Friday, April 30, 2010

Worldview Comprehensive Exam - Question 1

QUESTION 1 – Discuss the various approaches to apologetics, with their strengths and weaknesses as well as representatives of each approach.

Steven Cowan, in Five Views of Apologetics, classifies apologetic approaches into five schools – classical, evidential, cumulative case, presuppositional, and Reformed epistemological. In their more comprehensive text, Faith Has Its Reasons, Boa and Bowman identify four basic schools – classical, evidential, presuppositional, and fideist – and supplement those four schools by describing an ‘integrative’ approach to apologetics. Boa and Bowman’s presuppositional apologetics incorporates Cowan’s presuppositionalism and Reformed epistemology; while Cowan’s cumulative case approach is arguably absorbed within Boa and Bowman’s classical school, or else is a species of the integrative approach. In this essay, I will use Boa and Bowman’s classification of four primary apologetic schools. For each apologetic approach, I will discuss the distinctive approach to apologetics, identify representative figures and their contributions, and outline the major strengths and weaknesses of the approach.

I. Classical Apologetics

A. Distinctives & Representatives of the Classical Approach

Classical apologetics stresses the place of reason in arguing for the truth of the Christian faith. Man is a rational animal, endowed by his Creator with logic, intellect, and rationality. The belief of classical apologists is that we are able to argue for the truth of Christianity with a non-believer, and establish the rational probability of our faith.

Historically, classical apologists argue for the truth of Christianity in a ‘two-step’ apologetic. First, they seek to establish the necessity of a theistic worldview by using the traditional theistic proofs. The cosmological argument (the favorite of classical apologist William Lane Craig), the moral argument (brilliantly worked out by classical apologist C. S. Lewis), the teleological argument (as explicated variously by Paley, Craig, Ross, etc.), and even the ontological argument in various forms are used to demonstrate that materialism (naturalism) is not a coherent or explanatorily-satisfactory worldview.

Having established to their satisfaction (and mine) the truth of theism, classical apologists move on to argue for the truth of Christian theism specifically. Here, the arguments involve a demonstration of the historical reliability of Scripture (Old and New Testaments) [see answer to question #3], a defense of fulfilled prophecy, an examination of the claims of Christ (his professed divinity – claims to be God in the flesh), and a defense of the resurrection (very thoroughly worked out by W. L. Craig). Quite frequently, classical apologists will also point to the possibility of miracles (in either step one or step two, but more frequently the former).

The classical approach to apologetics is evident as far back as the New Testament, where Luke consistently describes the Apostle Paul as “arguing” with the Jews, “demonstrating” to them that Jesus was the Christ. Paul is frequently seen engaging the reason and intellect of his audience, pleading with them to acknowledge the rational truth of his Christian faith. The Areopagus address of Acts 17 engages the Athenian populace on common ground, seeking to begin where they are at in order to demonstrate the reasons for the Christian faith. The notion of common ground becomes important when classical apologetics is compared with other approaches – particularly the presuppositional approach. Other classical apologetics (most of whom I’ve already mentioned) who stress the use of reason in the defense and explanation of the Christian faith are Thomas Aquinas (illustrated in his famous Five Ways [or five theological proofs]), William Lane Craig, and C. S. Lewis. I consider myself a classical apologist at heart, although I embrace the integrative approach of beginning with the classical approach and then incorporating insights and methods from the other schools.

B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Classical Approach

The classical school of apologetics emphasizes the inevitable use of reason in establishing the truth of the Christian faith. Human beings cannot avoid being rational creatures; and whatever apologetic approach one takes, the use of reason will be necessary. The laws of logic govern all human thought, whether people like it or not (and admit it or not); classical apologists begin with that insight and move on from there.

A potential weakness of classical apologetics stems from this fundamental strength. It is possible to overemphasize the power of human reason, and to allow reason to become autonomous and majesterial. Hence, Craig warns against that possibility, and insists that reason must play a ministerial role, and that faith, particularly the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit, must play the majesterial (authoritative) role. In other words, while reason can be overemphasized in classical apologetics, it need not be.

A second strength of classical apologetics is that it begins with where people are at. It seeks and finds common ground between the apologist and the seeker/skeptic whom they are engaging. This gives a basis for conversation, and allows a true dialogue to emerge.

This strength can also turn into a weakness, however. Presuppositional apologists point out that reason and evidences do not exist in a vacuum, but are interpreted within the context of our existing worldview. Hence, when classicists seek to argue for the truth of Christianity, the worldview of the apologee may simply consider the arguments to be a ‘dead option,’ and not even consider it. Furthermore, classical apologetics is accused of downplaying (or simply neglecting) the noetic effects of sin – that is, the impact that the fall of mankind has upon our reasoning process.

II. Evidential Apologetics

A. Distinctives and Representatives of the Evidential Approach

The evidential approach to apologetics stresses the place of evidences, particularly historical evidences, in defending the truth of the Christian faith. While classical apologetics is a two-step approach, evidentialism is characterized by a one-step argument for Christianity. The argument is that historical (and/or scientific) facts/evidences in and of themselves demonstrate that Christianity is true.

Thus, for example, Paul’s address in 1 Corinthians 15 can be seen as an evidential apologetic. While Paul is not addressing non-believers, his defense of the resurrection of Christ is based on historical evidences – particularly the appearances of the risen Christ to a number of witnesses, including himself. In Acts 2 (and other passages), the apostle Peter leans heavily on the historical fact of the resurrection to plead with his fellow Jews to embrace Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. David died and was buried, and remains buried to this day, but Jesus, whom the Jews crucified, is no longer in the grave, but has risen, “and we are all witnesses of the fact.” Paul uses the evidences to argue for the truth of his faith.

Natural theology (theistic proofs) is prominent in evidential apologetics (just as it is prominent in classical apologetics). Demonstrating the necessary truth of Christianity from “what is” and “what has been”. William Paley, with his famous ‘watch-maker’ example (which is still powerful enough to prompt a countering book by Richard Dawkins), points to the evidences from design as proof of theistic Christianity. Gary Habermas (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Resurrection and the Future Hope, etc.), Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict), and Richard Swinburne (The Coherence of Theism) are contemporary examples of evidential apologists.

B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Evidential Approach

The evidential approach acknowledges that historical facts and evidences are unavoidable and necessary in arguing for the truth of the Christian faith. This is a good thing. However, it can also be a danger. Presuppositionalists point out that there is no such thing as a ‘brute fact,’ but that even historical facts are interpreted through the grid of worldview.

A further strength of evidential apologetics is that it acknowledges common ground with skeptics. The non-believer can see history, can examine the scientific record, in order to assess the truth-claims of Christianity. There is a common basis for discussion.

However, the critic can argue that evidentialism results in compromise of the Christian faith. It is argued that our beginning point should be Scripture, and Scripture alone.

III. Presuppositional Apologetics

A. Distinctives and Representatives of the Presuppositional Approach

Presuppositional apologetics insist that the beginning point of apologetics is the self-authenticating, authoritative Word of God – God’s self-revelation in Scripture. We must begin our apologetics with Scripture. Thus, presuppositionalists reject the classical approach of treating Scripture as the conclusion of apologetic argumentation (as if Scripture has to be defended); and similarly reject the evidential approach of treating Scriptures as one set of historical data for apologetic use. Rather, Scripture is the foundation of apologetics.

Presuppositionalism emphasizes the role of worldview presuppositions in human argumentation. Human beings are not white boards; there is no tabula rosa upon which brute facts and arguments can make an impact. Rather, everything is perceived and interpreted through our worldview lenses. Thus, famously, Abrahama Kuyper argues that there is nothing in common between sanctified science and secular science (my words, not his); in a similar vein, Cornelius Van Til speaks for most presuppers when he insists that there is no common ground between Christians and non-Christians. We see things differently; there is no possibility of starting in the same place.

Arguably, the Apostle Paul uses presuppositional apologetics at some points of his ministry to appeal to his audience. Romans 1 speaks strongly of the tendency of human beings to suppress the truth of God, and to worship the creation rather than the Creator – Paul is speaking of two things: (1) the noetic effects of sin and the resulting utter depravity of mankind; and (2) the power of worldview. Non-believers suppress and reject the truth of God, and embrace a lie, simply because the power of their worldview precludes them accepting the truth of Christianity. Presuppositional apologetics is very tightly connected to a Calvinistic Christianity, which emphasizes the total depravity of mankind, and the inability to consider anything rightly without the efficacious (and special, not common) grace of God through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Representatives of presuppositional apologetics include John Calvin, Kuyper, and Van Til. Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, and his other copious writings have inspired a new generation of apologists who continue in the presuppositional strain.

B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Presuppositional Approach

Classical and evidential apologetics both share the weakness of potentially downplaying the role of worldview in the apologetic process. They can treat the non-believer as if he is able, in and of himself, to see the evidence for Christianity as it is, to consider the classical arguments for the truth of the faith, and to rationally accept those proofs and evidences. Presuppositional apologetics has rightfully pushed apologetics towards accepting that this picture is a false picture. Arguments and evidences are never going to bring someone to Christ. Rather, the worldview held by the person, which denies God and places self at the autonomous apex, must be overturned before a person can become a Christian.

In all fairness, many classical and evidential apologists (e.g. Craig and Habermas) acknowledge and embrace this truth now, but there was a time when they conducted their apologetics as if this were not the case (e.g. Lewis, Swinburne). Thus, presuppositionalism rightly emphasizes the power of worldview within a person.
However, in its categorical denial of common ground between believer and non-believer, presuppositional apologetics goes too far. The example that we see in Scripture is of Peter and Paul (and others) appealing to their audiences on the basis of perceived common ground. Again, the Areopagus address assumes common ground between Paul and the Greek philosophers – Jerusalem and Athens do have something in common.

Nonetheless, presuppositional apologists helpfully emphasize the need to challenge the existing worldview of non-believers. Classical and evidential apologetics often begin arguing and laying out evidences without considering how those facts and arguments will be perceived within the existing worldview. Presuppositionalists rightfully insist that the prevailing worldview must itself be challenged and overturned. Any non-Christian worldview is ultimately insufficient, incoherent, and unliveable, and the Christian must demonstrate that (i.e., establish a point of tension, in Schaeffer’s terminology, or ‘take the roof off’) to drive them to a point of being open to the grace of God.

A second, and major, weakness of presuppositional apologetics is its tight connection with Calvinism. While non-Calvinists can appreciate the insights of presuppositional apologetics, presuppositionalism is very prone to a narrow, exclusivist, and condemning perspective. Hence, Van Til disowns all but one (Bahnsen) of his own disciples, feeling that they are not ‘presuppositional enough’. Hence also Van Til’s constant (and contemptuous) derision of ‘Arminian and Catholic’ apologetics – as if there is nothing redeeming or helpful within them.

IV. Fideist Apologetics

A. Distinctives and Representatives of the Fideist Approach

“Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” Classical apologetics stresses reason; evidential apologetics stresses facts/evidences; presuppositional apologetics stresses worldview presuppositions; fideist apologetics stresses paradoxical faith.

Fideism insists that you cannot argue or convince someone of the truth of Christianity – in this way it resembles presuppositional apologetics. Fideism goes on to stress that this is a good thing. Indeed, faith must be embraced contrary to, or in the absence of, argumentation and evidence – in this it departs entirely from presuppositional apologetics.

The positive distinctive of fideist apologetics is its emphasis on our existential situation, our deep personal need for the truth of the Christian faith. Blaise Pascal, a pre-eminent representative of the fideist approach (though I don’t think it’s entirely fair), thus states that “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand.” Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard encourages us to take a leap of faith, and embrace the Christ that is presented in Scripture.

Fideist apologetics became popular at a lay level as Darwinism spread amongst Western society and culture. As people began to sense that there were increasing reasons against Christianity, embracing a reason-less Christianity was a way of defending or insulating oneself against external attack.

However, fideism need not be entirely contrary to (or absent of) apologetic arguments and proofs. Pascal, for example, posits his famous Wager not as the beginning point of an apologetic approach, but rather as the culmination. He insists that there are persuasive and strong rational demonstrations for Christianity – but he acknowledges (along with classicists and evidentialists) that they are not conclusive, but only probable. Therefore, Pascal insists that the Christian can only bring the non-Christian so far: to the place where he acknowledges Christianity as possibly true. In fact, Pascal believes that you can show that Christianity is just as probable as the materialistic worldview that the non-believer (in his contemporary France, and our contemporary America) embraces – but that reason cannot decide between the two. It is at this point, and not earlier, that the non-believer is encouraged to gamble on God. Pascal’s Wager is the culmination of his entire apologetic – “I’ve demonstrated the probable truth of Christianity; I’ve shown you your existential need for the redemption and purpose of the Gospel; but I know that this is not demonstratively conclusive. Therefore, you need to make a choice – I urge you to make the choice that will pay eternal and infinite dividends.”

B. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Fideist Approach

Fideist apologetics appeals to the heart of man. In our day and age, like Pascal’s, like Kierkegaard’s, people are crying out for meaning and purpose. Trapped in a materialistic, naturalistic, purposeless, meaningless worldview, man withers; his unquenchable religious spirit groans against the imposition of an empty philosophical system which seeks to denigrate the deepest desires and cries of his heart. Fideism acknowledges the truth of the human religious desires, and seeks to reach people at that point.

However, fideism easily resorts to an unassailable, but similarly meaningless and contentless, Christianity. While fideists are right to emphasize Christ as an event and a person to be embraced, they are wrong to shy away from defending biblical inerrancy and authority – for then there is no Christ-event to be embraced existentially. There is content to our faith; Christ is the object of our faith as well as the subjective experience of our faith.

V. Integrative Apologetics

While the four approaches to apologetics (classical, evidential, presuppositional, and fideist) exhaust the methodological starting points for apologists, Boa and Bowman promote an integrative approach to apologetics which begins with one school, but goes on to incorporate wisdom and methodological insight from the other schools of thought.

Boa and Bowman cite Carnell, Frame, and Schaeffer as representatives of integrative apologetics. It is certainly evident in each of them! Frame’s tri-perspectivalism emphasizes presuppositional apologetics (the normative approach – beginning with the authority of Scripture), but also embraces classical/evidential apologetics (the situational approach – acknowledging the facticity and power of arguments and evidences) and fideist apologetics (the existential approach – acknowledging that we are embedded human beings needing a living relationship with Christ).

Schaeffer masterfully elucidates the need to engage people where they are at existentially (fideist); but goes on to insist that we must deconstruct their existing worldview in a loving, gentle, but insistent way (presuppositional – taking the roof off, identifying the point of tension in their existing worldview; demonstrating the incoherence of their current way of thinking), and puts great stock in arguments for the truth of the Christian faith (classical/evidential apologetics).

However, I would argue that William Lane Craig, often the poster-boy for classical apologetics, similarly demonstrates an integrative approach. I suspect the reason that Boa and Bowman do not identify Craig as an integrative apologist is that they are locked into a certain perspective themselves. Carnell, Frame, and Schaeffer all begin as presuppositional apologists, and then incorporate the insights of other methodologies. Perhaps this is seen as necessary by Boa and Bowman? At any rate, Craig does not fit that particular integrative model. He does not begin from a presuppositional perspective; he unashamedly and obviously begins with a classical framework. The theistic proofs occupy a large portion of his Reasonable Faith (3rd edition, 2008). His work on the cosmological argument is exemplary. He moves on from the theistic proofs to consider the personal claims of Jesus, and finally the proofs of the resurrection of Christ. Content-wise, Craig emphasizes and exemplifies a classical approach to apologetics. Nonetheless, Craig has also incorporated the wisdom of the presuppositional and fideist approaches to apologetics. Craig does not begin his apologetic treatise with a discussion of theistic proofs. Rather, he begins with a lengthy (and excellent) essay on the existential need of man for the meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that can only come from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a chapter worthy of Kierkegaard of Pascal, Craig talks about the meaninglessness of life without God, the deep and unquenchable human desire for immortality and relationship with the divine. Indeed, Craig references Kierkegaard and Pascal repeatedly, and delves also into the novels of Dostoyevski. From that chapter he moves on, not to the theistic proofs, but rather to a discussion of the role of presuppositions and an emphasis upon the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. In words that could have been spoken by Van Til, Craig insists that human reason is not autonomous, but rather is fallen (i.e., he acknowledges and emphasizes the noetic effects of sin), and that reason must play a subsidiary role (the ministerial, as opposed to majesterial) compared to faith. Faith is primary, and comes through the self-authentication of the Holy Spirit. Reason confirms and buttresses our faith. Craig goes on to acknowledge (later, in his chapters on theistic proofs) that the Holy Spirit can and often does use reasons, arguments, and evidences, to bring the non-Christian to the point of faith – but emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit, not the reasons and arguments, that convert.

My own approach to apologetics would mirror that of Craig. I begin from a classical approach, but willingly and gratefully pilfer the rich insights of the presuppositional and fideist schools of apologetics to augment my own apologetic repertoire.

Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

Hey everyone. For those who have wondered where I have gone, I have been diligently preparing for 'comprehensive exams', which started on Wednesday and finish up Monday morning.

Comprehensive exams test the breadth and depth of students' knowledge in their fields of study. Wednesday I wrote my 'comp' for Apologetics & Worldview; this morning I wote my World Religions comp; Monday morning I will write my Philosophy comp. For each comprehensive exam, you are expected to be able to pull information together from a broad range of reading and research, and provide competent, comprehensible answers to fairly broad questions. Each comprehensive exam lasts four hours. For both exams I have taken thus far, I have had to write three essays within those four hours.

I thought it would be interesting and thought-provoking to post my comprehensive exam essays up on my blog - unedited and unmodified. Initially, I was not sure that this was allowed - but I received no instructions or commands to the contrary, so I will go ahead and do so! Please keep in mind that these essays are entirely unedited. Some of them do not flow as smoothly as they would if I spent more time on them. Anyways, I'll post them up one at a time over the next week or two. Any thoughts or feedback that you have would be appreciated! Hopefully, I pass these comps and move on to the next stage - the dissertation process.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Gospel

The Gospel, The Whole Gospel, and Nothin’ But The Gospel

I. The Centrality of the Gospel

The events of Easter weekend are often encapsulated in the phrase ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ This is perfectly appropriate, and today I want to investigate what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, and how we are to understand and live by it.

At the outset, I want to quote the warning from the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I saw again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

A church must be founded upon the Gospel: we are not to add to or take away from the Gospel. Embracing, teaching, or preaching a different (expanded or reduced or alternative) gospel is in effect rejecting the gospel.

II. The Center of the Gospel – Jesus Christ

But what is the Gospel? The historical events of Easter week generally focus our attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And certainly this is central to the gospel. Throughout 1 Corinthians, for example, the apostle Paul focuses upon Christ crucified and risen.

1:22-24 – “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

2:1-2 – “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Lest we think Paul focused only on the crucifixion of Christ, he corrects us in 15:3-8 – “For what I received [the gospel tradition he received from the other apostles] I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. …”

The Gospel preached by Paul centered upon the atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But the New Testament concept of the Gospel is broader, incorporates more, than only these pivotal historical events.

The Greek word translated as ‘Gospel’ is ευαγγελιον (euangelion), which literally means ‘Good News’. Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is literally Good News. When put in verbal form, the Gospel becomes ευαγγελιζω (euangelizo), from which we derive our English verb “evangelize” (as well as the noun evangelism). The connotation of euangelizo is that of ‘proclamation’. Hence, in 1 John 1, the apostle John tells his readers:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

So what is the Good News about Jesus Christ that is proclaimed in the New Testament, and beyond the New Testament, through the preaching of the Church?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the beginning of the New Testament Gospels. In fact, it is beneficial to note that the largest section of the New Testament is composed of four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ which are entitled “Good News”es.

Mark 1:1 – “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Gospel is about, or concerning, or of, Jesus of Nazareth. A friend wrote to me yesterday, asking insightfully – “what would Mark’s readers have thought of immediately when they read Mark 1:1?” Would they have thought naturally of the cross and the empty tomb? Arguably not. That certainly would have become central to their understanding of the gospel, but it would not have been the only understanding. We’ll get to that in a little bit.

III. The Heart of the Gospel

First, let’s consider the heart of the Gospel. The New Testament Gospels initially suggest that the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is repentance. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is marked by his proclamation: “The time has come … The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15 – the parallel passages in Matthew, Luke, and John are similar.) Notice that Jesus calls his hearers to “repent and believe the good news”, that is, to believe “the Gospel,” at a time when repenting and believing could not have meant believing the Good News that Jesus had died for their sins and been raised from the dead. Temporally, Jesus is preaching the “Good News” before that facet of the “Good News” has occurred. Thus, there is more to the Gospel than the atonement and resurrection.

Nonetheless, the concept of repentance is central to the Gospel. Repentance in our contemporary society often means simply ‘saying sorry’ for your wrongdoing, and expecting forgiveness. That is not a biblical conception of repentance. Biblical repentance is a turning away, or a hating of your sin. It involves acknowledgment that you have indeed done wrong in the eyes of God, and hence need forgiveness. But it also involves a turning away from the wrongdoing, a heart-felt commitment to not falling into the sin again.

Furthermore, repentance entails the notion of transformation. As one insightful member of our church noted at a recent Bible study, repentance is turning away from our sin and turning to God. Simply confessing our sin before God and asking forgiveness is not sufficient – there is also the need to be filled with the good things of God.

Along the same lines, the ministry of John the Baptist in Luke 3 makes it clear that repentance must be accompanied by (or includes) transformation.
(Verse 3) John went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. … John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’

The crowd then asks John what they need to do – he tells them that their repentance is to be matched by a transformation in how they live their lives. They are to share what they have with those who have not; not to extort their customers; not to accuse people falsely, etc. Luke 3:3-14 makes it clear that repentance must be accompanied by “fruit” – that is, our professed turning away from sin must be matched by a life that is actually turning away from sin. Another way of saying this is that the Gospel necessarily includes the notion of transformation – being changed radically into the image of Jesus Christ. Thus, there is perhaps a different word that better encapsulates the heart of the Gospel.
Redemption incorporates the concepts of repentance and transformation. God redeems us, cleanses us of our sinfulness, and transforms us (gradually) into the image of His son, Jesus Christ.

IV. The Whole Gospel

Luke 3:3-14 also points to ways that the Gospel can be misunderstood or minimized, particularly in our contemporary evangelical Church culture.

As we pursue this train of thought, it is good to be reminded that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is multi-faceted, and all facets of the Gospel must be embraced and taught if our church is to be marked by a healthy approach to The Gospel.
This is no different than our understanding of the Triune God of the Bible. Many Christians prefer to emphasize just one aspect of God’s nature or character. But God is a composite whole – to praise or worship just one aspect of God is to worship an incomplete (at best) or false (at worst) God. For example, the Bible clearly teaches that God is Holy, Loving, Just, Almighty, All-Knowing, Faithful, and so on. Many Christians prefer to focus just on the love of God, and proclaim that God doesn’t care about our sex lives, and will redeem everyone because He is love. Other Christians prefer to focus just on the wrath of God, and proclaim fiery sermons berating parishioners on the torments of hellfire that await them if they wear the wrong clothes to church on Sunday. Now, both of those are exaggerated caricatures, but the point is clear – we can’t proclaim just one aspect of God’s character and insist that we’ve got the picture of who God is. God is God. We cannot separate Him into distinct elements or character traits. We can (and should) teach the various aspects of God’s character and nature, but should consciously steer clear of presenting one aspect as if it is the only one!

The Gospel is the Good News of what God has done through His Son Jesus Christ. The Gospel too is multi-faceted – it is not a one-dimensional proclamation.

A. The Gospel Does Not Just Apply To Individuals

A question we must ask when we discuss the Gospel as redemption is this: Who is God redeeming? Granted that the Gospel involves redemption (including repentance and transformation) – who does it apply to?

1. Individuals (the Christian) – First, it is inescapably true that God is concerned to redeem particular individuals.

Acts 2:38 makes it clear that the Gospel does, necessarily, apply to individuals. After delivering the first Christian sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter is asked by the crowd, “What then shall we do?” Peter’s response: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, will certainly never mean less that personal redemption and deliverance from the bondage to sin.

2 Corinthians 5:17-6:2 reads: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore God’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. … I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor; now is the day of salvation.”

The appeal is personal and applied – be reconciled to God. Become a new creation. Some Christians and churches downplay the individual aspect of Gospel redemption. Evangelicals (like myself) are generally pretty solid on proclaiming and embracing the individual aspect of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ. But there is more to the Gospel than individual redemption.

2. A Peculiar People (the Church) – Second, God is also involved in redeeming a people, a corporate group which is set aside, dedicated, and called to be His unique people.

Exodus 11-12 shares the story of the redemption of a peculiar people from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus is the grand redemptive narrative of the Old Testament – the miraculous deliverance wrought by the God of Israel, freeing His chosen people from bondage to slavery.

The corporate aspect of redemption is further illustrated by two groups in the New Testament – Jesus’ disciples, and the early church itself. In John 15:19, Jesus is warning His disciples that they will face the hatred of the world; then he proclaims: “As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I HAVE CHOSEN YOU out of the world.” There is, of course, a personal dimension to that calling – each of the disciples is chosen. But there is also a corporate dimension to the calling – Jesus calls a group of 12 disciples out, chooses them and calls them out of the world. When Judas ceases to be a part of the group of 12, the remaining disciples feel compelled (Acts 1) to replace Judas; Matthias joins the group, filling out their number to twelve once more.

And have you noticed how Paul begins his letters? 1 & 2 Corinthians 1:1 – “To the CHURCH OF GOD in Corinth.” Galatians 1:2 – “To the “CHURCHES in Galatia.” Ephesians 1:1 – “To THE SAINTS in Ephesus, the FAITHFUL in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:1 – “To ALL THE SAINTS in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” Colossians 1:2 – “To THE HOLY AND FAITHFUL BROTHERS in Christ at Colosse.” 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1:1 – “To THE CHURCH of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul writes to the gathered people of God – with the exception of the personal letters he writes to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.

So there is the personal aspect to the redemption God is working through His Gospel, there is also a corporate dimension to the redemption of the Gospel. God is redeeming a people, a Church. But there is one more aspect we must consider.

3. Society (the World) – Finally, God is concerned with redeeming the world through the Gospel. The repentance and transformation that the Gospel calls for applies not only to individuals, not only to the corporate people of God, but also applies to the world. In other words, the Gospel is to transform our lives as individuals, our corporate church body, and the society in which we live.

Matthew 6:10 brings this social concern to the forefront. We are to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to seek for God’s character and nature to be reflected in our lives, our churches, and our societies. To put this bluntly, in words that sometimes cause us as evangelicals to cringe inwardly, this means that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is intimately and inextricably connected to social justice.

I want to quote somewhat extensively from Dr. Al Mohler’s blog on this issue (I do this because Dr. Mohler is the president of the seminary I am studying at, and a highly-respected and trusted evangelical spokesperson). Two weeks ago he published a blog in response to Glen Beck’s radio program, where Beck pleaded for Christians to “flee” from their church if the words “social justice” came out of the mouths of any of their church leaders. Dr. Mohler rightly takes Beck to task, and writes:

How can justice, social or private, be anything other than a biblical mandate? A quick look at the Bible will reveal that justice is, above all, an attribute of God himself. God is perfectly just, and the Bible is filled with God’s condemnation of injustice in any form. The prophets thundered God’s denunciation of social injustice and the call for God’s people to live justly, to uphold justice, and to refrain from any perversion of justice.

The one who pleases the Lord is he who will “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Israel is told to “do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15). God “has established his throne for justice” (Psalm 9:7) and “loves righteousness and justice” (Psalm 33:5). Princes are to “rule in justice” (Is. 32:1) even as the Lord “will fill Zion with justice and righteousness” (Is. 33:5). In the face of injustice, the prophet Amos thundered: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:18). In a classic statement, Micah reminded Israel: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

To assert that a call for social justice is reason for faithful Christians to flee their churches is nonsense, given the Bible’s overwhelming affirmation that justice is one of God’s own foremost concerns.

Dr. Mohler does an admirable job of reminding his readers that the God of the Bible is intimately concerned with His people’s pursuit of social justice. He cites the Torah and the Psalms as well as the prophetic tradition (that is, all three divisions of the Old Testament – Law, Writings, Prophets), illustrating that social justice is not just a minor or peripheral concern in God’s Word, but rather a central dominant element.

Indeed, if you survey the prophetic books of the Old Testament, you will continually find the prophets berating God’s people for their failure in two major areas: (1) their spiritual idolatry; and (2) their social injustice (or social idolatry). Hosea emphasizes the spiritual sin of Israel; Amos focuses on the social sin. Micah rails against both.

4. The Whole Gospel – When a church focuses on just one aspect of the Gospel, they fail to be a Gospel-centered church. Dr. Mohler goes on in his blog, quite appropriately, to insist that when churches focus on social justice to the exclusion of the rest of the Gospel, that they have ceased being Gospel-faithful churches. Mark that carefully, and make no mistake about it – a church that preaches only a social gospel is not preaching or following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By the same token, however, and make no mistake about this either – a church that preaches only an individualistic gospel is not preaching or following the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I made a mistake in responding to a question once, when I was asked whether the social dimension of the gospel is an “application” or “emanation” of the Gospel. I wrongly equivocated.

Social justice is not an application of the Gospel – rather, it is an essential aspect of the Gospel. We may as well as whether personal reconciliation to God is an ‘application’ of the Gospel – it is, in one sense, but primarily, it is an essential aspect of the Gospel. One could say that the Gospel applies to individuals, the gathered people of God, and the world. One could say that in the Gospel God is redeeming individuals, the Church, and the world. Or one could say that the Gospel is individual, corporate, and global in scope. Whichever way you put it, what cannot be forgotten is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is triadic, and if one (or more) facet of the Gospel is neglected, then the Gospel is not being preached or lived out.

Furthermore, the Gospel is not a linear continuum, where we decide which end of the spectrum we want to emphasize or focus upon. Rather, it is a triangle, and we must embrace all sides of the triangle to be faithful to the Gospel. God is in the center of the triangle, working redemption through the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is working to redeem (bring to repentance and transformation) individual Christians, a called-out Church, and society as a whole.

Some New Testament passages which carry the multifaceted (or, as John Frame would put it, triperspectival) nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are listed below. I encourage you to read them, and as you do, consider those who first heard Jesus teach and minister would have understood ‘the Gospel’. When Jesus says “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News [that is, the Gospel]” – how would his original audience have understood the Gospel? Would they have immediately thought of the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, as we so often do today? No – quite simply because Jesus had not yet died and risen from the dead! Instead, the Gospel was connected to the Messianic promises through Isaiah (e.g. 61:1-12, 35:3-6), which were closely connected to deliverance from sickness, disease, and social oppression. Many other passages could be referenced – especially Jesus’ parables, which have a strong social component.

James 1:27, 2:8-26
Matthew 11:1-6 (Isaiah 61:1-12, 35:3-6)
Luke 4:14-22
Matthew 25:31-46
1 John 3:16-18, 4:7-11
Titus 1:16

Monday, April 5, 2010

Apologetics 315

I had been planning to create a post about The Gospel of Jesus Christ this weekend. However, that is going to wait until next week.

In the meantime, I want to invite you to check out apologetics 315 ( Brian Auten, the blogger of note, is running a series of apologetics essays thoughout April; all of which promise to be engaging and challenging. My own essay (on the existence of God) was published on his site on Friday (April 2); there has been a good rollicking discussion proceeding from the essay. I invite you to check out my original essay there, as well as the responses to it; as well as the rest of the essays that will run on Apologetics 315 throughout the month. Brian has an excellent site with excellent resources. I hope you enjoy it!