Part 1 of A New Series: Responses to The Gospel as Center by members of the Gospel Coalition

Part 1 of A New Series: Responses to The Gospel as Center by members of the Gospel Coalition March 21, 2012

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?”

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  • Roger,

    You are highlighting what has always been my primary problem with TGC. In much of their promotional material and videos they repeat the mantra that they are ONLY concerned about the gospel, yet they also clearly consider Calvinism and complementarianism “matters of first importance,” and therefore essential parts of the gospel.

    And little by little they seem to be adding more secondary doctrines to this list of essentials. A recent TGC series about apologetics seemed to imply that the apologetic methodology called “presuppositionalism” is now also a first tier doctrine.

    I would like to read the book, but I’m hesitant to support them financially by buying it 🙂 so I really appreciate you taking the time to work through it on your blog.

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me most of the controversies they talk about (among evangelicals) are old ones. I can remember during the 1970s debates between Carl Henry and John Gerstner about presuppositionalism and evidentialism in evangelical apologetics. These guys (Gospel Coalition) seem to me to want to take a particular side on every historical evangelical debate and declare that side “the” gospel-centered and therefore truly evangelical view. This looks to me like a new fundamentalist movement emerging out of evangelicalism. Perhaps we should start calling it “post-evangelical?”

  • Chad

    The only thing I know about this book is what I’ve read here, but some of the ire may be directed toward the various New Perspectives on Paul (and Jesus). I know Carson has been a vocal opponent of these views in the past. Some of the language about ‘gospel’ that you cited here are similar to accusations they have voiced against NPP in the past .

    This is just a suggestion as to who they may be writing against, I don’t actually know. From what I know of the authors though, they prefer to sum up the gospel as basically ‘double-imputation’, so it irks them to hear the gospel described the way some NPP proponents do.

  • Jonathan

    I’m very concerned about the “Gospel-Centered” movement these days. Your review of this first chapter highlights one of the glaring problems: vague and sloppy language/argumentation that does more to promote the shibboleth and fervor of a particular group than it does to address real issues. I’m troubled because these guys are carefully followed, imitated, and reproduced in many of our top evangelical seminaries by guys who don’t even think twice about whether or not they could be wrong or that there might be other opinions and perspectives out there worth considering. In my opinion, this is how you start massive divisions in the church. When the guys in seminary who are feeding on this stuff become established leaders in their churches, anyone who espouses viewpoints different from this group will be labeled as problematic or dangerous; they certainly won’t be considered for teaching positions in the church or other leadership. Seminary is the time to personally investigate and probe the big issues from a plethora of vantage points; the Gospel Coalition does all of that for Seminarians (and tells them what is dangerous and to be avoided) so they can get to real work of “being Gospel-Centered leaders!” But they will most likely produce a group of narrow-minded zealous and enthusiastic parrots, who have all the right intentions in the world, but have simply followed the music down one specific path without noticing all of the other people who love Jesus and the Church but who remain on different tracks.

  • Along with “the necessity of the new birth, justification by faith alone, and atonement through propitiation and the substitutionary death of Christ,” I can almost guarantee all these authors are committed to complementarian gender roles. Is that constitutive of “the gospel” too? Sometimes it seems so with The Gospel Coalition. See, e.g., their Confessional Statement (their “gospel”?), point three:

    “God ordains that [men and women] assume distinctive roles which reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God. The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.” ( )

  • megan

    With regard to them packing their systematic theology into the definition of “gospel,” you also need to add their commitment to a particular form of gender roles. While “Calvinistic, Complementarian, Conservative Coalition” is pleasantly alliterative–not to mention more accurate–I guess it doesn’t have quite the ring of “Gospel Coalition.”

  • John Inglis

    For those who want to jump in immediately, chp. 1 is available online as a pdf:

    On p. 13 Carson posits two extremes in defining what is evangelical: (1) defining it by one’s denominational distinctives, and (2) a contentless sociological definition. He then states that he wants to go a middle way of “robust” theological requirements (sounds to me like bright lines and boundaries) that define evangelicalism theologically and not sociologically but eschews certain theological particularities.

    It is significant that Gospel Coalition members and supporters have “center” as a trope (in the sense of literary topos and not as rhetorical device) and that they portray their view as the “centre” that is normative, historical, “traditional” and true. Everyone else is a departure.

    That they are claiming their portion of the evangelical landscape as the centre, and attempting to make it the de facto centre through their writing and teaching is evident from prior work such as Reclaiming the Centre and their now pprofessed new phase: “More recently, The Gospel Coalition has moved into a new phase of ministry, and the most visible parts are our national conference, website, and TGC Network. But these are just means to being “prophetic from the center.” (p. 17).

    It is significant, and important to note, that in Reclaiming the Center‘s Introductory chapter (by Justin Taylor) Taylor writes, “At the risk of oversimplification and for the purposes of this introduction, I will refer to Stanley Grenz as postconservatism’s Professor, Brian McLaren its Pastor, and Roger Olson and Robert Webber its Publicists,”

    Whoah, Nelly. It’s starting to look like the horse of their self-assured, narrow version of correctness is starting to run away with them. In their writings they consistently mix together the secular departures from truth with alleged evangelical departures from truth, as if they were part and parcel of the same issue or origin. Those darn postmodernists, they have chased after the God of this world and are leading modernist evangelicals astray.

    But back to “The Gospel as Center” and Carson’s et al. attempt to strike a middle way. From what I have read from the Gospel Coalition, however, this means that their particularities are OK, but others are not, and so it is OK for an evangelical to be charismatic (e.g., Sam Storms–who engaged in a multipost debate with Michael at Parchment and Pen about charismata), but not emergent.

    Carson et al. push back from their self-identified and so-called centre against the alleged negative influence of postconservatists, which they also pejoritavely call ‘reformists,’ ‘the emerging church,’ ‘younger evangelicals’, ‘postfundamentalists’, ‘postfoundationalists,’ ‘postpropositionalists,’ and ‘postevangelicals’.

    In “Reclaiming the Centre” (which I see as an important background for understanding “The Gospel as Centre) Taylor and Carson argue that this “movement” or “mood” (they intentionally echo Olson by using “mood”) has deleterious and corrosive on evangelical faith. Taylorstates, “Carson argues that Grenz’s historical conclusions are either tendentious or highly questionable and that his theoretical commitments are in danger of domesticating the gospel to postmodernism,with the result that his program could be largely irrelevant to the world and devoid of power. Grenz warns against evangelical accommodation
    to modernism, but Carson fears that it is Grenz who is in danger of being held
    captive to an unbiblical, postmodern epistemology.” Central to the book’s discussion in virtually every essay is the book by Stanley Grenz entitled, renewing the Center. Given its centrality, Reclaiming begins (after an Introduction) with D. A. Carson’s review of Grenz. It is, “centrally,” Grenz’s book, Renewing the Center, that motivates [this] book’s title.”

    Though they claim to want dialogue with Grenz, and not denounce him, their version of dialogue is merely setting forth Grenz’s view in some detail and denouncing (oops, didn’t I mean “critiquing”? No.) it. Moreover, their view of the evangelical centre is one that selfconsciously has bright lines and boundaries: “Al Mohler has expressed our conviction well, and with this I conclude our introduction: “A word that can mean anything means nothing. If “evangelical identity” means drawing no boundaries, then we really have no center, no matter
    what we may claim. The fundamental issue is truth, and though the modernist
    may call us wrong and the postmodernist may call us naive, there is nowhere else for us to stand. . . .” ” [from Taylor’s introduction]

    It is against that background that “The Gospel as Center” is to be understood, and which provides the undercurrent to statements like the following by Carson on p. 14, “All that has changed. Secularism is much more aggressive and anti-Christian; the society in general is coarsening; and the moral intuitions of younger people radically vary from their more traditional parents. Many have called this new condition the “postmodern turn,” though others call our situation “late” modernity, or even “liquid” modernity.”

    Then note how Carson in the next paragraph states, “The “acid” of the modern principle—the autonomous, individual self—seems to have eaten away all stable identities.” What is the acid? postmodernism in both secular and evangelical thought and life. And who does his group, in other writings, describe as acidic and postmodern and dangerous? Grenz specifically, as well as his friends and populizers (aka Olson). The other guys, the non-centres, are “incoherent” (one of Carson’s favourite words, especially when disparaging other views).

    The book, and Carson’s chapter particularly, claims that “It’s time to reclaim the core of our beliefs…” The “core” is of course their core, a core in which Calvin and Edwards are assumed to be (in Carson’s chp.) exemplars and are the only “traditional” theologians touted. People outside their self-proclaimed centre “have a truncated view of what the gospel is” (p. 20).

    No Christus Victor for the Gospel Coalition–to hold such a view as foundational is not evangelical even if it could be said to be one facet of the gospel story: “Many young Christian leaders who are passionate about social justice complain that the classic reading of the book of Romans by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin is mistaken. They say that Jesus did not bear God’s wrath on the cross, but instead exemplified service and love rather than power and exploitation and therefore “defeated the powers” of the world.” (p. 15). See also the next page (16): “Since Jesus had to die to appease the wrath of God, we know that God is a God of justice, and therefore we should be highly sensitive to the rights of the poor in our communities.”

    Yes, the proper and only evangelical view of soteriology is one in which appeasement of justifiable wrath is central.

    It is telling that the movement directly links care for the poor not to the love of Christ, but to justice, judgment and wrath.

    I guess one can tell that I do not like this book and do not find much of profit in the Gospel Coalition works that I cannot find, and find more ably written, elsewhere. That is not to say that I despise Carson or Storm, etc. I have profited greatly from Carson’s exegetical work, and from Storm’s views on charismata.

    I shall stop now.

  • greg huguley

    Dr Olson, With this statement: “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.” –you have hit the nail on the head. As a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (in the early through late 90’s), I saw that exact practice in higher theological education; and now i see it in my former denomination (SBC, I’m ABC now); it seems like in a sense, calvinism is , for evangelicals of the 21st century, what fundamentalism was to us in the 20th?

    • rogereolson

      Yes, that is the drift I see happening. And I’ve seen it happening gradually for quite a while. To many leaders of contemporary evangelicalism, you’re not a full card-carrying member of the “e-club” unless you’re at least a four point Calvinist.

  • Joe Canner

    It definitely appears from the Gospel Coalition confessional statement (and the outline of the book, which follows the confessional statement) that there are going to be some attempts to circumscribe the gospel to include only substitutionary atonement and to push it towards Calvinism.

    At least as disconcerting, however, is that a book about the Gospel includes a number of topics that don’t seem to be central to the gospel, such as complementarianism, creation/evolution, eternal conscious torment, and homosexuality. It also appears from the preamble to the confessional statement that they have issues with contemplative movements, politicization, and moral relativism. Interesting topics, all, but not for a book about the Gospel.

    I look forward to your thorough analysis of this important book.

    • rogereolson

      Notice that there is no chapter on Christology. There is a whole chapter on the Holy Spirit; why not one on Christ?

  • David

    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.

    Nonsense! There’s nothing subtle about it whatsoever!

    It’s an explicit attempt to define evangelicalism and “the gospel” according to their narrow partisan approach. This is what The Gospel Coalition has been doing since it began, because they are neo-fundamentalists (to use your term) who cannot cope with diversity (as their definition of the word confirms) and view any differing convictions as being outside the scope of orthodoxy.

    • rogereolson

      I was trying to be cautious and nice. But I agree with you.

  • Luke Allison

    Have you read TGC’s review of NT Wright’s new book? Their “critique” looks something like “he’s not a Calvinist”.

    Which creed or historic council dealt with the true definition of the atonement? Which polemic against heresy proclaimed that all who reject PSA are outside the camp? Oh yeah….none! Because PSA didn’t exist. Seriously, how can someone as articulate and intelligent as Tim Keller get caught up in this stuff? I feel like it’s a case of “tow the party line or it’s farewell to you”.

    What do these men want? I have a feeling, deep-down inside, they may want 16th century Geneva. Tell me I’m wrong, please!

    • rogereolson

      I won’t tell you that you’re wrong. Maybe not 16th century Geneva, but look at David Wells Prologue to No Place for Truth. It’s titled “A Delicious Paradise Lost.” That is “A Puritan Town Revisited.” His dream (and I’d say his friends in the Gospel Coalition’s) is a return to a mythical paradise of Puritan culture.

      • peteenns

        Well put.

  • peteenns

    Well done, Roger. Part of me thinks we can safely ignore these sorts of groups that feel their influence extends beyond the bounds of their narrow traditions. The other part of me thinks we should point out the obvious problems when we see them (which I did in a recent post).

    As for the collection of authors, yes, there is a disproportionate weight given to the Reformed, but I take that as simply as reflecting TGC, which itself reflects the larger tendency among them to “contend for the truth” against all enemies, real or imagined. It is a tiring existence, if I my offer own experience is a barometer. If there was an openness to true dialogue, it might be another matter, but gatekeepers are not paid to dialogue.

    • rogereolson

      When I reviewed No Place for Truth by David Wells (a book similar to the one under review now) for Christianity Today I expressed genuine agreement and appreciation for what he wrote there as well as some criticisms. A mutual friend at Gordon-Conwell asked Wells if he would dialogue with me if the G-C faculty invited me out there for that. He said no, he wouldn’t not.

      • Rick

        But specifically why not? Gordon-Conwell clearly does not have a problem with non-Reformed evangelicals since many staff and students have been non-Reformed, so there must be another reason.

  • Amen. It seems, based upon your comments, that this move to define the gospel is basically hegemonic, theologically speaking. I wonder: what other reasons are there to define the gospel in the first place? Could it be: fear of losing influence (from one generation to another)? Or, is it just a bad reading of the Bible? Whatever the reason, it seems to me that our desire to “define” the gospel reveals our anxiety at letting the gospel define us, or just our discomfort at not being able to describe the full reality of the gospel. In the end, the Gospel Coalition, if taken generously, seems to pick up on some contours of the gospel but they interpret what they see as the full reality of the gospel.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Fantastic! Well argued and I will be sharing.

  • I currently go to Trinity (where Dr. Carson teaches) and I can say that it has been encouraging to see how committed they seem to be to being intentionally broadly evangelical in their hiring practices. This trend seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. While Dr. Carson is nearly universally respected and admired here, I think that it would be a mistake to think that he necessarily represents a majority of student or faculty views, or goals in hiring, or anything like that.

    Thanks for your insightful analysis, and I do agree with the continued need to emphasize the sort of “broad tent” evangelicalism you talk about. I look forward to reading the other parts of your review.

    • rogereolson

      There was a time, as I recall, when TEDS’ theological faculty was all Calvinists. I made quite a fuss about that with executives and pastors of the Evangelical Free Church of America whenever I met them. (My grandparents were EFCA so I felt a kind of kinship there.) I won’t take credit for the phenomenon you describe, but I think enough people like me pointed out the problem (the EFCA is NOT confessionally Calvinist) that administrators began to realize they needed to diversify the theology faculty theologically (within the evangelical tradition, of course).

      • I think part of the reason, too, has been the influence of folks like Tite Tienou (current dean); the more Trinity seeks to emphasize the globally diverse nature of evangelicalism (and really, of truly “gospel-centered” evangelicalism) the less it is possible to define that by the rather narrower confines of TGC and confessional Calvinism.

  • Don Johnson

    I think the very name of the group speaks of an arrogance that they possess. Where is the humbleness and mercy?

    • Steve

      I think arrogance is an appropriate word. But there are others.

  • Steve Rogers

    Go, Roger! I don’t expect you to include this comment in your dialogue, but I applaud your chutzpah in taking on these … Oops! better not say it.

  • Robert

    I think there is a new rethinking of *penal* substitionary atonement, as reflected in the work of Joel Green, and also see Greg Boyd’s chapter and responses in the “Nature of Atonement” 4 views book (both of which, I’ve mentioned before in these threads). It’s not that no one’s ever questioned it before, just that I don’t think you’ve had so many prominent theologians or titles that have explicitly called this into question. Some people are very nervous about that. I think Joel Green makes a good case for how the penal substitionary atonement view is heavily tinged by our own sense of abstract, principled justice and punishment, which is less than biblical. Far from being the center of the gospel, *penal* substitution as *the* controlling metaphor/lens for viewing the atonement actually has the potential to distort or undermine the gospel if not placed into the Jewish cultural context as well as the context of the other atonement language/metaphors.

    This is typical of strident neo-Calvinism which basically takes certain concepts like “glory” and “sovereignty” and defines them in their own terms and elevates them to the absolute center of the doctrine of God, and how they take 16th century doctrinal formulations and buzzwords (sola fide) and 19th century theologians (Hodge’s doctrine of penal substitution) and anachronistically act as if these particular interpretations or phraseology is “the heart of the gospel.”

  • Bob Brown

    As a theology student I became embroiled in the theological content of the gospel. The argument was that the gospel is ONLY the declaration of God’s justification of sinners. According to some, there was no place for sanctification or glorification in “the gospel”.

    John Stott helped me in his little book, “Baptism and Fullness of the Spirit”. He showed how the gospel is based on the new covenant that promises BOTH forgiveness AND Gift of the Spirit that results in being God’s people. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world….and will baptize you with the Spirit.”

    Acts 2:38 – “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”‘

    Stott believed that anyone preaching only the forgiveness of sins thru justification preached a ‘truncated’ gospel. For Stott, the gospel is the gospel of salvation from sin in all aspects: justified from sin past thru His cross; sanctified from the present power of sin thru His Spirit; and glorified from this world of sin thru His future return.

    I believe this and thank Stott for this presentation of the gospel. I have yet to see anyone reproduce Stott’s focus on the New Covenant’s promise of a ‘removal and bestowal’… a removal of sins and a bestowing of the Spirit immediately upon receiving Christ as Savior and Lord by faith….as the content of the gospel.

    I once asked a holy man of God, a great man of God, and wonderful evangelist what the gospel was and he refused to enter into a theological debate. His answer was simple:

    1 Corinthians 15
    1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
    3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

    I believe this ^ is the content of the gospel and that believing this ^ brings a “removal of sins” and a “bestowal of the Holy Spirit” until He returns to glorify us.

  • Stefan

    Thanks for this book review, and for the ensuing discussion.

    Although I am some variety of Calvinist, attend a TGC church, and would affirm many of the doctrines espoused by these gentlemen, I would also agree that many of these secondary doctrines are not the Gospel. Thanks for pointing up the subtle sleight-of-hand that’s happening here: frontloading the true Gospel, than asserting that those who disagree with your secondaries are by definition not Evangelical!

    One can argue—and I would affirm—that the biblical Gospel is defined in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5ff: “that Christ died for our sins…was buried [and] raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”; but that is all primary teaching that any Evangelical (and many non-Evangelical Christians!) would heartily agree with as well. Certain secondary doctrines may or may not necessarily follow from that definition of the Gospel, but Paul doesn’t call them out. Nor do the Apostles in all their kerygmatic proclamations of the Gospel in Acts! Their focus really is solely on the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ!

    And if you take a different tack from TGC, and look at the full Biblical definition of “Gospel”—the way that the actual Hebrew and Greek words for “good news” get used in the rest of Scripture—the Gospel becomes about the the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into the world in power through salvation, healing, and restoration, and the growth of the Kingdom in this age to the ends of the earth, until our Lord returns in glory, and all evil is ultimately vanquished.

    If anything, the Gospel is about breaking down boundaries (in an eschatological sense–between God and His people, and among the people of God at work in the world) rather than building them up!

  • Praveen

    Wonderful brother Roger!!!!
    BTW, i thought this was funny- while i was reading this post, i saw an advertisement near your posting in this main page on your blog- MDiv – Calvin theological Seminary.
    hahahahaah – funny irony.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, it looks ironic, I know. But please know, too, that the Calvinists I’m against aren’t at Calvin College or Seminary. I disagree with their doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but they are not the ones out there telling the world (mostly impressionable young Christians) that Calvinism is the one and only biblical way such that if you don’t believe it you’re not fully evangelicals. I have close relatives who attended Calvin. I spent many happy days at their house in Iowa. They were the most precious people to me and my family. They never even implied that we were second class Christians because we disagreed about some doctrines. The problem lies elsewhere.

  • Rick

    “…Carson and Keller mention that their confession begins with God rather than Scripture and they defend that….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.”

    Did Carson, Keller, or another of the book criticize Grenz? If not, I am not sure why you are expecting them (without saying his name) to apologize.

    • rogereolson

      I said “someone.” I won’t name names because a lot of the criticism of Stan’s positioning of Scripture in Theology for the Community of God was not put in print.

  • Phil Miller

    I had a friend who was planting a church a number of years ago (probably 5 or 6), and he went through the application to see about having the church under the Acts 29 umbrella. Well, even back then the application was written in such a way that pretty much made it clear that Arminians need not apply. He sent in the application and answered the questions honestly, and needless to say, he was quickly rejected. So, yeah, this isn’t anything new. I know The Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 Network are separate entities, but they do have close ties, and the underlying theology is basically the same.

  • Jeff Martin

    Is not that what the Pharisees were, gatekeepers? I think of the parable of the 100 sheep. The Pharisees might get that one sheep and leave the rest, but only because it would be important to have 100 versus 99 and for no other reason.

    When you focus on purity instead of compassion you have become a Pharisee. I think both the New Perspective and the traditional view of Pharisees is wrong. The NP emphasizes how Pharisees were really genuine holy people whereas the traditional view sees them as ones who wanted to do works to get into heaven.

    I think what everyone is saying here is that the GC people are not acting holy! And the Pharisees were by no means holy, only in their perception of it which was skewed by them keeping people out of their click.

    This situation with the Gospel Coalition triggered in my mind what an interesting parallel they have with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were ones who were trying to keep that tradition alive even if it meant that they stooped to break their own laws to crucify Jesus.

    What makes intelligent and influential gatekeepers (thanks Dr. Enns) so dangerous is that, like the Pharisees, they can outwit someone to give up their money, and give and take money to politicians to promote their cause. The Pharisees did this when they took from widows and received money from politicians (something that Josephus makes clear about them).

  • Greg D

    Dr. Olson,

    Is it really any surprise that anything written by The Gospel Coalition is neo-Reformed in nature? Nothing written by TGC is objective. It all has a Calvinist/hyper-Calvinist bent to it. I love these guys only as my brothers in Christ, but most of them seem to be arrogant Biblicists, having an “us vs. them” mentality, and a claim on the truth. As a former Calvinist, I have dismissed TGC and moved on to more objective authors/teachers such as Scot McKnight, Roger Olson, Gregory Boyd, N.T. Wright, David Fitch, and Tony Campolo. And, I have since moved towards Emerging thought and have become predominantly Arminian in my theology where I see a bit more inclusiveness, grace, and humility. Simply put, I just don’t see the Jesus I have come to know in Reformed theology nor The Gospel Coalition.


    Greg D

  • One of the oddities I’ve noticed about the reformed crowd is that many of them tend to treat their theological angel, or even the TULIP, as if it is the gospel itself. But they don’t seem to have thought through the implications of this. If the TULIP is the gospel, than non 5-point-Calvinists who are TULIP deniers are therefore gospel deniers. And thus, the truly Reformed become the only legitimate Christians. Geneva has become the new Rome! [FWIW, the numbers of truly reformed from the bulk of church history puts them in a significant minority, so it’d be sad to thing the vase majority of people baptized into and believing in Christ are going to hell.]

    • Steve

      You are exactly right. They idolise their theology. It becomes the center of the universe for them. I have heard it described as ‘the idolotrous veneration of a theological system’. They have God in a box and from there the simply patronise Him. Bring him out when it suits them and parade Him around and when they feel they have had their fill they put Him back. They will fight to the death for TULIP. If this was 500 years ago any dissentters would be burnt at the stake. My….how things have stayed the same.

      • Dan

        These comments seem like a bit of a stretch to me. Actually, I honestly don’t know as much about T4G as I do a similar organization, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (which is basically confessional, evangelical, and yes, Calvinistic). The latter group’s Cambridge Declaration is organized around the five solas of the Reformation as a general means of framing the central doctrines of the Christian faith. I am aware that the first of these Solas, Scripture alone, may be found objectionable by some in the Wesleyan stream of thinking. You see, I too am reading Roger’s “Against Calvinism” because I want to challenge my own biases; but it struck me that Wesley’s quadrilateral might be opposed to “scripture alone”. I’m open to clarification on this.
        Nevertheless, I disagree with the assertion that the Reformed crowd thinks of TULIP as the Gospel, as important as it is. I might think of it as embodied underneath some of the solas. I believe it grew in attention as disagreements with Calvin’s theology were voiced and then responded to. TULIP became “hot” because it was objected to, and it remains hot for the same ongoing reasons. But along the lines of Michael Horton’s “For Calvinism”, TULIP itself is far too imcomplete as a representation of Reformed theology, and he acknowledges many non-Reformed streams of Christianity as legitimate, as long as they agree with the Apostles’ Creed and other ancient “catholic” (small c) creeds.

        • rogereolson

          Wesley’s quadrilaterial (really identified by Albert Outler, not Wesley) does not contradict sola scriptura because the “sola” in “sola scriptura” means “prima”–Scripture trumps everything else. The quadrilateral is not an equilateral. Who would deny that we all use tradition, reason and experience in interpreting the Bible and creating contemporary systems of theology? As for the ACE and its Cambridge Declaration: Mike Horton and I have had many discussions about this. I’m not sure exactly what his position is today as I think he has softened somewhat, but back when The Cambridge Declaration was written and published its clear intent was to exclude all but monergists from being authentically theologically evangelical. Nobody denies that there is a sociological phenomenon called “evangelicalism.” The debate is over who is REALLy, authentically evangelical theologically. TULIP is not so much the issue as is monergism. As I understand it, the members of the ACE were saying (and I think the members of TGC are saying) that only monergists really believe the whole gospel and are therefore the only true evangelicals theologically. The intent, of course, is to exclude Arminians (including Wesleyans) from authentic theological evangelicalism which means they should not be hired to teach in evangelical institutions. That’s what I think is the underlying, unstated agenda.

          • Dan

            Dr. Olson, thank you for your interaction with my comments. It is possible that monergism is the core issue, though the whole of “TULIP” is built upon monergism, is it not? Admittedly I’ve not finished either your or Dr. Horton’s books so I have more studying and thinking to do.
            Seemingly at this point, there are evangelical institutions that support all kinds of theological positions; you know better than myself, but it’s difficult for me to imagine that an Arminian would not be able to teach at some institution as long as he is otherwise qualified. But there are certainly some institutions where faculty would be required to hold to one or more of the confessions of the Reformation, and why not, if the same is required for a pastor of a church? I would that my own church would be more robust in stating what it believes on paper, given the wide variety of heresies and worldly methods that worm their way in to churches. It seems to me that putting a stake in the ground via adherence to creeds and confessions is not a bad thing… not for themselves alone but because these churches and institutions believe that these statements of faith, affirmations and denials are summaries of what the Scriptures teach? Do not Arminians have similar statements (I’m asking here because admittedly I do not know)?
            And finally, you know Dr. Horton personally and I don’t, but he does continue to speak at the Alliance’s conferences; his teaching institution (WSC) sponsors Alliance events and other faculty speak at them; and finally, I’m aware that White Horse Inn recently held a cruise for “95 Theses for a Modern Reformation”. That doesn’t sound like a man who has softened at all, though any of us as we age do realize that, within certain limits, we do and must learn to be more diplomatic in conversing with believers with different theological/doctrinal persuasions than our own, if indeed we truly wish to be ambassadors of Christ in the way we believe Scripture teaches. One of the things that I appreciate about your debates and discussions with Dr. Horton is this open conversation you have with him, because it helps us to learn about each other’s points of view. I completely understand that you are not suddenly going to soften to the point of becoming a Calvinist in your case or an Arminian in Dr. Horton’s case, though we do see individuals from time to time move in either direction. I think of Dr. Steven Lawson who used to be an Arminian and is now one of the leading champions of Calvinism, and you can probably name more than your fair share of men who have shifted in the other direction. In conclusion I expect to resume reading your book at some point, and give you a full hearing. I’d not consider myself as YRR, but I’ve yet to encounter a better, more intelligent and Scripturally-true alternative to an understanding of the Christian faith than through Reformed theology. And that’s why I need to hear you out, because you’ve said that there are alternatives, that you believe are truer to the heart of God.

  • Bob Brown


    Hi Roger,
    I just found that that Dr. Hans LaRondelle fell asleep in Christ on March 7th. He was my mentor at Andrews U.
    I didn’t know if you knew him. He was a great man of God and a great theologian.

    God Bless

  • Steve Dal

    Once you decide that you are at the ‘center’ of all orthodxy and any deviation from this ‘orthodoxy’ is somehow a less than position or indeed no position at all, you are on the road to shutting down, closing ranks (and all the attendant compromises that this brings) and truly disengaging. This is where I see the GC heading. The focus becomes your position and at all costs its maintenance. It is a subtle but deadly position to take and will kill the spirit of the Gospel. The presumption that God can be entirely contained by your theology sows the very seeds of its demise. By that I don’t mean it will disappear necessarily, but that the ‘power’ will go out of it. I am always wondering why it is that people need to run to these ‘groups’ in order to identify themselves. Find your own way into the Biblical narrative. It is much more rewarding and all it requires is that you get honest with what scripture might be saying. True, it takes years but eventually it happens. The only difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to find a group you can fit with entirely , but this should be a secondary consideration. Personally, I can take what anybody says and weigh it agianst what I know of the Biblical narrative wrought over many years and much experience. I don’t subscribe to any theological point of view entirely because as I said, none of them offer a completeness. How could they. The GC are Calvinists. Enough said.

    • rogereolson

      Some people will never be satisfied with that humble approach. They are driven by desire for influence and obsession with tribalism. To them, “Evangelicalism” is a tribe. A tribe can’t be that diverse. We must know who “we” are to be a tribe. They see some folks hanging around the evangelical tribe they don’t recognize. In order to preserve the tribe’s identity, those people must either convert to their vision of the tribe or leave.

      • Steve Dal

        That is sooooo true. I know people like that entirely. But I refer to remain simple. Yes…even stupid and naive. The important thing for me is that I recognise these people early. And I am certainly get better at it. I agree that diversity is death for them as is dialogue. You can’t create a tribe with dialogue. It has to be monologue. The terminology they use is also the ‘language’ of exclusion. In order to play you must know the code. etc etc. I know the code but only so I can recognise the enemy.

  • Brian

    “I believe that there are troublers in the house of Israel these days and they are mainly on the conservative side of the house. ” And this is news? Conservatives, dare I say fundamentalists, regardless of the side of the aisle they occupy, pretty much never tolerate open, healthy debate. Thus the consistent, oft used tactic of declaring there are “enemies” without actually naming. They create a boogy man to control the masses.

    • rogereolson

      The problem is that today’s “conservative evangelicals” are not recognized as really fundamentalists by many Christians (and non-Christians). In my opinion, many who are really fundamentalists are managing to own the label “conservative evangelical.” Is Al Mohler a conservative evangelical or a fundamentalist? When he says that young earth creationism is necessary, that tends to put him in the fundamentalist category for me. He calls me a post-evangelical. I will return the favor and say the label fits him better as he seems to me to have left behind the “big tent” of evangelicalism for neo-fundamentalism.

  • Mason

    i know someone has probably mentioned this..but the “they” that TGC references as undermining the Christian faith would be N.T. Wright. they simply cannot stand Wright. they are jealous of his popularity and his sometimes arrogant tone in his writings..remember he had the audacity to stand up to the Pope of Reformed theology (no disrespect to the Pope) John Piper. i will admit that Wright can be a little arrogant (i have met him on several occassions during book signings and lectures at Asbury Seminary), but the settings have been difficult to say the least…Wright is their target and probably Olson as well…and Clark Pinnock and Eugene Peterson and Greg Boyd and Walter Brueggeman and Ben Witherington and Scot McKnight and Richard Bauchmann and Rob Bell…(an impressive bunch if you ask me…) you get the idea…