David Fitch and Tim Keller

My colleague and friend, David Fitch, posts a first in a series review of Tim Keller’s book on the church. Here are the critical paragraphs:

Yet two questions emerge for me from Keller’s reading of the gospel and church. 1.) Is this really contextualizing the gospel? Or is it interpreting/translating all of life experience through a singular understanding of the gospel learned in the German [sic, Swiss] Reformation? And 2.) Should the gospel be the center of the church or should it be Jesus, the Living Christ?

Regarding question no. 1.) I suggest that Tim Keller is really translating the singular Reformed understanding of salvation into various experiences we have in the West. This is good and helpful, especially for those of us who are culturally (or sinfully) conditioned to think we have to “earn” merit in the world and with God, and who sense our own guilt, inadequacies and failures to approach God on our own. This too is a human condition and the Reformed version of salvation is marvelous in response to this. But it is not all of salvation. Indeed, “the gospel that I have proclaimed to you,” as Paul said in 1 Cor 15:1, is that God has fulfilled his promises to Israel in Christ to rule the world and make the world right. In Christ, God has become King, and He has reconciled the whole world to Himself  in Christ (2 Cor 5:19) so that now “if you confess with your lips Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9). The gospel begins and is “Jesus the Messiah has been made Lord” and in and thru Him all things are being made right. Certainly the gospel of justification by faith falls under the Lordship of Christ, but we enter in through submitting to His reign and rule over our lives from which all things are made right in our relationship with God and in the whole world. To the extent we limit the gospel to justification by faith, we limit all the rest of what God is doing individually and in the world and into which we are called to participate.

My question then for the reader is, is Tim Keller really showing us how to contextualize the gospel? or is he narrowing it?  What say you? Fair question eh?

Regarding question no. 2.) I believe Jesus the Incarnate Lord, is the center of the church. He is the one around whose presence and redeeming work we gather. The church that centers itself around the gospel (as pastor Keller articulates it) becomes focused around the preaching and application of this gospel from a pulpit. The church becomes individualized in the appropriating of this gospel individually. We lose the sense that the church is called into being as a people before His reign and that we are the extension of His presence in the world in everyday life. This aspect of the gospel I argue tends to become secondary instead of an integral outworking of what it means to be in Christ’s Kingdom, submitting to His Lordship in our lives and in the world.

I argue for a different vision of the church (with Holsclaw in Prodigal Christianity). I suggest the church gathers around the presence of the living Christ. This happens at the Eucharist, the proclaiming of the gospel (notice I hold onto the this tightly), reconciliation, being with the least of these, being with the children, the gifts of the Spirit, praying together submitting to His Kingdom. In each of these practices, His presence is birthed in us socially in a special way (I am “with” you). His rule/authority is made manifest over the powers of sin, death and evil, and so as we leave and go out into the world, we extend this very presence by doing the same things (table fellowship, proclaiming gospel, reconciling, being with the least of these/children, giftings and prayer) in our neighborhoods where He is already at work as living King over heaven and earth (Matt 28:20). As such, I argue, we do not gather around the proclaiming of the gospel, we gather around the Incarnate living presence and rule of Christ extended into our midst. (I realize I have short-formed this and opened myself up to accusations which I answer in prodigal Christianity and two forthcoming articles).

My question for the reader is then, Does the church gather around the gospel (Center Church) or around the presence of the Living Lord? Or have I just got this wrong? Help me out here!
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    Although I agree that Keller tends to lean towards gospel soteriology, he does not disregard Christology. I don’t think anyone who has read or listened to Keller would say he is not Christ-focused in his works.

    Likewise, the “gospel” he focuses on, and builds chapters around are: the ID of God and Jesus as Son of God and Messiah, sin and Jesus’ death (atonement), and the reign of God and the new creation.

    Finally, the things Fitch points to as being in the presence of Christ may be some things Keller would say are outworkings of the gospel, and our relationship with God.

  • http://www.dennisredwards.com Dennis

    I look forward to Fitch’s analysis. I am having members of my staff at our urban church read Center Church together with me. So far we found only little with which to bicker in Keller’s discussion of the Gospel and the out-workings of the Gospel. But we haven’t finished the book yet! Even so, we are cautious about focusing chiefly on “proclamation” in the life of the church.

  • Amanda B.

    “My question for the reader is then, Does the church gather around the gospel (Center Church) or around the presence of the Living Lord?”

    Prioritizing one over the other, in my opinion, is very likely to lead to error. We only have full, unhindered access to the presence of the Living Lord because of the gospel. The gospel is only truly “good news” because of the Living Lord who has issued it and who will dwell with us forever because of it.


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