Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Upcoming Events: Koinonia, AAR, and Notre Dame

There are some events coming up with which I am involved that are worth taking note of—and attending, if you happen to be in the particular region.

The first is the Annual Forum of the Koinonia Journal, taking place on March 3-4 at Princeton Theological Seminary. As the executive editor of Koinonia, it is my responsibility to organize the forum that becomes the following year’s journal. Our theme this year is “New Conversations in Religion and Popular Culture.” It should be an exciting conference, and I invite anyone in the area to attend. Here is the schedule of events:
Thursday, March 3, 2011 – 7:00-9:00 pm (Stuart Hall 6) 
  • Jeremy Ian Kirk (Union Theological Seminary, New York): “James Cameron vs. James Cone: Avatar’s False Messiah and the Continued Relevance of Liberation Theology”  
  • Emily Dumler (Princeton Theological Seminary): “A Profile in Courage: A Young Woman in No Country For Old Men” 
  • Respondents: Adam Hearlson and Courtney Palmbush (both of PTS)
Friday, March 4, 2011 – 12:00-2:00 pm (Mackay Student Center, Main Lounge) 
  • Peter Kline (Vanderbilt University): “Christ-Haunted Ohio: The Spiritual and Theological Vision of Over the Rhine” 
  • Nicholaus Benjamin Pumphrey (Claremont Graduate University): “Judges and Heroes: The Scholarly Misinterpretation of the Biblical Judges Reflected in Modern Superheroes”  
  • Marc Boswell (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary): “Thomas Merton Gets the Blues: A Theopoetics of Cultural Engagement”
  • Respondents: Blair Bertrand and Sarah Stewart-Kroeker (both of PTS)
The second event is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which will take place on March 17-18 at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, NJ. As usual, Princeton Seminary students will be out in force at this conference. My own paper is entitled, “Event and Being: Bultmann Reads Badiou.” It is an attempt to reassess the relation between Alain Badiou’s philosophy and Christian theology by bringing Badiou into conversation with Rudolf Bultmann (who is the subject of my dissertation). My starting-point is a paragraph tucked away in a blog post by Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, who writes:
I've never been able to prove that Badiou all along has been reading Bultmann's theology of several generations ago about the "Christ event" that is historical, though unintelligible to history itself.  But these associations are not merely aleatory.   It is not accidental that Badiou's well-received book on St. Paul really complements Bultmann, or that Badiou himself is a source of growing fascination among a newer generation of "postmodern" academic theologians (though they all struggle to follow him half the time, as they once did with Derrida).  Badiou is probably more instructive for latter day "Bultmannians", since he has unshackled himself from Heidegger, which Bultmann couldn't.
The third event is the upcoming graduate student conference at the University of Notre Dame on the theme, “New Conversations on Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. In addition to public lectures by Bernd Wannenwetsch, Christiane Tietz, and Robin Lovin, there will be twelve graduate student papers. I will be one of those presenters. My paper is tentatively titled, “Bonhoeffer and Bultmann: An Overlooked and Misunderstood Relationship.” Here I will attempt to redirect the conversation regarding these two giants of 20th-century theology. The problem is that most scholars, with the notable rare exceptions of Gerhard Ebeling and Gerhard Krause, have accepted Bonhoeffer’s critical comments on Bultmann at face value. Theologians from Götz Harbsmeier to Russell Palmer to Adam Kotsko have made a sharp distinction between Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation and Bultmann’s program of demythologizing, but really without probing the deeper underlying issues that connect and divide them. I will examine the problem of the relation between the ontic and the ontological—which first appears in Act and Being—since this is the issue that really vexes Bonhoeffer; I will offer a critique of Bonhoeffer’s critique of Bultmann and propose that soteriology, not hermeneutics, is the true point of divergence; and I will conclude by suggesting reasons for and ways of bringing Bonhoeffer more in line with Bultmann.

So that’s Princeton, New Brunswick, and South Bend. If you’re around any of those areas in the coming two months, I hope you’ll consider coming to these events. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

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...”