I never met the man. Never heard him speak in person. Never interviewed him on my blog or asked all the questions I had for him.
Nevertheless, his work had a profound influence on my life, especially in shaping my thinking during my teenage and college years. How Now Shall We Live?, the book he wrote with Nancy Pearcey, was a paradigm-shifting book for me. It illuminated Christianity in light of competing worldviews and helped me understand the world I live in.
Even when the critical thinking skills I learned from Colson led me to critique some of his own positions, I always felt indebted to him. Colson was the bridge back to Francis Schaeffer, who led me back to C.S. Lewis, who in turn led me back to G.K. Chesterton and other great Christian minds. In my theological journey, Colson served as the librarian who beckoned me to explore the riches of the Christian faith and see how Christianity encompasses all of life.
What was his appeal?
Colson the Story-Teller
For starters, Colson was a masterful storyteller. Just yesterday, I was reading parts of his big book, The Good Life. The tales of religious persecution, corporate greed, extravagant waste, of merciless injustice were so gripping I couldn’t put down my Kindle.
Colson knew a good story because he had one. From the heights of privilege and responsibility in the Nixon White House to the depths of despair and determination in prison, his life was a classic example of power and corruption transformed into servanthood and integrity. The only thing more compelling than the stories he told was the story he lived.
When I was a college student in Romania, I checked out Born Again from the library and read it all in one afternoon. His testimony shined a spotlight on God’s grace. The grace so evident in Colson’s life provided a compelling apologetic for Christian truth claims.
Colson the Truth-Teller
Colson was also a masterful truth-teller. He saw how postmodernism’s inability to come to grips with objective truth claims made it more and more difficult for Christians to gain a hearing for the gospel. Evangelism was never far from his heart. His popular philosophical critiques were born out of a heartfelt desire for people to experience the grace he had.
There were times Colson seemed to emphasize the objective nature of the Bible’s truthfulness in a way that relegated all biblical truth to propositions and left little room for the narrative nature of Scripture. But one can understand his emphasis on propositional truth when seen in light of his desire to uphold the very places where Christianity’s foundations were being undermined.
In later years, Colson seemed to move away from his concentration on the reasonableness of Christianity and became more explicit in his exposition of Christian doctrine. The Faith exemplified this shift. It was a book that celebrated Christian orthodoxy with Colson’s unusual combination of childlike wonder and theological sophistication.
Colson the Bridge-Builder
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Colson’s ministry was his ecumenical pursuits. Along with Timothy George, J.I. Packer, and other Protestant leaders, Colson contributed to the official statements of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He was also involved with the Manhattan Declaration, a statement that was significantly less ambitious than ECT, but still focused on common Christian views of morality.
The upside of Colson’s bridge-building was his reflection of Christ’s heart in pursuing unity with other Christians. Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity and the need for a united Christian witness motivated these ecumenical endeavors.
The downside of this bridge-building was that Colson seemed to walk back and forth across bridges that weren’t always there. He tended to overstate ECT’s ecumenical implications, suggesting there was broad agreement between Catholics and Protestants, when in fact, the joint statements did not reflect the official positions of the Roman Catholic Church or the major Protestant denominations. Likewise, the statements themselves (under significant scrutiny) sometimes allowed both sides to continue affirming the same positions because they could pour Catholic or Protestant meaning into common words.
Though I didn’t always agree with Colson’s decisions in these areas, I appreciated the constant reminder that the day is coming when God’s kingdom won’t be divided up into denominations. Colson thought we should bring people together in anticipation for that Day.
I thank God for Chuck Colson. He was a man who sought to use his platform to be a faithful witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
Others will speak of his prison ministry, his political involvement, and his keen understanding of the times in which we live. But I’m thankful personally for the way he helped me think. He was a man who pointed pilgrims and wanderers to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In Colson’s words:
Either we are pilgrims looking for answers in order to make sense of our world, or we are wanderers who have turned off onto byways of distraction or despair, alienating ourselves from wonder. If you are reading this book, you probably are a seeker. That’s good. To be alive is to seek.