Paul’s prayer for the church at Colossae (Colossians 1:9-14) is a catalog of the blessings he wants God to give them: knowledge, spiritual wisdom, understanding, a worthy walk, eagerness to please God, fruitfulness, growth in knowledge, strength, endurance, patience, and joy. With all of that going on in the prayer, I still think it’s safe to say that the dominant note in the prayer (and in the epistle) is the note of knowledge. Paul wants the Colossians to have knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God. Among the other things he’s asking God for, he’s asking God to give the Colossians the gift of good theology.
H.C.G. Moule (1841-1920) was a great evangelical Bishop of Durham whose Bible commentaries are always worth consulting. In his Colossian and Philemon Studies, Moule quotes “some one” as having said “beware of an untheological devotion,” and underscores the way Paul asks for “just these ‘theological’ blessings… for a salvation nobly ‘theological.'” Moule says, “He prays that they may not only be warm and earnest, but may know profoundly the reason of their hope.” His summary:
This prayer of St. Paul’s, thus read in the context of the Epistle, is no untimely message for us. In many quarters of our Christendom nothing is more in fashion than “an untheological devotion.” “The religious sentiment” is regarded far and wide as a thing which can live and be healthy with a very minimum of revleation, and with an amost nil of reasoned doctrine; above all of the doctrine of a divine Christ, an atoning Cross, and a rescue from “the authority of the darkness.” But such “sentiment,” however warm, has no ultimate “last” in it. Under very moderate pressure from fashions of thought, and from attractive personalities, it is ready to go as far as possible from the ground on which alone the world, the flesh, and the devil can be really met. (p. 58)
A later commentator, W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924), in his own Studies in Colossians and Philemon, quotes Moule’s remarks and agrees heartily: “Devotional hours do not mean hours when thought is absent… A piety that is mere pietism, evangelicalism that does not continually ponder the profound truths of the New Testament, can never be strong or do any true service to the gospel cause. We must indeed beware of ‘untheological devotion.'” (p. 40)
But Griffith Thomas takes up another theme as well: “We must also beware of an ‘undevotional theology.’
A hard, dry, intellectual study of theology will yield no spiritual fruit. Accuracy in the knowledge of Greek, careful balancing of various aspects of truth, wide knowledge of the doctrinal verities of the New Testament –all of these are essential and most valuable. Unless, however, they are permeated by a spirit of devotion they will fail at the crucial point. Pectus facit theologum — it is the heart that makes the theologian; and a theology that does not spring from spiritual experience is doomed to decay, to deadness, and to disaster. When, therefore, our devotions are theological, and our theology is devotional, we begin to realize the true meaning, blessing, and power of the Christian life. Thus we may go from strength to strength, from grace to grace, from glory to glory. (pp. 40-41)
Two equal and opposite dangers: untheological devotion, and undevotional theology. To avoid them, strive for a theological devotion which will by its nature simultaneously be a devotional theology.
(This is a lightly-revised re-post of a 2006 blog entry. I’m doing a series of Colossians-related re-posts this week because my church is preaching through Colossians, and I’m trying to get back in the habit of daily blogging.)