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.
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.