In chapter 2 of Center Church Tim Keller cautions that ‘The Gospel is Not A Simple Thing’.
He warns against a one-size-fits-all gospel presentation that serves as a test of orthodoxy. There is clearly an agreed gospel content in the NT, yet the gospel writers present the gospel in a number of ways. The chapter has strong echoes of Keller’s article ‘The Gospel in all its forms’ available online here.
Complementary ways the NT talks about the one gospel
Gospels: the synoptics talk of the kingdom. Keller says this is more corporate and future. The kingdom has come and takes shape in social and behavioural ways (no mention of healings and spiritual conflict that are so evident in the Synoptics). John – talks of eternal life; inward and personal aspects of the kingdom. Eternal life and kingdom are not synonyms, but they both talk of entering (kingdom / eternal life) and this involves faith and new life. Entering the kingdom / eternal life ‘are basically the same move’.
Paul: Keller says when Paul presents the gospel he does so in terms of justification / law court / penalty for sin (well he does in two of his letters, Romans and Galatians but it is one of several ways Paul explains the atonement). Keller says this is not a different gospel, but a complementary way to communicate it.
“At the heart of all the biblical writers’ theology is redemption through substitution.”
(He must mean NT writers here? Yes substitution is important but I’m not so sure that atonement in the NT can be reduced down this one theme. Jesus is also our representative and example to name two others.)
Connecting the gospel to the Bible’s themes
What I like so much about Keller is his evangelistic heart, his focus on grace, his non-polemical approach to those he disagrees with (contra some others I can think of), and his thoughtful and fruitful theology. In short, Keller has something often overlooked and rarely talked about in evangelical spirituality – wisdom.
You see a wise approach in how he is sensitive to the need to read the Bible through both systematic and redemptive-historical lenses rather than set up one up in conflict to the other. Indeed, it seems to me that a lot of the sharpness in contemporary debates over ‘gospel’ are to do with these two ways of reading the Bible being set over against each other. (You see it in John Piper’s systematic response to NT Wright’s more narrative approach in his [Piper’s] book on justification for example).
So while Keller sees the gospel in primarily soteriological terms (God, sin, Christ, faith) that focus on what I must do to be saved, he sees all too clearly that this, on its own, can end up detached from the context and story of the Bible and the biblical books, and end up with reductionistic and individualistic gospel formulas. This is the approach that has dominated evangelicalism.
Therefore Keller says it is a ‘both and’ situation. We also need to read the Bible through a narrative lens (redemptive-historical): the Bible as a story, creation, fall, Israel, her Messiah, Spirit, God’s people, new creation. The gospel is presented as creation, fall, promise and prefigurement, Israel, Christ’s redemption and restoration. It brings out, Keller says, the purpose of salvation, namely new creation.
But read on its own, Keller warns, it can emphasise narrative and community, but downplay the need for personal faith and blunt the sharp edge between law and grace.
[I’m not so sure of his argument here. Personal salvation is an intrinsic part of the story. A redemptive-historical approach is much closer to the actual form of the Bible as given to us. It gives a much needed corrective to the overwhelming dominance of systematic categories within evangelical soteriology.]
So Keller wants to connect the Bible’s multiple story lines with more systematic gospel questions. The Bible’s story lines (themes) are to be read through key gospel questions. These questions are soteriological: (my words here) – ‘what is wrong?’, ‘how has God put it right?’, ‘what is our response?’ type questions.
The drawback here is that multiple Bible themes tend to be read through a set soteriological framework that can, if not done very well, tend to flatten out the Bible into a predictable and rather uni-dimensional grid of salvation. This can lead to the rather too familiar repetitive one-size-fits-all gospel formula that was / is repeated at evangelical ‘gospel meetings’ every week; mostly preaching to the converted who know all the right answers beforehand anyway!
However, Keller does this sort of gospel preaching brilliantly. He is enormously gifted and bringing the text to life and connecting it to deep themes of the heart. His preaching allows a consistent yet flexible ‘gospel reading’ of the Bible that gives weight to the richness and diversity of Scripture and allows the gospel to be presented and contextualised in many ways. There is variety and richness in this approach.
Keller gives three examples of Bible themes and relates each to a gospel framework of what God wants for us (creation); what happened and what went wrong with the world (Fall); what God has done in Jesus to put things right (redemption); how history will turn out at the end (Restoration).
- Exile and Homecoming
- Yahweh and covenant
- Kingdom of God
So to take one example, here’s a synopsis of Keller’s kingdom / gospel framework:
- The kingdom theme shows us our need for a liberator from slavery. [In St Bob’s words ‘you gotta serve somebody’].
- The story of much of Israel is the search for a true leader. But they end up in slavery, idolatry and exile.
- The hope of the OT is of a Messiah who would bring freedom.
- The story of the NT is that Jesus is the ‘divine king returning to take up his kingdom’.
- The power of the king is seen in liberating from false masters and enslaving idols [surprisingly again, no mention of the power of the kingdom in terms of spiritual conflict, healings].
- Wrong priorities (power, money) are re-ordered in Christ’s kingdom by generosity, service and humility.
- His kingdom is entered in repentance and new birth and becoming like a child.
- Those in the kingdom look forward to the final liberation of all things when ‘The freedom and joy of the kingdom of heaven will come to earth.’ (43).
Comments, as ever, welcome