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Promise & Presence: an exploration of sacramental theology

Author: John E Colwell
Published By: Paternoster (Milton Keynes)
Pages: 284
Price: unknown
ISBN: 1 84227 414 7

Reviewed by Philip Clements-Jewery.

John Colwell is Tutor in Christian Doctrine and Ethics at Spurgeon's College, London. This book is, quite simply, absolutely splendid. I have nothing but praise for the profundity of the ideas contained in this volume, and the clarity and personal honesty with which they are expressed. There were many moments when I wanted to cry out, 'Yesss…!' Colwell has a gift for putting his finger on an issue and expressing it very succinctly.

It is important that from the outset potential readers are clear about Colwell's focus. This is not, primarily, a book about the sacraments of the church. Admittedly, there are chapters about each of the sacraments, and, remarkably for a Baptist, Colwell includes confirmation, cleansing (penance), healing, ministry and marriage alongside baptism and communion. His comments about each of these are often insightful and illuminating. His main point is that, if God's presence is experienced in any or each of these sacraments, it is because God has promised to be present to us in them. God may well have appeared to Moses in a burning bush, but he does not so appear to everyone, because he has not promised it.

However, in spite of his helpful exposition of the sacraments, Colwell's main concern is to underline the crucial importance to Christian thought of the concept of sacramentality. This is, above all, a book about the manner of God's relating to us and to the world. It is the author's contention, in which he is surely right, that God's gracious presence and activity is always and without exception a mediated presence and activity. Thus, the claim to an unmediated experience of the divine as, for instance, Pentecostalists sometimes make, is a theological mistake.

It is Colwell's view that the Christian doctrine of God fundamentally affects 'our understanding of the entirety of God's relatedness to the world' (p.ix). Before dealing with each of the sacraments in turn, therefore, Colwell begins with two foundational chapters expounding the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and of the creation (as for what he says about the Trinity, I have never before had it explained so simply and clearly why the Western Church was wrong to include the filoque clause in the Nicene Creed, but also why leaving it out is less than satisfactory as well!).

If I have any gripes, they are very minor. My main one has to do with the footnotes. In an attempt (I assume) to make the book more accessible to non-theologically trained readers, Colwell finds it necessary to include potted biographies of his sources in the footnotes. I think this is unnecessarily tedious, and has no effect on the accessibility of the main text.

I am delighted to be able to give an enthusiastic and unreserved welcome to Promise and Presence. It is a magnificent achievement. Every reader of Ministry Today should have a copy and allow its wisdom to impact their ministry.

Philip Clements-Jewery

Baptist Minister

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You are reading Issue 38 of Ministry Today, published in November 2006.

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