What is the Mission of the Church?

[Editor’s note: I originally wrote this in 2012. Based on many current discussions, I decided it would be good to revisit it.]

What is the mission of the church? What is shalom? What is the church’s role in the pursuit of social justice? Pastors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert address these and other related questions in their book, What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission.

There have been many books and articles written and many sermons given on the topics of mission, social justice, shalom, flourishing, and the great commission. Some say that the mission of the church is to continue the work of reconciliation that Jesus started, especially in the realm of unjust social structures. Others say that the mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that Jesus has saved us from our sins. Some say that the gospel message isn’t complete unless the church is pursuing the peace and prosperity of the city. Others say that the gospel message is simply that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification.

Given the diversity of opinions on these issues, it isn’t surprising that Pastors DeYoung and Gilbert felt called to write a book that addresses the topic of mission from a solidly Reformed perspective. The book is not a heavy theological treatise. Rather, it is aimed for the average person or pastor who is interested in understanding the current discussion on mission. The biblical exegesis is clear and easy to follow.

Early in the book, the authors explain that the book was written to answer the question: What is the mission of the church? Particularly, they write that part of their purpose is to correct “an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing Christians could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world” (20). Their concern is that this “overexpansive definition” runs the risk of marginalizing the mission of making disciples, which they argue is what “makes Christian mission Christian mission” (22) and also places considerable guilt on Christians who feel “the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems” (23). The authors are careful, though, to point out that their book is not a critique of their brothers in Christ in the Acts 29 and Redeemer networks (20).

So what is the mission of the church? According to DeYoung and Gilbert it is:

The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (62)

Seems pretty simple, but very profound.

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Nearly Everything Wrong with N.T. Wright Summed Up in One Chapter Heading

John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton and author of the Lost World of Genesis 1, has a new book coming out this Spring. The new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debateis summarized this way by the publishers:

For centuries the story of Adam and Eve has resonated richly through the corridors of art, literature and theology. But for most moderns, taking it at face value is incongruous. And even for many thinking Christians today who want to take seriously the authority of Scripture, insisting on a “literal” understanding of Genesis 2–3 looks painfully like a “tear here” strip between faith and science.

How can Christians of good faith move forward? Who were the historical Adam and Eve? What if we’ve been reading Genesis—and its claims regarding material origins—wrong? In what cultural context was this couple, this garden, this tree, this serpent portrayed?

Following his groundbreaking Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton explores the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 2–3, creating space for a faithful reading of Scripture along with full engagement with science for a new way forward in the human origins debate. As a bonus, an illuminating excursus by N. T. Wright places Adam in the implied narrative of Paul’s theology.

The Lost World of Adam and Eve will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand this foundational text historically and theologically, and wondering how to view it alongside contemporary understandings of human origins.

While there is much to be said about this book and the theological positions taken by the author (you can read the chapter headings here), what caught my attention was the “illuminating excursus by N.T. Wright.” Here is the full heading for Wright’s chapter, “Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins.”

This single chapter heading is truly amazing. It has successfully encapsulated almost everything that’s wrong with Wright’s theology. Let me explain what I mean. This chapter heading contains Wright’s low view of Scripture, his re-interpretation of Paul’s writings, his minimizing the importance of the salvation of individuals, his emphasis on the redemption of the cosmos, and his belief in the evolutionary origins of humanity.

First, the chapter heading illustrates Wright’s low view of the inspiration of Scripture. He speaks, here and in his other works, of “Paul’s use” as if Scripture is mainly the work of the human authors. It may seem like a stretch, but over and over again the repeated use of “what Paul means” or “Paul’s use of the Old Testament” or “Paul’s purposes,” etc. emphasizes the human author and de-emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the writing and preserving of Scripture.

As far as inerrancy is concerned, Wright would not call himself an inerrantist and views the debate on inerrancy and inspiration to be an American preoccupation:

“…the insistence on an ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ Bible has grown up within a complex cultural matrix (that, in particular, of modern North American Protestantism) where the Bible has been seen as the bastion of orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism on the one hand and liberal modernism on the other. Unfortunately, the assumptions of both those worlds have conditioned the debate. It is no accident that this Protestant insistence on biblical infallibility arose at the same time that Rome was insisting on papal infallibility, or that the rationalism of the Enlightenment infected even those who were battling against it.” Simply Christian (183)

Of course, Wright also believes the debate over the historicity of Adam is mainly an American preoccupation, so I’m not sure why he felt called to address it now.

Second, re-imagining and re-interpreting what Paul really meant is what Wright does. Wright has made his mark as part of the New Perspective on Paul. It should come as no surprise that Wright’s contribution to Walton’s book would be to explain to us how we’ve misunderstood and misused what Paul wrote.

What have we misunderstood this time? Two main things are mentioned in the chapter heading:

  • The effect of sin on the cosmos is more important than the effect of sin on humanity.
  • Paul had nothing to say about human origins.

I read an article this week that critiqued Wright’s “overstatement” on the importance of the cosmos as compared to humanity. The author is convinced that Wright simply overstated his case and that everyone knows that Scripture teaches that humans are more important than things. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on the importance of the cosmos is part and parcel of Wright’s theology.

Wright truly does believe that the cosmos are more important in the grand scheme of things. He believes that we have become way too focused on saving people and lost sight of our role in redeeming the cosmos:

to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. Surprised by Hope (164 ebook)

Not only have we misunderstood the purpose and overarching theme of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the Gospel. When Scripture says that Jesus came to save His people from their sins, Wright believes that it’s not so much about individuals being saved from their moral failures, but rather, that Jesus had to come to put God’s rescue plan for creation back on track.

God has made a plan to save the world. Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful. What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite. This (Jesus) is what God has now provided. Justification (68)

And,

Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures. … It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction. That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul’s mature thought.

But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel’s God had done, in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel’s long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the “sins” that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real “return from exile,” the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed (The Meaning of Jesus, 98).

And that is how we get to the final point from the chapter heading, Paul’s use of Adam has nothing to say about human origins. In a review of Wright’s book, Surprise by Scripture, the author explains how Wright’s understanding of salvation and his re-interpretation of Paul’s use of Adam are connected:

There is a commonly held approach to salvation which posits that a perfect creation was marred through Adam’s sin, and Jesus came to pay the penalty for sin, thereby allowing us to go to heaven when we die. Adam’s role in that story is crucial: “no Adam” means “no reason for Christ to come.” But according to Wright, that is not the story that Paul tells, and it is a distortion of the Gospel. Instead, Paul connects our salvation to the story of Israel—their being placed in the Promised Land, given a commission to bless all nations, then breaking the Law and being exiled. Paul uses Adam to retell Israel’s story: “placed in the garden, given a commission to look after it; the garden being the place where God wanted to be at rest, to exercise his sovereign rule; the people warned about keeping the commandment, warned in particular that breaking it would mean death, breaking it, and being exiled. It all sounds very, very familiar” (p. 37). Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account. Lots of other Jewish authors around the time of Paul appropriated Adam to get their points across too. The genre of this literature was not historical journalism.

So there you have it. According to Wright, there’s no need for a historical Adam. Of course, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the review appeared on the BioLogos website. Wright and Walton both are featured on BioLogos and share their belief in an evolutionary explanation for human origins. For all three, Wright, Walton, and BioLogos, I truly believe their interpretation of Scripture is driven by their commitments to science, politics, and their own worldviews rather than the reverse.

And that brings us back full circle to the first point. Everything hinges on your view of Scripture. Either Scripture will be the lens through which you view the world or the world (science, politics, worldview, etc) will be the lens through which you view Scripture. Ultimately one or the other will be your authority.

Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical

Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, is, perhaps, one of the best known figures in the Reformed world. He has written many books and has spoken at numerous conferences for many different groups and organizations. He is frequently interviewed and quoted by the secular media on a number of different topics. It is because of his influence on such a wide audience that a group of pastors have taken up the task of writing a book considering whether specific aspects of Keller’s teaching are biblically accurate ways of transmitting the Reformed faith.

Dr. Iain Campbell, minister of Point Free Church on the Isle of Lewis, and Dr. William Schweitzer, church-planting minister of Gateshead Presbyterian Church, have put together a collection of essays which discuss certain well-known aspects of Dr. Keller’s teaching. The book, Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical, was recently published and is available both in print and e-book. Dr. Campbell describes the purpose of the book this way:

It should not surprise us that in developing new lines of thought Dr. Keller has provoked a measure of controversy, mainly within the Reformed churches. It is therefore right that there should be an open and frank engagement among brothers in Christ in order to discern just how faithful to God’s word Dr. Keller’s “new lines of thought” really are (9).

The authors are quick to point out that Dr. Keller’s personal orthodoxy is not in question:

Nor is this book seeking to make any statement about his personal orthodoxy. We gladly acknowledge that Keller intends to teach the orthodox truth; the question is whether or not he fully succeeds in this good intention in the specific cases considered below (15).

These teachings include the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of the Trinity, the mission of the Church, Scriptural interpretation, theistic evolution, and ecclesiology.

The authors believe that the problem with certain aspects of Dr. Keller’s teaching arises from his attempts to explain biblical doctrines to a post-modern audience:

Keller adopts a twofold answer to many questions. He wants to present doctrine to the “moderns” (usually older, more rural and less educated) one way, and to the “postmoderns” (usually younger, more urban and educated) in a different way. Keller’s presentations to the moderns is essentially old-fashioned orthodoxy, whereas his answer to the postmoderns include some of his most well-known – and often most controversial – teachings. This books is almost exclusively concerned with this latter group of teachings. As well shall see, it is not merely a case of using some new language to offer the same answer to the same question. In several cases, Keller’s teaching for postmoderns seems to end up offering substantially different answers to the same questions (21).

The first essay, “Keller on “Rebranding” the Doctrine of Sin”, by Dr. Iain D. Campbell looks at Dr. Keller’s attempt to reinterpret the doctrine of sin:

The idea of “rebranding” a biblical doctrine such as sin is an interesting proposition. To do this successfully would mean that the presentation is altered but the content remains the same. Is Keller’s attempt to “rebrand” sin a success? (28).

Dr. Campbell looks at Dr. Keller’s redefinition of sin as idolatry, lostness, and self-centeredness. Dr. Keller’s rebranding of sin as idolatry is well-known:

Keller concludes that “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him” (29).

The problem, as Dr. Campbell sees it, is that sin as idolatry confuses a symptom of sin with the cause of sin:

But the nature of sin is not idol-making but law-breaking, of which the manufacturing of idols is a specific example. The truth of the human condition is not merely that we make idols, but that we are, by nature, enslaved to law-breaking (34-35).

Dr. Keller redefines sin as “lostness” in his book The Prodigal God. He explains that in the parable from Luke 15 both the younger son and the older son are lost: one by way of immoral living, and the other by way of moralism (36).

According to Dr. Campbell, the problem here is that there aren’t two different ways of failing: one by keeping the rules and one by breaking them:

To place oneself in the place of God is breaking the rules; the sin of the elder brother is a violation of the law. It is an over-simplification to suggest that “There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good” (39).

Both immoral living and moralism are breaking God’s law. (39)

Dr. Keller as also rebranded sin as “self-centeredness”:

The problem which the gospel of Christ is the solution is the problem of self-centeredness; that Keller suggests, is the essence of the story of the fall and the disintegration of man in Genesis 3 … (40).

The problem here is not that we aren’t self-centered. But, again, our self-centeredness is a symptom of our much deeper sin nature:

Sin as self-centeredness is a symptom of, not a reason for, our condition. The paradigm of Scripture is that we are fallen by nature, and lie under the curse of a broken covenant and the penalty of a broken law. This, however, is not a theme prominent in Keller’s writings (45).

Dr. Campbell concludes by summarizing his concerns with Dr. Keller’s rebranding of sin:

This, ultimately, is where Keller’s rebranding leads – to an attempt to define sin not in terms of what it does to God, in robbing him of his glory, but of what it does to us, in robbing us of our wholeness. … Ultimately, the gospel is not all about me at all. It is certainly for me; but it is about God whom I have offended, and about the Christ whom he punished in my place. The offense? That I have broken his holy law, and break it constantly, of which my idolatry, and lostness and self-centeredness are symptoms. The remedy? That it is possible for the perfect law-keeping life and penalty-bearing death of another to restore my relationship with God (46-47).

The second essay by Dr. William Schweitzer is on the doctrine of hell, ““Brimstone-Free” Hell: a new way of saying the same old thing about judgment and hell?” Dr. Schweitzer commends the importance that Dr. Keller places on the topic of hell. However, he believes that this is another example of Dr. Keller’s attempt to speak in a new way to a post-modern audience:

Keller has two different ways of communicating the doctrine of hell, on for “traditionalists” and the other for “postmoderns”. … Keller’s teaching for the traditionalists seems consistent with the traditional doctrine. The real questions come regarding the message for postmoderns (52).

Dr. Schweitzer lists three basic questions that need to be answered in regards to hell: who sends people to hell, who keeps people in hell, and who metes out punishment for those in hell:

Who condemns people to hell? The Bible would seem to be clear on this matter: God does, through Christ (53).

In a sermon, “Isn’t the God of Christianity an Angry Judge?” Dr. Keller gives his answer to the question:

Summary: hell is just a freely chosen identity based on something else besides God going on forever (55).

Dr. Schweitzer explains:

Returning to Keller’s doctrine for postmoderns, we move on to ask, who sends people to hell if not God? The answer seems to be, no one sends anyone else to hell per se; people send themselves to hell (54).

Who decides that the damned stay in hell? According to Dr. Schweitzer:

God is the One who decides that the damned remain forever in hell, and his edict is known at the very outset of condemnation (58).

What does Dr. Keller say? In Reason for God, he writes:

“No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.” (58).

Who metes out the punishment in hell? Dr. Schweitzer considers various examples from Scripture to give his answer:

These prototypes of judgment (the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues) very greatly in detail, but in each case it is made explicitly clear that God himself metes out the punishment associated with judgment (59).

Dr. Keller, on the other hand, “suggests in The Reason for God that the punishment in hell is just the inevitable outworking of our own refusal to let go of sin” (62).

In conclusion, Dr. Schweitzer considers whether Dr. Keller’s answers to post-moderns on these three questions is fundamentally the same as the traditional answers:

Keller’s teaching for postmoderns, on the other hand, gives a rather different set of answers. Man sends himself to hell, man never asks to leave hell, and man inflicts upon himself the punishment of hell (69).

Next, Dr. Kevin Bidwell, church-planting minister of Sheffield Presbyterian Church, discusses Dr. Keller’s teaching on the Trinity in his essay, “Losing the Dance: is the “divine dance” a good explanation of the Trinity?”

There is no question as to whether Keller intends to teach the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He certainly has this intention. The question before us is whether his most prominent and distinctive method of communicating the Trinity – the “divine dance” imagery – is altogether faithful to Scripture, the Nicene Creed and the orthodox Reformed tradition (77).

Dr. Keller uses imagery of a “divine dance” to explain aspects of the Trinity:

In the beginning, according to Keller, was the “dance of Creation”; the Fall was mankind apparently “losing the dance”, the fruit of which was becoming self-centered; salvation supposedly becomes the way back of “returning to the dance” and getting out of self-centeredness; the eschatological conclusion in the new heaven and new earth is summarized as the “future of the dance” (79).

Dr. Bidwell sees several problems with the use of this imagery:

Problem 1: the “divine dance does not uphold the unity of the Godhead based on essence.

God’s essence is redefined as being “love” instead of “the same substance”; thus love replaces substance as the premise for divine unity (88).

Problem 2: the “divine dance” movements portray the wrong kind of motion within the Trinity.

This is the act of the Father eternally begetting the Son, and then sending him as the God-man, along with the actions of the procession of the Holy Spirit. … These divine movements are not captured by “voluntary circles or orbits; but the clear pattern of order is: from the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit (89).

Problem 3: the “divine dance” does not promote a balanced presentation of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed.

The Trinitarian order is distinct, clear, unmistakable and without confounding the persons. Contrast this with Keller’s portrayal of the three persons in a pulsating dance of voluntary orbits where it is impossible to distinguish “who is who” among them. It is baffling to imagine how the “divine dance” teaching could be encapsulated in a creedal statement (91).

Problem 4: the “divine dance” undermines the divine order between the persons of the Godhead.

The “divine dance” teaching that lacks the doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the distinguishing relational properties of the persons of the Trinity thereby introduces theological weakness into the doctrine of the Trinity, with implications for Christology (92).

Problem 5: the “divine dance” has the danger of tritheism (92).

Problem 6: the “divine dance” undermines the authority structure that is directly related to redemption.

A changed theology leads to theological implications in other parts of our doctrine, and neglecting to teach the ordering of the persons of the Trinity has real consequences for our understanding of Christ as the mediator, his obedience to the Father as the God-man, and redemption (93).

Considering the fundamental importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, Dr. Bidwell believes that these problems are not minor (81).

The fourth essay, “The Church’s Mission: sent to ‘do justice’in the world?” is by Dr. Peter J. Naylor, founding minister of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff. Dr. Naylor’s essay focuses on Dr. Keller’s teaching on the mission of the church:

Keller’s main thesis is that the church has a twofold mission in this world: (1) to preach the gospel and (2) to do justice, which involves social and cultural transformation and renewal (105).

Dr. Naylor believes that there are several principles that should be considered in determining the mission of the church:

As we consider the church’s mission, we must bear these five principles in mind. (1) The church cannot act without a mandate from God. (2) The God-given boundaries between the three spheres of family, nation, and church must be respected. (3) The distinction between the body and its members must be carefully observed. (4) The distinction between the office bearers and the members must be respected. (5) Jesus’ commission from his Father was unique and the church cannot assume that Jesus’ commission is its own mission (110).

Given those principles, Dr. Naylor considers whether the church is called, as a body, to work for social and cultural transformation. He distinguishes between what individual Christians might have as a calling and what the formal mission of the church is. Any Christian, as a citizen of a country, is free to pursue social and political change (110). Dr. Naylor also points out:

No one is suggesting that “the church is not to do justice at all.” That is a straw man. The church’s elders and deacons serve the interests of justice and mercy (119).

After considering several Scriptures that Dr. Keller uses to support his teaching on the mission of the church, Dr. Naylor concludes:

How shall we respond to Keller’s doctrine of the church’s mission? We must reject it for several reasons:

(1) He fails to establish his case on the basis of Scripture.
(2) He focuses too narrowly on the problem of material poverty and thereby takes away from a concentration on the deeper spiritual plight of man, which is what the church is really to address.
(3) He has misunderstood the Mosaic Law and has taught an unbiblical concept of wealth redistribution.
(4) He has failed to observe proper distinctions between the spheres of church and state and between the Christian and the church (members and the body) (125).

Dr. Naylor is especially concerned that the work of social and cultural transformation can and will divert the resources that a church should use to preach the gospel (125). He goes on to summarize his conclusions:

[W]e deny that the church has a dual mission; we affirm that the Christian should exercise love and mercy in all his relationships; we distinguish between the commission given to the body and the commission given to the member; and we distinguish between the church’s role and the state’s (126).

Rev. Richard Holst, retired church planter and chairman of the International Conference of Reformed Churches, considers Dr. Keller’s methods of Scriptural interpretation in his essay, “Timothy Keller’s Hermeneutic: an example for the church to follow?”

Rev. Holst uses three basic questions to consider Dr. Keller’s hermeneutical approach:

Do the interpretations represent the truth that is chiefly taught in that place? Are the clearer parts of Scripture used to interpret the less clear? And finally, are the deductions from Scripture good and necessary consequences? (138).

Given Dr. Keller’s influence, Rev. Holst seeks to determine if Dr. Keller is a good example of Reformed methodology for others to follow. (138) There are three concerns with Dr. Keller’s hermeneutics, according to Rev. Holst: the use of parables, the use of secondary aspects of passages, and logical fallacies in exegesis.

First, the use of parables:

[P]arables are intended to be ambiguous. Thus, the only safe way to understand a parable is to pay close attention to the inspired interpretation that is usually given in the passage itself, and then by clearer texts elsewhere (138)

Rev. Holst gives the example of how Dr. Keller uses the parable of the prodigal son:

The problem is in the very design of the book (The Prodigal God), which is to use this parable as a lens to understand everything else (139).

Even if the result of such an approach was free from error, Rev. Holst explains that the method is itself problematic:

[O]ne can hardly conceive of a concept more contrary to good hermeneutical procedure than to use a parable to define the Christian faith and, thereafter, to understand the rest of Scripture in this light (139-140).

Second, Rev. Holst finds Dr. Keller’s use of secondary aspects of Scriptural passages to be concerning. The example he gives is Dr. Keller’s use of the parable of the good Samaritan and the discussion with the rich young ruler to say that Jesus is explaining a key part of what it means to be a Christian:

“It appears that Jesus sees care for the poor as part of the essence of being a Christian” (144).

Rev. Holst points out that care for the poor is not the focus of either passage but is, instead, a secondary aspect that Dr. Keller has chosen to highlight.

Lastly, Rev. Holst is concerned with logical fallacies in Dr. Keller’s exegesis of certain passages. He uses an example from Dr. Keller’s Ministries of Mercy where Dr. Keller writes:

“The kingdom of God is the means for the renewal of the entire world and all of the dimensions of life. … If this is the ministry of the Kingdom – to heal all the results of sin in all areas of life, then the church must intentionally use its resources to minster to every ‘circle’” (146).

Rev. Holst explains his concern:

The main problem, however, is with the logic of Keller’s “if, then” transition between the future state and his conclusion regarding the church’s mission. Christ will certainly return on the last day to make a new heavens and a new earth in which no trace of the curse remains. … Just because we are promised that there will be no curse in the New Heavens and New Earth, this does not mean that the church’s mission is to try to get their now, in contradiction of Scriptures that speak clearly on the matter (146).

Rev. Holst concludes:

I think the answer would have to be that Keller is not consistent in adhering to these principles [explained above]. … For this reason, we must conclude that his work does not provide us with the best example to follow (147).

Dr. Schweitzer also wrote the next essay on theistic evolution: “Not Quite” Theistic Evolution: does Tim Keller bridge the gap between creation and evolution? The title is drawn from an answer that Dr. Keller gave in an interview where he was asked if his views were theistic evolution. He replied, “Not quite” (161).

One of the major obstacles to faith that Keller identifies is the conflict between the doctrine of creation and the theory of evolution. … Keller suggests that there is a via media wherein we can affirm both the reality of evolution and also the biblical teaching of God’s creation. But what sort of evolution does Keller think is consistent with Christian faith? An evolution that produced Adam? … Or does he mean an evolution that had nothing to do with Adam? 150-151.

Dr. Schweitzer does not share Dr. Keller’s belief that a via media must be found:

There is no particular reason why the conflict of Christianity with evolutionary science is a problem demanding a solution any more than the conflict of Christianity with Islam (an ideology which, much like evolutionary theory, was conceived in self-conscious rejection of Christianity) (154).

In his writings and interviews on the subject of evolution, Dr. Keller explains that belief in some type of evolution can be consistent with Christianity. Dr. Schweitzer explains that this leaves Dr. Keller with two options: evolution that includes the origin of Adam or evolution that excludes Adam. There are problems with both options.

If Adam is the result of evolution, then damage is done to the biblical understanding of Adam and all the doctrines that go with it:

The culpability of the human race, the justice of God, the basis of redemption, the identity of Christ, and the gospel itself are all predicated upon a first man, Adam, who was the biological and spiritual father of every human being. Without this biblical Adam we do not have a biblical Christianity (158).

Dr. Schweitzer notes that some theistic evolutionists attempt to reconcile an evolutionary origin of Adam with special creation:

However, belief in a “literal” Adam – a single human being from whom we all descended – does not necessarily preclude believing that this literal Adam had some form of sub-human ancestor. This would seem to be what the language in Keller’s white paper is designed to allow for; the idea that evolution was involved in the generation of Adam (158).

This approach raises as many questions as it answers, though (158).

Given that Dr. Keller has indicated that he does not share approach to a literal Adam, Dr. Schweitzer considers the second option:

Perhaps he is only talking about evolution somehow being used in various other aspects of creation, but having no role in God’s immediate creation of Adam. This seems closer to Keller’s personal position, which he distinguishes from theistic evolution as “a bit more intervention, more God in there” (159).

Would this option be an acceptable solution to the problem of reconciling evolutionary science with Christianity? Dr. Schweitzer doesn’t think so:

An account that included evolution at some places but left out this capstone of the project would seem to do very little to help Christians live in intellectual peace with the secular elite who regard the evolution of mankind from animals as an inviolable dogma (159).

Dr. Schweitzer concludes:

Not every obstacle to faith is a false dichotomy waiting to be bridged. Some “problems” are quite real and admit of no legitimate resolution. The intellectual conflict over the origins of life on earth is a prime example (160).

The final essay, “Looking for Communion in All the Wrong Places: Tim Keller and Presbyterian Ecclesiology,” was written by Dr. D.G. Hart, Adjunct Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary, California. Dr. Hart considers whether Dr. Keller’s work, especially through his church planting network, is consistent with a Presbyterian ecclesiology:

Tim Keller is the most famous Presbyterian pastor in the United States today; but whether he identifies his ministry self-consciously with Presbyterianism is another question (164).

Dr. Hart explains:

Keller’s twin commitments to word and deed and to urban ministry have led him into cooperative projects with non-Presbyterians, a further indication of the degree to which his Presbyterianism defines his ministry (172).

One of the examples of Dr. Keller’s work with non-Presbyterians is his Redeemer City to City church planting network:

Redeemer City to City is a church-planting network that started with RPC’s initial efforts to plant churches throughout the New York metropolitan area. It now extend to churches around the world, particularly to congregations in large urban centers, and its aim is to sustain a movement of churches not with a Presbyterian model but with Redeemer’s vision for ministry (172).

What is remarkable about this work is, according to Dr. Hart, that Dr. Keller sees a closer relationship with those who share his ministry goals than with those who share his denominational vows:

In fact, the communion that he has through belonging to the PCA does not seem to be as important or as valuable as the kind of community he hopes to establish through a network of urban churches committed to word and deed ministries and social justice. … What stands out in Keller and RPC’s commitments is not adherence to Reformed theology, worship, and Presbyterian church government, but the priority of mercy ministries, urban sensibilities, and evangelistic strategy for transforming cities and the wider culture (180-181).

Because of this, Dr. Hart concludes:

These contradictions make Keller the most popular contemporary Presbyterian pastor for whom the markers of Presbyterianism appear to matter very little (182).

Having considered these specific concerns with certain aspects of Dr. Keller’s teaching, the authors conclude with their hope for continued conversation and engagement on these issues:

[W]e look forward to the process of clarification which will follow. What is important is not that our own objections be confirmed but that Keller’s own Reformed theology, reflective as it is of the biblical truth, be transmitted in ways that are completely clear (184).

Peter Enns: “the gospel is not about how you get saved”

Peter Enns has a recent blog post answering the question: What is the gospel? According to Dr. Enns, Martin Luther (and all the Reformers and all pretty much all the church since the time of the apostles) were wrong. The gospel is not about how people are saved from their sins:

Rather, the common Christian way of answering the question–like the example I give above–misses a lot of what the New Testament says about the gospel. Which, if true, is a big problem.

That is what Williams is getting at in his posts, and they’re well worth reading.

Williams points out that “gospel” as it is commonly understood, at least among conservative Protestants, is tied to issues that were big during the Reformation. Martin Luther and others were struggling with the question of how we are made right before God, or as we might put it today, “how do you get saved?”

To make a long and complicated story short and simple, Luther argued that we are justified before God by faith alone, not by works. As we might put it today, “good deeds don’t get you to heaven.” Luther got that idea from the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters–or better, how Luther understood Paul’s letters given the kinds of questions he was asking, but I digress….

Here is the point: How Luther understood “gospel”–how someone gets right with God–is not really “the gospel.” Rather, it is part of the gospel, an implication of the gospel. Luther talked about the gospel the way he did to address a theological concern of his time, but that doesn’t mean Luther’s definition gets to the heart of the matter. In other words,

…the gospel is not about how you get saved.

If the gospel is not about how you get saved, then what is it about? According to Dr. Enns (and N.T. Wright, among others):

According to the Gospels, the gospel is not about the afterlife, but what “kingdom” you belong to here and now. Jesus talks a lot about the “kingdom of heaven” (or “of God”), and this is commonly misunderstood as a kingdom “up there” somewhere. But read what Jesus says about the kingdom. It is about the rule of God on earth, with Jesus as king. “Kingdom of heaven” doesn’t mean “kingdom that is IN heaven” but “kingdom FROM heaven.” God’s reign, though King Jesus, is setting up shop here and now. The question Jesus asks the people is, “Do you want in or not?”

I once asked a pastor two questions to clarify what he was teaching on the gospel: what is the gospel, and what is the mission of the church? He answered that the gospel is the Good News that Jesus has broken into history and has ushered in the Kingdom of God and begun His work of redeeming the cosmos. The mission of the church, according to this pastor, was to invite people to join in this work of redemption. What about salvation and the forgiveness of sins? Well, that’s part of the whole thing, of course, just not central. That’s when we decided to leave.

The church has one thing it can offer that no one else can: forgiveness of sins and salvation. Any secular organization can rectify social ills, provide basic human necessities, and build parks and schools. I’m not saying that these are not worthy goals. We should not forget about the physical needs of the people we minister to. What I’m saying is that if we forget that we have a mission and that that mission is preaching the Good News of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, then we are salt that has lost its savor. If we are not reconciled to God, no amount of clean water, social justice, and redistribution of wealth will save us. We will have stored up our treasure here on earth and kept the most important treasure hidden from those we are helping.

Is our sin so minor a thing that our salvation can be treated so contemptuously? May God have mercy on us all.

Does Grace Make Christians Just?

One of the hottest topics in evangelical circles is “social justice.” Many authors, including Kevin DeYoung, have addressed the subject of justice and the role the church should have in pursuing it. Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (PCA), has also written a book on the topic of social justice. In Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dr. Keller explains his view on what justice is, why and how Christians should pursue it.

Dr. Keller opens his book with an explanation for why he wrote Generous Justice:

Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to see justice in the world. (8)

This really is the central theme of the book, and Dr. Keller works hard to drive this point home. He writes that his book is for people that “have not thought out the implications of Jesus’s gospel for doing justice in all aspects of life (9)” and those that don’t understand yet “that when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor (10).”

According to Dr. Keller:

[T]he Bible is a book devoted to justice in the world from first to last. And the Bible gives us not just a naked call to care about justice, but gives us everything we need – motivation, guidance, inner joy, and power – to live a just life. (11)

Continue reading

Can the Gospel Survive the “Social Justice” Fad?

Yesterday I read a really interesting article over at the Aquila Report about the current evangelical fascination with “social justice.” Michael Giere, who generally writes about politics and public policy, has an interesting take “social justice” in general and Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice in particular. Mr. Giere expresses concerns similar to mine expressed here in my review of Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice

Here is a brief excerpt of his article:

In addition to the Occupy protests and a number of books in recent years, the apparent ground swell of interest in “social justice” as the animating feature of “real” Christianity received a big boost within evangelical ranks with Dr. Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice published last year. Dr. Keller is the hugely successful author and nationally known pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

It is a surprising book following the other writings of Dr. Keller. The enormously engaging preacher has a large following among evangelicals (even though he is personally dismissive of them and does not identify himself as one) for his defense of Biblical authority and his preaching that tailors Biblical truth to the rough and tumble of modern community life. But in Generous Justice, Dr. Keller bites into the apple of politics, transporting the vagary of “social justice” to an unsuspecting and perhaps ill prepared audience by page 14 of his book.

Generous Justice, some have noted, may be a reflection of the Reformed idea of a “cultural mandate” percolating to the forefront with Dr. Keller, who taught in a Reformed seminary. Indeed, he has said that, “the primary purpose of salvation is cultural renewal, to make the world a better place.” In Generous Justice, Rev. Keller goes further, comingling the concept of unmerited salvation by Grace, with the idea that “[i]f you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith.” Identifying a single trait that confirms our faith is risky business, of course, as the Book of Galatians informs us.

Dr. Keller also asserts in Generous Justice that self-indulgent materialism must be replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need; in “doing justice,” and in “permanent fasting,” which he explains is to “work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless.” This, he says flatly, is the real proof that you are a Christian. To others it might suggest that the assurance of our salvation is an open question.

But whatever the origins or motivations for Dr. Keller’s embrace of “social justice,” the term and its working out in society has a long, ignoble history that cannot be simply ignored, as it is in Generous Justice.

The amorphous concept dates to the early nineteenth century and the Catholic reform movement. However it was quickly picked up and welded to Marxist language and idioms (and has remained a fundamental precept in the radical left for over 100 years) by the Socialist International and other radical groups, because it fit the Marxist model perfectly; it was a nebulous concept by which every perceived ill of society could be corrected; and how could anyone be against something that sounds so noble and caring?

Dr. Keller follows others that have set out to “rescue” (their words) the term from the radical left, but do no better than others in the last 100 plus years to bring definition to the concept.

(Surprisingly, Dr. Keller accentuates this reality when he rewrites Psalm 33:5 in Generous Justice. The original text in the NIV reads; “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Dr. Keller’s version reads; “The Lord loves Social Justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” He takes a perfectly understandable sentence and renders it senseless.)

The Catholic philosopher and writer Michael Novak captured the inherent ambiguity of “social justice” this way: “This vagueness [of the concept of “social justice”] seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, ‘We need a law against that.’ In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.”

So it is for Dr. Keller. He seems to advocate both spiritual and official coercion, while employing little Biblical or real-world perspective.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Schaeffer and Social Justice

Considering the current discussion in evangelical circles regarding “social justice,” I thought it would be interesting to read what Francis Schaeffer wrote on the subject. Francis Schaeffer was certainly not one to advocate that Christians withdraw from the world, and he was well-known for his beliefs about what influence Christians should have on society. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Great Evangelical Disaster:

It is comfortable to accommodate to that which is in vogue about us, to the forms of the world spirit in our age. . . .

Thus in another area we find that a large section of evangelicalism is confusing the kingdom of God with a socialistic program. This too is sheer accommodation to the world spirit around us. A clear example can be found in a newsletter published by a leading evangelical magazine. In a recent issue the newsletter featured the work of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), their social strategy, and their critique of society. As ESA explains:

Summarized briefly, this critique claims that the social problems Christians in this nation are most concerned about (i.e., crime, abortion, lack of prayer, secular humanism, etc.) are important, but are actually symptoms of much larger problems – unjust social structures in the United States – which underlie these legitimate Christian concerns. Continue reading

The “New” Gospel: Is It the Same as the Old?

Kevin DeYoung wrote an excellent article comparing the “new” gospel message that has become so common in today’s evangelical discussions. He starts the article with four features of the new gospel:

It usually starts with an apology: “I’m sorry for my fellow Christians. I understand why you hate Christianity. It’s like that thing Gandhi said, ‘why can’t the Christians be more like their Christ?’ Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous. I know we screwed up with the Crusades, slavery, and the Witch Trials. All I can say is: I apologize. We’ve not give you a reason to believe.”

Then there is an appeal to God as love: “I know you’ve seen the preachers with the sandwich boards and bullhorns saying ‘Repent or Die.’ But I’m here to tell you God is love. Look at Jesus. He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He loved unconditionally. There is so much brokenness in the world, but the good news of the Bible is that God came to live right in the middle of our brokenness. He’s a messy God and his mission is love. ‘I did not come into the world to condemn the world,’ that’s what Jesus said (John 3:17). He loved everyone, no matter who you were or what you had done. That’s what got him killed.”

The third part of the New Gospel is an invitation to join God on his mission in the world: “It’s a shame that Christians haven’t shown the world this God. But that’s what we are called to do. God’s kingdom is being established on earth. On earth! Not in some distant heaven after we die, but right here, right now. Even though we all mess up, we are God’s agents to show his love and bring this kingdom. And we don’t do that by scaring people with religious language or by forcing them into some religious mold. We do it by love. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s what it means to follow him. We love our neighbor and work for peace and justice. God wants us to become the good news for a troubled planet.”

And finally, there is a studied ambivalence about eternity: “Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in life after death. But our focus should be on what kind of life we can live right now. Will some people go to hell when they die? Who am I to say? Does God really require the right prayer or the right statement of faith to get into heaven? I don’t know, but I guess I can leave that in his hands. My job is not to judge people, but to bless. In the end, God’s amazing grace may surprise us all. That’s certainly what I hope for.”

So what’s wrong with the “new” gospel?

It shouldn’t be hard to see what is missing in the new gospel. What’s missing is the old gospel, the one preached by the Apostles, the one defined in 1 Corinthians 15, the one summarized later in The Apostles’ Creed.

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A Review of Dr. Tim Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

One of the hottest topics in evangelical circles is “social justice.” Many authors, including Kevin DeYoung, have addressed the subject of justice and the role the church should have in pursuing it. Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (PCA), has also written a book on the topic of social justice. In Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dr. Keller explains his view on what justice is, why and how Christians should pursue it.

Dr. Keller opens his book with an explanation for why he wrote Generous Justice:

Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to see justice in the world. (8)

This really is the central theme of the book, and Dr. Keller works hard to drive this point home. He writes that his book is for people that “have not thought out the implications of Jesus’s gospel for doing justice in all aspects of life (9)” and those that don’t understand yet “that when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor (10).”

According to Dr. Keller:

[T]he Bible is a book devoted to justice in the world from first to last. And the Bible gives us not just a naked call to care about justice, but gives us everything we need – motivation, guidance, inner joy, and power – to live a just life. (11)

Continue reading