Why “Together for the Gospel” Is Necessary

I was reading Scot McKnight’s blog this morning, and he offered some critiques of the 18 affirmations and denials recently signed by the fantastic four: Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, and Mark Dever. Among other things, McKnight suggests that the statement leaves some important things out (e.g., second coming, Holy Spirit) while privileging Paul’s language over Jesus’ language.

My aim here is not to critique line by line McKnight’s short piece. I do, however, want to add my assent to the “Together for the Gospel” statment and to say that I think it is an important affirmation of core Gospel truths–truths that are without question being contested by voices both within and without wider evangelicalism.

The ironic thing about McKnight’s post is that an adjacent entry on McKnight’s blog could stand as “Exhibit A” as to why a statement like “Together for the Gospel” is needed. McKnight refers his readers to LeRon Schults’s piece on the Emergent Village blog. Schults argues that those participating in “Emergent should not have a ‘statement of faith’ to which its members are asked (or required) to subscribe. Such a move would be unnecessary, inappropriate and disastrous.”

Among other things, Schults opposes any attempt to reduce Christian faith to set of propositions to be affirmed (a contention I think almost no one would disagree with). In doing so, however, he ends up marginalizing the ability of human language to convey truth claims. This is precisely the kind of thing that “Together for the Gospel” is trying to combat. That is why Article III of the statement reads,

We deny that truth is merely a product of social construction or that the truth of the Gospel can be expressed or grounded in anything less than total confidence in the veracity of the Bible, the historicity of biblical events, and the ability of language to convey understandable truth in sentence form.

Folks like Shults and others in emergent are calling into question our ability to use language to express the truth of Christianity. Shults writes,

This fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.

This is a gigantic revision not only of church history, but also of Christianity. There is no other implication one can take from this except to say that all attempts to use human language to describe God is idolatrous. How can Schults say such a thing when the Bible itself is nothing less than “a culturally constructed symbol system” that is explicating and revealing God and His Son Jesus Christ?

I think the Fantastic Four have done a tremendous service in the cause of Chrsit in spearheading this move back to biblical fidelity. Make no mistake, “Together for the Gospel” is a timely word–a word that American evangelicalism needs to heed lest it succumb to the impious skepticism of postmodernism.

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25 thoughts on “Why “Together for the Gospel” Is Necessary”

  1. Do you think it is beneficial to create a document that serves to exclude large groups of Christians? Sincere question. If so, what is the benefit?

  2. from their Gospel churches (their words). They specifically say in some of the articles that if you disagree, you are not faithful to the Gospel – exclusionary language. I’m trying to understand why you feel this is productive or helpful since they’re not talking about salvific issues.

  3. Denny,

    You say, “There is no other implication one can take from this except to say that all attempts to use human language to describe God is idolatrous.” LeRon doesn’t even come close to saying this. In fact, if you read his works you find that he believes the exact opposite; but one shouldn’t come to that conclusion even by his article.

    Interestingly, you don’t site him from the article when he says, “This does not mean, as some critics will assume, that Emergent does not care about belief or that there is no role at all for propositions. Any good conversation includes propositions, but they should serve the process of inquiry rather than shut it down.” Above all, he’s letting us know that there is a necessary role for propositions. To hear some critics continually say, “Emergent folks don’t believe in propositional truth” shows either gross ignorance or malicious intent.

    What is being lost in these sparring matches (which typically happens) is the important use and role of language. We use language to predicate, to deliniate one finite object from another. Since God is infinite, he can not be predicated (defined); we can not draw a conceptual line around God and “know” him like we know finite objects. Conservative Evangelicals need to take a hard look at the true role of language and make some determinations as to how they will proceed in their conversations and formulations. One doesn’t have to slip into relativism to be about such a task.

    Brian

  4. Denny,

    What are the “core Gospel truths” that you see affirmed here? I’m wondering, really, how the gospel is being defined in this statement.

    Several have challenged some of Shults, including what I say on my own blog, and then what is said at Think Tank, and LeRon himself has weighed in. LeRon has overstated, that is clear, but I think I’d be careful to run him into the relativistic camp (you use “marginalizing” — and LeRon doesn’t marginalize language; he might make it too central) too simplistically. Have you seen his theological books?

    And, one other point: LeRon distinguishes “propositions” and truth claims, and I’m not sure you are fair to him on that matter.

    Yet one more: we need to be more sensitive to this linguistic paradigm you are criticizing, for surely the statement of these folks privileges Pauline language — and there is nothing really from the Johannine or Hebrews or (really) Jesus language sets. It is OK to do this, but it is nothing short of a major challenge to begin integrating a variety of rhetorical schemes into a coherent, synthetic whole.

  5. “Folks like Shults and others in emergent are calling into question our ability to use language to express the truth of Christianity.”

    I suggest reading Shults’ “Postfoundationalist Task of Theology” before you nail him down on this one. His view is more robust and nuanced than you give him credit for.

  6. Denny,

    You say, “There is no other implication one can take from this except to say that all attempts to use human language to describe God is idolatrous.” LeRon doesn’t even come close to say that nor has he in any of his books.

    Interestingly, you didn’t cite him when he said in the same article, “This does not mean, as some critics will assume, that Emergent does not care about belief or that there is no role at all for propositions. Any good conversation includes propositions, but they should serve the process of inquiry rather than shut it down.” At least we can clearly see that LeRon does hold “beliefs” and recognizes the need and place for propositions, which seems to be your problem with his article.

    The more conservative branch of evangelicalism either ignorantly or maliciously declares that those in Emergent or holding to postmodern/postfoundationalist epistemologies as rejecters of propositional truth. That isn’t correct at all. They are saying, “Let’s rethink things here, which includes the role of propositions in the larger attempt to communicate and live.”

    What is being missed in all this is the need to rethink what language is and its function. It is indeed an attempt to predicate. And an infinite God simply can not be predicated like finite objects can. Simply rethinking this will help the conversative evangelicals to move in a more productive direction.

    Brian

  7. Hey Guys,

    Thanks for the feedback. Just so everyone knows, I am only responding to what I read on the emergent village blog. I have not read Schults’s other works, and I’m sure there is more to his position than what I read on the blog.

    Nevertheless, all I was trying to do was to point out one of the main differences between what is going on in emergent village, and what is going on with groups like “Together for the Gospel” (T4TG). The way I see it, there are at least two burgeoning reform movements emerging out of contemporary American Evangelicalism. Both of them are in part a response to the theological and ecclesiological chaff of the mega-church mentality.

    T4TG represents a reformed-traditionally-protestant trajectory, and Emergent Village represents a innovative-revisionist trajectory. One of the problems with some emergent thinkers is that they equate all attempts at defining the Gospel as a modernist throwback. This is simply an historical and theological error. The T4TG group is optimistic about the use of propositional language (even though it is finite and imperfect), and emergent folks are typically pessimistic about it.

    This is a huge difference that I think all sides need to acknowldedge. T4TG-type people are naturally going to draft statements to describe their beliefs about God, and emergents typically will not. Yet I think Shults shuts down conversation in his piece because he classes statements such as T4TG as idolatry.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  8. Scot (in #6),

    To answer your question about how the gospel is defined, I would begin by pointing to article 7:

    “We affirm the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Christ as essential to the Gospel. We further affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord over His church, and that Christ will reign over the entire cosmos in fulfillment of the Father’s gracious purpose.”

    Isn’t this pretty good? Like something Paul might have said in order to summarize the gospel (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3ff)?

    Thanks,
    Denny

  9. Dr. Burk,

    You mention two separate reform movements…I think you’re right. However, I don’t think either of them are walking down the perfect road. Emergent folks are asking questions that the Reformed community is seeking to avoid, and vice-versa. They both need each other. Remember, the hand should not despise the foot…

    A question…
    Where in the history of the church can you show me the “centrality of expository preaching in the church?” Preaching is part of the answer, but not the whole story. What about prayer? Jesus did not teach that His house should be called a house of sermons.

    Hoping to read your thoughts soon,
    ben

  10. I do think we need eachother but only to the point at which the other is willing to engage. This document has essentially shut down engagement of any kind. How do you engage someone with a “my way or the highway” mentality…something everyone would be wise to keep in mind.

  11. Denny,

    You really stirred the pot with this one!

    Ben,

    See the centrality of the sermonic form in, for instance, Deuteronomy! And then again in Nehemiah. And while Jesus did teach his disciples to pray, he also seems to have done a lot of what looks like preaching!

    I think Paul believed in the centrality of preaching–see his statement on how God is pleased to save people in 1 Cor 1:21–through the foolishness of preaching! Then see his modus operandi in 1 Cor 2:1-4.

    So if you want a historical example of the centrality of preaching, I think you’ll find it both in Luke’s description of what Paul did in Acts 13 (to Jews) and 17 (to Gentiles), and I think you’ll also find it in Paul’s reports of what he did and how he did it in letters like 1 Corinthians.

    Leave the apostolic age, and I think you’ll find it from Chrysostom to Augustine to Bernard of Clairveaux to Luther to Calvin to Edwards to Whitefield to Spurgeon to Lloyd-Jones to Piper to Dever.

    I hope one day I can put Ben Arbor in a list like that!

    JMH

  12. Makeesha,

    I don’t think this shuts down engagement at all. In fact, it helps to engage people genuinely and truly if you can identify exactly what they think and why they think it. Only when someone has made clear what their ideas are can those ideas be engaged.

    So engagement doesn’t mean that we never state clearly what we believe or why we believe it, or that we postpone doing that until we find words that everyone can agree on.

    A first step in engagement is the coalescence of different parties into discernible groups, then those groups define themselves, then the groups can engage.

    So it seems to me that what the T4G statement does is say something like this: “This is who we are. If you agree with us, and if you want to join us in what we’re doing, we don’t have to engage you in a dispute before we start rowing in the same direction.”

    No one is forced to sign onto this document, and this document, I think, will actually help the conversation because those who may be in less agreement with the articles in the document now have something definite that they can point to and say, “I disagree with them and here’s why.”

    Let’s note, here, that this document carries no binding authority for any ecclesiastical institution.

    I don’t see how a document like this, which seems to take one of the first steps necessary for real engagement to happen, can be seen as closing off conversation.

    Hope this helps,

    JMH

  13. Denny,
    Kris and I had dinner last night with Joel and Carla — tell me about the swimming pool incident where you were walking on water, like Peter, until you realized that is what you were doing! What a hoot.

  14. Scot (in #15),

    Could there be any theological significance to this story coming out the same time as this one? 🙂

    Yes, I shall never forget my shock and surprise when I discovered there was no longer terra firma beneath by feet. I was flailing about rather wildly as I tried to regain my footing and get out of that pool. Meanwhile, my wife and Joel were doubled over in laughter while I made a spectacle of myself.

    Those were the days.

    Denny

  15. Makeesha (in #12),

    Why do you think T4G shuts down conversation? All it does is state some of their beliefs. Unless one is only willing to engage with people who have not come to any conclusions, then a document like this shouldn’t be shutting down any conversations. It actually helps such conversations.

    Are you saying that you will not engage with anyone who holds firmly to his or her convictions?

    Thanks,
    Denny

  16. Denny – of course not. and your comments are fair. What I am suggesting is that when people in the church lay out very rigid and dogmatic statements that use phrases like “We deny that any Christian can truley be a faithful disciple apart from the teaching, discipline, fellowship and accountability of a congregation of fellow disciples organized as a Gospel church.” (after having defined Gospel in several places throughout) it serves to exclude. I prefer to leave specific, non salvific issues more open ended so as to be inviting to discourse rather than discouraging of it. They did not create this document to say “come and let us reason together”. They created it to lay down the gauntlet and seperate out those who they define as Gospel followers and those who are not.

  17. I would like to say first of all….was anyone that posted here at the conference? I can say I was. And I can say the statement released with those articles were meant to separate. As Dever said, “Wolves don’t come with business cards that say ‘Wolf.’ They dress up like sheep, talk like sheep, and are published by sheep publishers.”
    –Mark Dever, @ T4G
    So that being said. I don’t think this language was done in a proud or self centered way, but in a way in which desired to remain faithful to the Gospel, whether you call the Gospel one thing or another, the Canonical teachings commonly known as the bible. If people get offended and think it was too bold….ask yourself…what do you beleive in? I know sitting at that conference listening to those statments individually being read, I could not help but reevaluate what i beleived regardless of what those statements said. In making those statements as they did, I do beleive that the intention was create solidarity on key issues that are essential to the Gospel.

  18. hmm…I skimmed over T4G, and while I don’t support post-modern philsophy, I think I have to agree with one of McKnight’s critiques. I would say the second comming and bodility ressurection of all belivers is a central aspect of the Gospel as a nessecary coilary of the ressurection of Jesus. The Christian hope is not in an ethreal bodiles exsistne in Heaven, but a real physical ressurection life with Christ.hmm…I skimmed over T4G, and while I don’t support post-modern philosophy, I think I have to agree with one of McKnight’s critiques. I would say the second coming and bodily resurrection of all believers is a central aspect of the Gospel as a necessary corollary of the resurrection of Jesus. The Christian hope is not in an ethereal bodies existence in Heaven, but a real physical resurrection life with Christ.

    Also sounds like in one part it is a subtle exclusion of arminians (article VIII)? I say so because the language sounds less like general theology and more like “code word’s” for the five points of Calvinism. They may be wrong, but they are still Christians and so we must say they believe in the Gospel…unless you want to argue that John Wesley was an apostate, which I doubt.

    I’m also curious what “faithful Gospel congregation” and “authentic ecclesiology” mean? Especially with the “Gospel Churches” language…hopefully not a regression into Landmarkism?? Maybe reading too much into that language..

  19. Wesley,

    It’s definitely not Landmarkism since at least one of the signatories is a Presbyterian.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  20. Taylor,

    You state, “If people get offended and think it was too bold….ask yourself…what do you beleive in?” I don’t think the issue/concern is with the re-examining of beliefs. I think the issue with the T4G statement is “is it necessary?” Especially in light of some clearly peripherial issues within the document, why do we need this kind of statement (especially if we are trying to stick to the gospel)?

    In light of that, why were very central issues to the gospel neglected (i.e. resurrection). As Scot pointed out earlier, even a definition of the gospel was left out. Denny commented in #10 that the T4G did that in the same vein of 1 Cor. 15:3ff. But is that what we want to say the gospel is? A list of historical events to assent to? I sure don’t want to. To me, Romans 1:16 is a lot more helpful, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation…” This reminds me a lot of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus giving a picture of what the saved life looks like and the gospel is the power to live it. Obviously, this power is grounded in the historical Jesus, his historical death and resurrection, but if it is merely the events, I think we missing something.

    Brian

  21. Brian,

    I understand your point and would reply by saying that Mohler, before he read these articles stated the fact that these articles were not complete in addressing all issues or doctrines and they were more foundation statements in which all four men could agree. It turned out that all seven men signed it but I think it was more to show the unity of these men. I do not in any way think they were portraying this as a confessional statement of any convention, association, or denomination or lack thereof.

    In almost a prophetic sense, Mohler said that these statements would almost surely be picked apart, misinterpreted, critiqued, and slammed in the blogosphere. Even still, they decided to write this and given the fact that all that signed it were Calvinists in one degree or another it is obviously tinged with that theology, which I happen to agree with. In addition, in saying that I do not think anyone, especially politically and denominationally correct Mohler would sign something with the intent on calling Arminians apostates, given the fact there are numerous Arminians Mohler interacts with on a frequent basis in the Convention. I mean, I don’t even think you could get Mohler to say the word, the only person that had the guts to say it was Piper, (desiring god ministries had on their table at the bookstore a full CD set of preaching through TULIP)

  22. Even still, they decided to write this and given the fact that all that signed it were Calvinists in one degree or another it is obviously tinged with that theology, which I happen to agree with. In addition, in saying that I do not think anyone, especially politically and denominationally correct Mohler, would sign something with the intent on calling Arminians apostates, given the fact there are numerous Arminians Mohler interacts with on a frequent basis in the Convention. I mean, I don’t even think you could get Mohler to say the word, the only person that had the guts to say it was Piper, (desiring god ministries had on their table at the bookstore a full CD set of preaching through TULIP)

  23. Honestly, I think this was a statement to address some of the current issues facing evangelicalism today, especially the EC and other wings of the church that want to stay away from “statements of faith” and confessions, and anything else concrete.
    Amen to sticking to the Gospel. I am sure they could have used 100 more versus or statements that could articulate that more clearly believe me Dever, Piper, Mohler, and Mahaney would not disagree with what you have written. Given the fact that Mohler was entrusted to right this document, I do not think he is going to be soft on fundamental issues like that, especially since he took over the seminary and had bloody fight that including everything short of his death.

    I guess I am one who does not want to see people that forget the context in which that document was written.

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