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Issues Facing Missions Today 8: The Centrality of Christ in Missions, Theology, and Ethics

Issues Facing Missions Today 8: The Centrality of Christ in Missions, Theology, and Ethics

Sermon: 'The One Foundation, Jesus Christ our Lord'
Text: Col. 2.6-15
Place: Oxford Centre for Mission Studies
Date: 8 October, 2003

The following sermon, which I delivered 10 years ago, was delivered before an academic audience.  It is just as relevant today, engaging the very serious matter of keeping Christ central in all our work in missions, theology, and ethics.


Our text today, Col. 2.6-15, reminds me of the hymn of S. J. Stone, 'The Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.  She is his new creation by water and the word.'  An ancient text, a traditional hymn, and yet a timely word to challenges that we mission theologians face today.  That challenge, in a word, is to establish missions, theology, and ethics on one foundation, and only one foundation: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul's Rhetorical Situation in Writing Colossians:

Paul points out a certain irony in his and the Colossian church's situation.  He is a prisoner (4.18), but he is present in spirit with the church (2.5).  The false teachers are present with the Colossian Christians, but they are making them prisoners with philosophy and empty deceit (2.8), human tradition established by the 'elemental spirits' or 'basic principles'. The false teaching represented itself as a 'wisdom' and 'knowledge', and hence the term 'philosophy' (2.8) is used to describe it, but it appears to be a form of Judaism.  Philo and Josephus, for example, spoke of Judaism as a philosophy.  It seems to be a kind of mystical Judaism, which would have fit in well among other mystery religions in Asia Minor--a truly contextual theology.  It promoted a tradition having to do with the 'flesh', such as circumcision (2.11), food and drink laws, festivals, new moons, and sabbaths (2.16), self-abasement, angelic worship, dwelling on visions (2.18), and regulations about what to handle, taste and touch (2.21).

Legalism was only one outcome of this human tradition, not its essential error.  The larger issue was its attempt to build tradition on a foundation other than Christ--a multi-strand, contextual theology.

Paul's Argument:

Over against this Jewish philosophical tradition, Paul places Christ himself.

To counter the false teaching, Paul must offer a theological argument not only in terms of the cross and redemption, but also in terms of creation and the Law.  If Christ's work is only to be associated with the cross, then this leaves open an alternative 'creation' and 'Law' approach to 'wisdom'--or theology.  Just such a multi-strand approach to theology and ethics appears to be exactly what the false teachers were trying to accomplish in Colosse.

Thus, in Colossians Paul argues for a cosmic Christology that disarms this alternative theology.  First, Christ is represented as the Creator and Sustainer (1.15-17), such that no knowledge exists apart from Him (2.2-3).  Second, Christ is represented as the Reconciler of all creation (1.20), such that there is no alternative to His work (2.7-8).  Third, Christ is represented as the one in whom all the fulness of deity dwells in bodily form (2.9), such that no other embodiment of divine wisdom or work for humanity is of any use to those who know Him and dwell in Him (2.10).

For these reasons, Karl Barth was correct to shout 'Nein!' in response to a proposed natural Law theology: Christian theology must never be seen as one avenue among others to God.  But does this lead us into a well of our own particularism (cf. Gene Outka)--an inability to engage in dialogue or perhaps even in mission with those outside our tradition?

John Colwell (Spurgeon's College) offers an answer to this question: 'redemption is continuous rather than discontinuous with creation, since the Christ who is the source and goal of redemption is beforehand the source and goal of creation, since the being-givenness[1] [grace] by which we come to know the gospel is the work of that same Spirit as the being-givenness [grace] by which we come to know anything at all.'[2]

In saying this, Colwell believes that he has found a corrective to post-liberal antifoundationalism.  For him, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is itself an underlying story, a foundation for theology and ethics.  Indeed, in Col. 2, Paul thinks very much in terms of foundations: either a Jewish philosophical tradition in Colosse or Jesus Christ.  In 1 Cor., Paul had already insisted that '… no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (3.11).'  Here in Col. 2, Paul says that believers are 'rooted and built up in him and established in the faith' (2.7).  Using three words that convey the idea of foundations and growth, Paul here expresses that the Christian's foundation and all that follows is Christ.  Similarly, he says in this section that all the riches of assured understanding, the knowledge of God's mystery, is Christ himself (2.2), and believers are to live their lives in Christ (2.6).

Colwell cites John Milbank to make his point: 'The pathos of modern theology is its false humility.  For theology, this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a metadiscourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol, such as historical scholarship, humanist psychology, or transcendental philosophy'.[3]  The Church does have a metadiscourse or metanarrative.  It cannot surrender this point to postmodernity, which, in the words of Jean-Francois Lyotard, entertains an 'incredulity towards metanarratives.'[4]

Colwell maintains that Aquinas and Barth have been misread, as though they affirmed a distinction between nature and grace, as though Christian theology offers two complementary but distinct narratives, two alternative foundations for theology, a more rational, universal foundation based on creation and a more fideistic, particular foundation based on the Gospel.  Rather, Colwell argues, Irenaeus, Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, and Barth all affirmed an indivisible unity between creation and Christ in Christian theology.  Thus, he writes,[5]

For Irenaeus, in disputation with the Gnostics, creation is mediated precisely by that same Word and Spirit who are the mediators of redemption; for Thomas Aquinas the analogy of being must imply an analogy of goodness and, since God alone is good and God is 'simple', goodness is ultimately indivisible; for Jonathan Edwards all beauty and virtue within creation is a reflection of the single beauty and virtue of the divine Trinity; for Karl Barth creation has no internal basis other than the covenant and, therefore, any true 'word' of creation must harmonize with the true Word.

Oliver O'Donovan argues the same point:[6]

… revelation in Christ does not deny our fragmentary knowledge of the way things are, as though that knowledge were not there, or were of no significance; yet it does not build on it, as though it provided a perfectly acceptable foundation to which a further level of understanding can be added.  It can only expose it for not being what it was originally given to be.

All this raises questions for interdisciplinary research at a Christian study centre.  Are we to conduct research on any foundation other than Christ, as though there is a common revelation that can support research independent from the revelation we have in Christ?  Is there light in alternative religions or philosophies on which Christian research might build, or is Christian research to be built upon the one and only one foundation?  Being scholars, we will want to give more than a 'yes' or 'no' answer to these questions.  What is important from this text before us today, however, is the challenge to consider the foundation for our mission theology, lest we become better anthropologists than exegetes, better sociologists than theologians, better students of religious studies than Biblical Studies, better scholars than disciples of Christ.

The error of alternative foundations is rife among us as Christian scholars.  We might look at various modern theologies for examples, such as a Marxist interpretation of Scripture in Liberation Theology, African traditional religion as a basis for African Theology, or existentialist philosophy as a basis for contemporising Christian theology in the West.  Understandably, post-liberal theologians called for an antifoundation approach to theology.  George Lindbeck, a post-Liberal theologian, has offered an 'intratextual' rather than 'extratextual', approach to reading Scripture, but he does so in pointing theologians to the Jesus of the Scriptures:[7]

The believer, so an intratextual approach would maintain, is not told primarily to be conformed to a reconstructed Jesus of history (as Hans Kung maintains), nor to a metaphysical Christ of faith (as in much of the propositionalist tradition), nor to an abba experience of God (as for Schillebeeckx), nor to an agapeic way of being in the world (as for David Tracy), but he or she is rather to be conformed to the Jesus Christ depicted in the narrative.  An intratextual reading tries to derive the interpretive framework that designates the theologically controlling sense from the literary structure of the text itself.

This seems to be what we Evangelicals have advocated all along: the text is authoritative, our theology must indwell the text and not some reconstruction established on other grounds, such as history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, or the like.

But let us take an example of foundationalism from one of our own champions, John Stott, not to denigrate his contribution to Evangelical scholarship but to warn ourselves that this error is among us all too often.  In his book, Issues Facing the Church Today, Stott explores the characteristics of 'leadership' for Christians.  He begins: 'There is a serious dearth of leaders in the contemporary world.'[8]  This leads him into a rhetorically fine piece on the characteristics of leaders, which for him include being visionary, industrious, persevering, serving, and disciplined.

Such a description of leadership should become a cause for concern to leadership studies, however, as it may be used to describe people from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.  It raises the question, on what foundation are these characteristics of leadership built?

If our answer to this question is and always is 'Christ,' then we see through the empty traditions of our philosophies and cultures that are established on other foundations.  Indeed, the foundation of 'Christ' deconstructs most of what we understand by 'leadership' in the world.  As Jesus said,

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mt. 20.25b-28).

Later in Colossians, Paul suggests a way in which to deconstruct and reconstruct the contextually hierarchical relationships of 1st century society on the foundation of Christ.  The foundation Paul advocates is again stated in 3.17: 'And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him'.  This verse sums up the previous sixteen verses, but it also is the basis for what follows as Paul applies it to the wife-husband relationship, the child-parents relationship, and then the slave-master relationship.  These three relationships made up the first century 'household'.  If the husband, father, and master roles were to be established on a 'leadership' foundation which Stott offers, the man of the household would be visionary, industrious, persevering, serving, and disciplined.  But values are not objective, and such values--or any others that we might suggest--need some kind of narrative or tradition within which they might be interpreted.

Paul's foundation for these relationships is, as we have seen, Christ. This foundation offers a new hermeneutic for interpreting the traditional values in marriage in two ways. First, values are interpreted with reference to the person and work of Christ, our foundation for theology and ethics.  Second, there is a pairing of values for the two parties involved in the relationship, both of which are founded on Christ.  So, while the wife was traditionally subject to the husband, this value of 'being subject' should now be seen in terms of what is fitting in the Lord (Col. 3.18).  The context in which this is possible is that in which the husband has learned to love the wife with a Christ-like love (Col. 3.19).

Similarly, children have to work out their relationship with their parents through the value of obedience, but now Paul first places this value in the context of Christ's Lordship, and, second, sees it flourishing when parents exercise a Christ-like behaviour towards their children by not provoking them to disobedience, causing them to lose heart in the relationship (Col. 3.20-21).

Slaves too are to obey and perform their tasks wholeheartedly--values anyone in the Roman establishment would approve.  But they are to do so as serving the Lord (Col. 3.22-25).  And this practice is the more conceivable when masters treat their slaves justly and fairly, not because the institution of slavery permits this--it rather works against it--but because masters too are to place their relationship in the context of Christ's Lordship (Col. 4.1).  Indeed, following this to its natural conclusion, the very institution of slavery is ultimately deconstructed, as in Paul's letter to Philemon.

This 'Christ foundation' for the household of the 1st century is, therefore, both deconstructive and reconstructive.  It deconstructs social institutions of 1st century Roman culture, not by overthrowing those institutions but by deconstructing the abusive power relationships within them.  It reconstructs relationships through each person seeing his or her roles in terms of Christ, and each relationship being brought into a relationship with Christ.

Let us return to the larger question of an alternative 'created order' foundation on which to build.  As the Colossian teachers explored this approach to theology and ethics, they sought to build upon a foundationalism which Paul terms the 'stoicheia' (Col. 2.8, 20).  Commentators explore whether these stoicheia were conceived of in terms of material elements, foundational principles, or spiritual authorities controlling our world.  Paul does not entertain these distinctions, however, since his concern is not with what these stoicheia are but that they are considered alternative foundations for Christian theology and ethics.

Although they are not opposite foundations to Christ, they are contrary to Christ if He is, indeed, the fullness of deity in bodily form (2.9).  Thus Paul caps their authority, or captures it, rather than ignores or denies it.  He does so first by insisting that these powers  are created by Christ, and therefore have no independent authority of their own.  In saying so, Paul allows that these alternative foundations have authority--they are not opposite to Christ.  What authority they have, however, is derivative.

But Paul's second argument demonstrates that such authorities heeded apart from Christ become contrary to Christ.  They cannot become foundations in and of themselves.  Paul concludes this paragraph with this second argument: through the cross Christ has disarmed, made a public spectacle of, and triumphed over these contrary authorities.  How is this so?  Because the way of the cross is the way of Christ, and it offers an alternative way of construing the world.

So, for example, Paul submits his own ministry to the foundation of Christ.  He says in Col. 1.24, 'I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.'  His ministry takes the way of the cross.  If it were otherwise, his ministry would become something to examine in terms of 1st century leadership.  But he chooses the way of suffering service instead.

Similarly, what light there is in another foundation--creation or the Law, for example--if  understood apart from the full story of Christ, will become contrary to Christ when it is  not taken up by and into Christ.

Paul applies his singular foundation of Christ to the Jewish Law of circumcision as an example, perhaps because this was also one of the issues at Colosse (2.11-14).  If this Law of circumcision is taken up into Christ, then it is seen for what it is, a symbol of the separation of God's covenant people from the sinful flesh, from life apart from God lived through human effort, with its ultimate end being death.  This spiritual interpretation of circumcision could be offered within Judaism per se.  But catching it up into the story of Christ brings out whatever spiritual light there was in the original practice.  So now circumcision is understood spiritually and in reference to the story of Christ: believers are buried with Christ and raised with Him; they are done with trespasses and sin, are forgiven, and are made alive with Christ (2.11-14).

If the Law is not seen in relation to the foundation of Christ, it runs the danger of becoming a collection of performances--a hollow tradition--seeming to offer a form of 'wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but … of no value in checking self-indulgence' (2.23).  But, says Paul, this alternative foundation has led to condemnation, which has been nailed to the cross (2.14), and Christ has 'disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it' (2.15).  He, and He alone, is our One Foundation.

This does not mean that Paul is opposed to moral rules--ample evidence from his letters show this well enough.  But the current theological climate in the West finds rules inconsistent with what has just been said.  Both a repudiation of foundationalism and a repudiation of rules, laws and norms--as though these were examples of foundationalism--are current in contemporary theology.  However, just as Colossians is not antifoundational, it is also not antinomian.  Paul's argument is that Christ is the foundation, and therefore rules, laws and norms must be taken up into Him.  Paul does not oppose creation theology and the Law to Christ, as though there is for Christians no light to be discovered here.  He rather insists on establishing these on Christ, understanding them through Christ.

Paul does not, as some theologians do today, repudiate Old Testament laws in general in order to affirm monogamous, faithful relationships of any consenting adults.  That move can only happen theologically if we repudiate with the Docetists and Gnostics that Christ is creator.  The heresy of the Docetists and Gnostics was in opposing the order of creation to that of redemption, and this is precisely what some believe Christian theology must do today.  They argue that creation theology, with its marriage of a male and female or its dominion over the earth has been eclipsed by Christ.  They argue that we must oppose Christ to the Law, which symbolises wrath and restraint, since Christ symbolises love and freedom.  But Paul had no such notion in mind in Colossians, or anywhere else in his letters.  In Col. 3 5-6, Paul writes

'Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.'

Sin is still sin, but Christ as foundation now means that it is overcome through the death and resurrection of Christ rather than human observances and effort to follow the Laws pertaining to it.


We live in awkward times, in which it is fashionable to be antifoundational, to deconstruct the idols of modernity, to oppose laws and regulations by seeing arguments as always perspectival, a matter of aesthetics, a playing of language games.  As Christians, we can sail with this wind away from false foundations.  But we must see, as too many mainline Christians have not seen, that this wind takes us nowhere, or everywhere.  We must, instead, recognise with Paul that Christ is our compass.  More than that, to change the metaphor, He is our foundation, our very life, for we are to make His life our own and come to full maturity in Him (2.10).  This is the challenge for Christian mission theologians today.  I conclude with Paul's words:

'6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving' (Col. 2.6-7).

[1] By this awkward phrase, Colwell means grace as the quality of something--it is given, not achieved, and ever dependent on God's gracious giving.  See  John Colwell, Living the Christian Story: The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001, )p. 35.
[2] John Colwell, Living the Christian Story, p. 243.
[3] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 1.
[4] The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xxiv.
[5] John Colwell, Living the Christian Story, pp. 221f.
[6] Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order, p. 89; cf. Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 25.
[7] George Lindbeck, (‘Christ and Postmodernity, The Nature of Doctrine: Towards a Postliberal Theology,’ in Reading in Modern Theology: Britain and America, ed. R. Gill (London: SPCK, 1995): 188-202.192f.
[8] John Stott, Issues Facing the Church Today: A Major Appraisal of Contemporary Social and Moral Questions (Basingstoke: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1984), p. 327.