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The Gospel Coalition’s Hodge Podge

Below is an analysis of http://thegospelcoalition.org/ by Dr. Martin Erdmann.

Neo-Evangelicalism Re-Packaged In A “Broadly Reformed” Parcel

The Gospel Coalition is the current attempt of “broadly reformed’ pastors and theologians to enter into a more formal relationship by establishing an institutional base called “The Gospel Coalition” to propagate their neo-Evangelical “Confessional Statement.” Tim Keller and D. A. Carson personally invited a core group of like-minded pastors to form a steering committee which formulated a doctrinal and policy document entitled “The Gospel for all of Life.” It is significant that Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, has also participated in the initiative from the very start. On his weblog he described his involvement as follows:

The Gospel Coalition
Author: Mark Driscoll
POSTED ON: 05.16.07

Last year I had the privilege of attending a small theological colloquium led by Dr. D. A. Carson and Dr. Tim Keller in Chicago. Over the years, Dr. Keller has been kind enough to speak a great deal of wisdom into my life regarding the gospel and role of the church in culture. Although I have read a great deal by Dr. Carson, who is among the leading New Testament scholars in the world, I had never before had the privilege of meeting him. To be honest, I had never been to a theological colloquium before and found it to be the most fascinating theological discussion I’ve ever witnessed.

It centered on a new evangelical reformed confession of faith drafted up by Dr. Carson with a preamble composed by Dr. Keller regarding the role of the gospel and church in culture. The colloquium was arranged in order to help hone the statements into an agreeable final draft. The hope was to redefine a clear center for evangelicalism more akin to that previously articulated by men such as Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and Billy Graham.

Joining in the small colloquium were men from a number of churches, such as Alistair Begg, Kent Hughes, Philip Ryken, Mark Dever, Ray Ortlund, and Ligon Duncan. Also represented by various leaders were organizations such as The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Desiring God, Together for the Gospel, 9Marks, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Sovereign Grace Ministries, along with Acts 29 and The Resurgence. Overall, there was a great deal of ethnic, geographic, denominational, organizational, and stylistic diversity, bound together by a solid reformed confessional agreement on theological essentials.

It is no secret that Driscoll has been directly involved with Bob Buford’s Leadership Network, as one of the young Christian leaders charged with the task to formulate the theological outlook of the Emergent Church movement. He has publicly renounced his loose link to the Leadership Network, but still participates as a speaker at their conferences. (See, for example: here [Audio recorded prior to the conference: Mark Driscoll with Ed Stetzer]; here, here and here.)

In the past Tim Keller was also in contact with the Leadership Network and perhaps still is. (See The Redeemer Church Planting Center coordinates Redeemer’s church planting movement effort in New York ….)

The other day The Gospel Coalition published the final version of the “Foundational Documents” including a Preamble (Tim Keller), a Confessional Statement (Donald A. Carson), and a “Theological Vision for Ministry” (presumably the Steering Committee).

After a first reading of these documents the aspect which caught my attention was the fuzzy formulation of some statements. Doubtless, a lot of time has been spent by the Steering Committee to deliberate on the exact wording of these documents. Thus this perceived vagueness may have been intentional. At times, I think, much more is implicitly assumed than explicitly stated. The relative brevity of these “Foundational Documents” (14 pages in toto) makes the assumption plausible that it contains more a coded message than an overt expression of the views held by the members of The Gospel Coalition. Be that as it may, the intention of this group in stetting up this organization is clearly communicated in the published video and audio messages of the conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on 23-24 May 2007. In short, the initiators, Donald A. Carson and Tim Keller want to motivate “broadly reformed” pastors and theologians to subscribe to their Confessional Statement and a policy of social activism.

A deeper analysis of the “Foundational Documents” needs to be done in the future than is possible at this time. As a first step it might be helpful to raise a few questions. At times these are meant to be rhetorical (the answer is assumed in the way the question is stated).

….We yearn to work with all who, in addition to embracing the confession and vision set out here, seek the lordship of Christ over the whole of life with unabashed hope in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform individuals, communities, and cultures.

How is the affirmation of “the lordship of Christ over the whole of life” (Francis Schaeffer’s motto which he took over from Cornelius Van Til, who got it from Abraham Kuyper’s pithy Latin saying “Pro Rege” [For the King] directly pointing to his “spheres sovereignty” doctrine) and the transformation of individuals, communities, and cultures to be accomplished? What will the final product look like? How is this program different from “the politicization of faith” which they deplore? Is this really possible by adhering closely to the following: “We intend to do this through the ordinary means of his grace: prayer, the ministry of the Word, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the fellowship of the saints”?

Why do they then see the need to supplement this statement with an extensive detailing of the “Theological Vision for Ministry” (starting on p. 8), which is really more a practical guide for social activism?

Obviously, the answer lies in what they affirm: neo-Evangelicalism (Driscoll’s choice of words is not accidental: “a new evangelical [neo-Evangelical] reformed confession of faith;” see above). How do we interpret Mark Driscoll’s statement in light of the foregoing: “The hope was to redefine a clear center for evangelicalism more akin to that previously articulated by men such as Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and Billy Graham”? What specific formulations take into account the diverse theological views of Schaeffer (premillennial Presbyterian, paedo-baptist), Stott (low church Anglican neo-evangelical opposed to the reformed faith, paedo-baptist), and Graham (Southern Baptist, neo-evangelical ecumenist, universalist; strongly opposed to the reformed faith)? Obviously, the common denominator between Stott and Graham is their advocacy of neo-Evangelicalism. Schaeffer did attend the Lausanne Conference in 1974, but objected to vital aspects of the final manifesto, the enduring monument of neo-Evangelical beliefs and practices (revised and supplemented at subsequent conferences).

We believe that on the contrary the two, at their best, are integral for grasping the meaning of the biblical gospel. The gospel is the declaration that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has come to reconcile individuals by his grace and renew the whole world by and for his glory.

How does God renew the whole world by and for his glory? They give some answers:

(p. 8 bottom) In this imbalance there is little emphasis on vigorous evangelism and apologetics, on expository preaching, and on the marks and importance of conversion/the new birth.

(p. 9 top) In this imbalance there is little or no emphasis on the importance of the work of justice and mercy for the poor and the oppressed, and on cultural production that glorifies God in the arts, business, etc.

(p. 9) b. For the common good. (read the whole passage).

(3) Creation of Humanity
Men and women, equally made in the image of God, enjoy equal access to God by faith in Christ Jesus and are both called to move beyond passive self-indulgence to significant private and public engagement in family, church, and civic life.

What do they mean by “significant public engagement in civic life”? How far should this go? Is this part of God’s mission and thus obligatory for all Christians? How is this mission defined? If some pastors/Christians choose to concentrate their efforts exclusively to propagate the Gospel, do they miss out on something which God has commissioned them to do? (The Theological Vision gives an affirmative answer — such a pastor/Christian exhibits a lack of compassion and is unjust; see below). Is “being unjust” a sin which needs to be confessed and remedied?

(8) The Justification of Sinners We believe that a zeal for personal and public obedience flows from this free justification.

How do they define “a zeal for public obedience”? What does it entail? If it is defined as “obedience to the state,” would that hold true under whatever form of government a state adopts? Are there exceptions? Is civil disobedience or even rebellion/secession ever an option? How far should we go to meet the criteria of being “zealous”? How exactly does the adherence to the doctrine of “free justification” engender “personal and public obedience”? Is the expression “personal and public obedience” a paraphrase for the doctrine of “sanctification”?

(9) The Power of the Holy Spirit
By the Spirit’s agency, believers are renewed, sanctified, and adopted into God’s family; they participate in the divine nature.

What do they mean by “participating in the divine nature”? Although these words are scriptural (2 Pet 1:4) they can be grossly and easily be misunderstood. They can’t mean that humans will be divine in some sense after they got saved (!). What do they mean then? Why is this not explained?

(10) The Kingdom of God
We believe that those who have been saved by the grace of God through union with Christ by faith and through regeneration by the Holy Spirit enter the kingdom of God and delight in the blessings of the new covenant: the forgiveness of sins, the inward transformation that awakens a desire to glorify, trust, and obey God, and the prospect of the glory yet to be revealed. Good works constitute indispensable evidence of saving grace. Living as salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world that is dark, believers should neither withdraw into seclusion from the world, nor become indistinguishable from it:

Where does this leave the biblical doctrine of separation? Is this “balanced view” not really another manifestation of the compromised stance of neo-Evangelicalism (as, for example, expressed in the Lausanne Covenant) whose thinly veiled emphasis placed on “social activism” Francis Schaeffer rightly criticized? In these “Foundational Documents” of The Gospel Coalition there are more explicit statements affirming the vision of neo-Evangelicalism. Clearly, there are doctrinal views expressed in the Confessional Statement which would be anathema to the current proponents of the original neo-Evangelicalism at Fuller Theological Seminary, or Billy Graham (universalist; no hell) and John Stott (annihilationist; no hell) for that matter. These days Fuller is fully endorsing and propagating the vision of the Emergent Church movement. Is this what will come out of The Gospel Coalition five or six years from now? Is the “broadly reformed” constituency of North America (the United States and Canada) being co-opted for something which they may not choose to get into if it would not be promoted by D. A. Carson and Tim Keller (and also John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Ligon Duncan, Philip Ryken, Mark Dever, et al)?

rather, we are to do good to the city,

Which NT verse could be quoted to justify this statement? I know, in the Theological Vision they explicitly refer to the verse in Jer. 29:7. (Interestingly enough, none of the paragraphs in the Confessional Statement contain a Scripture reference [proof-texting], as is customarily done in such summaries of Christian doctrines). That, however, is a reference to ancient Babylon, a city which has been wiped off the earth by God’s severe judgment many centuries ago. Do the other two references, given in the Theological Vision on p. 10, 1 Pet 1:1 and James 1:1, point to the fact that Christians “are in exile”? Is it hermeneutically legitimate to equate the Jew’s exile in Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar (God’s punishment on an idolatrous nation) to the Christian’s being strangers in this world? Do the verses in James 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:1 mean “God’s people are ‘in exile'”: “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” and “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia”?

… and because we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of God.

What does it mean to “do good to all”? Apparently, they don’t intend to follow the injunction of the Reconstructionists to take over the government of the city/state/world to force non-Christians to live by Christian ethical standards? But what exactly do they mean by seeking “significant cultural impact”? (Theological Vision, p. 9) They answer it on p. 12:

Such sharing also promotes a radically generous commitment of time, money, relationships, and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, and the economically and physically weak.

How is this different from the liberal “Social Gospel” program of old, or Rick Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan? How do we know when we have done enough to satisfy the standard of being “radically generous”?

e. The doing of justice and mercy. God created both soul and body, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both the spiritual and the material. Therefore God is concerned not only for the salvation of souls but also for the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice. The gospel opens our eyes to the fact that all our wealth (even wealth for which we worked hard) is ultimately an unmerited gift from God. Therefore the person who does not generously give away his or her wealth to others is not merely lacking in compassion, but is unjust.

If a Christian has neglected his alleged responsibility of “generously [giving] away his or her wealth to others” and be concerned about the well-being of the poor, is he guilty of not only exhibiting a fundamental “lack of compassion” but also being “unjust”? Is the definition of being “unjust” based on the Marxist notion of “social justice” or on a biblical understanding of “justice”?

… The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation.

Since the “kingdom of God” is being define as “the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation,” the words “already present” do certainly mean more in neo-Evangelical theology (see George E. Ladd’s discussion of the “Kingdom of God” in his NT Theology) than God’s rule over his church. But “not fully realized” introduces an element of progression. Under Point 13 they specify the time when the kingdom of God is “being fully realized”: Christ’s return. However, is the church charged to realize it fully before Christ can return? What is meant by “eventual redemption of all creation”? Do they have in mind not only what Rom. 8:19-22 says (which will be accomplished by Christ after the believers will have been glorified), but also the redemption of human society (see Theological Vision: “work of mercy and justice for the poor and the oppressed” and “cultural production that glorifies God”)? Is the church charged to be the agent of accomplishing the extension of “God’s sovereignty in the world” in addition to calling sinners to repentance and faith?

The Theological Vision gives further information on what they mean:

d. The integration of faith and work. The good news of the Bible is not only individual forgiveness but the renewal of the whole creation. God put humanity in the garden to cultivate the material world for his own glory and for the flourishing of nature and the human community. The Spirit of God not only converts individuals (e.g., John 16:8) but also renews and cultivates the face of the earth (e.g., Gen 1:2; Psalm 104:30).

Is the work of the Holy Spirit during NT times still that of “renewing and cultivating the face of the earth” as the two OT Scripture references indicate? Gen. 1:2 is clearly pointing to the time before the completion of Creation and certainly before the Fall. Is “hovering” identical in meaning with “renewing and cultivating” (see Gen 1:2; Psalm 104:30)? What exactly did the Holy Spirit renew before creation was completed? Ps 104:30 does speak of the renewing work of the Spirit but in the context of the creation of animals. How is this applicable to their conclusion: “Therefore Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good”?

… But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions.

If the Bible gives us clear guidelines which should help us to “think out the implications of the gospel” of how to exercise power in the public square (government), which of the diverse political model should then be chosen of those offered by politicians claiming to be Christians such as Reagan, Bush I & II, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, Obama? Or is there an altogether different model prescribed which none of these have implemented or intend to put into practice? Do the neo-Puritans, neo-Kuyperians, Reconstructionists, Latter Rain prophets, Social Gospel proponents, Christian Socialists (e.g., Tony Campolo, Ron Sider), White Supremacists, Moonies, Dominionists of all shades (e.g., Pat Robertson, Rick Warren) have the right answer? Who is going to decide? How will it be done? How will the “Christianized” laws be enforced on those who differ in their cultural and religious outlook if direct force is out of the question? What happens if Peter Drucker’s “communitarianism,” sold to the churches as an obligatory social activism (performance driven and rigorously assessed), is being adopted by the “broadly reformed” constituency as its ideal political and social program? Will we then get any closer to the final manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth?

(11) God’s New People We believe that God’s new covenant people have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem;

How do they define “heavenly Jerusalem,” if believers have already come to it in this life?

… already come to the heavenly Jerusalem; they are already seated with Christ in the heavenlies.

Is the meaning of “heavenly Jerusalem” and “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” really synonymous?

The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world.

How is the church’s “great mission” defined? Church history offers many different conceptions and practices of what that “great mission” should be? If we take the original neo-Evangelical formulation of the Lausanne movement as a guide, is it really true that social activism and church planting (“preaching of God’s word”) are on an even footing and equally fulfill the mission of the church? How should we, “above all,” show our love for God by our love for the world?

(12) Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
We believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordained by the Lord Jesus himself. The former is connected with entrance into the new covenant community, the latter with ongoing covenant renewal.

How is baptism “connected with entrance into the new covenant”? Baptismal regeneration, perhaps? Or maybe, believer’s baptism? Piper wouldn’t agree to the first interpretation, being a Baptist. How would Tim Keller, being a Presbyterian, interpret it?

How is the Lord’s Supper an “ongoing covenant renewal”? Can our covenant relationship to God wear out, and thus being in need of renewal? Do we really pledge something in baptism and communion — “our public vows of submission”?

(13) The Restoration of All Things We believe in the personal, glorious, and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ with his holy angels, when he will exercise his role as final Judge, and his kingdom will be consummated.

Who will be the agent “consummating” the kingdom? Is this an amillennial or a postmillennial summation of eschatology?

(p. 14) Theological Vision: They will emphasize repentance, personal renewal, and holiness of life. At the same time, and in the same congregations, there will be engagement with the social structures of ordinary people, and cultural engagement with art, business, scholarship, and government. There will be calls for radical Christian community in which all members share wealth and resources and make room for the poor and the marginalized. These priorities will all be combined and will mutually strengthen one another in each local church.

How is this different from what the neo-Evangelicals have preached for the past sixty years? Would Harold Ockenga or Carl Henry, the founding fathers of neo-Evangelicalism, have anything to object to in this entire paper? Incidentally, as I learned from listening to D. A. Carson’s presentation explaining the rationale for and the organization of the Gospel Coalition, the Henry Foundation put up the money for their first conference.

The Truth:

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine. . . “(2 Timothy 3:16a)

Dr. Martin Erdmann is the author of Building the Kingdom of God on Earth: The Churches’ Contribution to Marshal Public Support for World Order and Peace, 1919-1945 (Wipf & Stock, 2005)