Progressive versus conservative evangelical spats are one of the very worst things about Twitter, which is really saying something. Such arguments illustrate just how poor a medium Twitter can be for productive conversation, not least on account of its tendency to foreground some of the shrillest and most antagonistic voices on both sides and privilege reactive instinct over considered response. What results is generally more of a predictably polarizing exercise in group psychology than an illuminating exchange. The issues get lost behind the personalities, the party politics, the outrage-mongering, and the emotionality and, rather than making progress, we all end up that bit more alienated from and frustrated by each other.
This is extremely unfortunate, not merely because of the animosity it excites, but also because issues of no small importance become snarled up in the instinctive antagonisms and alignments of a crowd of people who really shouldn’t be in the same room. The form of historic communications media meant that participation in theological discourse was generally heavily restricted to people with extensive learning or significant qualifications, to people who were expected to be able to defend their claims without erecting human shields around them, and to people who were subject to a code of discourse. By contrast, the Internet gives prominence to people who lack either the learning, the self-mastery, or the character to engage in a calm and effective conversation. It gives the young, the popular, and the polarizing an unhealthily high profile. It also has the unfortunate tendency to bring out the worst in people who actually have something to say that is worth hearing.
It is easy to blame individuals for this. However, this is exactly what we should expect when we radically democratize theological discourse. It is also exactly what we should expect when we put a lot of people with very different personalities, beliefs, and levels of intelligence and learning in one single place without clear boundaries between them. A few exceptional people can keep their cool and think non-reactively in such settings. But most, even among highly intelligent and learned people, can’t. The medium is not a healthy one and, save in the case of unusual people who have developed strong antibodies to its dysfunctional tendencies, most people will fall prey to its disease. Indeed, the prevailing culture will usually be one dominated by people who have succumbed to the disease. Every time I briefly revisit Twitter, I am struck by how much it is has become a vast exercise in trench warfare between hostile sides, each demonizing and hating the other. And that this posture infects even many of the best people on all sides.
Seeing worthy conversations lying beaten and bruised on the side of the road of social media, I think we ought often to have mercy upon them, tend their wounds, give them shelter in our inns, and send them restored upon their way. The conversation about evangelicalism and the gospel occasioned by Tim Keller’s recent tweet is a case in point:
The uncharitable and reactive tendencies of the Internet were powerfully evidenced in the conversation around this tweet, along with many failures in basic comprehension and Christian charity. The perennial discussion about the meaning of the term ‘evangelical’ was rolled out again, this time in the context of racial polarizations that have escalated on all sides in the social media climate, in no small measure on account of the dysfunctional character of Twitter’s conversational terrain, which rewards outrage, privileges words to the eclipsing of actions and character, and, on account of its alienation from locality and particularity, privileges totalizing ideology and absolutized political antagonisms over prudence, compromise, collaboration, and the humanization of people who disagree with us. Those wondering at the growing sickness of our social life might want to consider the possibility that one of the contributing factors is that we have built our virtual neighbourhood on a swamp. Until we all begin to appreciate that the context of social media itself is one of the greatest enemies to a productive conversation about race (among many other issues), and consider contexts that are more conducive to conversations that make progress, we will only become more alienated from each other.
In Jonathan Leeman’s TGC post, the response to the discussion swirling around Keller’s tweet plays out in a manner that will be familiar to most of us, with a careful articulation of the relationship between corporate and individual, social and personal, dimensions of the gospel, distinguishing between the primary and the secondary problems it addresses, and calling for the importance of maintaining ‘gospel unity’ by protecting Christian liberty.
Leeman makes several important points along the way, perhaps especially when it comes to the need for charity surrounding political differences. There is a huge need to properly maintain the prudential character of political judgment in the contemporary context. On the one hand, people too easily render Christian political duty partisan or conflate ends with means. For instance, the concern for the poor that all of us must show should not be confused with the duty to support particular prudential policies, which are often unwise or misguided, even when driven by good motives. Conversely, our opponents’ support of policies that may end up hurting the poor may be a result of ignorance or failure to consider their unintended effects.
It is imperative that we recover the issue of prudence in our political discourse. This will cool down our arguments by helping us to appreciate that people with whom we strongly differ on questions of means can substantially agree on questions of ends and in substance of character. It will force us to engage closely with the arguments for and against specific policies, rather than assuming that our good intentions will suffice to ensure their efficacy. More generally, a form of politics that focuses on contextual prudence of judgment, rather than correctness of abstract totalizing ideology (and implied moral virtue), forces us to be attentive to the complexity and specificity of reality in ways that tends to blunt ideological stridency.
All of this is a very lengthy preamble to the issue that I particularly wish to highlight briefly here: the question of the meaning of the term ‘gospel’. This, I believe, is an area of weakness for most evangelicals—somewhat ironically, because the term ‘gospel’ is so central to our theological self-expression.
Andrew Perriman puts his finger on the problem here: the squabbles between progressive and conservative evangelicals are compounded in large measure by our forgetfulness about the particularity of ‘the gospel’. In our world, ‘gospel’ has become a heavily-charged floating signifier, which has become unmoored from its biblical particularity. Christians can treat the specificity of the biblical narrative as if it were a launch pad from which the rocket of a universal and deracinated ‘Gospel’ were propelled into the orbit of the earth. While the biblical narrative is one of a very particular people and God’s historical dealings with them, the ‘Gospel’ is a departicularized and dehistoricized declaration of justification by grace through faith alone for the individual in need of salvation. The word ‘gospel’ then becomes attached to all sorts of other terms in various forms, to give them an added oomph of piety (e.g. ‘gospel-centred’).
Yet this doesn’t work. The biblical gospel is a highly particular message. It is a message that comes at the fulness of time, to a particular people, and has a highly specific context and content. It isn’t about a timeless mode of salvation or a universal soteriology of grace, but about the particular declaration that God has visited his people in the Messiah, bringing forgiveness and judgment to Israel, that his kingdom has been inaugurated and that it will be established over the whole world. All of this is summed up in the gospel proclamation: ‘Jesus is Lord!’
While forgiveness and restoration in fellowship with God for persons of all nations is an implication of ‘the gospel’, the gospel itself is the declaration of God’s reign in Israel’s Messiah. The forgiveness spoken of in the gospels is primarily a forgiveness extended to the people of Israel, not to detached individuals of all nations. It is about God’s gracious restoration of his people.
The story of the Church, in its turn, grows out of the story of Israel and does not cease to be a story rooted in and springing out of that particularity. As Gentiles, we are grafted into the olive tree of Israel, which isn’t simply the tree of personal salvation (God-fearers outside of Israel were saved in the old covenant), but the tree of God’s chosen people. We are saved by Israel’s Messiah, as part of the seed of Abraham by faith in the Christ. We are, at the fulness of the ages, made members of the people of the Messiah, anticipated since the world began. In all of this, God is addressing the cosmic crisis, but he is addressing it from a very particular place within the cosmos.
The salvation announced by Christ and his apostles in the first century AD, furthermore, was articulated primarily against the horizon of judgment in AD70, rather than the final judgment, or even against the personal eschatological horizon of death. This doesn’t mean that those horizons are absent or unimportant, just that they aren’t anywhere near as prominent as most believe that they are.
Once we take all of this into account, what evangelicals typically term ‘the gospel’ doesn’t merely vanish in a puff of biblical theology. Certainly not! However, it is decentred, placed against the backdrop of a far greater canvas, in which the historical, particular, and cosmic character of God’s salvation are far more clearly perceived. We must also learn to speak of it in different, more carefully chosen, terminology. Individual conversion is part of a much bigger picture and not the central element of it. Again, this doesn’t mean that we stop calling people to repentance and faith, or that we simply jettison our theologies of grace. It means that we must more correctly situate them and not lose sight of the bigger picture, nor of the ways in which the gospel is about catching us up into a greater story, rather than merely impacting upon and turning around our individual narratives.
Again, as we appreciate this, we will be better situated to consider questions of ‘social justice’. Both progressive and conservative evangelical accounts of the gospel get us off on the wrong foot here. Jesus’ message was neither a generic message of social justice, nor a generic message of individual salvation. It was a message deeply rooted in the particularity of Israel’s life, history, and peoplehood. This particularity can be a stumbling stone both to conservatives, who desire a universal message for individual salvation, untethered from historical particularity. It can also be a stumbling block to progressives, who desire a message of social justice freed from the unwelcome particularity of the gospel message, which prioritizes a particular peoplehood and ethical mainspring in ways that cause problems for the universalism and religious deracination of the liberal sentimental humanitarianism it seeks to underwrite, also establishing tensions with the secular political movements with which it seeks to align itself.
Great post. Earlier this year, I enjoyed your multi-part postings on eternal subordination after Twitter and the blogospheres cooled down. It demonstrated a charitable way we can walk forward with the technological mediums we have created to seek clarity.
Tangential to Keller’s recent post, a big Twitter spat in the states came over the definition “evangelical” a day or two ago. Karen Swallow Prior was at the center of it, deftly dodging slings and arrows. She spoke to the historical and British significance of the term dating back hundreds of years. I’m curious, what meaning does the word “evangelical” take in Britain? Is it as loaded with connotations there as it is here?
The term ‘evangelical’ definitely isn’t as politically loaded in the UK as it is in the US. However, its meaning really isn’t as neatly theological as people might like it to be. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the meaning of the term is as much cultural as anything else. I also compare and contrast UK and US connotations of the term to some extent.
I read the treatise on evangelicalism and was impressed by the angle you chose to engage the subject. As always, I come away better for having read you. I do have a few questions about your treatise that will, hopefully tie into this post so I’m not dragging you into left field, or as one might say in Britain, deep extra cover. (I doubt Brits really say such things)
My question- Is Evangelicalism the rebellious child of magesterial Protestantism as you claim, or is it the child who was taught Nominalism / Divine Command Theory from an early age and grew into the logical ‘fullness of times’ of these philosophies? You admit that Protestantism has always struggled with mediation, and I agree. But I wonder if the radical, individual, egalitarian struggle we see in Evangelicalism isn’t the most natural fruit grown from nominal seeds sown in the reformation. To quote Lewis, has magisterial Protestantism “removed the organ and demanded the function,” from it’s wayward child? Does the blame for Evangelicalism need to move back farther? I’m sure you’ve addressed this in detail so a link would be fine.
Thank you, again, for your patience and involvement win your readers.
Thanks for the response, Patrick.
I’m generally disinclined to give ideas quite as much determinative power as others do. Ideas can be powerful, but they need paths to move on, paths that are generally provided by social and technological conditions and other such things, a conviction that lies behind my recent ‘The Strangeness of the Modern Mind’ post.
In some ways this is like discussions about young boys and girls being shaped by the ‘messages’ that society gives them. The real question should be why particular messages receive so ready a reception and why they have so much traction. Rather than pointing the finger of blame at nominalism, I suspect social and technological conditions probably explain more.
Thanks for the link to the booklet. I will read a page every three days to satiate my appetite while I wait until summer 2019 for your gender tome, “Heirs Together.”
Yes, Alastair, I was sad to notice recently that the release date for Heirs Together is now pushed back to summer 2019. Did you find yourself having less time to devote to the book than you previously expected, or is the book itself requiring more time than you expected? Or can you comment on that? 😉
I am not sure whether that date is set in stone. They should have the full manuscript in the next couple of months.
Although your post seems to be targetted at the febrile protest – ants in the USA, and your fecund use of “z” in spelling, and I seem to fall within the category of people you rebuff in your prologue, for want of expertise, want of learning, I don’t think your summation of the evangel does justice to your broad and deep reading of scripture, or even to your excellent first comment on the Virgin Birth on the MF podcast, which, in my view, could not be gainsaid by any evangelical (but that is to state that the virgin birth of Jesus is an irreducible part of the Christian evangel).
Perhaps I’ve misread, but to seek to reduce, or seek to limit the scope of the Good News of Jesus Christ, to the flow of history of Israel, to tether the Good News thereto, seems go against much of your writings. At the outset, from Genesis, pre- Israel, including the calling of Abram from Ur of the Chaldees, including the spreading out from Eden, is there not a far wider remit for the Gospel, than the history of a nation, and is this not exemplified in the comparison and contrast between the first and last Adam, between an old and new humanity. Is not the Great Commission a repetition and extension of the Genesis remit to fill the earth and the book of Acts demonstration of the beginning of that filling of the earth with a new humanity and the spread of the Kingdom, pre AD 70, and post AD 70 spread to gentiles? I clearly stand to be corrected. I do not see how any of the wider view of the Good News, uproots it from any or all of the Old Testament and fulfilment in Emmanuel.
Indeed, you have written extensively on the Exodus motif in scripture.
By the way, wasn’t Keller’s highlighted tweet, perhaps a misstep by him to use twitter, instead of referencing his fuller NYTimes article. (I’m not on twitter so I could be well wide of the mark here.)
Thanks for the comment, Geoff. The point is not to ‘limit’ or ‘reduce’ the meaning of the gospel. Against any who think that the approach I am highlighting limits or reduces the gospel, my intent is to show that the gospel is much greater than people believe it to be. But, more particularly, my concern is that the gospel is grounded, rather than being a free-floating thing, detached from time and space.
Yes, the gospel relates to the entire cosmos, in the ways that you mention (and which I have explored in detail on many occasions). However, it does so from a very particular point within the cosmos, within a concentric frame of reference. The gospel is a development of Israel’s story.
P.S. I use -ize because I prefer Oxford spelling.
Many thanks, Alastair. Well said. Too many z-z-z-z’s induce sleep. I thought you were practizing for your new role.
Thank you for your typically careful discussion on the nature of the gospel. In a sense, I agree with much of what you said.
My one qualification or push back (I’m not sure which it is), would be, I think that you’re defining the gospel from a biblical theology perspective, not a systematic theology perspective. Hence, you emphasized the highly particular and Jewish nature of the message, as it developed through the biblical storyline. Hence, you also de-centered conversion and placed that in perspective of God’s larger and grander work of redemption and rule. And that’s exactly what biblical theology is for.
Systematic theology, as I understand it, has a little more flexibility. It’s more context-sensitive and possesses a larger pastoral burden (“This is what you must do to be saved”; “Here’s how I would encourage you, Mrs. Jones, following your miscarriage”; etc.). It begins with the needs of the moment, asks the questions of the moment, and then turns to the Scripture for answers. When it turns to Scripture, it must rely upon biblical theology to find its answers, yes. But it’s allowed to answer whatever questions it wants to ask.
The difference can almost be likened to topical preaching (systematic) and expositional preaching (biblical). Topical starts with a question: “what makes for a good marriage?” And then it searches out answers in Scripture. Expositional preaching starts with a text: “what does Mark chapter 4 say?” And then it seeks to make applications (e.g. “what does this mean for our marriages?”
Now, I am not a huge fan of topical preaching as the regular diet of a church. But I do have plenty of room for both biblical and systematic theology generally, and I think there’s room for both a biblical theology version of the gospel (e.g., creation, fall, redemption, glorification–through all the particularity of Israel) and a systematic theology version (e.g., God, man, Christ, response, people) specifically. Those two versions are motivated by different burdens and offer overlapping but unique gifts to the church. We need both.
To put it another way that I’m sure you’re familiar with, your burdens were clearly to present the gospel with diachronic sensitivity. Yet I don’t think every presentation of the gospel needs to do that. I think it can pronounce itself according to its synchronic demands.
I pray this is useful. I really should not be on my computer at all this week for the sake of the family. So I probably won’t be able jump into a long conversation with you over this, but I did want to offer that one thought. Blessings to you. Grateful for your always careful work and the ways you invariably instruct me. Merry Christmas!
Thanks for your characteristically gracious response, Jonathan. Even when we disagree, it is always a pleasure to interact with you.
As you probably suspect, I am in wholehearted agreement with you on the importance of the questions that the Christian message raises for each and every person here and now, and of the need to accent these appropriately in our theology and pastoral ministry. I also believe that a certain form of theology that synthesizes elements of biblical teaching and reveals the shape of the whole scriptural testimony is greatly needed. That said, I am critical of much of what I see to be the abstractions of theology in the more modern era, which can construct a sort of self-standing edifice out of the teaching of Scripture, substituting for the narrative form of the biblical witness, rather than serving more as a guidebook for the itinerary of the text.
We would need to discuss this more extensively, but I suspect that we have some important differences when it comes to articulating the relationship between systematic and biblical theology. Perhaps this is related to the fact that neither topical nor expositional preaching are my preferred form of preaching, at least not as they usually function. My preferred approach is figural preaching, which generally relates the Christian with the teaching of the text rather differently from these other approaches. Topical preaching tends to bring our world to the world of the text, searching the latter for points where it might speak across the divide. Expositional preaching articulates the world of the text to our world and seeks for ways in which the teaching of the text jumps across the gap. In contrast with both approaches, figural reading is about situating and orienting contemporary hearers of the text within the world of the text, as their true world.
When the modern hearer of the text is related to the text in such a manner, ‘systematic’ theology will assume a rather different character from that which it assumes for those operating with the expositional or topical approach. Among other things, we learn from the text which questions we should be asking in the first place. Our world no longer sets the terms, but we find our world within the world narrated by the text. One result of this is a resistance to abstraction from the particularity of the text, as the meaning is in the interplay of particularities, rather than in a realm of abstractions.
The meaning of the text for our lives is not found through abstraction from its particularities to discover universally applicable truth, but as we are oriented in relation to them in the interplay of differences and similarities. A common process of reasoning from the text involves grammatical-historical interpretation, isolation and abstraction of principles, followed by application of those abstracted principles to our different situation. The figural approach is more like reading the original text, situating the hearer within the world opened up by the text, and exploring and developing the ‘musical’ interaction between the text and the situation of its hearer, with all its moral import. While expositional and topical approaches also use analogy, their analogies are primarily abstract stepping stones for principles to cross the river between the world of the text and the world of the hearer, while the analogies emphasized by figural readings are theologically objects in their own right, about recognizing the world of the text as our world.
While it should be clear that I am not coming at this from the angle of those you address in your article—and I share many of the concerns that you express about such positions—our differences are important here, I believe. I agree that the gospel can be appropriately expressed in ways that downplay the Jewish background and focus upon its direct relevance to the hearer here and now. However, this is about its proximate significance, rather than about ‘synchronic demands’. This difference matters because the former connects the person to an event and history far larger than they yet realize, but which they can grow into, while the latter tends to abstract from the history to establish a departicularized message of universal relevance.
I don’t believe that our concerns are mutually exclusive. However, I believe that the form in which you seek to maintain your important concerns is one that tends to marginalize what I believe needs to be foregrounded.
Thanks again for the interaction. Please don’t feel any need to respond. Have a wonderful Christmas!
Thank you for the link. I read you little treatise on evangelicalism and this (cough cough) Reformed Baptist enjoyed it immensely and it left me much to ponder. Who would you recommend I read on figural interpretation? Radner’s new work? Anyone else? Thank you, as always, for democratizing your blog and letting us lay folk have a small part of the conversation. How else would Mr. Leeman have a platform? 😂 I kid, I kid.
Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis isn’t a bad place to start.
Or to invoke and invert the old American Western, I think there’s room enough in this town for the both of us!
I have serious issues with this post, and I asked the question elsewhere. I’ll give it to you here, just copy-and-pasted. I’d like to see what you have to say about it:
Why is he against an interpretation of the gospel as “a universal message for individual salvation, untethered from historical particularity” (his words)?
Isn’t that the opposite of our command from Christ himself to teach people to observe all he has commanded us (let’s call that “the gospel”) and make “disciples” (a term that implies individual action) of “all nations” (a phrase that implies universality), and doesn’t that coda of “I am with you always, until end of the age” imply something that is untethered from its historical particularity?
In other words, what the hell is this guy talking about? And I mean that literally.
I have little to no connection to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. I’m not an Israelite. If “the gospel” is, as he describes it, “forgiveness spoken of in the gospels is primarily a forgiveness extended to THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL [emphasis in original], not to detached individuals of all nations,” and if the gospel only exists “against the horizon of judgment in AD70, rather than the final judgment, or even against the personal eschatological horizon of death,” and if the gospel is only “to a particular people” [i.e., not me personally], then I think I really don’t care about “the gospel” at all. Why would I? Every answer that would make me care is just turning his answer into a universal message of individual salvation untethered from historical particularity.
If “the gospel” doesn’t help an individual person face “death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humankind” (which are “eschatological” things), then who cares about the gospel?
To me, it seems he’s trying to bridge a “middle ground” between conservatives and liberal Christians, and just ends up with nothing. He’s trying to be so middle-ground-y, that I think he’s verging on outright heresy.
Thanks for the comment.
I am not sure whether you are familiar with my blog, or my writing more generally. If you were, I’d be surprised if you thought I was about trying to split the difference between liberals and conservatives. A recurring theme here is that our reactive partisanship is a barrier to attentiveness and responsiveness to the text and that we need to be people who challenge and are challenged by our friends to greater faithfulness. What conservative and liberal Christians say and how I stand relative to each really is a distinctly secondary concern to me: my primary concern is to give a truthful reading of Scripture. Besides, the people I’m primarily interacting with here are all my friends: Jonathan Leeman (who has commented in this thread) is a correspondent, Tim Keller has been on our podcast, and I write for TGC.
The key words in my claim that the gospel is not ‘a universal message for individual salvation, untethered from historical particularity’ are ‘untethered from historical particularity.’ The gospel is a message for the entirety of humanity, yet it is a message to the Jew first, a message that begins in Jerusalem, and that is in continuity with, rooted in, and climactic for the history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. We declare Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth to be the world’s true Lord, but he is the Messiah of Nazareth, his saving work inseparably bound up with the reality that he is a Jewish man, the Son of David, and the one in whom Israel’s destiny is fulfilled.
Qualifiers really matter in this entire conversation. If people had paid more attention to the ‘primarily’ in Keller’s tweet, for instance, a great deal of confusion and anger could be avoided. The qualifiers in my post are no less important:
Perhaps Keller and I just need to drop the word ‘primarily’ from our vocabularies and surrender attempts at nuance altogether! It doesn’t seem to register to many on the Internet. 🙂
But then there is also the insertion of qualifiers where they don’t belong. For instance, in your statement: ‘if the gospel is only “to a particular people” [i.e., not me personally].’ But this isn’t what I said. The gospel was addressed to Israel in particular, as the message of the promised Messianic kingdom. It was Israelites who were baptized by John in the Jordan in preparation. It was the towns of Israel that Christ went around with his disciples. Jesus was declared to be the King of the Jews, the Son of David. The gospel is to the Jew first and also to the Greek: we belong to the ‘also’, to those plugged into a people that we do not belong to by nature. While he is also the King of kings and Lord of all, he is Lord of all as the one who brings salvation from Jerusalem. The deliverance of the cross isn’t an event in some timeless ‘theo-space’, but a concrete event in the history of a particular nation, occurring in the fulness of time at a climactic moment of deliverance and judgment for that nation, with implications for every creature under heaven.
Does the message of the gospel present a way in which Gentiles in 2017 can be delivered from sin, death, and final judgment and find forgiveness and restored fellowship with God? Most definitely! But the message that does this is one that finds its theological epicentre in first century Palestine.
I am not very familiar with this blog, but I had no problem with Tim Keller’s tweet. I actually agree with it completely. And I thought you were distinguishing between liberals and conservative christians because you said, “This particularity can be a stumbling stone both to conservatives . . . [and] . . . to progressives . .” in your last paragraph.
And just so you can understand me, you claim that when you say “addressed to Israel IN PARTICULAR,” that this is something different than “addressed ONLY to Israel, and not me since I’m not an Israelite.” Even as you explain how it’s different, all I am seeing is that its the same. As I look it up, I see that the first definition of “particular” as an adjective is “used to single out an individual member of a specified group or class” (the one I’m using) and the second one is “especially great or intense” (the one you seem to be using). As a noun, (which is the way you’re using it, because it’s the noun of the prepositional phrase “in particular”) has two definitions: “an individual item, as contrasted with a universal quality” and “a detail.” Neither of which applies to the thing you’re trying to say.
So,I hope you realize that many of your readers are receiving a completely different message than what you seem to be trying to say.
Also, I have a hard time believing that “The salvation announced by Christ and his apostles in the first century AD, furthermore, was articulated primarily against the horizon of judgment in AD70, rather than the final judgment, or even against the personal eschatological horizon of death.”
John 11 (among other places) doesn’t really line up with that. Jesus seems to be giving an individual person something very specific regarding the personal eschatological horizon of death when he says “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
If the salvation announced by Christ and his apostles was articulated PRIMARILY against the horizon of judgment in AD7o and NOT the final judgment (even though its mentioned in John 11, Isaiah 66, Matthew 25, 2 Timonthy 4, and other places), and is NOT articulated against the personal eschatological horizon of death (even though its mentioned in John 3:16, 2 Corinthian 4, John 11, Luke 23:43), then how do we deal with the fact that pretty much nobody talks about it other than Jesus when he prophesied about it? It doesn’t seem to make much sense.
And I completely agree that the death of Jesus isn’t “an event in some timeless ‘theo-space’” Because I don’t know what that even is. Of course it happened in a particular time and place. But… so what? If someone asks “what must I do to be saved” it seems you would be against giving them a timeless mode of salvation or a universal doctrine of salvation like the grace offered through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Something like “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Instead, it seems you would have to have them take a class about 1st century Judaism. I’m not a fan of that.
Thanks for the response.
I share Keller’s criticisms of the people he is challenging. He is addressing a real danger. My concern is more with the framing that tends to produce the sort of debates he is weighing into. I highlighted problems for both conservatives and progressives, not because I want to carve out some ‘middle ground’, but because both tend to go wrong at specific points and we need to get things right. You don’t find truth by splitting the difference between two errors.
I have no doubt that you well understand the difference between something being addressed particularly to someone and something addressed only to someone when it is illustrated. For instance, almost every book of the New Testament is addressed to some party in particular who isn’t us, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t for us also. However, it does mean that at times we need to be alert to the fact that we are reading someone else’s mail. Christ is the king of the Jews in a way that he isn’t the king of the Americans; yet, his Lordship is over America too. ‘In particular’ as I am using it is a synonym of ‘specifically’ or ‘especially’ and I want to capture both of those senses. While I suspect a number of readers may share your misgivings about my position more generally, not seeing how it squares with certain important commitments, I don’t think that my use of the phrase ‘in particular’ has anything to do with it, at least not at the level of proper use of language. The problem lies elsewhere.
Once again, you are using the term ‘primarily’ as if it carried a sense closer to ‘exclusively’. It doesn’t, at least not in my use of it. Perhaps this is a regional language issue, because I’ve been bewildered by the confusion surrounding both Keller’s and my uses of this term. My claim that Christ and his apostles articulated salvation primarily against the horizon of judgment in AD70 was never a claim that they didn’t ever articulate it against the horizon of death or the very final judgment. In fact, I made that point explicit: ‘This doesn’t mean that those horizons are absent or unimportant, just that they aren’t anywhere near as prominent as most believe that they are.’
I believe that every New Testament writer—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude—writes against the horizon of AD70 and refers to it in some manner or other. They are all aware of the fact that, in some sense, they are living in the last days and that Christ is soon to return, before the end of the generation of his first disciples dies out. This didn’t mean that this was the only horizon that they were looking forward to: there was still the general resurrection, for instance. However, it was the immensely significant horizon that was rapidly approaching, and an event of immense theological significance, the seal and culmination of Christ’s inauguration of the new covenant. Substantiating this claim would take us far beyond the scope of a comment thread, but this is a specific claim I would be happy to substantiate at some point when the time and space is afforded to me.
If you want to tell people about Jesus, you have to give them some degree of instruction about first century Judaism. The fact that much of the historical and theological background is culturally familiar to us might blind us to this fact. This doesn’t mean that they need to know much in order to be saved: some may know hardly anything at all. However, if you want to know who Jesus is, you need to learn about first century Judaism. You need to learn who the Messiah was. You need to know who characters like Abraham, Moses, and David are. You need to know what the Passover and the Exodus were. You need to understand the significance of the Law. You need to know why the Jews were a special people. You need to know why Jerusalem was significant, and the significance of places such as Bethlehem. You need to know about Old Testament prophecy and the expectations of the Jewish people. You need to know about the Romans and their relationship to the Jewish people and their leaders. You need to know about the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the Temple. You need to know where Gentiles stood relative to God. Etc., etc. And the more that you understand about the particular first century Jewish context into which Jesus came and the more you present a Messiah who functions in the heat and the dust of Roman-occupied Palestine, the better equipped you are to understand who Jesus of Nazareth was and how we can be saved through his work.
Hi Alastair- just one small point. I use ‘primarlly’ to mean ‘firstly’ but I see that some dictionaries define it as ‘mainly’. I have never come across it used to mean ‘exclusively’. Don’t give up using it 🙂
I thought that Tim Keller made a value judgement in that tweet. and I am not surprised that some people did not share that judgement. Isn’t the cross-section of people in a parish church a microcosm of the cross-section on twitter? Also the interpersonal dynamics? I do agree with you that twitter can be a bad medium for fruitful discussions. At our local church people do form alignments but of course we never have a situation where, for instance, 1K people speedily indicate that they agree or disagree with something the vicar just said! As for twitter, I’d love to know what God thinks of us all!
I imagine that there are rather a lot of parallels between the dynamics of social media and the interpersonal dynamics of a local church. Social media simply scales up those dynamics to a previously unseen level!
It certainly does!
I enjoyed reading this, as well as your comments to Leeman. The notion of figural interpretation seems to hew close to where we need to be, although with a leaning towards biblical theology. During the 10-15 years that I was in evangelicalism (PCA), I observed little emphasis on biblical theological interpretation or on figural interpretation. Sermons in that context generally had more systematic theological feel, which was often heavily influenced by the cultural disposition of the minister.
I’m also interested in your forthcoming book on gender. My views are largely in line with those expressed by Michael Hannon in his FT pieces from a few years back. I found your and Matt’s responses to be unpersuasive. Both seemed to rely on the assumption that heteronormativity (and its concomitant social hierarchies) are inherent in the biblical text. I’ll concede that the biblical text assumes a general complementarity between male and female. But I don’t see that complementarity as suggesting any sort of necessary social embodiment. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. It simply means that Scripture permits a number of ways in males can be men and a number of ways in which females can be women. Thus, I would argue that complementarity is a rather broad concept, and does not necessarily suggest the kind of neo-Freudian heteronormativity that we see in the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement. I fear that evangelicals, in an effort to counter the progressive tendency to make gender an infinitely malleable term, have opted for an overly rigid and inflexible construal of gender. One of the reasons why I left evangelicalism was due to a persistent tendency by churches and leaders to view my asexuality as a sinful condition. And, yes, if Scripture indeed teaches heteronormativity (and the corollary concept of compulsory heterosexuality), then asexuality is indeed a sinful condition. But it seems awfully hard to square that judgment with Jesus’ singleness and Paul’s admonitions in I Corinthians 7.
I’ve criticized the sort of evangelical tendencies that you mention. There should not be a one-size fits all approach to these things; there is considerable variety in manhood and womanhood in Scripture. However, manhood and womanhood nonetheless remain meaningful concepts in the biblical world and there are a number of ways in which people can fall short of the full stature of manhood and womanhood.
There are also differences between norms and exceptions. Asexuality is an exception. Going through life unmarried is an exception. This doesn’t mean that these things are sinful or even ‘wrong’ in other weaker senses, but it does mean that they are not the norm and that a society in which they were made the norm, or in which they radically relativized that which is the norm, would not be a healthy one. There can be a duty to uphold the norm, while also upholding the legitimacy and importance of attending to the exceptions. However, this really isn’t the thread for such a discussion.
Some further thoughts.
1 You seem to have two styles of writing: first when you initially post, which seems to address topics from an academic level with typical language, sometimes in the use of the abstract (even in this post); second, your responses to comments made, which are no less intelligent, but are far clearer, and leave far less room for misunderstanding and set out your position with greater precision. An example would be your response to The Jones.
2 This also comes across in recordings. Compare the Davenant recordings with what I found to be a stunning, succinct, flowing, readily understandable, initial contribution, on the MF podcast on the Virgin Birth. It would be difficult to better and I’d recommend it to anyone, everyone, including you.
3 I’m surprised at the seeming continued division between systematic and biblical theology, after all the teaching from Goldsworthy, Clowney, Keller, Carson and many others and emphasis on Christ Centred preaching from all the scriptures. There are some (could I suggest Sinclair Ferguson – though he may not appreciate his name being put forward) who seem to seamlessly weave both together. His recent talks on his book “The Whole Christ” on the Marrow Controversy, on RC Sproul’s site Renewingthemind are masterclasses on Union with Christ and all that entails.
4 Figural reading. You said this above,
“ the analogies emphasized by figural readings are theologically objects in their own right, about recognizing the world of the text as our world.” It is indeed our world. The Wisdom literature exemplifies the point.
When you emphasise Israel, are you not at risk of moving away from figural reading – well it’s not really figural, but is concrete,- that the true Israel of God, the true faithful Son, the singular remnant. is…Jesus and in our union with Him, we are also sons, sharing the Son’s inheritance? What a Gospel. A Gospel rooted in history time and space and far from mere abstract propositions. Even then proposition are usually scriptural indicatives, facts, reality – a gospel rooted in God’s calling out of people, a people for Himself.
5 Where do you hear your preferred approach to preaching, that is, figural? I’m not sure I’ve heard any. Who do you suggest?
The difference in the style of writing is because my primary audience is familiar with more academic terminology and because it is possible to do a lot more with less when writing in such a manner. When responding to particular questions or objections, I adopt a different form of expression, for the sake of those who have trouble with my preferred mode. But when given the choice, I’d prefer to stick to a less concrete mode of expression when articulating such theological concepts. When actually explaining the concrete meaning of particular texts of Scripture, my approach is typically far more concrete.
Recognizing the connection between the more abstract theological concepts and the difference they make on the ground can take a bit more work for some people, but when it clicks for people it can be far more impactful. For instance, my treatment of the Virgin Birth might be helpful to some people. However, much more helpful can be conveying the fundamental principles and instincts by which I arrive at such a treatment. It just takes a lot more work for people to grasp. The point is to teach people how to fish for themselves, not merely to feed them what I have caught.
The tensions between systematic and biblical theology are complicated. Many theologians seek to connect the two, with varying measures of success. For instance, my differences with someone like Jonathan are almost certainly not about whether or not their should be a division between systematic and biblical theology. Both of us are in agreement that, though there should be distinctions, there shouldn’t be a division. However, we disagree about the particular way in which they are to be connected and possibly also about the shape that systematic theology should take. And these disagreements can exist alongside much mutual appreciation of the good things that the other is doing to connect the two fields. Likewise, with the theologians you mention. I disagree with all of them in various ways, but find considerable common cause with them nonetheless.
By ‘figural’ I don’t mean non-concrete. Nor am I setting up an opposition between a spiritual referent and a merely physical referent. For instance, Israel is the object of God’s true presence and grace, and isn’t merely a sort of divine flannelgraph demonstration of what is true of his real ‘spiritual’ people. The Church exists in concrete continuity with Israel, not merely as a spiritual likeness. Figural reading is more like a ‘musical’ reading, a reading that recognizes the musical themes that recur and are developed in the narrative. It doesn’t move from physical to spiritual, but between concrete events, persons, times, and objects that, in their mutual resonances, display the undivided work of the Spirit in orchestrating them.
My preferred approach to preaching isn’t something I ever really hear in as full a form as I would like, although I frequently hear elements of it. It isn’t opposed to expositional preaching in principle, but is a way of expositing texts that more powerfully connects it to the life of the people of God. One often encounters the sorts of theological instincts I am emphasizing here in the early Church.
Thanks for your considered response, Alastair.
While I’m clearly not part of your primary audience. I’d be grateful for your futher forebearance, as I seek to make further points on style of communication.
You said this: “Recognizing the connection between the more abstract theological concepts and the difference they make on the ground can take a bit more work for some people, but when it clicks for people it can be far more impactful. For instance, my treatment of the Virgin Birth might be helpful to some people. However, much more helpful can be conveying the fundamental principles and instincts by which I arrive at such a treatment. It just takes a lot more work for people to grasp. The point is to teach people how to fish for themselves, not merely to feed them what I have caught.”
1 Is your preferred style, the most effective, the most erudite? Again, I point to your peers stunned silence, response to your first contribution on the MF Virgin Birth, podcast. It was the fruit of your study, training,over the years, just as effective Court advocacy is the fruit of years of training and experience, while I accept that seeking to convince a judge on points of law may differ in content and delivery, from seeking to convince a jury on the application of law to evidence. But, in my experience, simplicity of style is the most effective in both instances. In the UK, could I suggest reading any judgments from law Lord, Lord Denning, or even his autobiography.
2 The “catch.” Does not the catch need to be seen, displayed, tasted, feasted upon, “taste and see that the Lord is good” preceed, act as a catalyst, as a stimulus to methodology of fishing? The goal is to know our Triune God better, the goal of theology, the goal of Christian teaching, is it not? And this is what you do so well, when you search the scriptures, and point us towards Christ, with simple, effective, erudition, towards a multifacetted diamond of the Gospel of Christ. Your following post (the full article) on “The Politics os the Shepherd sign” demonstrates this well, though where “Politics” comes into it is somewhat beyond me.
May the Joy of the Lord be your strength.
Thanks for the continued interaction, Geoff. This should probably be my last comment for now, though.
In response to your question, the style I prefer really depends upon what I am trying to accomplish with it. If I’m talking directly about a particular scriptural passage or teaching, I’ll generally speak very differently from when engaging in second-order discourse about the theological and hermeneutical principles that underlie my approach to the text. These different forms of discourse have differing ends (and often different audiences too) and the form of speech that is most effective or straightforward for achieving them tends to differ too.
I do admire someone who can express complex issues with clarity and simplicity. Not everyone can do this and even the most gifted can render things simplistic when they are really aiming to simplify. Not every subject readily lends itself to such simplification. And when we move beyond the concreteness of a particular text, for instance, to deal with the greater abstractness of theological or metaphysical concepts, Christian thought has articulated itself in more technical forms that are complicated for the theological unstudied to grasp.
Yes, it is essential that people get to taste ‘the catch’. However, this is why a lot of my writing and speaking is on particular passages of Scripture, where I discuss their meaning in fairly concrete terms. Even though people may sometimes struggle to discern my underlying argumentation, my claims are much less abstract in such contexts, because the subject matter is much less abstract. Once people have tasted this ‘catch’, though, I like to teach them the principles and means by which they can recognize for themselves what I have presented to them.
And here the second order character of the discipline of theology is important. A great deal of theology, perhaps the majority, isn’t about the direct work of teaching people in the pews, but about the indirect work of maintaining the faithfulness of the Church’s confession and teaching, so that it performs the instruction of the people well. The theologian is, in many respects and contexts, less like a lawyer and more like a philosopher of jurisprudence. Some awareness of or familiarity with jurisprudence is clearly valuable and important for lawyers and, to a lesser extent, also for juries and populations more generally. However, the discipline is primarily a ‘second order’ one, which exists to ensure the structural integrity of the first order practice of the law. If someone merely teaches undiluted theology, they are likely doing their church a disfavour. Yet, every preacher and church leader should be informed by theology in their teaching.
Trust that you are enjoying a joyful Christmastide!
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