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The Gospel Coalition: Reprise and In Retrospect

The last few years, as events have warranted, I’ve offered various comments/observations on the Neo-Reformed kinds of theology so prominent these days among the younger evangelicals (a.k.a. “the young restless and the reformed“). I admit some of my observations have been pointed and have not been received well by some in that world. Nonetheless, several pastors and/or thinkers within that stream of evangelical church have been excellent theological dialogue partners for me. They, like myself, have a commitment to mission in our time. At this point in the church’s history in the West, we do not do theology from a presumed posture of power and or singularity. We work within theological streams humbly allowing God to forge and work from within these places for a new faithfulness. So we critique and engage each other charitably (the Rob Bell episode notwithstanding). We do it not to exclude necessarily. We do it to prod a faithfulness for the church in the face of its new cultural challenges.
Speaking of good Neo-Reformed dialogue partners, I count Darryl Dash as one of these. He made note recently (here) of a post I wrote almost two years ago. It reminded me of some fears I had then concerning the burgeoning Gospel Coalition. I offer it here below. I offer it not to merely reprise it but to look back at it in retropsect. Almost two years later now, I ask all the readers of reclaimingthemission.com –  were the fears articulated in this post justified? After all the events, video and frenzy surrounding various Neo-Reformed authors, bloggers, the Gospel Coalition, and its various conferences – have any of the tendencies talked about in this post indeed proven to be inherent in the theological trajectory that has been so characterized as the Neo-Reformed? Just asking. Here goes:

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There can be no doubt, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has been galvanizing many younger evangelicals to re-think their theology and practice (especially if it is of the Reformed variety.) I applaud this new theological energy. My question nonetheless is (given its moniker) will TGC be a force for coalition or expedition? “Coalition” describes the coalescing of a group of people or nations to agree on some understandings in order to defend some boundary or prepare for war (think Pres. Bush’s “coalition of the willing”). “Expedition” on the other hand, is the organizing of a group to adequately prepare for an exploration/adventure into unknown territory. Will TGC be a coalition for the hardening of some doctrinal lines in order to defend boundaries and/or launch an attack of some kind (say against others who don’t agree with its take on Reformed theology)? Or will TGC be a force for the preparation of missionaries (in doctrine and practice) to engage the unknown territories of the new cultures of post Christendom? Will TGC be a coalition or an expedition?

Ever since the publishing of Collin Hansen’s The Young, Restless, Reformed, a lot of attention has been drawn towards the revival of a Neo-Reformed theology among the younger evangelicals. In distinction from the pragmatic and the emerging responses (remember this) to the challenges of post Christendom/post modernity and the decline of evangelicalism in N America, the Neo Reformed groups have pressed for a return and renewal of protestant orthodoxy as the means towards renewal of the church. Main figures in this new push for a purer or more missional Reformed theology include David Wells, Al Mohler, John Piper, Don Carson, Mark Driscoll, Ed Stetzer and Tim Keller. Let me be explicit that I value and have learned much from each of these writers/thinkers/ preachers. I especially value what I have learned from Tim Keller and Ed Stetzer. Let me also say explicitly, I do not disavow the Reformation. We can no more write off the past 500 years any more than we can write off the patristic age and return to a purer “primitive” Christianity. Nonetheless, for the current cultural challenge – post Christendom/post modernity in the West – I am concerned that the approach of the Gospel Coalition is ill-suited to engage the cultural challenges of post-Christendom. Let me offer five statements that encapsulate what I think TGC might be implying in their work so far, even though they may not say it explicitly. I think, if true, each of these positions will inhibit, if not prohibit, TGC from being a cause for Christ in the engagement of the new post Christendom cultures of the West. TGC will then become more of a coalition than an expedition. So I am asking (with genuine concern) whether these statements are accurate to the positions as navigated by TGC or just the misconstrual of my Anabaptist fear laden projections?  Here are the statements:

1.) If We Purify Our Doctrine The Rest Will Follow. I have observed an impulse in the TGC that says if we just get our doctrine right (which means a certain version of Reformed orthodoxy), then mission and church renewal in post Christendom will follow. But at least in post Christendom (as it is in the N United States urban areas and Canada) this is not enough. This is not 16th century Europe where the majority Catholic population, under the influence of a corrupt Roman Catholicism, need doctrinal renewal. This is not the 1920’s N. America where the majority protestant mainline Christian population,  under the influence of a modernist liberalism, need doctrinal renewal. This is post Christendom territory where there are very few Christians of any kind left who have no doctrine to be renewed. If TGC then thinks doctrinal purity is the single issue, and leave it at that, they will be a coalition for retrenchment as opposed to an expedition for mission. (As some have suggested, this is already proving true in the SBC).

2.) We Must Return to the Reformation. Is the TGC seeking a return to the Reformation? The Reformation cannot be discounted, but neither can it be returned to. The Reformation was built on the back of Christendom. It gave birth to the Sola’s, especially Sola Scripture and Sola Fide which in their time called people to a renewed purity and personal commitment to the gospel. Today however, those same impulses, aligned with the Enlightenment, have given birth to a modernist individualism, Christian relativism, Cartesian rationalism and experientialism that later became modernity, protestant liberalism and indeed the current manifestations of evangelicalism that the TGC appears to be in critique of. We therefore must go beyond the Reformation, not back to it. We must be sober about the doctrinal problems of the Reformation that elevate the individual, isolate Scripture (as an authority and conceptual document) away from the church and a way of life. If TGC is only a call to a purer Reformed orthodoxy, it will be a coalition for retrenchment as opposed to an expedition for the advancement of the gospel into post Christendom.

3.) Woman Cannot Be Pastors. Is TGC seeking to enforce a particular reading of the NT that opposes the role of  women in authority within church ministry? I have observed the prominence of a particular view of women in ministry in the TGC. I would characterize this view as a.) based in an inerrancy view of the text, which b.) latches on to texts as if they were isolated units of universal teaching on women, which then c.) leads to a blindness to the NT’s overall elevation of women into ministerial authority in the church. To me, this robs the church of the new politic that was birthed in Jesus Christ. It robs our witness to the reconciled relationship born of Jesus Christ in the post-non-Christendom cultures. I personally have spoken against the egalitarian form of politics I believe has been adopted naively by some evangelical feminists at the expense of both women and Christian marriage. Nonetheless, I believe that the NT calls women into the full participation in the new authority of the Kingdom unleashed in the church (this means I affirm the full ordination of women). I believe the TGC will be impotent to engage the culture of post Christendom if it cannot give witness to the new new “politics of Jesus” in its gender politics. It will be a coalition for retrenchment versus an expedition for the advancement of Christ’s Mission in post Christendom.

4.) The New Perspective is Our Enemy. John Piper and Don Carson have energetically sought to dismantle the New Perspective on Paul (most notably here, here and here). I do not agree with everything written by Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, Wright etc. Nonetheless, I believe it is a mistake to see the New Perspective as the enemy (it’s not even that new any more). I believe there is much to learn from it.(I recommend everyone start with ch. 11 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and go from there).  The Reformation tendency has been to separate the justification of the individual in Christ (due to developments extending from the  Reformation) from the justice of God and the new social order God is inaugurating in the world thru Christ. As long as we keep doing this we will forever be conceptualizing the gospel and separating it from the life of the Triune God as worked out in His Mission. We then will be hindered from socially embodying the gospel in post-Christendom. Maybe even worse, emerging Christians will continue to make the error of separating social justice from the redemption of the individual in Christ. I think the New Perspective is not the enemy but a source of great insights for this much needed renewal of the gospel. If TGC makes the New Perspective the enemy, I believe this is another sign TGC is becoming a coalition for retrenchment not an expedition for Mission.

5.) The Mega Church Still Makes Sense.
Because of the above mentioned Reformed tendencies (exacerbated by American pragmatic evangelicalism) to individualize the gospel, to individualize the reading of Scripture, to individualize salvation, to separate doctrine from “way of life,” the Neo-Reformed do not see the problem of mega church for the future of church engagement with post-Christendom. Mega churches have worked well within Christendom’s modernity. Here the individual reigned supreme and the remainder of Christian culture lingered long enough to provide a foundation for masses of individuals to become Christians within large servicing organizations. Now however, with the lingering remainder of Christian culture gone, the gospel must take root in a social communal embodiment. Here is where the gospel can be seen, heard, understood, experienced by those completely foreign to our faith in Christ. This kind of communal embodiment is nigh impossible in mega sized organizations (although I think I’ve seen it at least once). Still, I see the Neo-Reformed enamored that good solid preaching and culturally relative apologetics will gather post-non-Christendom into its churches. I fear TGC then becomes a force for coalescing mega size preaching churches that preach to the already initiated. We in essence become a church that preaches to ourselves and in the process retrench from being expedited for Mission into post Christendom. (P.S. I still strongly believe in preaching!! As my writings and “the college of preachers” at our church will attest to).

A Call to The Neo-Anabaptist Missional Vision

For the reasons stated above, and indeed some more reasons I have not posted, I suggest that the Neo-Anabaptist Missional impulse is a viable alternative to the Neo-Reformed groups including TGC. For both historical reasons and theological reasons, I believe the Anabaptist Missional impulse has much to offer the dwindling churches of N America in engaging the new post Christendom cultures of the West. I include in this camp Alan Hirsch, Alan Roxburgh, Shane Claiborne, Neil Cole, Scot McKnight. I myself have tried to write to contribute to the furtherance of this vision. Tim Keller has characterized the Neo Anabaptists on this blog as follows: “… As you know, I think that the neo-Anabaptist missionals are a bit too rigid in what they are putting forth for the future, but its emphasis on process over program, ecclesial liturgy over experientialism, deep community, concern for the poor and justice, and contextualization-are all quite right. and traditional mega churches don’t see this.” I agree with Tim Keller on his description, including the being “a bit too rigid” part. Such statements however encourage me to believe that Neo Reformed and Neo Anabaptist should be in dialogue together to further Christ’s Kingdom (some of my best friends are Neo-Reformed :)). So I am open to dialoguing and even being proven wrong on the five positional statements above that I suspect the Gospel Coalition of advocating. Where am I right? Where am I wrong?