Category Archives: Ancient-Future

But What is the Gospel? (Stephen)

[As I note at the end of this post, it is very speculative, and I am mostly just interested to see what others have to contribute either in the poll or in comments.]

Since their origins in the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have focused on the importance of the Gospel above almost anything else.  If neo-evangelicalism is fracturing today, we would expect to see its account of the Gospel fracturing first.  And this is, I think, what is happening.

As Brett McCracken notes, this past spring two large conferences prominently promoted divergent (though not necessarily entirely contradictory) accounts of the Gospel: While the Wheaton College Theology Conference was centered on the work of N. T. Wright, who promotes a revisionist (no, that doesn’t have to mean “bad”) account of Paul’s notion of “justification,” Together for the Gospel had a conference that aggressively pushed “neo-Reformed” theology, a perspective that owes much to John Piper’s view of justification (about which he and Wright have debated).  And these are only two perspectives.  Here, I think, is a (hopefully) fair summary of the major accounts on offer today in what used to be evangelicalism:

Neo-Evangelical: This is the Billy Graham/Josh McDowell emphasis on human sinfulness, the divine intervention in the form of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and a joyful and life-changing experience of conversion, of being born again.  Such cultural institutions as “finding Jesus Christ,” the “Four Spiritual Laws,” the “Romans Road,” the “ABC’s of Salvation,” and Gospel tracts are usually associated with this account.  While many who were converted to evangelicalism using this model still hold to this account, few use the traditional methods mentioned above when propagating it.  Actually, most of these people no longer have enough “unsaved” acquaintances to make these methods worthwhile to them.  [James has added that forensic justification is usually assumed as part of this account.]

Pentecostal: While they were part of the neo-evangelical coalition, white Pentecostals held to substitutionary atonement as the means by which Jesus is Savior, a means that had been inherited from the Fundamentalist emphasis on the significance of substitutionary atonement (over against the Modernist rejection of this theory).  This, however, was slowly replacing the four-fold emphasis on Jesus as Savior, Healer, Spirit-Baptizer, and Coming King that had marked early Pentecostalism.  Now, though, some Pentecostals are drifting more fully into something like neo-evangelicalism while others are diverging.  For those who are diverging from this stream, the Gospel looks like a manifestation of the Spirit’s power and the reenactment of New Testament church life than like the emphasis on forgiveness from sin.  As a result, pursuit of a better life and use of God as a good-luck charm of sorts (don’t be so quick to judge) are characteristic of the decreasingly evangelical wing of Pentecostalism.

(Neo-)Reformed: As Christianity Today says, they are “Young, Restless, Reformed.”  Unflinchingly dogmatic (not always a bad thing), this faction is largely inspired by John Piper and emphasizes the glory and sovereignty of a God who elects for salvation those whom He (yes, He – it’s very important) wishes to elect.  For these people, “justification” is forensic; it is a court-room scene in which Jesus is made the substitute for the elect.  This perspective has much in common with the magisterial Reformation, but it was less well-represented for some decades during the neo-evangelical coalition.

Emergent: No one is really sure what this is, so I use it as a “catch-all” for those who are intentionally moving beyond neo-evangelicalism.  This “movement” includes the vagueness of Brian McLaren’s approach, the revisionism of N. T. Wright’s nature-saving, society-transforming emphasis on human cooperation with God, and the deep digging of Robert Webber’s return to the liturgy of the ancient church.  For these people, the Gospel is too big to be narrowed down to substitutionary atonement or a three-step prayer; instead, they emphasize process and a holistic approach that sometimes lends itself to a lack of clarity about beliefs.

So do you fit into one or more or these categories?  Take the poll below, and feel free to comment if you don’t fit into any category or if you object to the way I’ve described one or more of them.