Third Way and the Gospel

Third Way and the Gospel December 24, 2008

What does a Third Way approach look like when it comes to the meaning of the “gospel.” No small matter here but I enter this discussion with Adam Hamilton:Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics . Adam sorts this one out by using the two poles of thinking and argues that there is a gray area of balance — neither liberal nor conservative. What does the liberal gospel look like?

He says, “Liberal Christians tend to focus on Jesus as a revolutionary, seeking to upend the social order, to lead people to justice and radical obedience to the will of God, and to usher in the reign of God. They like Luke 4:18-19 (“… to proclaim release to the captives…”). Liberals tend to see the major manifestations of sin today in racism, injustice, poverty, war …

Conservative Christians, Adam Hamilton, observes “emphasize Jesus as ‘personal Savior and Lord’.” They see Jesus’ mission as to die for our sins so we could be forgiven and be made right with God. They focus on “born again” and to “come to me all you who are weary … and you will find rest for your souls.” The major manifestations of sin tend to be abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.

These two gospels fear one another for some reason: both liberals and conservatives think if you add the other gospel to their gospel you lose it all. Hence, they think 1 + 1 = 0. Adam Hamilton believes — and I agree with him — that 1 + 1 = 2. Thus, a more robust gospel.

He offers criticism of both: Jesus more than a social reformer, but social implications are clear. Jesus did not ask folks to accept him into their heart and this personal relationship doesn’t seem to be the central theme; instead it is the kingdom of God. He calls folks to repent and to take up the kingdom challenge.

Here’s his point: “Jesus preached one gospel that has, unfortunately, been split by the church into two: the social gospel and the personal evangelical gospel” (93).

So, he says: “Conservative and liberal conceptions of Jesus are ‘too small'” (95).  The good news is both … social and personal. He preached a gospel of gray in a black and white world.

"Pemberton uses this one, too."

Big Mistakes Reading Proverbs
""Not all ATI students were so fortunate."I imagined--whatever your face looks like--you saying this and ..."

Big Mistakes Reading Proverbs
"I like the example of telling a joke. If you have to explain it it’s ..."

Big Mistakes Reading Proverbs
"Pete Enns is fond of this example:Do not answer fools according to their folly, or ..."

Big Mistakes Reading Proverbs

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom

    No problem with this take. Adopting it would be revolutionary :^)
    Triangulation can be life giving over the long haul.
    In real life and in the shorter run within the evangelical church (your readership, I assume) we need lots of credible prophetic voices who can challenge the arrogance from within. I know you’re trying to take on that task in a ‘reasonable’ way.
    In my experience with the conservative church, though, we need some prophets who will scare the hell out of us until we embrace our other half. Until conservative Christians feel the really destructive consequences of our theological/political/practical narrowness I don’t expect much change.

  • RJS

    Rather than addition, 1+1 = 2, perhaps a better analogy would be to use multiplication.
    but all other combinations fall short.
    We need both – or we lose. I don’t think this is gray – this is the way and the only way.

  • RJS – Brilliant!
    Scot, this discussion on the Third Way has been intriguing to me. Where can I find more on this and does this go back to any other authors or theologians that would have something to say both pro and con on this issue?
    Merry CHRISTmas!

  • Yes, but…
    Particularly, I think he mischaracterizes conservatives here. Yes, there are aberrations, but conservative Christians believe the gospel requires us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, dig wells, distribute medicine, and protect the weak. As the saying goes, we’ve been saved unto good works.
    There is a fear of the “social gospel,” but it’s based on the observation that, as he points out, its adherents tend to see it as all of the gospel.
    Perhaps what he’s calling “conservatives” would be better described as extreme fundamentalists.

  • Scot McKnight

    Adam’s book is a good start; and I have a book called Embracing Grace that lays out in a readable format this understanding of the “gospel.” And in a more academic context, see my A Community called Atonement. Both are linked on the sidebar.
    Well, I’m not so sure it is that simple. I’d like to see some examples of some conservatives saying the “the gospel requires us to feed the hungy” without saying it like this: you first get saved and that propels you to do good works. Most conservatives see good works as separable from faith and as sanctification and not part of the gospel or gospel response itself. Hence, classic conservatives have trouble genuinely anchoring the Sermon on the Mount and James into their theological framework. The distinction seems to be this: faith (which saves eternally and securely) and works (which has nothing to do with salvation) are totally separable things. In Adam’s “gray” they are not totally separable.
    Brother, you’ve hit upon the fundamental theology of this chp.

  • MattR

    Yes, so true!
    I’ve seen this from both sides now…
    Yes, those who lean right must admit their gospel has had a tendency to overemphasize ‘just me and Jesus…’ but must those who lean left should admit their gospel sometimes needs a little more of that.
    Without the gospel of personal transformation, our social activism can too easily become ‘our will be done.’
    And without the gospel of social transformation, our personal faith might lack the justice, compassion, etc. of God… I had a bible prof who once said, ‘if it’s not social, it’s not gospel.’
    That’s the well rounded gospel of the kingdom!

  • Amen. Though I fear there is a temptation to sit in between these two camps and still miss the Third Way. It is easy to be PC and yet stand for very little. The Third Way is not a passive allowance of both sides but an intentional and tenacious engagement.

  • ChrisB

    “you first get saved and that propels you to do good works”
    Yes, that’s exactly how I’d express it.
    “good works as separable from faith and as sanctification and not part of the gospel or gospel response itself”
    I’d say it is part of the gospel “response,” depending on how exactly you mean that. Justification creates in the believer a desire to immitate the holiness and love exhibited by Christ; sanctification is how that gets worked out.
    This is another place where I think it sounds like you’re talking about a works-based righteousness. That’s fine if that’s what you believe. You will, though, need to stop calling yourself “protestant.”

  • RJS

    We are not saved by good works; we are not damned if not in communion following penance; we need not fear dying after mortal sin, but before confession and communion; salvation is not purchased from, received from or denied by the church; there is no priest as mediator and no need for priest as mediator; there is no magesterium. This is why I call myself protestant.
    But – it is not possible to separate the fruit of faith from faith. If one is not committed to living as a Christian, one is not a Christian. If there is no desire to imitate the holiness and love exhibited by Christ there was no justification. These are inseparable. The more I think about it, the more I like the multiplication example.

  • ChrisB

    RJS, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, and if that’s in line with what Scot means, then I misunderstood him.
    I’ve heard people say, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” In other words, a faith that does not produce works does not save (ala James). But the progression of faith -> justification/transformation -> works can’t be rearranged regardless of Mr. Hamilton’s intentions.

  • Paul

    I remember Dallas Willard saying something about this in an interview a few years ago (with CT?) However he tried to articulate three parts…
    1) Conservative: Jesus is our salvation from sin
    2) Liberal: Social implications of kingdom of God
    3) Willard’s Focus: Our character transforming to that of Christ likeness. (not behavior modification but character transformation)
    I remember Willard saying that all three are apart of our gospel, and yet he feels that both sides (conservative and liberal) miss out on this more than they should.
    This is just what came to my mind when I read this post

  • Scot:
    I would call myself a theological conservative, and most of the conservatives that I know would welcome adding the liberal insights as presented here. We’re not “afraid” of adding the liberal emphasis on the social gospel. What we oppose are the liberals who refuse to incorporate our conservative insights. In this way we think we already have a both/and, a third way, and are arguing against those who attempt to reduce it to an either/or, whether that be liberal or conservative.

  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks for this; and reading your stuff I’d say you side with the Third Way side. But now answer me this one:
    Do you know one gospel tract from the conservative side that blends the personal encounter with personal faith and commitment to (say) justice? That commitment to the kingdom vision of Jesus is central to what one is committing oneself to?

  • Kyle

    Just off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure that the Centre for Public Christianity in Australia publishes some that combine the themes. I’ve also read plenty of Chinese tracts that emphasize both personal salvation and social justice with the purpose of renewing the world on God’s behalf. I think I saw some with this theme in Malaysia over the summer as well.
    As I told you in an e-mail Scot, the reality of the situation is that the organizations doing the bulk of social justice initiatives, helping the poor, etc. (outside of the Catholic church which unquestionably does the most) are evangelical. They may not necessarily be American evangelical, but they are evangelicals from Africa, China, Singapore, Korea, etc. As Mike said, those of us on the “conservative” side of theology in the worldwide church are already doing both. There are some fundamentalist Baptist (I’m not talking SBC, but actual fundamental Baptists) who refuse to do social programs, and there are some liberal organizations that refuse to say anything about individual salvation, but most of us working around the globe are already “Third Way” in this sense, and most of us are evangelical.

  • Tom

    Kyle makes an important point.
    Our evangelical brothers and sisters outside of the US have tested the third way for a long time. Our own peculiar religious, political and cultural history seems to drive us toward extremes.

  • ChrisB

    I’m still not sure someone isn’t trying to justify through faith + works. (Perhaps this is returning to our question “what is the gospel.”)
    If I had to put the “social gospel” in a nutshell, I’d say it’s “transforming the world.” If I had to put the conservative version in such a shell, I’d say it’s “personal transformation.”
    If you wanted a “third way” gospel, I think it would be fair to say “transforming the world by transforming people.”
    However, if you switch it around — transforming people by transforming the world — you’ve gone out of bounds. We’re back into a works righteousness.
    So the fundamental question of any “gospel” is, how do people become right with God, and how do they get to heaven. (I know you don’t want to make the gospel all about heaven, but that’s a fundamental issue and the best way to make sure we’re not talking past each other.)

  • Scot McKnight

    The question here is how did Jesus talk about the gospel. Did he speak of it as you outlined in this last comment?

  • Tom

    I appreciate what I think you’re trying to get at here, though I disagree with your take.
    I’m good to go with the ‘get right with God’ part of your ‘fundamental question.’
    The rest of it, not so much. If heaven is some place in the sky discontinuous with the real world we live in each day, then your perspective makes more sense. If heaven is simply the real world we live in each day transformed in a way none of us can see without the eyes of faith and the transforming power of God, then maybe your apparent point of view is less compelling.
    I’m no fan of the way ‘salvation by faith’ is normally understood by conservative Protestants. We want to divide faith and works and make ‘works’ a poor cousin. I don’t think the bible speaks that way at all, and especially Paul.
    Physicists feel comfortable describing light as both wave and particle. None of them exalt one definition over the other because that’s what the evidence suggests.
    I hope theologians can be at least as flexible and honest about the biblical and experiential evidence re faith and works.

  • Scot:
    My conservative friends don’t use tracts, so I’m not sure how to answer your questions. But I do agree that the conservatives who do are unlikely to say anything about the social implications of the gospel–which is why my third way also triangulates against them. In sum, I wholeheartedly endorse the liberal emphasis on loving your neighbor–especially the poor and disenfranchised, but I’m not sure that they always agree with my emphasis on the need for personal faith in Jesus.