There have been numerous tributes and reflections on the life of Charles “Chuck” Colson since his passing from this life on April 21. For this reason, I will not rehearse here many of the details given elsewhere –three particularly poignant reflections on Chuck’s life are given by Michael Gerson, Bill Bennett, and Timothy George. Instead, I want to indulge in a bit of personal remembrance. It’s really only when someone exits this life that we gain a glimpse at the numerous ways in which the individual’s history intersected with and impacted events and others. While biographers attempt to distill a more complete historical account into a few hundred pages, it is in detecting the threads found amidst the myriad voices that we begin to see the complex way in which a person’s own history impacts human history. With this in view, I offer my own thread about Chuck Colson from two vantage points.
Although I knew who Chuck Colson was as a teenager in the 1980s, his life first impacted my own when I was attending Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL) between 1992 and 1995. It was in 1994, to be exact, after Evangelicals and Catholics Together had issued its first statement, “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” It just so happened that I was taking R. C. Sproul for Systematic Theology II. Sproul was up in arms about the statement, claiming that the evangelicals who had endorsed it had basically “sold the farm” on justification and the gospel.
As a Pentecostal who was just beginning to find my own theological voice, I remember thinking that the statement was more like a cool ocean breeze in the hot Florida sun. I had been trying to carve out some theological space for myself in a staunchly Reformed environment–no easy task. Don’t get me wrong. RTS Orlando was, in many ways, a great place, and I still have many fond memories of my time there.
At the same time, after plowing through Reformed cessationist perspectives and hearing that the only viable understanding of justification by faith alone was forensic justification–it was the gospel–I needed a different perspective. This is exactly what that first ECT statement gave me. Through Sproul’s constant comments at the time, I also glimpsed something of the cost that evangelical signers, especially Chuck Colson, must have paid. I learned later just how great that cost actually was. I will always have a deep sense of gratitude to that cool breeze Chuck had sent my way and his faithfulness to the vocation that gave rise to it.
Thirteen years later, I found myself in a hotel in midtown Manhattan having breakfast before my first ECT meeting as the newest member of the evangelical team. I have to admit that I was more than a little intimidated. When Chuck joined me and other ECT members for breakfast, however, he immediately made me feel like I belonged in this esteemed group. From that day until the final meeting in December 2011 before ECT released its statement on religious freedom, Chuck always welcomed me as a valuable member and contributor. In my estimation, he had a deep generosity of spirit that allowed for dissent and reached out with arms wide to those of diverse positions. I have no doubt that such generosity was birthed out of the demons he had battled in his own past. When you know personally what it means to be on the bottom, you have little trouble reaching out to others regardless of where they are. While I had detected this generosity in that first ECT statement, I am grateful that I was able to experience it firsthand from the man himself.
I never knew personally the Chuck Colson of the Nixon years, but I can say that I did not see any hint of the enforcer persona that others have described. I never agreed with everything Chuck did or stood for, and I never got the impression that he required such agreement for relationship. He wanted all of us to come together where we could while recognizing that even among evangelicals complete agreement could never be reached and should not be expected–a perspective no doubt developed in part from evangelical reactions to ECT.
Sometimes I wonder if Chuck’s critics did not mistake his dogged determination to be faithful to Christ in all things for a kind of arrogance about the rightness of his own views. To this I can only say two things: First, usually at some point in an ECT meeting, Chuck would say, “now I’m not a theologian, but. . .”. While Chuck had strong views, he seemed to recognize where his gifts ended and the gifts of others began. In addition, I find the creation of ECT with Richard John Neuhaus not only to be one of Chuck’s most important accomplishments, but also most deeply illustrative of his desire to be faithful. He took heat from the theological and political right and left for ECT, and his faithfulness was viewed as arrogance by persons in both camps–an irony to be sure. Nevertheless, ECT will always symbolize the legacy of a man who worked tirelessly on behalf of Christ who found him at his lowest, who finds all of us at our lowest, and in whose presence Chuck now finds himself. I can imagine Richard extending his hand to Chuck and welcoming him home, where all are evangelicals and all are Catholics in union with Christ through the power of the Spirit.
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