Substance or Essence?
Church hungers for the Real Thing
by James Gibson,
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and
drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These
are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs
to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, RSV)
These words, "the
substance belongs to Christ," jumped off the page at me as I read
the above passage. What is "substance?" It is that which I have often
referred to as "the whole loaf." It is the Real Thing. It is, as Paul
makes clear, summed up in one Person, Jesus Christ.
The fallacy of Western thought has been to reduce the faith from
substance to essence. How often do we hear some noted
Western theologian or just some country preacher talking about "the
essence of the faith?"
"Essence" is just a sophisticated word for reducing the faith to
its bare minimum, which is, in the end, to rob the faith of its true
meaning. "Essence" is a license for theological minimalism. It has the
appearance of drawing boundaries ("These are the essentials of
the faith which one must believe in order to be saved.") but it is, in
fact, an endless road to nothingness. Today the faith is "essentially"
this; tomorrow it will be "essentially" that, which
is something less than what this previously was.
Evangelicalism at the dawn of the 21st century is a far cry from
the historic Apostolic faith. What is today "evangelical" is no longer
merely synonymous with "orthodox." In fact, it may never have been.
Evangelicalism is concerned with "essence." Orthodoxy is concerned
No wonder evangelicalism is now caught in the death grip of
theological novelty and post-modern ecclesiastical fads. It has bought
the lie that the faith can be reduced to "essence." Thus, it has lost
its "substance." Since "the substance. . .belongs to Christ," it is
thus apparent that evangelicalism has lost its connection to him who
is the Head of the Church.
Yet, there is a hunger out there for "substance," both among those
who are fed and those who do the feeding. The sheep long for true and
genuine spiritual nourishment. It is the natural longing of their
souls. The shepherds, as well, are rapidly coming to the realization
that their message lacks the "substance" necessary to bear fruit in
its season. The sheep hunger to be fed. The shepherds hunger to feed.
God is moving in our midst. He is calling us back to the substance
of our faith. He is calling us to reconnect with our Living Head. He
is preparing us for a season of suffering, that the true saints may
emerge; those who will persevere and, through patient endurance, own
the cry, the longing, and the living hope of the Church, "Come,