Monday, May 12, 2008

The 21st Century "Gospel": Subtraction by Addition

A couple recent Christianity Today articles make me wonder if there is anything some creative author could propose is "the gospel" that a CT editor wouldn't publish.

In "A Multi-Faceted Gospel," Al Hsu makes some reasonable arguments. No man-made summary of the gospel is perfect. All have deficiencies. Scripture does use a kaleidoscope of images to paint a comprehensive picture of what God accomplished on behalf of his people. The problem with Hsu's argument emerges in this statement:
Indeed, some might criticize Jesus for not presenting the gospel comprehensively on every occasion. Sometimes he mentioned "eternal life" or "the kingdom of God." Other times he didn't. Sometimes he called for repentance, but not always. Jesus, and the New Testament writers who followed him, modeled cultural creativity and contextualization by telling the Good News in multiple ways: "Come, follow me." "The kingdom of God is at hand." "Jesus is Lord." "Repent and be baptized." "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." "For God so loved the world."
Hsu overlooks several essential aspects of an orthodox understanding of biblical revelation:

1. Biblical narratives are selective. The fact that only certain statements are recorded doesn't mean that's all that Jesus or another speaker actually said.
2. The Bible is a coherent book. It's the written Word of God. That means we have to take it as a unit—follow the metanarrative, if you will. We can't lift out one illustration or facet of what the gospel is or does and pretend that component stands on its own.
3. We have to let God define the gospel. So when God's Word tells us that certain truths are central to the gospel (as in 1 Corinthians 15, for example), those are the truths that must be present in our summaries of the gospel.
4. Just because a popular phrase has been around for a while doesn't mean it's actually a valid expression of the gospel. "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," and "I once was lost, but now am found" are not the gospel. That doesn't mean they're necessarily incompatible with the gospel, but they can't stand alone as the gospel.
5. "New approaches to the gospel," the products of creative attempts to communicate to changing culture, are only valid if they are faithful to genuine biblical concepts.

I fear that the end result of Hsu's proposal is the kind of "Open-Handed Gospel" advocated by Richard Mouw, also in Christianity Today. Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, tells the story of a rabbi who prayed for King Abdullah of Jordan. In response to that stirring event, Mouw writes:
I believe with all my heart that the God I worship, the God of Abraham, looked down on that scene, where a descendent [sic] of Isaac gave a blessing to a descendent [sic] of Ishmael, and smiled and said, "That's good! That's the way I want things to be!" I'm not entirely clear about how to work this into my theology, I confessed, but I'm willing to live with some mystery in thinking about that encounter.
I don't know exactly what Mouw means by that. I'm not sure he does. In fact, he seems to recognize he has no idea what he means. There is a sense in which I suppose the image of God in humanity distorts God's character less when non-Christians pray for each other than when they kill each other.

But that's not the argument Mouw is making. His argument is not that God's name is less sullied than it might otherwise be, but that he is genuinely and actively pleased.

It's this sleight-of-hand that enabled Mouw to attack a statement from John MacArthur's Ashamed of the Gospel earlier in his piece. The difference between Mouw and MacArthur is that MacArthur doesn't believe people can be converted if they knowingly and willfully reject doctrine that's at the heart of the gospel, while Mouw wants to believe that people can be both confused and converted.

I have to agree with Mouw's statement in the CT article that people can be confused about some pretty important doctrines and still be Christians. For example, I wouldn't suggest that only Calvinists can be saved. (John Piper made some great comments on that point recently, which I hope to share eventually.) But I simply don't agree that what Mouw is saying in CT is what ECT is all about. ECT is about consciously affirming common ground between professing evangelicals and Roman Catholics over mutually acceptable language, knowing all along that the Roman Catholic signatories assigned different meaning to the language than the participating evangelicals.

I don't mean to question Mouw's motives or, for that matter, Hsu's or the CT editors'. I simply see a great danger in where this magnanimous, lenient approach to biblical doctrine is taking Christianity. Though this kind of open hand appears at first to expose, broaden, and liberate the gospel, it's the very same open hand that throughout history has let the gospel slip away, dropped it in the dust, and eventually trampled on it.

1 comment:

J. Dale Weaver, M.Div. said...

Ben:

In contrast to my response to your last post, let me say that this post was quite good -- and right on.

Blessings,

J. Dale Weaver, M. Div.
www.mygration.blogspot.com