Gospel Diversity

Often enough folks say Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom, John the gospel of eternal life and Paul the gospel of justification. Tim Keller joins these folks in his new book, Center Church. Keller’s intent though is not so much to join the chorus of diversity within the New Testament as to say the gospel can be expressed in a variety of ways.

How diverse is Tim Keller’s gospel? What do you think of his grid for how to comprehend each of the various themes for the Bible’s plot line?

A bit of context. Back in the 70s and 80s there was considerable consternation when my professor, James D.G. Dunn, wrote his book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, in which he argued for considerable diversity at work in the earliest faith of the earliest Christians that grew up around a solid, stable kerygmatic core (about Christ, I might add). So when Keller taps into the diversity theme he’s not suggesting the kind of diversity some have proposed but a kerygmatic diversity, a contextualizing necessity when expressing the gospel.

Keller contends the gospel must be tied to Bible’s Story Line, and suggests there are two factors at work: the synchronic (what the Bible says at specific time) and the diachronic (what narrative the Bible is telling). I’m not so sure his suggestion that the synchronic is the STM (systematic theology method) is the way I’d say it: the synchronic is more an articulation at a specific time rather than a synthesis of it all in a timeless fashion. Still, there’s the timely and the ongoing time arc.

Regardless, Keller explores three themes — Home/Exile, Yahweh/Covenant, Kingdom — in their basic narrative arc (the diachronic approach to gospel). And I agree with Keller that (1) the gospel can be articulated through a variety of themes and (2) the narrative arc of the Bible provides the clue. It’s just that in the end Keller sends each theme through his covenant soterian grid. Here’s how each theme is understood:

First, what God wants for us (creation); second, what happened to us and what went wrong (fall); third, what God has done in Jesus Christ to put things right (redemption); and fourth, how history will turn out in the end (restoration). Specifically now:

Home/Exile: made for rest and shalom; problem is self-centeredness and destroying shalom; Israel is exiled in Egypt and Babylon; Jesus is rejected and resurrected Lord who breaks the power of death; restoration is the garden-city. Yahweh/Covenant: made for faithful covenant love and relation with God; problem is unfaithfulness causing curse and wrath (well, death is not the same as wrath); Israel is called to faithfulness but isn’t; Jesus is suffering servant but new covenant Lord who takes curse of sin; restoration is marriage supper of the Lamb. And Kingdom: made for God’s kingdom and kingliness; problem is idolatry, causing enslavement; Israel is looking for a true judge/king; Jesus is returning true king who frees us from world, flesh and devil; the restoration is true freedom under the reign of God.

In the end, Keller’s gospel is less diverse than the opening suggests though in this chp he opens his approach up to more of Israel’s Story. His gospel is a redemption through substitution. Diversity of articulation — all over the Bible — from Genesis to Revelation and rarely do authors use the categories of those who preceded them — but Paul says there is one gospel and it is the apostolic gospel, and it can be found at 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts and in expanded form in the Gospels. So I would find the core gospel in christology, not redemption through substitution, and see the diversity as variations on that christology (including redemption through substitution), while I think Keller would see it as variations of redemptive themes (via christology).

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  • I think that’s a fair summary of the differences between you. This is a really helpful miniseries, Scot.

  • Jason

    Great contrast, thanks!

  • T

    Very good post and summary of the contrast.

    As I’ve said before, I think Scot is right to push that the center of the gospel is Christology, but I do think that soteriology is part of the good news as well. Perhaps a better way to say it is that while Christology, or Christ himself, is at the center of the gospel stage, his great and good accomplishments for mankind (the many facets of our salvation) surround him on that stage as his glory. Telling about a King and his great victories and deeds go hand in hand as part of the “good news” of the King’s rise to the throne.

    I’m surprised that the classic Isaiah passage about “good news” (that gets one direct echo in the NT, and many more less direct echos) isn’t looked at more often on this issue: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” I completely agree that the climax of the passage is the last proclamation: “Your God reigns!” Or to rephrase it for NT purposes: “Jesus is Lord!” Nevertheless, those who “bring good news” announce peace, good tidings and salvation. Again, all of that is only possible because Zion’s God reigns, because Jesus is Lord. Salvation belongs to him (alone), and it’s his to give.

    For some years now I’ve been convinced that the gospel is always centrally though not exclusively a statement about power and who has it. Just as the great Exodus story that formed and rescued and sent Israel had the most powerful nation in the world and its Pharaoh and other gods set up as God’s foil, so too does the Roman Empire’s cross, the leaders of gentiles and Jews alike, and disease and death itself serve as foil to God’s real son and Messiah.

    The issue to me is one of emphasis. I agree with Scot that the emphasis of the NT gospel articulations are on Christology, but that soteriology is the glory of that Christ. We have to tell about his works for us to tell his story rightly, but we need to remember that the gospel is his story. In many ways, the Jesus Creed–the greatest law(s) of this King–point the way. The greatest commandment is to love God, but Jesus himself felt the need to correct the idea that love for God could or should be stated as the greatest command all by itself. Just as love for God cannot be properly understood apart from love for people, neither can Christology be properly proclaimed without the salvation of people. Again, we desperately need the corrective that Scot is pushing for–Christology is and should be the center of the gospel–but I think we might be trying sometimes to answer “the greatest commandment” question with one command rather than two.

  • scotmcknight

    T, and I would agree with you. The gospel is the Story of Jesus as Lord/King/Messiah and Savior. The gospel’s effect/benefit/result is redemption/salvation/justification/forgiveness/Spirit, etc. As you have heard me emphasize time and time again, if we focus on the latter first we make Jesus merely the means of our redemption; if we focus on the former, we make Christ/God first and we get redemption as part of our emphasis on God.

    I say this quite often: this isn’t an either/or or a false dichotomy, but a proper ordering. First christology, then soteriology. Both always, but in that order. Notice what happens so often to the Story of Israel when soteriology becomes the driver: we lose the Story of Israel and what God is doing in his people, Israel and the church and kingdom. We lose ecclesiology entirely.

  • John

    But, where is the Holy Spirit? I thought the Gospel, the Good News, was that Jesus brought a revelation of the Godhead, the Trinity, and that in His life, teachings, death, resurrection, and promise of the Spirit that we were being offered a new vision of God as near, as Abba, father, daddy, forgiveness of sin [Jesus kept offering that before His death], and new resources for life and service today and for all eternity.

    If the Gospel is reduced to substitutionary atonement, then we end up not much better off than before. Our sins are forgiven, but we have no power for new life. Not much good news there.

    Puzzled by all the big words – christology, soteriology, et al. Still more puzzled by what Tim Keller is saying.

  • Rob F.

    Scot (and others),

    While I appreciate the distinctions that are being made between Keller’s approach and Scot’s KJG approach (btw, I have not read KJG…yet) but I suspect to most Christians “in the pew” the differences seem rather nuanced and may not seem all that important/relevant.

    I am sure you address this in the book, Scot, but I wonder what your experience has been when you teach/preach/present this material to churches? Do you find that church leaders and/or the “average” church member can easily grasp the implications of the distinctions you are making.

    I ask because I suspect in my context (solidly substitutionary soterian emphasis) most may not readily “hear” the differences you are trying to highlight.

  • Did anybody get a chance to see Trevin Wax’s Gospel Definitions? He’s got a helpful post over at TGC where he defines the Gospel Proper (announcement), the Gospel Context (the Story), and the Gospel’s Purpose (The community). http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/09/13/gospel-definitions-trevin-wax/
    “The Gospel Proper (The Announcement)
    The gospel is the royal announcement that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived a perfect life in our place, died a substitutionary death on the cross for our sins, rose triumphantly from the grave to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as King of the world. This announcement calls for a response: repentance (mourning over and turning from our sin, trading our agendas for the kingdom agenda of Jesus Christ) and faith (trusting in Christ alone for salvation).”

    I think this does a great job of placing person and work together. Christology and soteriology cannot be separated and are both key to the Gospel announcement. I get that systematic ordering is important, Christology being prior to soteriology, because what God does is logically posterior to who God is. Still, we learn about who God is through what he does. This is actually how the debates in the early church about Christ worked: Who must he be if he can save us in this way?

    Ps. I also agree with Rob F. I’m just gonna say that Keller’s framing of the Gospel in many forms is preachable. I also see it textually, but still, it’s darn preachable. I’ve listened to his sermons for years now, listened to his lectures on preaching, and now that I have the book, these summaries are making me even more excited to read it because this actually works. Believe me, I announce that Jesus is Lord, talk about who he is, but that doesn’t really mean anything to anybody until they understand or hear what he’s done. Christology and soteriology belong together in the Gospel announcement, and the way Keller does it works.

  • T

    Scot, right on.

  • scotmcknight

    Rob F,
    The odd thing is that both pastors and lay folks both agree and think there is a big difference in the approaches.

  • Rob F.

    Scot @ #9,

    I am glad to hear that! It give me hope that more us can have ears to hear and eyes to see…

  • alan hitt

    It seems like defining differences between Christology and redemptive works is a bit like trying to separate Christ’s identity from what he does. Can Christology and Soteriology be separated so in any way other than theoretical? What am I missing?

  • It’s refreshing to know that an Anabaptist and a Calvinist can find common ground in their approaches (once in a while). One could do a lot worse than learning the gospel from a McKnightian or Kellerian perspective.