Elmer Colyer, Our Faith Is Weak, But He Is Strong
Elmer 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 theology of Thomas Torrance, the vicarious humanity of Christ, and “the logic of grace.”
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JMF: You’re editor of what I call a remarkable book, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T. F. Torrance. What led you to bring that project together?
EC: I started reading Torrance in my seminary work, and quickly found his theology helpful to the point that I wanted to do my doctoral work on Torrance’s theology. Back in those days in the ‘80s, there was very little written on Torrance’s work. There were a number of dissertations – none of them in print before 1990 that I know of and a few articles. Alister McGrath had not yet written his intellectual biography of Torrance, and so when I completed my doctoral studies, I wanted to begin to mediate Torrance’s theology to North America, somewhat like Torrance tried to mediate Barth’s theology to the English-speaking world.
When you enter Torrance’s horizon of theology, you’re faced with the difficulty of his prose – his over-compressed exposition – and then the fact that he never published a systematic theology. So if you want to figure out the over-arching vision of his theology so you can understand how the various works fit together, the only way you can do it is to read all the way through it. So once I finished my PhD work and started teaching, I realized that we needed two volumes: one volume on how to read T.F. Torrance – which would provide an overview of his theology and direct readers to secondary sources, and number two, to begin a scholarly conversation about his theology – a friendly scholarly conversation.
That’s where the The Promise of Trinitarian Theology developed. I got together a group of scholars, some of them who had studied under Torrance, some of them who knew him personally, and the book was designed to be kind of a festschrift – a present to Torrance on his 80th birthday. The interesting thing about this book different from some festschrifts is it simply isn’t honoring Torrance, it’s about his theology, and it invites him in a final chapter to enter into a critical dialogue with the other authors. It was my attempt to begin to stimulate scholarly conversation with Torrance while he was still alive, and those two volumes, including the one mentioned, are the product of that.
JMF: How easy was it to get scholars who wanted to participate in this book and enter into this dialogue?
EC: That was not a problem. There were a lot of scholars in Europe, particularly England and Scotland, who were already reading Torrance’s theology. Very few over here were: Gary Deddo, Ray Anderson, a few people who had studied under Tom, but not a lot of people were reading Torrance’s theology. Just about the time my books came out, Alister McGrath’s book, his intellectual biography, had come out on Torrance, and both of us agreed that Torrance was one of the premiere theologians, maybe the most outstanding theologian in the English-speaking world in the 20th century.
Finding scholars to do it was not all that difficult of a project. Now that Torrance has died (just over a year ago), there’s a flood of interest in Torrance’s theology like I have not seen in the early years when I was first writing on his theology. It’s very gratifying to see how many people are interested in studying Torrance’s work now that he has gone on into the other side.
JMF: You describe him, and many others describe him, as one of the premiere theologians of the 21st century. What is it that makes him premiere on that level?
EC: There are a number of factors that make him that significant. First, he is one of the primary theologians in the dialogue with the natural sciences. Throughout his lifetime, natural scientists often viewed him more highly than people within the theological world did. Part of the problem in modern western culture has been the tension between Christian faith and modern science. Early on, Torrance realized that this tension didn’t need to exist, and there is another way to think about the relation between theological science and natural science that would overcome that hostility. He contributed significantly to that debate.
His appropriation of the Trinitarian character of Christian faith, the concept of the vicarious humanity – these are developed in Torrance’s theology in a depth and breadth that you find very seldom in the history of the church. For example, the sacraments – George Hunsinger considers Tom’s work on the sacraments to be the most important work on the sacraments in the Reformed tradition since John Calvin. It’s because he thinks them out in a Trinitarian, Christo-centric fashion – the way he does all of his theology.
There’s a scientific rigor – a Trinitarian vision that’s worked out on all the different dimensions of theology that makes him a theologian’s theologian – but the thing that I found so marvelous about Torrance’s theology is the way his theology bears upon the life of the church and the life of a pastor. I’m a scholar, I teach in a seminary, but I’ve done all of my academic study in theology while I was actually serving churches – I’m serving churches now. I always had one foot in the church and one foot in the academy, and I found that to be a good thing, and I found Torrance’s work not only helpful in my theologizing as a theologian and a seminary professor, but particularly helpful in my pastoral work.
JMF: In what ways does Trinitarian theology have an impact on the lay member on a congregational setting?
EC: The place where I found Torrance’s theology so personally helpful is that often – particularly in North-American culture that puts so much emphasis upon our ability to create our own life, our own existence, our responsibility, our freedoms, all of that kind of thing – it’s easy for Christian faith expressed in North America to feel that at some point along the line, in Christian faith and life, part of the responsibility rests on our shoulders. Wherever that rests, it always creates a weak link in the chain.
There are a lot of laity in the pews – actually, probably a lot of pastors that we all know, that we’re not nearly as good as Christians as we present to those around us. There’s always a tendency in our humanity, in our sinfulness, in our brokenness, to be looking over our shoulder wondering when the shoe is going to fall. It robs us of our freedom and joy in the gospel …
JMF: Every time somebody is having a problem, the pastor typically tells them, you need more faith. If you had more faith, then God would come through for you. What else can you do, but look over your shoulder and say, “Where am I lacking in faith, help me to have more faith, I need more faith, because if I have more faith then I won’t have to worry about this.”
EC: This is precisely the problem. We turn faith into one more human work. I come from the mid-west, it’s 18 below zero in Iowa today. My son was born on January 17th 28 years ago this Saturday. It was 28 below zero when he was born. So we get really cold temperatures back in the mid-west.
(I’ll pick on Southern California.) There was a gentleman from Southern California visiting Wisconsin, and he was out on a lake and he heard the ice cracking, and being a really smart man from Southern California, he realized that if he got on his stomach and spread his weight out over the ice, he’d be less likely to go through the ice and freeze to death.
So he got down on his belly and inched his way across the lake absolutely petrified that he was going to go through the ice at any moment and die. He got up on the shore, he brushed himself off, he heard a sound behind him, he looked back over across the lake and here comes a team of horses with a load of logs down onto the ice, across the ice and up the other side.
These two individuals had a rather different experience of what it’s like to cross the ice in the middle of the winter in northern Wisconsin. The one had absolute faith in the quality of the ice – so much faith that he was willing to drive a team of horses across the ice. The other one’s faith was so weak that he was down on his belly praying any moment that he wouldn’t go through the ice and drown. But you notice it’s not about the quality of their faith, is it? It’s about the quality of the ice. The ice held up the guy driving the team of horses, and it held up the man crawling across on his belly. Jesus Christ and the gospel are the ice. They’ll hold the entire universe and our lives, even in our moments of doubt.
There’s a wonderful story in Matthew chapter 14, where Jesus is trying to teach his disciples what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, living out his relationship with the God he called Abba – the kind of relationship that Christ invites us into. Right after feeding the 5,000 – remember in John’s Gospel, there 5,000 men plus the women and the children. It was the end of the day, everybody was getting restless, and the disciples said, “send them away so they can find some place to get food.”
And Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” And the writer of John’s Gospel adds this little parenthetical insert: “for Jesus already had in mind what he was going to do.” He wanted to demonstrate to the disciples the sufficiency of the grace of God to meet human need.
Jesus fed the 5,000 – the Gospel doesn’t tell us that he did a miracle, it’s because the Gospels are self-involving narratives, they invite us to say that Christ did the miracle. At the end, the twelve apostles picked up twelve baskets of the broken pieces after feeding the 5,000 with the two small fishes and the barley loaves.
How much do you think the disciples learned by this concrete illustration of the sufficiency of God to meet human need? Absolutely nothing. Mark’s Gospel adds that their hearts were hardened. I like Luther’s translation – “they were not one whit the wiser.”
Jesus has his disciples get into the boat and go across the lake while he goes up on the mountain to pray – probably praying for his disciples, because they don’t get it. Then in the middle of the night, the boat is in the middle of the storm, the waves are breaking over the bow of the ship, the disciples are straining at the oars, the perspiration is pouring down their brow and every wave that broke, threatened to sink them to the bottom. Jesus goes to them walking on the water – demonstrating that everything that threatens to be over their head, is already under his feet.
In the midst of the storm, there’s peace. He comes up to them and says, “I am. Stop being frightened. It is I.” The Greek words are egô eimi – “I am.” It should sound familiar. Remember when Moses asked for God’s name? God said, “I am that I am.” Jesus’ “I am” saying: “I am the Bread of Life.” – I am.
There’s a lot of scholarly ink spilled in commentaries over the significance of that “I am” saying. There are a lot of scholars who are uncomfortable with Jesus walking on the water and saying, “I am, stop being frightened.” There is one commentator on Matthew’s Gospel who says, “Jesus’ words in this context have a certain luminous quality about them.” You think?
Peter understands what Jesus is saying. In his need, he says, “Jesus, if you are, bid me come to you on the water.” For the first time in that event, Jesus smiled, because one of the disciples is finally beginning to understand the simple child-like character of this participatory Christian faith. “Jesus, if you are, put under my feet what is yours.”
Jesus said, “that’s all I’ve been waiting for. Step out of the boat, come to me on the water.” And Peter does. He begins to walk on the water, to Jesus. As long as his eyes are fastened on Christ, he walks on the water. But then he beheld the wind and the waves. A wave slapped him on the right cheek and another matched it on the left; in that moment of time he began to reason with himself, “This is really ridiculous – people don’t walk on water, what am I doing out here?” And he goes down for a dunking.
Then comes the most important verse in that whole story. A lot of Christians – this is how their Jesus responds: “Peter, you deserve it. I am glad you went down for a dunking, you weak faith… You took your eyes off me, you’re getting just what you deserve!” Is that what Jesus does in the story?
Immediately, Jesus reaches down his hand and catches him. When our faith fails, Christ’s faithfulness doesn’t fail. We don’t rest our Christian life, we don’t rest the existence of the church on our faithfulness – on our faith. We rest it on the faithfulness of Christ. Even when we doubt, Christ’s faithfulness is unshakeable – he reaches down and finds a way to catch us and lift us out and put us back on the boat.
Remember what the end of the story is? The end of the story, the disciples say, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” And they worshipped him.
Jesus coming to them on the storm said, “I am. Stop being frightened.” They finally learned to say, “You are. We are not frightened.” And that is the Christian life, the Christian church, Christian ministry in a nutshell. In each and every circumstance, Christ says to us, “I am. Don’t be frightened.” He invites us to say, “You are. We are not frightened.”
JMF: Later in the story, they’re back to where they were again, and they have to be reminded of this kind of thing again. Torrance brings out that it isn’t our faith, it’s Christ’s faith. We tend to think if our faith is weak, that there’s a big problem going on and we’d better get our faith strong. But we’re not dealing with our faith, we’re dealing with Christ’s faith, for one thing, and more than that, we’re dealing with him. Our faith is in him, not in our faith.
EC: That’s an excellent way to state it. This is the problem. Often the church doesn’t have a concept of Christ’s vicarious humanity in its total substitutionary work. We think that some place along the line, there’s something that we have to contribute to our salvation. Whether it’s repentance, whether it’s faith, whether it’s obedience – and wherever, we make some kind of autonomous contribution to our faith. It’s the same with pastoral ministry in the church, to our ministry – any time there’s some part of that chain that we make, as an act in and out of ourselves, apart from Christ – that becomes a weak link in the chain. That’s where we find ourselves looking over our shoulder wondering when the shoe is going to drop. Because we know we don’t have the kind of faith that we need, the kind of obedience, the kind of sacrifice. We don’t. That’s not what the Christian life is all about. It’s about Christ’s faithfulness.
JMF: Even our prayers. Trinitarian theology teaches us that when we pray, we don’t have to worry about how effective and effectual – fervent and so on our prayer is, because Christ takes up our prayer in himself, redeems it and makes it his prayer. We’re praying in him. So we’re trusting him to be our prayer, and our pray-er for us.
But what happens, even in sermons, we think of ourselves when we pray – I didn’t pray that quite strong enough, so I’m going to try it again with more … I’ll clinch my fist a little tighter, I’ll tense my body a little bit more, and I’ll say it again with more fervor, and I’ll start to plead and beg. Well, that’s probably not good enough – I’ve got to go even more. We interpret the James passage about Elijah – the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. So we try to make that be us. But Trinitarian theology teaches us that this isn’t the point. We’re in Christ. Christ is that effectual, fervent pray-er for us.
EC: Well said. I think that it’s part of our sinful nature, we think there’s always something that we can contribute, even if that’s our self loathing. This is where Torrance drove this point home for me: when Jesus starts his ministry, the first thing he does is he goes to John the Baptist and he’s baptized in the Jordan.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, and I never could get my mind around why Jesus went to John to be baptized. He didn’t need to be baptized. He didn’t have any sins to repent of. So what is this thing with Jesus going into the Jordan and being baptized?
Torrance points out, whose sin is Jesus confessing there in the Jordan? He doesn’t have any sins of his own to confess. But taking our sinful, diseased and alienated humanity upon us, as our elder brother who does it all in our place, on our behalf, and in our stead, Jesus even confesses our sins aright, because we can’t even do that.
All of this wallowing in our guilt and everything that we often do as Christians, we don’t even do that right. We can’t even repent. We don’t even feel sorry for our sins in the right way. Jesus has to step into the Jordan. Think of it, the Son of God stepping into the Jordan, confessing all of our sins once for all in a perfect way, so we don’t always have to be worried, “did we confess it enough?” “Are we sorry enough?”
That simply cuts the ground out from underneath it. Christ has already done that, in our place, in our behalf, in our place – he invites us to simply say, “Lord, I screwed up again, but thanks be to God you identified with me in my brokenness, you already know it, you’ve already confessed it, you offer me your new life once again on the basis of what you’ve done there on the Jordan confessing my sins.”
JMF: What I get from pastors and sometimes from lay people, in talking about that, is: “You’re just teaching an easy believe-ism.” In other words, we don’t have to do anything, we just say, “Jesus already did it for me, so therefore, I don’t have to do anything, I don’t need to worry about anything. I can behave anyway I want because Christ has already done it all for me.”
EC: Don Bloesch, my mentor in seminary, said, “We always have to fight on two fronts, there are dangers on both sides.” I’m not convinced though, both as a pastor and in my own Christian life as a seminary professor, that that’s where Trinitarian Christian faith leads to. We have to remember Christ in his vicarious humanity, we see what it cost him in order to do this on our behalf, in our place, in our stead. It was absolute agony – the baptism that takes place at the Jordan isn’t the end of the deal, is it? At the end, after he comes up out of the water, the Spirit of God comes upon him. The Holy Spirit comes upon our very alienated, diseased humanity, so that our humanity gets adapted in order to receive the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit learns to dwell within our brokenness of humanity.
What does the Spirit immediately do? Sends Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days of agonizing temptation, and there in the garden, when the temptation gets really bad, Jesus is in absolute agony. When we see what it cost Christ to believe, repent, and obey on our behalf, I don’t think it leads to a lackadaisical life – I think it leads just to the opposite. It provides us freedom to want to follow along in discipleship. Not because we’re worried if we don’t, the shoe is going to drop, not because we’re worried if our faith fails, we’re actually going to sink and Christ is going to leave us there – but because we know that what he done in his life, death, and resurrection has set us free from that whole way of life. We can begin to think of it in another way.
Another way to get at this is what I call the logic of grace in Torrance’s theology. What we’re really talking about is the relation between divine agency and human agency in our salvation. What does God do and what do we do? There is a tendency not to think of it in terms of the realities that are involved, but to think of it in terms of logical categories, and then as Gary Deddo says, “it becomes a zero-sum game.” If Christ does everything, then we do nothing and therefore we can live this lackadaisical life. Or Christ does 50% and we do 50%, and then we’re back in that trap that we talked about before, where it’s the quality of our faith that saves us, rather than the faithfulness of Christ.
But it’s neither way. It’s not that Christ does 100% and we do nothing, it’s not Christ does 50-50 or 70/30 (depending on how optimistic you are about your humanity) or how you apportion that out, the real gospel is that Christ does a 100 percent and we do a 100 percent. But we only do it in Christ.
The way I help seminary students and laity think about this is to think about the time in your life when you were most profoundly aware of the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the presence of God in your life, when God’s love and forgiveness were so real that you knew that you are a beloved child of God. It may have been at your conversion experience, in a worship service, or some other time. In that moment of time when you’re so aware of the love of God, can you even begin to imagine going out and living a lackadaisical life? In that moment of time, living as a disciple is the easiest thing in the world. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Because that is what it means to be a human being – to allow God to live God’s life, Trinitarian life through us, in a way that frees our humanity. All of grace never means a diminishing of humanity. All of grace always means all of humanity.
In the same way, in the Incarnation, when the second person of the Trinity becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, does it in any way diminish Jesus’ humanity? Does he become less human than all other human beings? He becomes more human. He’s a character. He takes a whip of cords and drives the money changers out of the temple. I love John’s Gospel. Jesus’ first miracle according to John’s Gospel, remember what it is? Turns water into wine at a wedding. Not simply wine but wine – six jugs that held like 28 gallons apiece. There was enough wine for quite a party.
Is it not interesting that the incarnate Son in his humanity is such a human being – more human than all of us are. God’s presence in our life, the grace of God never negates our humanity – it frees our humanity. We become more personal, more human. A 100% God doesn’t lead us to live a lackadaisical Christian life, it leads to the opposite. It leads to the kind of freedom in the gospel that sets us free to be in love with God and neighbor in a way that we can’t otherwise.
JMF: If a person thinks about their very best friend – a person they care about, they click with, they resonate with and they have this very strong personal, best-friend relationship. The fact that you have that relationship doesn’t tell you, “Since this person accepts me and likes me and respects me and we hit it off real well, I can just treat him any old crappy way I want. I can lie to him, I can deceive him, trick him and everything else.” You don’t think like that. It just doesn’t work like that.
When you’re in this kind of relationship, you care and you want to enhance and beautify and keep that relationship. When you don’t, you feel badly about it and you want to go fix it. It’s just an oxymoron to ask the question that since Christ has done everything for me therefore I can just go out and do whatever I want…. It means that you really don’t. The Christian who really believes that doesn’t think that way. The two things just simply don’t go together.
EC: That was a great illustration. It shows something fundamental about our humanity. When we become transformed by the gospel, we’re able to enter into those kinds of relationships with other human beings, and it shows the profundity of those relationships that the persons are constituting. Our individual personhood is not individual, it’s constituted partly by the relationship of the friendship – and because it’s constituted by the relationship of the friendship, anything that’s an affront to that other person in the relationship diminishes that person’s humanity and diminishes our own.
That’s why being betrayed by a friend is the absolute, most heinous evil and painful event we experience. The problem often is we never get to the point where we’re close enough in relationship where we experience that kind of profound relationship. But you’re right. When I say that human beings are also persons in relations, and ought to manifest in our relationship with one another the kind of fellowship we see between the persons of the Trinity – that’s exactly the kind of thing that I mean. That illustration was great.