Elmer ColyerElmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.

In this interview, Dr. Colyer talks about the weaknesses of the concordance method of theology, that the Bible is not an end in itself, and Trinitarian theology.

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Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Dr. Colyer, thank you so much for being with us. We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.

EC: I’m delighted to be with you, Mike.

JMF: I thought we could begin by talking about “what is Trinitarian theology?” because we often hear, “Christians are Trinitarians, they believe in the Trinity, so when you say ‘Trinitarian theology,’ you’re not really saying anything, are you?” What is Trinitarian theology?

EC: A lot of people, when they hear “Trini­tarian theology,” they know they should believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, and they affirm it. They know it should be important to their Christian life and faith, but they’re not really sure how it is important to their Christian life and faith.

Sometimes the church does people a disservice in some of the illustrations we use to try to help people understand the Trinity. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard in children’s sermons or even in regular sermons that the Trinity is like water, steam, and ice – three different forms of one substance. Or, an egg – the white, the yolk, and the shell. [JMF: or a flame] Yeah, or flame.

The problem with those illustrations is they attempt to help people understand a doctrine that they affirm, but they do it in a way that doesn’t relate it to their Christian life. Doesn’t relate it to how they became Christians in the first place or how they live out their Christian lives. Often, people hear the illustrations and it makes the Trinity seem more distant from their Christian life.

When we talk about the Trinity and about Trinitarian theology, we need to start from our most basic encounter with the gospel. It’s that knowledge of God – the little old lady in the back of the church who’s read her Bible all of her life, who’s prayed, who’s worshiped, who’s been in Christian fellowship, who’s attempted to love her neighbor – that knowledge of God that she has, meditating on the Scriptures, coming to know the love of God the Father, through the grace of Jesus Christ, in the communion of the Holy Spirit – that is Trinitarian theology, and that’s what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about.

[Thomas] Torrance once said that Trinitarian theology can never be more than a clarification, a deepening of that basic knowledge of the Triune God that every Christian has, that arises out of the gospel itself. When we talk about Trinitarian theology, we’re talking about that doctrine of God. Who is this God that comes to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Who is this God that’s poured out upon us in the Holy Spirit to the church? And how does our belief in this God then impact all our other beliefs and our practices? And it does – it profoundly impacts all of the rest. Trinitarian theology is all-encompassing, it isn’t simply about the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s about how that doctrine bears on all aspects of the church’s life, the church’s witness, the Christian life, prayer, everything.

JMF: For the sake of clarification for people watching the program, there are other kinds of theology… there is Liberation theology, Feminist theology, biblical theology, and so on. How do some of those differ from Trinitarian theology in their focus?

EC: A lot of the theologies that you mentioned, Liberation, Feminist theology, arise out of the modern turn to the human subject. Many of them tend to focus on human experience – in Liberation and Feminist theology, the experience of the poor, their experience of oppression – and then you read the Bible in light of it and attempt to understand your life or situation in the Scriptures. Same thing with Feminist theology, it’s based on women’s experience.

The problem with basing any theology in human experience is always the question, “Why this experience and not another experience?” It’s also why experience-related theologies tend to be divisive. They separate people into groups and their experiences. In Trinitarian theology, we’re far less concerned about our human experience than we are the God that we come to know in and through the gospel.

When we focus on the Triune God and God’s love for us in Christ, our human experience ends up being richer and deeper and broader than it would be otherwise. It’s a very different way of approaching theology. It’s a way of approaching theology with a center outside of ourselves and the gospel in God, rather than starting with human experience.

JMF: Biblical theology – people will hear the term “biblical theology” – “That’s what I want, because I’m a Bible believer and my faith emerges out of the Bible…” How does Biblical theology differ from Trinitarian theology?

EC: Good Trinitarian theology is biblical theology and good biblical theology is Trinitarian theology. Sometimes, though, what people mean by biblical theology is an approach to Scripture that neither myself nor T.F. Torrance would embrace. It’s what we call the concordance method of doing theology. If you want to know what the Bible teaches about the “love of God,” you get out a concordance, look up all the passages that talk about the “love of God,” read them all, summarize and synthesize them, and then you have the Bible’s understanding – the biblical theology of “love” according to Scripture.

This assumes that Christian faith is primarily cognitive rather than personal and participatory. You can read everything the Bible says about the “love of God” and have a vague idea about the “love of God,” but still not really know it. It’s like coffee – I could describe to you the aroma and flavor of coffee in great detail. I could tell you how to order it, how to fix it and drink it, but until you actually participate in the reality of coffee, you really don’t know what it is. You only have a vague and general idea.

It’s the same way with the “love of God.” The Scriptures are there for us to encounter the very love of God and Christ. When we read the scriptural text and the Spirit of God illumines the text and we hear the living voice of Christ speaking to us the “love of God,” we’re not simply reading information on the page, we’re actually coming to participate in God’s love. That participatory knowledge – that’s only mediated through the Scripture, we don’t have it apart from Scripture – is what real biblical theology ought to be.

Sometimes people think biblical theology is simply summarizing whatever theme we’re talking about by using a concordance and reading everything about it in the Bible. But Trinitarian theology and biblical theology is actually much deeper than that. As Torrance says, you have to go back through the text to the reality, the vicarious humanity, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, so that you encounter Christ anew in and through the Scriptures, which were called into relation to Christ to continue to communicate Christ through history, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

JMF: The Bible is not an end in itself. You compared it to hearing about and reading about coffee …

EC: Our knowledge of God, our knowledge of the Christian faith, is participatory. We come into contact with the reality of it. It isn’t simply reading about it in the Bible, it’s coming to know it and participate in it. I could explain to you about coffee, tell you how to order it, tell you how to drink it… but until you’ve actually have a taste of it, you still don’t understand what coffee is.

The Bible is like a love letter you can read, but until you actually encounter the One that it’s talking about, you really don’t understand the letter. It’s only when you participate in the love of God and Christ that Scripture makes sense. Theology needs to be rooted deeper than simply in the text of Scripture. We need to go through the text of Scripture till we come to know the reality. And that happens in the worshipping life of the church.

Most lay persons know what we’re talking about when we talk about participatory knowledge of God. We’ve been in a Bible study, we’ve been in a worship service. Maybe someone has shared the gospel with us. No longer do we simply hear human words. We hear the voice of the living God. We come to know more about God than we can ever express, in the same way that when you smell and drink coffee, you come to know more about it than you could ever explain.

Our human language points beyond itself to the reality, and we can never fully capture the reality in human language. That’s why Torrance repeatedly in his writings uses the phrase in the early church, “deo semper maior” – God is always greater than anything we could ever think or ever say about God. So it’s only in a participatory relation, when we actually come to know the love of God in Christ…

Think of the time in your life when you were most fully aware of God’s love and presence. Maybe in a time of worship, a time of prayer, maybe in the mountains, in the pristine beauty of God’s creation, when God was so palpably real that you could no more deny God’s love than you could deny your own reality. That’s a participatory knowledge of God. It’s only mediated through the Scripture, in the church, in a tradition – but it’s something that’s deeper than just the text of the Bible. That’s what we mean when we say “participatory.”

JMF: It reminds me of the idea of reading – in college you read an analytical essay about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example – or you’re asked to write one, but if somebody reads what you’ve written, they really have nothing until they actually hear the piece, until they hear the 1812 Overture, whatever it is (that’s what I happened to write about in music appreciation class). The participation is what sets apart the ideas behind biblical theology from Trinitarian theology. How did you first become acquainted with Trinitarian theology?

EC: It was primarily through Torrance’s writing. In my undergrad work, I was in a secular philosophy department that provided all kinds of challenges to my very evangelical and traditional Christian faith, and I encountered Don Bloesch’s theology at the end of my undergrad work, and so I went and studied with Don at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. There I first encountered Torrance’s theology. Don was incredibly helpful, but I found the depth of Trinitarian theology in Torrance’s work that I didn’t find in Bloesch’s. So it’s really Torrance that acquainted me with it. Since then, Torrance has taken me in other directions back to Karl Barth, the church fathers, and other places where you find that kind of Trinitarian theology as well.

JMF: You’ve written that this touched you in a way that you haven’t been touched before, and made you thirsty to go further into it.

EC: When I first read Torrance’s work, it was Reality and Evangelical Theology; it was in a course on pastoral care. It was my first attempt to interpret Torrance, because I had to write a précis of the book. Torrance is a very difficult theologian. I often found myself exasperated by the difficulty of his prose, his over-compressed composition, all the things that pastors and scholars and other people complain about in Torrance’s writing.

But there would be times when I would be reading, that Torrance would take me into the center of the gospel. For example, the vicarious humanity of Christ – Christ assuming our actual diseased, sinful humanity in order to heal it, to redeem it. Not that Christ ever sinned, but that God would love us that much, to become a weeping, wailing baby, to take on this broken, diseased humanity of ours, to enter into the midst of it, in order to redeem it, I found myself on my knees in praise and thanksgiving that God would love us that much, to come that close to us.

Torrance’s theology helped me understand that basic knowledge of God (that took place in my year senior in high school, when Suzy Riffle first proclaimed the gospel and led me to Christ), to help me understand what I always believed, but with a depth and breadth that made my participation in that reality even richer and deeper than it had been before.

JMF: What kind of inroads do you see Trinitarian theology making in the American Christian denominational scene?

EC: I came out of the college evangelical sub-culture in North America, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, and I’m an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church, which tends to be viewed as one of the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. Despite all the differences between United Methodism and American Evangelicalism, there are some things they have in common that’s astonishing – their individualism, their tendency to accommodate Christian faith to our American consumer culture in ways that are not helpful – and this is some of the places where I found Torrance’s theology to be particularly helpful.

For example, many congregations across the theological spectrum in our culture today tend to view Christian faith as one more institution providing goods and services within the great world of North American capitalist consumer culture. The church simply provides spiritual goods and services for people to consume.

In my travels across the country, the two main models of the church that I run into among laity and people coming to seminary are: one what I call the Shepherd/Sheep model, where the pastor is the hired professional who provides spiritual pastoral care to the laity, which they then receive. Or the pastor as CEO – that’s the large church – where the pastor manages his staff of paid and unpaid people who provide programs for people to consume.

You even hear it in the language we use to talk about the church today. People come into a new community, what do they do? They go “church shopping.” You never remember anything about church shopping in the New Testament. It shows the way in which, in our American culture, the church has accommodated itself to the culture in order to find its place. In some respects then, it legitimates our American consumer culture as well.

But that’s not what the church is, according to the New Testament or in Trinitarian theology. The church is that community on earth that is in correlation with the gospel that manifests Jesus Christ’s presence in the world today. As soon as we allow it to become co-opted by our consumer culture and we view it as providing spiritual goods and services for people to consume, it re-enforces our consumer culture and our individualism.

The church ought to be such a profound community of love that when the world looks at the church, it sees manifest in our relationship with one another, something on the human level the kind of love shared between the persons of the Trinity that we participate in because of the gospel.

The early church of Acts had no program of evangelism. No program of being culturally relevant. But it did have such a profound community of love that people wanted to become a part of it. It had a compelling witness all its own without having to try to be relevant on the culture’s terms.

The church today would do well, before it attempts to export its consumer culture and draw people in, that it would develop that kind of creative, profound sense of love and community, that people would want to be a part, and maybe then the whole question of relevance would be less crying than it is today in the church.

The other part is individualism. It’s not coincidental that in American Evangelicalism, in the Presbyterian Church, in Methodism, the doctrine of the Trinity has not been the primary doctrine of God in those traditions – it’s been the doctrine of the One God – the solitary individual who is all-sufficient, all-knowing, in control of everything outside of God – kind of like a super model of the American individual. That doctrine of the One God has played a far more pivotal role of influence in the church in this culture than the doctrine of the Triune God has.

The problem is that our individualism is an abstract concept. There are no individuals. All persons are already persons-in-relations. The question is, what kind of relations constitute them? If it’s relation of consuming goods and services of individuals, it’s ultimately de-humanizing. It doesn’t manifest the kind of community that people really long for. I don’t think it’s coincidental in our culture that people are lonely. Consuming goods and services as individuals leads precisely to the loneliness that’s characteristic of our culture.

JMF: As a pastor, you’ve experienced the dynamics of this kind of thing in the local congregation. Many pastors I’ve worked with have a sense of “we need to grow, we need to get the gospel out.” They put together programs or ideas about how to reach out into the community, how to hold a supper for disadvantaged people, or put together a food drive or whatever. Their goal is to bring people, or attract people to the church, and they get very excited if one or two people say, this is a nice church, maybe we’ll attend. A couple of people might attend for a week or two, and then they’re gone.

With all the programs that have been put out and tried, there’s an ulterior motive – it isn’t just, “people need help and we’re going to help them.” It’s “we hope that this is going to draw people into the church.” There’s an ulterior motive to the help. In all of what’s been done, very little church growth occurs from it, and yet that still seems to be the primary means of trying or attempting to draw people into the church.

And yet what you’re explaining, in Trinitarian theology, the idea is to become more fully what the church really is, and that creates a magnet that draws people in to something that’s already happening. I visit a lot of churches, and as you go into a church and you hear the announcements and so on, everything is about things we’re going to do, things we’re going to do – but you don’t hear a lot about what we’re doing together as a church that promotes our own cohesiveness and our own love for one another. You do hear it, and there are prayer requests for one another, and so on, but there’s so much of an emphasis, and even a guilt-trip, to some degree, placed on how many people have you contacted this week, how many people have you approached with the gospel this week.

The emphasis is not on becoming and letting Christ make us into a community of love, so that we are what we are supposed to be in the world. But it’s this outward thing. I find it frustrating, but I don’t know what kind of terms to put it in – its like a snowball going down the mountain, as to “This is the way to reach out.” How do you cope with that in your congregations and in pastors you talk to?

EC: While I’m a seminary professor, I’m also a pastor of a small congregation in rural northern Illinois. The question shows the problem with the church today, how profoundly our consciousness, our vision of what it means to be the church, what it means to be a Christian, is far more formed by the culture than it is by Trinitarian Christian faith.

I’d like to call a halt to all of those programs for a period of time because I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I wouldn’t say anything about your denomination, I’ll pick on the United Methodist Church, because that’s where I’m a pastor. We’ve lost 60,000 members every year on average since 1968, when we became the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church is dying, and in its present form, perhaps that’s not a bad idea. Maybe it should die in its present form.

Sometimes what happens in our Christian life and in the church, we have to fail so miserably on our own, with our vision of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a church – that we go back and ask what God’s vision is of the church and what it means to be a Christian.

So everyone listening to this, I hope all of you fail, and fail miserably as churches, as pastors, as laity – if that’s what it takes to get you to step out of the world in which Christian faith is about the kind of programs we provide in order to attract people to the church, and go into the raw character of genuine Trinitarian Christian faith, where Christian faith in the church is all about what the Triune God longs to do in and through us, both in our life together in the church and in our outreach.

When the church begins to manifest something of the miracle, the mystery and the freedom of the gospel, in our life together in the church, we’ll not have any problem bearing witness to our faith in the world around us. It will come spontaneously as an overflow of the power of the gospel.

It’s because we’re trying to substitute something else for what only God can provide us – the miraculous character of Christian faith. All these programs don’t work. We try and we ask God to bless them, and like you said, we get two or three people as a result of it.

Look at Acts chapters 2 and 4, when it describes the early church. They so encounter the power of the gospel that they couldn’t help but gather together for fellowship, for the breaking of bread and for prayer. There were no needy persons among them. People sold their properties, they laid the money at the apostles’ feet, they manifested the kind of love towards one another that they encountered in the gospel. It was spontaneous – not that there isn’t a place for planning, but that kind of spontaneous power of the gospel comes only when we look away from our programs to the power of God in the gospel – that’s the only time it really happens.

JMF: How do you help pastors and members catch that vision?

EC: Before you can move forward in ministry, with congregations, you first have to allow Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to begin to transform their vision of what it means to be a Christian in the church. Otherwise, if they continue to operate out of the vision that’s implicit on the church today, no matter what you do, it just simply perpetuates the same problem.

There’s a wonderful story about Major Ian Thomas that illustrates this. He became a Christian when he was in high school, and he became a whirlwind of activity for Christ in high school and all through college. This went on for about seven years until he burned himself out. One night in desperation, in despair, he got down on his knees by his bed and he prayed. He knew that God was going to be terribly disappointed that he’d reached this point of crisis in his life, and so he said, “Lord, for the last seven years, I’ve done everything in my power to live my life for you. I tried to bear witness in the gospel, I tried to being faithful, but I’m sorry, I just don’t have what it takes to be a Christian. I’m sorry, I quit.”

Thomas said, “I thought that Christ was going to be very disappointed.” But he said, “No sooner than those words left my mouth, I sensed Christ breathe a great sigh of relief. It was as if Christ was saying to me, “for seven years, with great dedication and misguided zeal, you’ve been trying to live a life for me that only I can live through you, and finally, I’m in business.”

Thomas went back and read the New Testament, and he was amazed at how much there is about this in the New Testament. “It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Or in John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If the branch remains in me it bears much fruit, apart from me you can do nothing.”

With congregations and with individual Christians, sometimes they need to come to a point of failure – that’s why in spite of all of the problems in the United Methodist Church today, economic, loss of membership – I’m hopeful, because I think the situation is getting so bad that the United Methodist Church is maybe ready to hear a word from the living God again.

When you go into a congregation and you want to bring about renewal, you have to start with the basics of the gospel. You have to begin to transform their vision of what it means to be the church. Instead of thinking, we’re a dying congregation – look at all the people around us who are 65, 75 years old – young people don’t want to come here anymore, pretty soon we’re going to die. So we have to hurry up and get some programs together and get some young people in here. And should a young family ever descend on that congregation, the congregation descends on them – but it all has the smell of desperation and death, not the power of the gospel.

Instead of thinking of themselves as a dying community that has to somehow create their own new life, once a congregation gets to the point where they realize they are a missionary outpost, and that the Spirit of the living God has been given to them, to mold them into a community with such authenticity and integrity and love and fellowship that people want to join, once they begin to get that kind of vision of what Christian faith and Christian community is all about, then almost any program they use is effective. But until they get to that point where they entrust themselves to the raw power of the gospel, oftentimes it’s a form – it’s Pelagianism, it’s an ecclesiological attempt to save ourselves by developing some new slick program that will bring a few more people into the church and keep them here. God simply doesn’t seem to bless that kind of programming.

JMF: Christ said, “By this shall all men know that you’re my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And yet the kind of congregation that you’re describing, where there are hardly any young people left, that it’s mostly elderly folks, and they’re struggling to find some kind of outreach program to draw people in, then if somebody dares say, “what if we actually look at one another and what one another’s needs are, and meet one another’s needs, and begin to focus on and care for one another so that we become the kind of loving, cohesive community that is a reflection of the kingdom of God here on earth as an outpost of the gospel,” someone’s bound to say, “That’s just navel watching. That’s just becoming inward and not thinking outward, don’t you care about all those people out there?”

It becomes a “we shouldn’t do that, because that’s just inward and caring about ourselves.” But really, that’s not what it is at all. It’s one thing if your focus is, OK, we need to put our attention on beautifying something in the church building that doesn’t make that much difference. That’s another thing. But when it comes to actually caring for one another and knowing one another’s needs and being there for one another, that’s a very different thing.

EC: That’s very perceptive. Part of the problem is, is that even in Evangelical circles, the tendency when we talk that way about discipleship is to focus on what’s in it for me? What does the gospel provide for me? Spirituality then becomes a self-preoccupation that can hinder us from going outside the church. When our focus is on the love of the Triune God, a God who lives in community and loves in freedom, and our lives take on the character of this God, we love in community, live in community, and we love in freedom as well, it’s not self-focused that way.

The United Methodist Church about 15 years ago started a program entitled The Disciple Bible Study. It’s a high-expectation program, 34 weeks, 12 people, read 80 percent of the Bible, they gather once a week for two-and-a-half hours to study the Bible, and I’ve taught it 11 times; it’s a great tool, it’s another program (which is part of the problem, but it’s a good one nonetheless). I want to use it to illustrate this point – that what happens is, as people focus on Scripture and on discipleship and on sharing the depth of their struggle to live out their Christian life in our culture that’s going more pagan all the time, what they find is that they develop a kind of a community, a kind of a fellowship that they have not experienced elsewhere, in our culture.

When the Disciple Bible Study is over, none of them want to stop. It isn’t because of the Bible Study, it isn’t because of the discipleship, it’s because of the participatory fellowship – what we mean by koinonia. So they try to perpetuate the Disciple Bible Study, but once you leave the structure, the groups tend not to function. What we’re talking about is not simply focusing on our own spirituality – we’re talking about focusing on a love that sets us free from ourselves, and yet free to be truly who we are at the same time.

Both in the early church and in the early Methodist movement, there were two equally primordial, equally basic forms of the church. There was the large group gathered for worship, which is what happens in most congregations in this culture. But an equally primordial, equally basic expression of the church was the smaller group gathered to manifest and embody this kind of koinonia, this participatory fellowship. You see it even in Jesus’ life with his disciples: he taught the crowds, but he had the 12 basically live with him for three years, and they became the apostolic nucleus – the community that carried forward the gospel in history.

In Acts, when the Spirit of God is poured out on the church, they gathered in the temple courts for worship, but they also gather in one another’s homes for fellowship and for breaking of bread. That small-group participatory fellowship is one of the things that needs to be re-instituted in the church today. That could help then focus our attention back on this Trinitarian participatory reality.

That was part and parcel in the early Methodist movement. Even before you became a Christian in the early Methodist movement, you become part of a class, and most people were in a class about 12 to 14 months before they became a Christian. Once you became a Christian, you went to another small group called the Band, and when you progressed in your Christian life, you became part of a Select Band, which was designed to help you grow in your relationship with Christ and community at that point. In Methodism, there was never a point in your spiritual life when you are not manifesting this kind of fellowship and community. It was community that tended to draw people into Methodism, as much as the circuit riders.

JMF: Unfortunately, we tend to focus on the structure, the details… how many people there, what time to start and what everybody should bring, and all that becomes more important than the simple fact of getting together. In all those examples in Scripture, they gathered – it’s the getting together that matters. The details are not as important as the actual coming together, which is what people miss when the structure runs out and the lessons run out.

EC: Right. We’re talking about a radical change in our vision of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be the church, and we have to break free of this consumer model where the church is one more entity within this culture – providing goods and services. As long as we think that way, no matter how good the small group, it gets subverted by the underlying vision that’s constitutive of people’s vision of what it means to be a Christian and be the church. The first thing that has to happen is for pastors to help the laity begin to catch another vision for the church. One of the best ways to do that is to try to find a way for them to enter into the participatory kind of fellowship we’re talking about.

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Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2021, 9:27 PM