Sublating the Gospel: The Gospel Coalition, 2013

The National TGC or The Gospel Coalition conference is currently underway; today is the kick off day for the next three days, through the 10th, of its main scheduled speaking events. The Gospel Coalition has amazing reach into the realm of all things “Evangelical.” I know people in attendance at this year’s conference, in fact. It is no secret that I have not been (and continue to not be) a fan of TGC, and I have written about my non-fan-ness numerous times. In fact, if TGC did not have the kind of reach it has, I would simply ignore it. But alas, it does have the reach it has, and so I cannot ignore it; because it is impacting people that I know and love.

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Why do I dis-like TGC so much? Is it because I dis-like the actual people who constitute its core identity? No! Is it because I don’t want people to spend time together thinking about Jesus and the Scriptures? No! The reason I really cannot endorse TGC is because of the “G” and what goes into defining that for TGC. This is of fundamental importance. Do I then not think that people who are associated with TGC aren’t “saved?” No! Here is what I think about TGC, and the “G” in particular: I believe (and thus dislike) that the “G” which stands for Gospel in the The Gospel Coalition, is given a fundamental shape and trajectory by theological resources that are not adequate, and thus fitting for servicing the Gospel. What I mean is that I believe that the Gospel, as understood and defined by TGC is lack-luster because by way of its theological method (prolegomena) it ends up emphasizing people and performance (i.e. neo-Puritan categories of soteriology) based conceptions of salvation. Meaning that the whole construct that the TGC conception of the Gospel is funded by necessarily places an emphasis on what the Puritans rightly called experimental predestinarianism. This is the logical outcome of holding to the idea that God in Christ Unconditionally Elected particular individual people for salvation, and then God in Christ died only for these elect people on the cross; which is known as Limited Atonement (particular redemption). If this is indeed the case, the mechanism that is in place for discerning whether or not you are one of those Elect individuals for whom Jesus died is that you take the first step of responding to God’s Irresistible Grace, but most importantly that you Persevere in Good Works. The Peservering part leaves salvation and election an open ended proposition, and a highly subjective proposal; and thus it remains an ‘experimental’ project (if in fact this kind of person given to such thinking actually internalizes and owns the implications—as the Puritans did—of their commitments to their ‘kind’ of Calvinist theology). If a person does not evince enough good works, then their election is questionable. The ultimate problem with this, no matter how amplified the implications of this paradigm become for the individual adherent, is that the person is always initially turned and tuned into themselves; and thus Christ remains a ‘reflexive’ concern, and really only the instrument by which salvation may or may not have been accrued for the purportedly elect individual. So salvation then takes on a performance based trajectory, that inimically must start with focus on me, myself, and I before I am really secure enough to be able to look to Jesus (even though ironically I am trying to prove to myself that Jesus is in me, demonstrated and exemplified by the good works and work through me and in me).

The Gospel for The Gospel Coalition does not have the resources available to it to provide a genuinely Christian spirituality, because its underlying theological anthropology is devoid of the Spirit. It is devoid of the Spirit because it fails to methodologically see ALL of humanity grounded in the humanity of Christ for us. Christ’s humanity is given its reality for us by the Spirit’s creative power as He overcame Mary’s womb, and impregnated her with the humanity given shape by the person of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Gospel Coalition does not see Jesus’ humanity as the ground of all creation, and in particular, then, it does not see Jesus’ humanity as the ground for all of creation (instead they see it as the ground for certain elect individuals, which it only becomes ‘after’ Jesus has met the requirements of paying the penalty for sin on the cross—which then makes one start thinking of adoptionistic christologies). John Webster fills out what I am getting at with great clarity:

[T]here are startling implications here for the metaphysics of created being. The resurrection of Jesus is determinative of the being of all creaturely reality. Created being is to be defined as τα παντα which the risen Jesus Christ is ‘before’, which is ‘held together’ in him and in which he is ‘pre-eminent’. Determination by the resurrection is not accidental to created being but ontologically definitive. A parallel might be drawn here with the concept of divine ubiquity. God’s omnipresence is not simply one more qualification of creaturely reality but rather its sufficient ground, such that created time and space have their being as and only as that to which God is present. So here, there is no creaturely existence apart from the risen one in whom it is held together. The risen one is the domain within which the creation lives and moves and has its being. Created being and history are thus not that in terms of which the resurrection of Jesus is to be placed, but rather the opposite: he is axiomatically real and true, having his being of himself and of himself bearing witness to himself. The ramifications of this for the project of historical apologetics (namely, that to search for warrants for belief in the resurrection external to the axiomatic reality of the risen Jesus is to misperceive the object of resurrection faith, which is the Son of God himself in his self-bestowing reality as divine subject) cannot be explored here. Rather, what has to be borne in mind is the categorical primacy of the resurrection, which can be transcended neither by history nor by reason. ‘The “resurrection” of Christ,’ Hoskyns noted, ‘appeared to have led [the first Christians] to apprehend final meaning, positive affirmation, all-embracing reason and sense illuminating, and far more than illuminating, not only the course of his life but the circumstances and events of theirs as well, and indeed the universe in which, as God’s creatures, they found themselves placed’. The resurrection is that divine act in which there is manifest the eternal self-existent life of God the Son who is the ground and goal of all things. ‘To be’ is to be caught up by the movement of the risen one who fills all in all, and his resurrection is thus the ‘source and truth of all that exists, that is known, that can belong to us, the reality of all res, of all things, the eternity of time’. Created being in this divine act of transfiguration, being in the miracle to which Paul points with such wonder: ιδου γεγονεν καινα (2 Cor. 5.17). [John Webster, The Domain Of The Word, 36.]

We can see from this, that, as Webster rightly argues, all of humanity’s being is conditioned and grounded by Jesus’ being. The same life that underwrites and sustains the power of resurrection and atonement is inextricably tied into the life (of God) that sustains all of life (not then an abstract conception of an elect group of people/humanity). Webster rightly notes that we cannot think of what Jesus did as an ‘accident’ of salvation history; instead, we must think of atonement/resurrection as the ground of all being, the reality that sustains all of recreated life; both in the present, but as a conditioned present, one that finds its condition from the consummate life we look forward to when our walk becomes one of sight not just faith. In other words, The Gospel Coalition’s conception of salvation, and what Jesus did places Him and that event into history, instead of seeing what Jesus did as definitive of history. The necessary implicate of this (the TGC view), is that Jesus becomes part of history and His atoning work and resurrection become an instrument of the elect’s personal and individual salvation, instead of being seen (as it should be) as definitive and grounding of all of creation through the re-creation (reconciliation cf. Col. 1.17ff) of all things in Christ. 

Whether or not you are able to fully follow what I am getting at is almost beside the point. The point is, is that it is possible to identify a fundamental and damning flaw in The Gospel Coalition’s conception of the Gospel; such that, it calls into question, at least, the claim that what unites those present at TGC’s conference in fact is representative of the actual good news required and declared by Jesus’ life itself (Himself). If the Gospel is not ‘really’ (ontologically) for all, then how can anyone in good faith say this is the Gospel? If the Gospel does not enclose and re-orient all of creation, if the atonement and resurrection are simply subsumed by and thus predicates of natural history, then in what sense is God sovereign over creation, and then in what sense is this kind of gospel good news? (So to be clear here, I am using the same argument that classic Calvinists use by appealing to God’s sovereignty, I am just trying to reductively turn that on its head in such a way that demonstrates how TGC’s conception of the Gospel actually sublates the sovereignty of God by committing His salvation works to creation’s behest, instead of vice versa).

These are the questions that I think need to be addressed, and not pooh-poohed by The Gospel Coalition and all of those in association with it (whether by attending it, or by endorsing the general trajectory of TGC). To  try and relativize my concerns in order to marginalize the issues I have here raised, only will illustrate that this potential interlocutor is not really serious about the truth, and thus the Gospel. In other words, I am not attempting to offer a maximalist critique of TGC’s conception of the Gospel, but a minimalist one;  minimalist in the sense, that with nuance, I am suggesting (arguing) that the theology underwriting the theology of TGC does not ultimately serve the Gospel’s furtherance but distorts it; and for the above reasons.

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10 thoughts on “Sublating the Gospel: The Gospel Coalition, 2013

  1. ahhhhh Bobby, you have to use those $50 words, I had to look up “sublating” 🙂 if nothing else you are increasing my vocabulary, I was responding to this post to argue with you – you point out that those involved with TGC are saved, but then you accuse them of having a “damning flaw… in their conception of the gospel”

    but in the middle of writing it I received a phone call from my sister, who grew up under the same teaching I did (very GC – Baptist) and who came to the same conclusions I did, and I explained to her that we need to stop looking at ourselves and our works to prove our salvation and look to Christ alone, her comment… “that is SO freeing!”

    So I had to laugh, yes their teaching is “damning” in the sense that it 1. limits the atonement to the sovereignly “predestined” elect and 2. casts an awful burden on those of us who have labored under the conviction that we are still rotten sinners and that God is usually not pleased with us, (He died for me and look at how I treat him!).

    But at the same time I would have always confessed that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were more than enough to save me. I am just usually a rotten Christian (at least in my eyes, but then so was Paul in his own eyes).

    Would you argue that TGC guys add to salvation? Or that they just can’t logically defend their posistion?

    Anyways, back to me (cause everything is about me) So while I will always still be that rotten sinner, I am awakening to the fact that that’s okay, because I really have died with Christ and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. 🙂 

    And that IS freeing, I am free to live my life now because the love of Christ controls me, not MY efforts, I WILL fail, and that is okay because Christ succeeded for me. (imagine that, there really IS no condemnation)

    And from now on I can share the Good News because, hey, guess what, Christ really did die for you (you sinner) too! 🙂

    (btw.. it seems like all you attracted with this post were a bunch of crickets, and me – but Sunday’s message was from Isa 40 and I am just a grasshopper anyway!)

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  2. The Gospel for The Gospel Coalition does not have the resources available to it to provide a genuinely Christian spirituality, because its underlying theological anthropology is devoid of the Spirit.

    I know what you mean. I get it. But, you overestimate — vastly overestimate — the consistency with which TULIP or classical theism is thought through and applied by the average TGC participant…or even the leaders. Yes, they may begin with a “natural law” anthropology, but to conclude that the end result is not a “genuinely Christian spirituality” is overblown. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ, for heaven’s sake.

    Moreover, having been around conservative Calvinists my whole life (and I am still around them, and I am not far from their theological position), they are hardly a purely monolithic bunch, sitting around measuring their spiritual temperature, advancing in their “experimental puritanism,” and such. This problem exists — I’ve seen it and criticized it — but the large majority are just run-of-the-mill evangelicals who love Jesus and want to spread the good news. I’m serious. I’ve been to these conferences (Desiring God namely), and I’ve never heard anyone talk about TULIP or whatever. But, I did hear a bunch of people talk about reaching their friends with the gospel, engaging their co-workers, developing programs at church, etc. They are Calvinists, yes, but their thoughts are attuned to the tensions and dynamics of Scripture, with which they wrestle…just like you and I. Anyway, I’ve rehearsed this before with you, so I’m just registering my complaint — once again.

    I have a friend here in Charlotte who came to Christ in large part through TGC and folks modeling TGC. He and his wife are 5-point, Piper-loving…you know, the whole shebang. They’ve attended TGC in the past. We have coffee or drinks on a regular basis. I know them well, and this whole “experimental puritanism” problematic just doesn’t fly…much less does it apply to some life-long PCA friends that I know and have known for years. Do they have “a genuine Christian spirituality”? Good Lord, yes! They often put me to shame.

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  3. Kevin and Steve,

    I was very clear, I did not challenge their salvation. I get tired of people reading me selectively! I made a distinction between salvation and spirituality. When I wrote damning flaw, that is in re to the system itself not the people.

    I agree Kevin that most are aloof, but that is not what I am contending with primarily, not in this post. I still believe though that theology and practice are interlockingly linked; whether or not someone is conscious of that is moot the reality itself. I have plenty of friends who are all about TGC too, but that does not change the critique I am outlining. It is substantial and one I know you agree with de jure. So if it is good enough for you and me, why not “them?”

    I will respond to you both more fully when at my computer tomorrow.

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  4. Bobby, when you use language like “genuine Christian spirituality” and “devoid of the Spirit,” you are inviting a host of negative reactions.

    Regardless, my comment was precisely focused on spirituality and living the Christian life, not salvation. My point is that the “reality” on the ground requires a better evaluation of these dynamics, between theology and practice. That’s all.

    It is interesting how similar we are in theology — very similar — yet how profoundly we disagree about engaging Reformed theology. Oh well, I still appreciate ya, Bobby!

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  5. I agree with Kevin’s comments here, I understand things regarding my ultimate Salvation, that is none of me, all of God, but when it comes to living out my salvation (my spirituality/sanctification) I feel a burden to strive.

    Although I am now seeing things less in terms of trying to obey and more in terms of abiding(still not sure about how much effort that entails)

    I don’t (can’t) force out the fruit, but if I am remain near the source, I will produce.

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  6. Bobby, isn’t this basically the same as your critique of classical Calvinism? I’m not sure what is (theologically) specific to The Gospel Coalition here, other than the fact that most of them likely lean toward Calvinism if pressed to define just what “the Gospel” is. Now I may agree with much of the critique — but perhaps some of the above is a bit over-reaching when directed at this organization.

    In my expose to the group’s writers and adherents, they are either (a) a certain Americanized flavor of Calvinism, or (b) just not all that theologically sophisticated (or clear) to be able to draw these sorts of conclusions in a definitive fashion. When the language is primarily on the popularly-accessible level to “the Gospel,” it seems to me that it is only more questions that are provoked. “What do you mean by ‘the Gospel’?” “What role does Jesus Christ play?” etc.

    I have my own critique of TGC in the works, actually, coming from a different direction. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

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  7. Kevin,

    Yes, I can see how my language would lead that way; but I intentionally used that language in a different way contextually, and then explained what I meant when I wrote ‘devoid of the Spirit’. I think we engage the polity and practice of Reformed theology differently, for sure; but not necessarily the Dogmatics of Reformed Theology.

    Steve,

    Yes, I understand how you and Kevin took me, and I see how the language I used could be confusing that way; but if you read the way I used that language, carefully, I pretty much explained that I was not thinking in terms of ultimate salvation when I ref. that language.

    I think an excellent excellent book that you would benefit from is J. Todd Billings Union With Christ. It is written in a very accessible way, and with the point of focusing on Christian/pastoral ministry. But yes, Union With Christ theology (a la Calvin and then working downstream from there) is where it is at. Billings’ book would be an excellent introductory place for you in this regard.

    Darren,

    Yes, it is my general critique of classical Calvinism, but as with Kevin, I am not totally clear how the theological identity of TGC can be sequestered some how from the People who make it up. If we are not going to separate person from work, or person from idea (as I know none of us do, methodologically/theologically); then how is the distinction you and Kevin seem to be driving at not doing this? In other words, If almost all of those (like the speakers and leadership) associated with TGC are classical Calvinists, theologically, then how does that not impinge upon the pastoral and praxis issues that they are dealing with through the ministry of TGC?

    I agree that TGC is largely focused at the popular level. But the point is is that there are people who are doing the aiming, and they are aiming from a particular theological commitment (sure there is variance among them, but in general contour it is coming either from straight Federal Calvinism and/or Baptist Calvinism). Am I suggesting that they aren’t doing some good things by way of emphases? No. But what I am trying to highlight, simply, is that there is not this kind of disconnect between the academic and the popular relative to the general understanding of the Gospel that is present at TGC.

    Do you think either Karl Barth and/or Thomas Torrance would have participated in TGC? If not, why not? My critique is partially based on answering this question, given both of these guys’ theological orientation.

    And then there is another way to critique TGC, and one that I haven’t made, yet. There is actually a rather sectarian mode about TGC; a very politically charged shape to TGC. Granted, every movement has this, to a degree. I will have to think about this a little further though before I am willing to offer a critique in this direction. I will look forward to yours.

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  8. Darren,

    Have you ever read TGC Confessional statement? It does not use sophisticated theological parlance, but materially it is reflective of classical Calvinism. When the founders of TGC are D.A. Carson and Tim Keller, and Keller’s background is WTS, and Carson is classical; and when you read the bios of their speakers and participants, again, I am unclear how the core theological identity and thus ethos present at TGC is not framed by classical theology in general, and thus presenting a definitive core to offer critique of. And if this is the case, then I am also not clear how a general critique of classical theology is not relevant.

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  9. I suppose it is relevant, but it seems to me that the critique as you have stated it may need a bit of textual support to show what TGC’s leaders are saying, and how your critique fits. If you’re ultimately just saying they are Calvinists, I’m not sure what has been gained — or why the critique is at all unique to The Gospel Coalition.

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  10. I have written a post, Darren, that gets more specific (Kevin didn’t like it … and I have been trying to not get as personal as this linked post gets http://evangelicalcalvinist.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-gospel-coalition-resurgence-re.html ).

    I am not making the critique for academics, per se; ironically, though, academics are probably the only ones (by and large) who will read it and/or at least understand where I am coming from with it. I wouldn’t say it is unique whatsoever to TGC, what makes it unique though is TGC itself (in my mind anyway). TGC has way way more impact than you, or I, or anyone of us will ever dream of having on American Christianity. So I suppose my motivation for applying this general critique in TGC’s direction is that they are a prominent body of American Christians who have Gospel in their name, and their understanding of the Gospel is shaped by classical commitments. Clearly academics like yourself or Kevin will already understand this and thus it seems unremarkable; but I have lots and lots of friends who actually do not realize the theological commitments that stand behind the “G” in TGC. Of course, this does come back to your point on the “popular” level reality, and you are probably right (along with Kevin) that most people, and even most of my friends who are associated with TGC are just guys and gals who love Jesus (as I mentioned in my original post), and are in search of resources that will enable them to do ministry at their local churches and parishes in an even more Christ centered and effective way. Yes, I get that whole dynamic; Darren. But as you rightly note, also, much of the TGC platform is really cause and suggestive of more questions, for those even in attendance. If this is the case, then if some of these folk are indeed in a questioning mode, especially after their experience at TGC; then a post like mine is intended to maybe offer a kind of pointer or place holder to maybe point some of these folk in a bit of a different “Reformed” direction than they have been opened up to at TGC and probably elsewhere (in their own studies). So I could probably gear the titles of my posts less negatively, instead of the Sublating of the Gospel.

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