand the church. I think it's just the reverse in the NT. There is the kingdom of God, and images and metaphors are commandeered to help make sense of what this reign means for us.

Finally, about apocalyptic, I should have made a point about this in the piece itself. The "invasion" is an existential and soteriological one: it is the invasion of sin by grace. To use this language is only to suggest that grace comes from the "outside"; it does not arise from within the conditions of the world as such. If better language is available, I'm happy to use it. There is no militaristic content being implied. Only the fact that something "external" to the world has come to the world. To clarify, God does not need to invade, if by this we mean that God is spatially or metaphysically "out there." Rather, the invasion concerns only the fact that sin has to be broken and destroyed. But this does not destroy, and in fact rather affirms, the cultural, intellectual, and sociohistorical particularities in which God finds us.

David W. Congdon said...

Anonymous (though I think I have a good idea who you are):

1. Propositions and ideas can indeed be "colonialistic," because their conceptual form is itself a cultural-historical product. Conceptualities are culturally conditioned. This was Bultmann's point (and I think Bonhoeffer's as well) to Barth all along: that to make use of a particular conceptuality is to make use of a particular cultural context. The danger is that a particular conceptuality has been identified with revelation itself, with the consequence that a particular cultural-historical situation has been deified and the gospel tied to a particular cultural form. The result is colonialism.

(That it is "trendy" to criticize colonialism is not an argument. It can be trendy to criticize child abuse, but that doesn't change the need to condemn it. )

2. You are certainly right that there are others more worthy of engaging than Colson. Certainly he does not represent evangelicalism in general. If I suggested that, I was wrong and spoke imprecisely. But his was just the most recent thing I read, and it appeared in CT, and Colson does continue to command great respect in evangelical circles. That said, I do think most of what I've said could be tailored to fit almost any number of similar pieces by other evangelicals. Granted, they might not use such a crass analogy, but I think Colson simply expressed explicitly what others say more indirectly and implicitly.

3. Your last point is a fairly good one. Yes, these are my friends and my family members as well. And yes, there is a need to relate at a deeper level. I do want to point out that even if I exaggerated a bit with the either/or language, I did mention at the end where Colson and I agree. If my piece seems alarmist, that's because I am indeed alarmed! I do think evangelicalism is in crisis (on that point, again, Colson and I agree!). And like him, I think the truth of the faith requires the criticism of falsehood. The difference is that I think Colson is the one peddling falsehoods. Maybe I'm taking him too seriously, or maybe I'm overly concerned about the state of American evangelicalism. That's entirely possible. But I don't see any reason to lessen the criticism just because this is my family of faith. If anything, that is all the more reason to criticize clearly and unambiguously. It's not criticism for the sake of being negative; I certainly hope that's not how this piece is being taken. I point out the flaws because that's the necessary first step towards a better understanding of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

David W. Congdon said...

By the way, Anonymous, your comment has reminded me that I meant to turn off anonymous comments long ago. I will do that now. This is not in response to you in particular, just something that I think needs to be done.

bradby said...

I dont think the blog author was completely fair with Colson: he admits that Colson doesn't anywhere describe what the 'truth of the corps' is, and then describes what he thinks Colson means by the phrase.

If you assume that Colson's 'truth of the corps' is actually about alliegence- changing your alliegence from self to country for instance- Colson's article takes on a different meaning. I am comfortable with a legalistic interpretation of my allegiance (I must always turn to God), but of course agree that legalistic dogma and rules and regs can be a barrier to faith.

Colson certainly doesn't do himself any favours setting himself up as the grand drill instructor whipping recruits into shape, and I think his analogy is a bit muddled, but I think at least part of the exception the blog author takes is to a straw man of his own creation..

David W. Congdon said...


I think you misunderstood me. I nowhere attempt to explain what I think Colson means by the "truths of the corps." You also misunderstood what I meant by the statement that "he [Colson] nowhere discusses the actual 'truths' in each case." This does not mean that Colson leaves something ambiguous which he could have elaborated on if he had wanted. On the contrary, the point was that Colson's analogy does not allow him to elaborate on the content. The analogy that he draws ensures that he can only speak about the form of the truth, but not the truth itself. So when I go on to critically examine Colson's statement, it is not me speculatively filling in the gaps. It is instead my critical analysis of the way in which Colson's thinking about the church necessarily leaves a gap where the content belongs. I'm not trying to read Colson's mind. I'm instead exploring the logical and theological problems with the way Colson has approached the issue.

Steve Hayes said...

No, I wasn't accusing you of not being familiar with the notion of the "old man" in St Paul's writing, but it seemed to me that you were assuming that most of your readers would not be familiar with it, and would take it to be a reference to the assassination of the elderly.

There is much that I agree with in your post, and the ones it is linked to. One of the characteristics of modernity is that it elevates propositional or cognitive truth to a higher position than other kinds of truth, like personal truth. Postmodernity, in reacting against this, can sometimes fall into the opposite error. One reason I found your post interesting is that we have an equivalent of Chuch Colson here, who wrote a blog post that made similar attacks on "Postmodernism" (which he never defined) and the "emerging church" (which he describes as the name for "post modernism"). If you're interested, you can see it here: Lausanne, postmodernism and the emerging church | Khanya.

It strikes me as ironic that Fundamentalism, though originally a reaction against modernism, is so thoroughly modernist in its methods and assumptions, and seeks, for example, to turn the Bible into purely propositional truth. They are so anxious to say the right things about the Bible that they tend to miss what the Bible says about us.

Aric Clark said...


This is an extraordinary piece of work. You have a great systemic mind and move smoothly from connection to connection. It is a thorough destruction of Colson's ridiculousness and I appreciate it. If only he would reply.

Michael said...

I think you have jumped off the metaphoric cliff on this one. The Bible is filled with military references for much the same reason as Colson uses his. The Messiah sent many would-be disciples away because they weren't clear on who they were serving and who they must obey. That's the truth behind anyone who serves in a battle where the stakes are life or death. How much greater than is eternal life or death?

David W. Congdon said...

Michael, please show me where in the Bible we find military imagery used to convey the need to submit to the authoritative teachings of the church.

Michael said...

Well the Messiah commended the centurion on his understanding of authority Mt 8. The Messiah was given all authority Matt 28 and passed it to his disciples. Paul said there was to be no other gospel. I'd have a very hard time standing firm per Eph 6 if there was no sense of having something other theological mush under my feet. The sheer number of present imperatives in Greek seems to indicate that we aren't to just do whatever we feel like. The overwhelming evidence is that we are under authority. Romans 13 says that God ordains it as such whether it's military or not.

David W. Congdon said...


None of those passages fulfill what I asked about - and what Colson wants. First, I've never contested the need for authority. But the authority in question is the authority of God. Colson, however, is speaking about the authority of the church, the institutional body that creates doctrinal statements and creeds and declarations. This creates a problem. Whether he intends to or not, Colson's position requires one to deify the church or institutionalize God. Both amount to the same thing in the end.

Whatever authority the church has, it is not the authority to make its doctrinal formulations the Word of God, which all must accept on threat of damnation or excommunication. In fact, I don't think the church should claim any authority for itself; it should exist wholly and solely as a servant and witness, as the humble partner of God in the work of testifying to the gospel in the world.

Your references to Matt. 8 and Rom. 13 are a different discussion, regarding whether the NT legitimates military service. That's not something I mentioned anywhere in my essay. It's an important topic, but not the one at hand. I will at least say this: your reading of Rom. 13, from what I can gather based on your brief statement, is one that I would strongly contest. And I think I have the vast majority of NT scholarship to back me up on that.

Michael said...

This is an excellent and timely critique, and quite deserved. And an enjoyable read, as well!

I have only one quibble - is it entirely fair to Judaism to compare it to Colson? I'm referring to your Bultmann quote, which seems to be endorse the "Old Perspective" on Second Temple Judaism as a works-righteousness, legalistic religion. The shoe certainly fits Colson, but after the work of the New Perspective scholars like Sanders, Wright, etc. I'm not so sure we can tar all of 1st C. Judaism with that brush.

Still, I understand it's an effective rhetorical move for your intended audience.

David W. Congdon said...

Yeah, I was aware of that potential criticism. I was only citing Bultmann for the theological/ethical point, not the historical one.

Personally, I'm not sold on the New Perspective, though I think it's done us a great service in nuancing the history of Judaism. But I haven't made up my mind on the issue in any final sense. I just know that I will always defend the Reformers against their "cultured despisers," so to speak. Whatever the historical faults of the Reformation position on justification, it is on the whole theologically correct, in my view. That's not to say I side with the neo-Reformed fundies against Wright! But I do side with Barth and Bultmann.

Michael said...

Well I have to say that what you asked for was rather disingenuous because it doesn't answer the problem your diversion takes from the whole scope of scripture. Authority is always given by God and it was given to the church. The problem with Colson is that he was simply saying it's time for the people of God to stop acting like they have no backbone in their commitment to the truth. I will never have a problem with that assessment.

David W. Congdon said...

That's not what Colson was saying - or at least that's not all that he was saying. He was emphasizing, rather, that the doctrines which have been enshrined in various creedal statements are themselves part of our salvation/sanctification. It's a much stronger statement than simply the need for authority or the need to have some kind of certainty and "backbone." Colson's opponents can affirm that. What Colson wants is a doctrinal discipleship, in which the certainty and foundation of our faith (as well as our growth in faith) is determined by certain doctrinal formulations and confessional statements.

besideourselves said...

Astounding, thank you. I'll be following up a number of the excellent leads that you've supplied here.

I was rescued (in an out of the fire, into the frying pan sort of way) by conservatives very much after the Colson type.

Whereas others seem to want to criticise you for intuiting too far, or driving too deeply into the ideologies you've perceived there, I think you are to be congratulated; I could substitute any number of similar names and arguments from my own experience and the shoe would still fit.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; this kind of Evangelical imperiousness needs to be exposed as antithetical to the Kingdom partly because we love those who are damaged by it.

But more so because of the damage it does to the message of Christ itself.



Jooho said...

Random PTS alum stopping by this blog here.

I'm curious as to whether you'd address what the relationship is between doctrines/dogmatic statements and existential or personal knowledge expressed in translatable proclamation as opposed to cognitive fact?


David W. Congdon said...

That's a good question. If I understand you, you're asking what the relation is between dogmatic statements and translatable proclamation? In response, I'd first emphasize that I don't want to make a sharp distinction between doctrinal statements and translatable proclamation. That's because I want to understand doctrines as a form of translated proclamation. They are culturally- and historically-situated forms of theological speech, just like everything else. They have no timeless, universal validity.

Second, to the extent that there remains a distinction between doctrine and proclamation, then I would simply insist that doctrine be understood as the conceptual articulation and communal reflection upon that which we contextually proclaim as a witnessing community. Doctrine is born out of contextual, contingent proclamation, but it is no less historically-situated. It is one contingent form of translation, and it must be continually reassessed.