Part 1 of A New Series: Responses to The Gospel as Center by Members of the Gospel Coalition
Beginning today I embark on a series of posts responding to chapters in the new book The Gospel as Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices edited by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller and published by Crossway (2012). The publisher was kind enough to send me a complimentary copy, so I will review in detail here. My plan is to respond to a chapter at a time. The book has fourteen chapters, so this will be spread out over two or three weeks (at least). I may interrupt the series with other subjects from time to time. If you want to read along with me and check my responses, order the book right away. I’ll be digging in quickly. Once you receive your copy you can go back and read my responses in the archives.
The sixteen authors seem all to be members of the Gospel Coalition and signers of its foundational documents (which can be found at the end of the book). The authors are: D. A. Carson, Timothy Keller, Richard D. Phillips, Mike Bullmore, Andrew M. Davis, Reddit Andrews III, Colin S. Smith, Bryan Chapell, Sandy Wilson, Philip Graham Ryken, Kevin DeYoung, Stephen Um, Tim Savage, Thabiti Anhyabwile, J. Ligon Duncan, and Sam Storms. I’m not familiar with all of them, so I looked them up on the internet. So far as I can discern they are all Calvinists. Most are Presbyterians; a few are Baptists; one is Evangelical Free and one is “Bible Church.”
First I will offer a few remarks about the team of writers and what the project looks like from the “outside.” In the first chapter the editors make much of the diversity of the Gospel Coalition’s members. Judging by this team of authors, however, there doesn’t really seem to be very much diversity—at least not compared with the diversity of the evangelical coalition since its inception in 1942. Why all Calvinists? The editors (in the first chapter) extol the fact that they do not all come from one tradition. Really? I guess they mean they are not all Presbyterians. Well, most are. But once you see that the Baptist authors pastor churches with elders, the diversity begins to become less impressive. That’s especially the case given that they are all Calvinists. Maybe one or two are dispensationalist Calvinists? Maybe some are premillennialists and the rest are amillennialists? Or maybe there’s a postmillennialist somewhere in the mix. At first blush, anyway, I’m not impressed by the diversity of this group. Why not just admit up front that, with some minor points of disagreement, they are pretty much monochrome theologically.
My question is to what extent do these editors and authors think they are really representing the “tent” (large or small) of evangelicalism? It seems we, evangelicals, are their audience. (The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of the book!) Do they think that only they, conservative Calvinists, truly represent “the gospel?” Arminians and Wesleyans, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals don’t have the gospel? The editors (in the first chapter) claim that the gospel is not a systematic theology, but one has to wonder when all the people allowed to speak about it adhere to one. Which one, you ask? Well, I am willing to bet they are all influenced, directly or indirectly, by Charles Hodge. He seems to be the godfather of conservative Reformed evangelicalism in America. Where does that leave the rest of us who do not belong to that tradition? I would very much like to know what Carson and Keller would say about Wesleyan evangelicals, for example. Can they be members of the Gospel Coalition? Are there any? Were any invited? If not, why not?
The National Association of Evangelicals was founded in St. Louis in April, 1942. Among the founders who, presumably agreed on the gospel, were Pentecostals, Holiness people, Free Will Baptists, Reformed, Free Church and many others. It was a pretty motley crew. (And I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense!) What they agreed about, doctrinally, was pretty minimal, but they embraced each other as equally evangelical in spite of significant doctrinal differences. To the best of my knowledge, nobody stood up and said “No. This isn’t enough. Some of you there have to get out. You don’t believe the gospel.” Oh, wait. I’m wrong. That’s exactly what Carl McIntire said when the founders of NAE invited him and his American Council of Christian Churches to join. He objected to the presence of Pentecostals and wouldn’t lead his ACCC into the NAE unless Pentecostals were excluded. Fortunately, Ockenga and other NAE founders wouldn’t go along with that.
My uncle was a board member of the NAE for years. He has told me of one particular meeting where a well-known conservative Reformed apologetics writers and speaker and theologian griped about the “shallow theology” of some members and made clear he was speaking about the Pentecostals. My uncle is Pentecostal and was offended although he forgave the man. It seems that SOME folks in the NAE and within the “big tent” of American evangelicalism are forever griping about its diversity. What do they want? Sometimes I think they want to narrow the tent down to those who agree with their systematic theology and marginalize or exclude those who don’t. We Arminians have struggled with this since Augustus Toplady declared that the Wesleys were not Christians because they were not Calvinists.
Chapter 1 is “Gospel-Centered Ministry” by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller. They say right off that “We believe that some important aspects of the historic understanding of the biblical gospel are in danger of being muddied or lost in our churches today. These include the necessity of the new birth, justification by faith alone, and atonement through propitiation and the substitutionary death of Christ.” (p. 11) Who is doing this? In this chapter, anyway, they cast these frightening statements about the sorry state of “our churches” without naming any names. I’m suspicious because in Carson’s The Gagging of God he names my late friend Stanley Grenz and says that he cannot understand how his doctrine of Scripture can be considered “evangelical.” And yet, knowing Stan as I did, I am certain, from his description of Stan’s doctrine of Scripture (as not the supreme authority for faith and practice) that he did not understand it. (I have discussed this in detail in Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.)
What do Carson and Keller mean by “our churches?” They can’t mean PCA or any specific denomination’s churches because the authors come from various denominations. I doubt they mean the churches pastored by or attended by these authors. Surely they don’t mean “all the churches in America.” That would, then, be something less than news. Surely they DO mean “evangelical churches.” But notice they said “our” churches. That means, then, that they do see themselves as evangelicals TOGETHER with non-Reformed evangelical Christians. In other words, so it would seem, Carson and Keller and the other writers see themselves as belonging to an NAE-like “evangelical tent” that includes non-Calvinists. Do they think that all those non-Calvinists with them under that tent are NOT gospel-centered? If so, why are they with them in that tent? If not (excuse the double negative here), why are none represented in this book? The CLEAR implication of the book, simply by virtue of all the authors being Calvinists, is that “gospel-centered” means “Calvinist” OR AT LEAST “believing in substitutionary atonement” and “justification by faith alone.” But many non-Calvinists DO believe in those things. Why are none represented in this book?
Let’s go back and look at the NAE Statement of Faith. It says nothing about justification by faith alone or propitiatory, substutionary atonement. Why not? Perhaps because some founding denominations didn’t use that language? Probably so. At the very least we can say the founders of the NAE did not consider that language essential to the gospel or else they would have included it in their Statement of Faith. The NAE Statement of Faith does speak of Christ’s “vicarious and atoning death” and salvation through “regeneration by the Holy Spirit.” If someone wants to argue that those include or necessarily imply “propitiation” and “substitutionary atonement” and “justification by faith alone,” well, let them try. But the plain fact is the language is different, so it would be wrong to claim that all evangelicals ever agreed that the gospel necessarily includes those concepts. (And any good Wesleyan theologian can explain to you why “vicarious atonement” does not necessarily mean “propitiation” and “substitutionary atonement.”)
I would very much like to know what these authors would say about the minimal Statement of Faith of the NAE. Do they reject the NAE as not representing authentic evangelical Christianity in America? When did defection from the doctrines they mention begin? Why is it worse now than before when in 1942 the NAE didn’t see fit to include those doctrines (or “inerrancy,” by the way) in its Statement of Faith?
What I see here is a subtle attempt to pack a systematic theology into the meaning of “the gospel” such that anyone who does not believe in that systematic theology is gospel-challenged at best and downright not gospel-centered at worst.
Next Carson and Keller mention that their confession begins with God rather than Scripture and they defend that. “Starting with the Scripture leads readers to the overconfidence that their exegesis of biblical texts has produced a system of perfect doctrinal truth. This can create pride and rigidity because it may not sufficiently acknowledge the fallenness of human reason.” (p. 12) I simply don’t understand their reasoning. Three comments about this ordering of their statement of the “gospel.” First, I have no problem with starting with God instead of the Bible. Second, Carl Henry would have had a problem with it. Third, Stan Grenz was harshly attacked for doing this very thing in Theology for the Community of God. It was one of the harshest criticisms of that volume from conservative Reformed critics! Now it seems okay. I think someone owes Stan an apology. Oh, it’s too late. (Please don’t think I’m imagining things. Stan and I had long, late night conversations about the unfairness of those criticisms.)
The authors of this chapter say that “The American evangelical world has been breaking apart with wildly different responses to this new cultural situation” (viz., postmodernism?). (p. 14) They claim that some evangelicals are calling for “a complete doctrinal reengineering of evangelicalism.” (p. 14) Really? Who? I wish they would be specific so we know what they are talking about. Given their earlier statement I assume they mean that anyone who denies substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone. Who does that? Well, to be sure, some evangelicals are uncomfortable with that language and some always have been. At times Wesley was uncomfortable with “justification by faith alone” INSOFAR as it implied that justifying faith can be alone (without good works following). Right in the middle of this first chapter I’m beginning to think this is a jeremiad about how awful things are among evangelicals. But I’m not convinced. There’s lots of diversity and there are some “outliers”—people most definitely pushing the envelope on the margins—but I just don’t see a new wholesale defection from the gospel going on among people who claim the identity “evangelical.” Unless, of course, you define “the gospel” as conservative Calvinism! In that case, the defection is not new!
I agree whole heartedly with their call for relevant expository preaching and for justice and ministry to the poor. Of course, the devil is in the details with that second one. I’m not sure what they mean beyond charity, if anything. Who has ever opposed charity?
On page 17 they say “The evangelical ‘tent’ is bigger and more incoherent than ever.” Really? Give some specific examples, please. And don’t mention Joel Osteen. Maybe he’s evangelical; maybe he’s not. I don’t know. But he certainly doesn’t represent any major shift in evangelicalism. There have always been evangelists among evangelicals who embarrassed us. For the most part evangelicals have always been relatively tolerant of them. Their presence has never signaled an “incoherence” of the evangelical “tent.”
On pages 19-20 the authors (Carson and Keller) discuss systematic theology and biblical theology and affirm that statements of the gospel should stick to biblical language as much as possible. I certainly don’t disagree. But then they unpack Genesis 1-2 in a way that seems to draw on a system of theology (covenant theology) that many evangelical Old Testament scholars would disagree with. For example, “the church is God’s temple” (meaning supercessionism: the church is the replacement of Israel’s temple). Okay, I don’t necessarily disagree. But is this “gospel?” Is this simple biblical exegesis? Or is this systematic theology? What does it have to do with the gospel as the good news about salvation through Jesus? Oh, but these authors are stretching “the gospel” quite far beyond what most evangelicals have thought it meant.
On page 20 they refer again to “those who have a truncated view of what the gospel is.” Who are these villainous people who “have a truncated view of what the gospel is?” People who deny the substitutionary atonement? People who deny justification by faith alone? Who are they? (Not me!) I wish they would spell out who these enemies of the gospel lurking among us are. Without names I can’t judge what to think about their vague and veiled denunciations.
The authors end this chapter with “In short, gospel-centered ministry is biblically mandated. It is the only kind of ministry that simultaneously addresses human need as God sees it, reaches out in unbroken lines to gospel-ministry in other centuries and cultures, and makes central what Jesus himself establishes as central.” (p. 21) All I can say to that (taken alone) is Amen! I agree whole heartedly. The only problem is who defines “gospel” and how. Already at the end of the first chapter I’m on my guard and concerned that these authors are going to tell me that Hodge’s systematic theology (minus stuff about the sacraments and maybe eschatology) is “the gospel.” Or at least that robust, conservative Reformed theology, Calvinism, is “the gospel.” If so, then “Houston, we have a problem.” But, I’ll go through the rest of the book willing to change my mind if something else appears. I hope it does. But the first chapter isn’t very encouraging.
So why do I find this troubling? (By “this” I mean the tendency in chapter one to decry evangelical defection from the gospel and to define the gospel as including systematic theological categories.) Well, if you don’t find it troubling, let me ask you to consider this alternative scenario. One day you receive a book in the mail from a major evangelical publisher purporting to say what “the gospel” and “gospel ministry” mean and it is edited and partly authored by two very well known evangelical theologians and right up front it says that pacifism is an essential part of the gospel and complains about the “truncated view of the gospel” by many evangelicals who no longer believe in pacifism but embrace just war theory. Would you be troubled? And yet, for much of church history, committed Christians, including many evangelicals, have thought pacifism was the right way to interpret and apply the gospel in the world. Until WW2 and even for a while afterwards many Holiness, Pentecostal and Restorationist churches, to say nothing of Anabaptists, did believe the way of Jesus Christ included pacifism. But they didn’t try to push that on all other evangelicals when the NAE was founded in 1942 and, for the most part, those who still believe in pacifism don’t go around claiming that everyone who disagrees with them has a “truncated view of what the gospel is.” That’s just one example. There could be many, many more examples of particular traditions among evangelicals who hold as very important certain doctrines but do not say everyone who disagrees is not “gospel-centered.” In fact, in the past, ONLY FUNDAMENTALISTS said such things. I will dare to say that for much of evangelical history anyone who said that the “gospel” necessarily includes things not explicitly stated in the NAE statement of faith would be considered fundamentalist. That was a major parting of the ways—when William Bell Riley in 1919 declared that premillennialism is a “fundamental of the faith” and essential to the gospel. That kind of statement was one reason for the formation of the NAE in 1942—to create a larger, broader and more inclusive tent of evangelicals that transcends without denying denominational distinctives.
I believe that there are troublers in the house of Israel these days and they are mainly on the conservative side of the house. A few years ago a man I greatly admire, Kevin Mannoia, was elected president of the NAE. After a very short time (so I’m told by insiders) some conservative Calvinist members began to agitate for his removal. Specifically, so I’m told, he had dared to suggest that the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. (the denomination with which I have since leaving Pentecostalism most closely associated with) should be allowed to join the NAE—so long as the denomination would affirm the Statement of Faith. That’s all that’s expected of any member denomination. Oh, except one thing—historically denominations cannot be members of both the National Council of Churches and the NAE. Kevin wanted to change that rule. The conservative Calvinists demanded his resignation and he did resign to keep the peace. Really, what is that rule except old fashioned fundamentalist separatism? It ought to be abolished. It’s a left over from evangelicalism’s fundamentalist background. I think the conservative Calvinists primarily wanted Mannoia out because he is Wesleyan-Arminian. Some of them do not think you can be authentically evangelical and be that in spite of the fact that Wesleyan-Arminians were there at the beginning—as charter members of the NAE.
I’m also concerned because the Gospel Coalition has clout with some nondenominational, nonconfessionally specific evangelical schools such as Wheaton. (One author of this book is president of Wheaton.) Does this mean someone who disagrees with anything the authors of this book say is an essential part of the gospel should not teach in those schools? I hope not, but I fear that will be the outcome. Oh, not that it will be so announced, but as an almost thirty year long veteran of evangelical higher education I know how these things work. Someone comes along and says “But the penumbra (!) of the school’s statement of faith includes such-and-such” (that it does not say) and “therefore, so-and-so should be fired” (or not hired). I’ve seen it happen many times. It has happened to me! Although I wasn’t fired, people tried. A president of an evangelical college told my president [then, not now] that I should be fired because I was open to Oneness Pentecostals being considered evangelicals IF they seemed to be moving toward full, robust trinitariansm—which IS happening among them. He told my president I was questioning the Trinity! He’s an idiot, of course, insofar as he can’t tell the difference between acknowledging someone who does not yet fully affirm the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as an evangelical and personally questioning the Trinity. And, of course, as I’ve related here before, a leading Calvinist pastor told me he would get me fired if I did not side with him against open theism and remained “open to open theism.”
Next—Chapter 2 “Can We Know the Truth?”