Interview with Baptist Theologian Rev. Dr. John Colwell

On the 10th May 2015 John Colwell was my invited guest preacher at church, you can listen to his sermon here.  Afterwards, following lunch back at home, I took the opportunity – since it’s not every day a Bible scholar pops round – to ask him some questions. staff_johncolwell_80John is a pastor/scholar, a man who loves the Church because he loves God first.  He was tutor in systematic and historical theology at Spurgeon’s College for fifteen years, serving in pastorates both before and after.  He has written on Theological Ethics, Practical and Pastoral Theology, and among his several books, he has written, The Rhythm of Doctrine, Living the Christian Story and Promise and Presence, as well as publishing on the eschatology of Karl Barth.  

Question 1

What has been and now is your area of special theological interest?

“That’s a very straight forward question without a straight forward answer.  I suppose because of the age we’ve lived in, one of the things that has driven me, since the 1970’s was the effect that post-modernism…let’s call it “late modernism”….let’s call it “humbled modernism”….has had on our thinking; has the effect on, not just simply Christian Doctrine, but how we read our Bible and study the Bible.   So that’s been one fascination which I try to address in the things I have done. The other thing that has driven me has been to challenge the disconnectedness of theology, the ease with which a theological course becomes quite distinct and separate sub-disciplines.  I suppose my theological heroes are those who have challenged that, so I can’t comprehend biblical studies that is not doctrinal, or doctrine that is not biblical or that is not liturgical and worshipful, and anything that is not focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in this world.  So it is that disconnectedness that has been what I’ve tried to challenge in doing the things that I’ve done.”

Question 2

You’ve just mentioned your heroes, now, apart from Rosie and Jesus, who have been your greatest influences?

“Well initially I suppose, though I never met him, Karl Barth, because I think as a student, Barth enabled me to begin to marry together my head and my heart, in a way that nobody I’d read before did.  I realise most people come to Barth via Calvin; I came to Calvin via Barth.  So he was my first influence, and I have been greatly blessed by being taught by people who had themselves been taught by Barth – Tom Smail especially, Tom Torrence to a lesser degree.  And although he was of a younger generation, Colin Gunton was a massive influence on me.  Through his books but especially through an exchange of letters Stanley Hauerwas has been a massive influence, as has Robert Jenson.  Robert Jenson was Colin Gunton’s first doctoral supervisor, and so I came to know Robert through Colin. These would be my current heroes, but if you want to go back in the past, how long have you got?  I’m fascinated by the theology of Irenaeus.  I fell in love with Thomas Aquinas relatively late in life when I realised he said the almost diametrically opposite of what as a good Protestant I thought he said.  And Jonathon Edwards the American revivalist.  When you read his writings, they are profound.  There has been a renaissance in Edwards Studies, but I think in earlier days, he was much much underrated.”

Question 3

You are a “Baptist Sacramentalist” – not a word heard that often in Baptist circles, and well known for your writing in this regard – a rare breed it seems to me…

“Not as rare as I once was.  And interestingly, this change is happening in the United States.  Which if all you know about the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention is extraordinarily surprising.  That’s been one of the revelations to me, how much momentum this has got the other side of the Atlantic.”

…What is “sacramentalism” and why do you afford it such significance?

“I’m not sure how briefly I can say that.  It’s something I’ve written before and made the point that all theology is inevitably autobiographical, even if you’re trying for it not to be, so it’s best to admit this from the word go and be up front about it. I suppose it’s my own spiritual journey.  My own very thorough and deep involvement in the Charismatic movement, but my involvement in the Charismatic movement as someone all his adult life wrestled with chronic depression.  Recognising that the enormous danger – not just of Charismatic spirituality, but various spiritualities – are very feeling orientated and not promise orientated.  And it seems to me what defines us as Christians is the promise of God not how we feel. That’s what the sacraments are.  If we just take Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they are visible promises of God to us.  And this should be the basis of how we live as Christians, not on how we feel, but the fact of what God has said.”

I guess every generation has faced this reality: feelings verses promise.  It’s not a modern phenomena, but seems to be such a powerful….”I don’t feel like going to church”…….”I don’t feel God’s presence so I doubt my own faith.”  We hear it regularly as pastors such is its power…

“Yes you’re right that there’s probably been this tension, but my suspicion – I’m no sociologist or anthropologist – but my suspicion is that it is much stronger in our age than it has been previously.  I would link that I suppose, with what Christian pastors are often moaning about, with a sense of lowering of committment, a reluctance to commit, a lowering of a sense of duty.  Previous generations have been strongly driven by a sense of duty and a sense of honour – honour a word we often hear of only in negative ways, in the worst contradictory sense of that word – it’s just not a concept that seems to be current now, so I think the older generation need to reflect on how the world more generally has become a more feely orientated age, and I think that’s very dangerous.  It’s particularly dangerous – and this is where is becomes auto-biographical – it’s particularly dangerous for those whose feelings are not always positive and good, and therefore to say no, I am baptised, here at this Table there is bread and wine and at Calvary there was a Cross, and how I feel has got nothing to do with that, it’s irrelevant.”

Question 4

I first met you in the crazy days of my MA module you taught at Bristol Baptist College as you know.  You have been a senior lecturer at Spurgeon’s College and a pastor of several churches and no doubt a few other things.  What do you see as the greatest challenge to men and women as they engage in contemporary pastoral ministry and what future challenges do you see on the horizon?

“We’ve already talked in private conversation, about the greatest challenge: it is the challenge not be a pastor but to be a Chief Executive.  I’m not saying for a moment we should be deliberately inefficient, we try to lead churches.  No where in the Bible does Jesus call himself the Good Chief Executive Officer or the Good Administrator, he calls himself the Good Shepherd.  So the chief challenge to pastoral ministry is to remain true to that calling to be a minister of Word and Sacrament; to feed the flock of God and it seems to me, there are increasing pressures on pastors not to be that.  To be coming up with 5-year plans, 10-year programs and mission statement and vision statements and policy statements….”

It’s so good to hear you say that….

“…I know, but I’m not saying these things are wrong in themselves, but I think they can be massive, massive distractions, and yes, we have an enemy who rejoices in nothing more than distracting us from what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Eugene Peterson springs to mind, William Willimon also.  Who else can pastors today turn too?

“These two would be other “heroes” of mine and I would add Stanley Hauerwas too.  The classic of course is Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor which I advise my students at Spurgeon’s to re-read every five years, and remind themselves what it was they were called to be doing.  Only, it’s got an unfortunate title because of the ‘reformed’ and they think of reformed in the Calvinist sense – now yes, OK, that was Baxter, although he was a quite idiosyncratic Calvinist, but he’s talking about the Reformation of pastoral ministry, and what Pastoral ministry is at its heart.  And when we are under this threat of all kinds of business speak, it is important to remind yourself what God has called you to be….and do note my language there, the thing God called you to be not what God called you to do.”

So if that’s a present danger, what do you see on the horizon as a coming challenge?

[Big sigh] “History is littered with unhelpful and false predictions.  You’re asking me this question in the week where poll-pundits got the election predictions spectacularly wrong.  There are the obvious things of living in an increasingly post-post-Christian society (I meant a double “post”), because a post-Christian society still remembers what it is it is post; a post-post-Christian society doesn’t and I think that is dangerous for society in which we live because so much of the foundation for how society is organised and run has sprung from a tradition which we’ve now departed from.  I think in that sense it’s going to become increasingly difficult for the church to be the church…I say “increasingly difficult”….is that quite true….in some ways you could say it’s more exciting because it’s clear, the demarkation is clear, the church is called to be the church, but the temptation of the church is to try to be the world.  I’m not saying we’re heading for a period of terrible persecution.  I don’t think that’s true.  I think terrible indifference will be closer to the truth.  But we are being called to function as the church in an age that doesn’t have a clue what we are talking about, and I think that is a massive challenge.  Yet there are so many other things in society that we haven’t quite caught up with as church, the global market and how we have Corporations that are economically more powerful than nations.  That is a new world order that none of us have quite got our heads round yet, and what it means to be Christians in a world order like that.  I don’t really know, but those are the challenges I think.”

Question 5

Can you tell us one strength and one weakness of the contemporary UK Baptist church scene?

“This can be answered in lots of different ways.  It is many questions disguised as one!  Just to answer the Baptist point, I don’t think I’ve ever been more convinced about Baptist distinctives than I am now.  I believe profoundly in the integrity of the local church.  I believe profoundly that when the people of God gather, Jesus is present by His Spirit to guide us.  I think I will go so far as to say I have a sacramental understanding of the church meeting – there’s a promised presence here for which we gather.  So I’m more convinced than ever about this, yet more uneasy about the way our Baptist Union has made decisions and is travelling….I feel for the first time probably in my life, really quite not at home with certain things.  I see that as a challenge.  I’m still not quite sure why that is the case and I refuse to just put it down to economic crises of various orders, but that to me is a serious thing.  So our Baptist strengths are what we bring to the Ecumenical table, something our forebears discovered and which we passionately believe, and which, rightly understood, keeps us with a servant understanding of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ within the world, to be Christian ministers within the world, because it is so overtly non-hierarchical – that’s our strength. The weakness is as we’ve discussed already and not limited to Baptist life: this non-committal, this reluctance to commit which is new and something I noticed after fifteen years teaching at Spurgeons followed by a pastorate, the situation of committment had massively, massively changed.  Whereby many have being a Christian and going to church as a hobby mentality.  I do think this is a massive problem right now, a weakness, which in countries where it’s harder to be a Christian, I suspect it’s not such a problem.”

One feeds off the other doesn’t it?  If you have non-committal and the Baptist distinctive is promised presence in the gathering, which assumes committment, prevailing culture is undermining the very thing that makes us distinctive…

“Exactly.”

Question 6

What do you do to relax John?

“Play the piano.  One thing about being retired is you never worry if the sun will shine on your day off.  If the sun is shining you go for a walk whether it’s your day off or not because you’re retired and every day is a day off!  Rosie and I like walking and I like Real Ale.  So a walk in the country with a really good pub at the end is our idea of heaven.”

That sounds like the perfect theologian to me John. 

Question 7

The year is 2276.  Someone picks up a book and the Rev. Dr. John Colwell is remembered.  What do you think it would say?

“It would be a blank piece of paper…”

No it won’t, I’m not having that….

“Oh it will, I mean come, come, come!  You just look at the number of books that are published on a weekly basis.  Most of them are in print for a very short space of time and long since forgotten.  Most of us don’t even make a footnote in Church history.”

I know, but what would it say if it said something….maybe I should ask Rosie….?

“I don’t know. I’m not sure any of us can say how others might remember us.  Ok, I guess books have a shelf-life longer than flesh and blood and therefore somebody may pick this up and say there was this obscure British Baptist who had some weird ideas about sacraments and the way in which theology should be done.  If you’re asking me how I’d like to be remembered, I’d like to be remembered as a good husband and father and grandfather.  I’d like to be remembered as a caring pastor.

I agree, but forgive me for pushing this: It has been said that students and congregations don’t remember everything they hear in the lecture hall or from the pulpit (which is shocking in itself), but what they do remember is what the tutor/pastor was passionate about.  Does that help you pin point what this 2276 piece of paper would say?

“When I was inducted in the church where I was pastor, Rex Mason said in his sermon, “John, long after everybody here has forgotten everything you’ve ever said, they will remember the man you are.”

With my thanks to John Colwell, an excellent scholar, great writer, amazing preacher, good friend and mentor.

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