Colson the Catechist
A culture warrior sets out to explain Christianity's essential doctrines.
April 8, 2008
Most Christians in the West lack the doctrinal and theological tools with which to stand fast in the onslaught of two hostile forces: Western secularism and Islamofascism. So say Charles Colson and his frequent coauthor Harold Fickett in The Faith, a book that celebrates the Christian faith's essential doctrines, beliefs held by Christians "everywhere, always, by all." Colson and Fickett believe that Christians are living in a unique time of special opposition: "Western culture is doing everything in its power to shut the door" by which humans pass from darkness to light. Only a robust reaffirmation of the essentials of Christian doctrine, they say, will provide a firm foundation for political and social engagement.
The first half of The Faith emphasizes what Christians believe about God, namely the reasons for his existence, his self-revelation to human beings, his triune nature, and the actions he has taken to defeat evil. The second half focuses on how our beliefs about God influence our beliefs about everything else, with Colson and Fickett articulating the Christian understanding of saving faith, reconciliation and forgiveness, the mission and nature of the church, sanctity of life, and so on. The result is a winning combination of Christian apologetics and Christian doctrine a manifesto for looking at the world in a distinctly Christian way.
The authors not only see assaults on Christianity as external; they also warn against movements from within the church that they believe could undermine Christianity. Although they admit that much of the Emergent movement's protest of contemporary evangelicalism is on target, the authors critique what they see as the movement's prescription: a rejection of absolute truth. This, they say, will inevitably lead to idolatry. In attempting to maintain the propositional nature of Christianity's truth claims, however, Colson and Fickett define the Bible as "revealed propositional truth," which seems to relegate all truth to propositions and leaves little room for the narrative nature of Scripture.
It's ironic that Colson and Fickett argue for truth as propositional above all else, because what sets this book apart from other doctrinal primers, like C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity or N. T. Wright's Simply Christian, is its emphasis on stories. The Faith is moved along by stories more than by systematic theology (though there's plenty of the latter in the book as well). Colson and Fickett bring together stories of courage and martyrdom from the annals of Christian history as well as riveting accounts of personal transformation from Colson's Prison Fellowship ministry. The contemporary stories help readers see what the Christian life looks like today. The ancient stories remind us that we are not the first generation of Christians to live this way.
The stories aren't just inspirational. They're informative. The chapter on the Trinity, for example, begins by presenting Muslim evangelists who focus their efforts on convincing college-aged Christians to doubt the doctrine.
Like Mere Christianity and Simply Christian, The Faith is ecumenical, celebrating the tenets of Christian orthodoxy affirmed in the ecumenical creeds of the early church and accepted by all Christians today.
Such an outlook is evidenced by the book's inclusion of several quotes from the official statements of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an ecumenical initiative to which Colson has contributed. The upside of Colson's involvement with ECT is that he is deeply committed to pursuing unity with other Christians. The downside is that he tends to overstate ECT's ecumenical implications, suggesting there is broad agreement between Catholics and Protestants, when in fact, the joint statements do not reflect the official positions of the Roman Catholic Church or the major Protestant denominations.
Some readers may notice the lack of Eastern Orthodox representation in The Faith. Despite their noble goal of including all three major branches of Christianity, Colson and Fickett leave little room for Eastern Orthodoxy to influence the "orthodoxy" presented in The Faith.
The Faith's critiques of Islamofascism and aggressive secularism are surely familiar to those who've read any of Colson's previously coauthored works. Indeed, much of the book echoes Colson's many other writings advocating a "Christian worldview." However, earlier books bearing his byline (How Now Shall We Live? for example), have concentrated on the philosophical underpinnings for the reasonableness of Christian faith. They have delved little into Christian doctrine, instead choosing to explain how Judeo-Christian values affect the way we live. I suspect that Colson has discovered this "worldview" teaching to be missing a crucial component distinctly Christian theology that goes beyond values language to the core affirmations of our faith.
While it's never stated explicitly in the book, it seems that Colson and Fickett have moved from political and social commentary to catechesis because they realize that only a robust belief in Christian doctrine will provide the foundation for political and social engagement. "Would you give your life for a cause you didn't fully understand?" they ask in the preface. "Would you try to convince someone else to join you? No, neither would I. Which is why I decided to write this book."
And the book indeed works as both catechesis and as apologetic, a strong defense for traditional faith without sounding overly defensive. The Faith is more a celebration of orthodoxy than a circling of the theological wagons. Its primary message is that Christianity is true, Christianity is good, and Christianity is beneficial for the world. Its primary method is to do so by explaining what Christianity is.
Trevin Wax is minister of education and missions at First Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. He blogs at TrevinWax.com.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Faith: Given Once, For All: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Colson's columns are available on our site.
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