Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Gospel Coalition Gets the Gospel from Back to Front: Responding to Andrew Perriman’s Gospel


First of all, this is a very brief, and hopefully pointed response to Andrew Perriman’s criticism of Gospel Coalition’s reaction to certain elements of emergent theology that appear to misunderstand the gospel according to Jesus, expounded by Paul in his letters. Andrew Perriman states it clearly:

They appear to be reacting against theological developments which have driven a wedge between the Reformed emphasis on personal salvation, supposedly as Paul understood it, and the “emerging” idea—though it’s not stated as such—that Jesus preached kingdom and that kingdom means social transformation. - See more at: http://www.postost.net/2013/06/gospel-coalition-gets-gospel-back-front#sthash.Ag3l7KMY.dpuf

Perriman immediately gives us the real crux of the problem with the narrative-historical approach: “Did Paul preach Jesus’ gospel?” Perriman criticizes Piper for admitting to reading the gospels backwards. What Piper means is that he begins with the cross and works through the story again to enrich his understanding of what Jesus was doing. In other words, the crucifixion was the whole point of the narrative and it is always good to go back now and see the events that lead up to the climax of the story. Perriman seems to endorse the idea that such a practice impedes understanding when just the opposite is the case. Understanding the crucifixion can only offer us a much better understanding of much of what Jesus had to say leading up to that event. Perrmian’s criticism seems preposterous from this perspective.

Perriman gives us a flow chart as an example of why reformed thought fails to understand the gospel.


In the first place, Perriman’s tactic is terribly misleading. It assumes that Reformed theology has no historical basis for the theology to which it holds. He assumes it is a modern, or later invention that is forced back onto the text. Perriman does very little demonstrate why we should take his argument seriously. Perhaps Andrew wants to take the next 15-20 years and have us all re-debate the issues the church debated beginning at the Jerusalem conference, all over again. Perhaps that is what every generation of the Church should do. This way, all we would ever accomplish is debate after debate after debate. Is that really what the Church should do? Does Perriman and the other emergent really think this is the right course of action? The Christian group has a set of values and a confession that everyone who claims to be part of that group is obligated to keep. It is irrational to think that we must cover the same ground with every passing generation. The structure of elders teaching the younger generation is designed to safeguard against this very thing.

The basic problem with Perriman’s chart is that not only is the previous one an ad hominem against reformed theology, his alternative is terribly inadequate. The gospel does not begin with the story of Israel. It begins in Gen. 3:15. The gospel begins with God’s promise to our parents, the head of the human race. “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” This is the initial promise of the redeemer who would be born of a woman, who would crush the head of Satan by bruising His own heel. The location of this promise in history makes it universal. Israel is nowhere to be seen in this place or at this time. Andrew’s argument depends on his starting within the right historical framework. I argue that Scripture clearly contradicts Andrew’s choice. I also think it is clear that Andrew’s choice of where to begin is based on extreme theological bias. He reads his own understanding back into the text as much or more than the reformed tradition.

What Paul will later do with Jesus’ gospel has been hinted at already. Simeon prophesies that the historical salvation of Israel will be a “light of revelation to the Gentiles”—that is, it will open the eyes of the Gentiles to the power of Israel’s God to intervene in history and save his people from their enemies - See more at: http://www.postost.net/2013/06/gospel-coalition-gets-gospel-back-front#sthash.Ag3l7KMY.dpuf

Andrew takes great pleasure in referring to God as Israel’s God. But is He Israel’s God alone? Is God not our God? Does God’s election of Israel as a nation mean that He is not our God as well? Are we forever on the outside looking in? Again, this language is not based on Scriptural teaching as a whole, but rather on Andrew’s theological bias. God’s promise was redemption for all the nations, for those whom he would call, for His own. And that includes much more than the nation of Israel.

Paul’s role as a minister “of the gospel of Christ” is to ensure that the response of the Gentiles to what God has done for his people through his servant Jesus is acceptable. - See more at: http://www.postost.net/2013/06/gospel-coalition-gets-gospel-back-front#sthash.Ag3l7KMY.dpuf

Is this how Paul viewed his role? Does Paul ever burden himself with responsible of making sure that Gentiles are responding appropriately to the message of the gospel? Surely Andrew reads much more into the text than Paul intended. Paul’s role as a minister of the gospel was to preach the gospel to those who had never heard the gospel. Paul’s role is to do what he can to make sure the Gentiles hear the gospel, not to take responsibility for their response to the gospel.

But it seems to me that by beginning with the reductionist modern-Reformed premise that “gospel” is all about the justification of the individual and working backwards from there they have seriously misconstrued—or at least, misrepresented—the New Testament narrative. - See more at: http://www.postost.net/2013/06/gospel-coalition-gets-gospel-back-front#sthash.Ag3l7KMY.dpuf

Is Perriman on to something here? Does orthodoxy reduce the gospel to individual justification? Is it the case that reformed theology begins at the wrong place? Does orthodoxy have no anchor in ancient biblical exegesis? Are the confessions of Christendom the product of later pagan influence and hence responsible for hiding the gospel for nearly 1900 years or more? Is it possible that for 19-20 centuries, the true gospel of Christ has been hidden and that all that the Church ever was was a product of pagan philosophy and Greek influence as a result of twisting the sayings and teachings of Jesus? That proposition is not only very difficult to imagine, it is one of the most absurd propositions I have read.

The doctrine of justification is a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. It has been from the beginning. Where one stands on this subject determines whether or not they stand or outside the Christian group. I realize this kind of language is frowned upon by modern scholarship. I fully recognize this sort of language offends the sensibilities of many, if not most in that community. However, I am far more concerned with truth that I am with offending the sensibilities of men.

The question is what does the gospel have to do with justification? And is Andrew right to draw such a sharp distinction between gospel and justification? To answer that question, we turn to Paul’s earliest letter, the letter to Galatians. Martin Luther refers to this letter as the queen of the epistles. The early church fathers wrote more commentaries on Galatians than any other NT book. The location of the churches of Galatia in NT hierarchy only adds to the significance and prominence of this relatively short epistle. “It remains true today to say that how one understands the issues and teachings of Galatians determines in large measure what kind of theology is espoused, what kind of message is proclaimed, and what kind of lifestyle is practiced.” [Longenecker – WBC on Galatians]

However one understands Galatians, one thing is clear: Paul was dealing with a different gospel, and that gospel was related to an understanding of Justification that was different from the one these Churches had previously received from him. “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” In fact, this gospel and its view of justification was cause for Paul to accuse some of the Galatian churches of abandoning the faith. Whatever Perriman and the emergent enlightened ones have to say on this issue, they had better watch their Ps and Qs. As far as that goes, we all had better watch our Ps and Qs. This is no small matter. It is in fact an eternal matter.
“But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.” Paul refers to these men with a different perspective of the gospel and justification as “false brethren.”

“Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” Clearly justification is more than a mere afterthought in terms of the content of the gospel. As Paul seems to argue, a misunderstanding of justification equals a different gospel. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” Once more, Paul’s polemic infers that such a view destroys grace and makes the death of Christ meaningless. It seems there is much more to Christ’s death than the just the suffering servant.
“The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” Andrew’s preference for Israel’s God also seems quite an overstatement given Paul’s argument that from the very beginning God had the justification of people from all nations in mind even when He made His promise to Abraham.

“Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” Paul here proves that we understand the purpose of the Law only if we rightly understand Christ and NT revelation. Andrew has it just the opposite. It is only in Christ that we can see the true purpose of the Law. Without that light, we cannot see the real meaning of OT revelation. Andrew seeks to throw away the light we have been given in hopes of rediscovering it in the darkness of an intentionally veiled message.
It seems nearly impossible to read Galatians honestly, to borrow one of Andrew’s terms, and to walk away thinking that justification and gospel can be separated. If I am not mistaken, someone in the visible Church tried that once before and, well, we know how that turned out.



1 comment:

  1. Hi Ed, since Genesis 3:15 seems so central to this response, I've addressed its interpretation here.

    ReplyDelete

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