Roger E. Olson, professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University has started an on-line review of 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).
I’ve heard about this book, but haven’t read it yet. I respect Don Carson because I’ve found all of his material I’ve come across to be well thought out, thought provoking, and relevant, though I don’t agree will all of his conclusions.
Professor Olson’s critical analysis of chapter one of The Gospel as Center is backed up by specific examples and historical context that makes his thoughts informative and worthy of consideration. It’s always good to read anything in a critical manner, weighing different opinions and I appreciate that Professor Olson provides that opportunity in what appears to be a gracious manner.
His main criticism of chapter one of the book seems summed up in 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.
He is concerned that Carson, et. al. may have package Calvinism into a fundamental definition of the Gospel.
While you can read the book and Olson’s critique to make up your own mind, his article brings to mind two concerns of my own.
The Church of Litmus
It may be an obvious point, but his article is a reminder that not everyone who thinks of themselves as evangelical agrees on a definition of “The Gospel.” I think this is a tragedy1 because unity in the church is not optional by God’s own command. It is demanded and considered an essential characteristic of followers of Christ.
““By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”” (John 13:35, NASB95)
“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” (Philippians 2:1–2, NASB95)
“And He gave some as apostles … for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith …” (Ephesians 4:11–13, NASB95)
“Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” (Romans 14:1, NASB95)
The “opinions” or “reasonings” of the weak Christian that Paul addresses are not any and all opinions, but those that are not essential to the Gospel message itself. This requires that in every age and culture every church must carefully consider what’s opinion and what’s essential in their definition of God’s good news.
Like Olson, I think there is an historical context we should apply to our considerations, but I’d like to suggest an even broader one. The renaissance contributed to the reformation by giving authority and prominence to the ability of people to reason things for themselves rather than simply accept everything the governing authorities said, whether civil or church authorities. This encouraged rational analytical exploration of God’s word and the spread of God’s good news through all kinds of inventions like the printing press. Unfortunately it also wrought havoc on the church by enticing many different men to place their reasoning powers above the Scripture. A byproduct of this process is the present day Babel of theological systems, acronyms, terms and so-called “Biblical” viewpoints all with the result of fragmenting the church and its teachings.2 Of course the freedom to have debates and conversations can hone our thinking so as to separate human opinion from God’s truth. However in practice it has also resulted in a fractured church.
One sad characteristic of this fractured nature of theology and the church is that too many people are memorizing the teachings and vocabulary of one particular system of thought and staunchly defending their positions. I think it was Dawson Trotman (founder of Navigators) that said
“Many people think they are thinking when they are just rearranging their prejudices.”
I find most Bible studies to be a simple exchange of predetermined ideas with little rigorous attention given to how those ideas were derived in the first place.
Most people have already memorized stuff they’ve been taught and can only process new ideas based upon whether it agrees or disagrees with their already determined positions. That is acceptable when it comes to the fundamentals of the Gospel, but isn’t the big problem that too many people can’t determine where the essentials end and where the “reasonings” Paul talked about begin.
Seminaries basically rehearse what others have said, so their students continue the line of “tradition” being passed down then pass it on to their congregations and so the process continues.3 I’m not saying pastors and seminary professors are unthinking, but there are great pressures upon them to keep the way they view scripture in line with certain fixed traditions.
Have we become the church of litmus?4 Do we go around accepting, rejecting or marginalizing5 other Christians by applying our favorite doctrinal litmus test(s) to see if they agree with our views so we can guarantee that we will only be in the company of those who are of like “theological positions”?
I think we have and that this is a sad state of affairs. But not one without hope.
The Unmentionable Problem
All the definitions, acronyms and theological positions are just the surface issues. One of the most fundamental issues is the method we use to interpret scripture – our hermeneutic (sorry I had to use a theological term, but it’s so fundamental you need to know it). Two reasons come to mind as to why people don’t want to talk about this topic.
First they don’t know their method of Bible study.
Oh, some might tell you the name, but they aren’t actually skilled in using it. My experience is that the average person in church is not well disciplined in using the simple process of observation, interpretation, application, let alone able to recognize when an interpretation came from an allegorical, literal or some other method, nor do are they skilled in recognizing literary devices and structures.
I’d like to remind you of this:
“..for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:11–12, ESV)
When you stand before God, you will not be able to say “But Lord, my pastor/priest/denomination/commentary misled me.” YOU will answer for YOU as you bow your knee in humility before Jesus. (Don’t you think that fact alone should give us all a big clue as to what we must include as essential to the Gospel?)
Second, those who know what their hermeneutic is don’t want to talk about it because they aren’t going to give it up, noway, nohow.
So, no wonder people prefer to throw around lofty theological terms and ideas, and stake their ground with “I’m a ________” and focus on “winning” someone over someone to their camp.
I’d really like to sit down with people who are committed to find the truth, willing to discuss and compare their methods, develop skill in interpretation and change anything the Holy Spirit reveals while being committed to the Lord’s command and goal of building unity while caring for one another (even if it takes decades) instead of primarily rehearsing what they already “know.”
I’ve spent 30 years working as an engineer, many times having to develop new inventions. I’ve learned that if our mental models of how physical devices work don’t match reality, then at some point we have to alter our model. Even in engineering it was always a battle with those who would not budge from their preconceived models.
Let’s remember a few words from James:
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB95)
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” (James 3:13, ESV)
I think this situation will right itself, but not without immense pain.
In mathematics we learn about something called an exponential curve. It’s the nature of this function is that it changes very slowly at first. But like a bank account that uses compounds interest, it eventually reaches a critical point where the changes are noticeably large. The United States has been undergoing slow cultural changes that began to become noticeable in the late 1950’s. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the changes have gone past the point of no return and are happening at a dizzying pace.
While it garners little media attention, the single most important aspect of these changes is the repudiation of the Gospel and it’s foundational truths with the result that the church is under clear attack and has been marginalized by the universities, business leaders, lawmakers and judges. Yet the worst is to come.
This persecution is what will help refocus believer, though I think we will also see more and more strong delusions appearing under the banner of being called “Christian”. I hope you will not be caught up in it. So the question of what defines the Gospel is not trivial by a long shot.
- but one that God predicted (2 Tim 4:3) [↩]
- See Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education [↩]
- On the other hand some seminaries now present such a host of opinions of authors and theologians that some students come out more confused that wise. [↩]
- Litmus paper is used to test a solution to determine if it is acid or base. You place the paper in the solution and the color it turns tells you the result. [↩]
- as long we’re right, why bother about those who are “wrong?” [↩]