All the Fullness of God

The Christ of Colossians

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Bonnie Bowman Thurston
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2017.
     160 pages.
     $21.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532615399.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In All the Fullness of God: The Christ of Colossians, Bonnie Bowman Thurston distills years of study into an accessible monograph on the text, theology, and implications of the Letter to the Colossians. Thurston calls the book a “full-length study” but recognizes that it is not a traditional commentary. Indeed, the book has a dual role as an introduction to and spiritual meditation on the epistle’s text and theology (vii). The book’s unique structure requires some additional description.

Thurston’s book is divided into two parts. Part 1 treats the “majorly scholarly matters” of Colossians in essay form (ix). In many ways, these first eighty pages function as a mini-commentary. Thurston tackles the perennial questions regarding Colossians by working through major chunks of text. For instance, the second chapter walks the reader through Col 1:13-3:4, the “theological center of the letter” (18), addressing traditional subjects like the Colossians heresy (18-19), the structure, origin, and use of the Christ Hymn (20-29), and the theological conundrum of “what is lacking from Christ’s suffering” in Col 1:24 (32-35). While some transliterated Greek is used, the details that one would expect from a full-fledged commentary are certainly sparse. Still, the chapter deftly conveys the flow of the Colossians letter’s argument and introduces the uninitiated to the passages and concerns that garner the most attention from interpreters.

Part 2 is a collection of reflections meant to explain how the details and arguments of the letter explicated in part 1 have “spiritually practical relevance for contemporary readers” (ix). The nine chapters across fifty pages read like a collection of homilies on Colossians: short, pithy, and methodologically eclectic, they span and theologically reflect on the entirety of the letter’s text, drawing out implications for the contemporary Christian’s spiritual life on everything from the Christ Hymn (89-93) to Paul’s list of companions (125-30). Thurston the minister and spiritual leader is on display here—while the academic work is still obviously undergirding the essays, Thurston’s concern to land Colossians squarely in the lives of readers (or readers in the world of Colossians) obviously takes priority. Thurston’s writing also blossoms in this latter part of the book. In her move away from the academic modus operandi to that of pastor in the pulpit, Thurston’s talent as a poet runs rampant across the page.

All the Fullness of God deserves much praise. One would be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive and accessible introduction to Colossians. Every major topic is covered, sometimes twice over, by the end of the spiritual reflections. Even if one disagrees with where Thurston lands on specifics like the issue of authorship or the identity of the false teachers in Colossae, you cannot deny that Thurston has named each problem and walked her readers through its broad contours and most popular solutions.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of her book is Thurston’s theological work, both in the traditionally academic part 1 and in the spiritual reflections in part 2. Thurston does not get bogged down in the questions of source or form of the Christ Hymn or the Haustafel—though she does address those briefly—but instead expertly demonstrates how they are used and how they shape the letter throughout. She asserts that the whole epistle focuses on correcting a deficient Christology in the Colossian church (11), and her subsequent emphasis on the letter’s portrayal of Christ and his importance unifies her exegesis across the text. Instead of disparate blocks of exegetical gleanings across the letter’s heuristic sections (an unfortunate and common outcome in many commentaries), Thurston presents us with a reading of the text that helps us see its cohesion, argument, and theological import from start to finish.

However, several aspects of the book could be stronger. The unique format of the book means that much of Colossians is covered twice over; since each spiritual reflection begins with a paragraph or two of “Textual Notes,” some topics are treated thrice over. Even if their second and third visitations are far briefer, the repetition grows tedious by the end of the book. Each reading of a given text does have a different flavor and methodological approach, however: the first reading of Col 3:1-4 follows a standard literary approach that explains the pericope’s function in the larger argument and structure of the letter (42-43), while Thurston’s second pass reads it as part of a canonical collection of Easter texts (111-14). Though the differences are slight, this does give the reader eyes to see how a change in hermeneutical lenses can offer one a different interpretation. 

Hand in hand with its repetitive nature is the book’s somewhat disjointed structure. Thurston offers us a solid, consistent reading of Colossians—that Christ is cosmically supreme and that baptism into him is all that believers need for right relations with God and each other—but her organization is far from linear. 

Lastly, it grieves me to say that the publisher has let Thurston down regarding copy editing. Aside from the small quibbles mentioned above, Thurston has produced a fine book, but her editors have not given due diligence to her manuscript, and it is riddled with the kind of oversights that slip past an author’s tired eyes and should be caught in the copy editor’s net. I hope that the publisher revisits and corrects the manuscript for further printings.

Overall, All the Fullness of God is a strong introduction to the text, interpretation, theology, and implications of the Letter to the Colossians. I thank and commend Thurston for sharing her years of hard work in this book, and I know it will find a welcome and fruitful home in several settings. All the Fullness of God could serve an undergraduate class on Colossians at a Christian college or university well; it could do double duty as a textual study and a spiritual formation tool. It also would be a natural fit in a theology class, with its emphasis on Christology; or a preaching class, with its sermonettes demonstrating how to bring a text to life for non-scholars. A more advanced Bible study class will also be able to keep pace and glean much from Thurston’s accessible but potent work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Reed Melcalf is a doctoral student in New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bonnie Thurston has written or edited eighteen theological books and many articles, has contributed to reference works in New Testament and taught at the university level for thirty years. Her scholarly interests in New Testament include the gospels of Mark and John, the Deutero-Pauline canon and, more generally, the history of Christian Spirituality and prayer. She was ordained in 1984 and has served as co-pastor, pastor, or interim of five churches and twice in overseas ministries. She is an experienced spiritual director and retreat leader. Her poetry frequently appears in religious periodicals, and she has authored five volumes of verse. Bonnie is a widow, an avid reader, gardener and cook, enjoys classical music and loves the West Virginia hills.

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