Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

18 Dec 2014

The Gospel Coalition and Dispensationalism

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Last month Ryan Kelly and Kevin DeYoung posted an essay on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog (that originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of Affinity) defending the existence of interdenominational or extra-ecclesial partnerships. Though the essay addresses a few different examples of these kinds of partnerships, the main focus is on TGC. After a quick historical look (that, oddly, focuses primarily on state-sponsored efforts) they briefly discuss Together for the Gospel before providing a quick synopsis of TGC and then attempt to answer several criticisms that have been leveled against TGC. Whether or not they are successful at understanding and answering these criticisms is not under consideration here. Instead, I’d like to consider an interesting statement about TGC and Dispensationalists.

In the midst of defending TGC against the charge of being either too narrow and exclusive or too broad or ambiguous in its doctrinal stance, they discuss the nature of TGC’s Founding Documents:

“TGC circumscribes certain doctrinal positions and not others, because some are central to the preaching of the gospel (for example, penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, eternality of hell); some differences evince deep hermeneutical differences, and are practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism); and some so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that they must be made explicit (Reformed soteriology)….TGC’s Confessional Statement falls within the broader Reformed tradition, and, as noted earlier, it is particular regarding monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification; yet it is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like. The Foundational Documents could not be fully embraced by hard-line dispensationalists, Lutherans, emergents, or mainline liberals. However, among the council there are Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopalian/Anglican, Baptist, Free Church, and nondenominational, all of which must agree with what is contained in the Foundation Documents. At a little more than 2,300 words, the confessional statement is not aiming for the kind of doctrinal specificity found in the Westminster Confession of Faith or The Second Helvetic Confession. The points of doctrinal specificity in TGC’s documents are intentional, as are the areas of silence.”

Though I’m not certain what they mean by “hard-line dispensationalists,” I find the listing of four categories of “Christians” who could not fully embrace the Foundational Documents interesting: “hard-line dispensationalists, Lutherans, emergents, or mainline liberals.” The latter two would not be able to embrace the documents because they do not affirm things like inerrancy, penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, etc. In other words, they could not be part of TGC because they effectively deny the gospel. I’m not certain why Lutherans would be excluded (perhaps this is a reference to the controversy of the Lutheran view of sanctification espoused by former TGC blogger Tullian Tchividjian), but it seems odd that they and “hard-line dispensationalists” would be excluded along with those who have practically rejected the gospel.

So why would “hard-line dispensationalists” be excluded? Dispensationalism has no distinct teaching on areas related to “monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification.” Many Dispensationalists—from a variety of flavors of Dispensationalism—would affirm all of those things. Where Dispensationalism offers a unique understanding in theology centers first of all in ecclesiology (e.g., what is the church, when did it start, what is its relationship to Israel) and secondarily in eschatology (e.g., when will the rapture occur, what is the nature of the kingdom, etc.) Those two areas seem to be matters where these authors claim TGC has remained silent: “[TGC’s confession] is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like.”

Why are “hard-line dispensationalists” excluded then? My guess is that, despite Kelly and DeYoung’s claims, TGC has taken a stand on eschatology. As Kevin Bauder has noted, most traditional dispensationalists (perhaps this is what is meant by “hard-line”) do not believe that the kingdom has been inaugurated, while TGC’s Founding Documents explicitly claim that it has.

My question: why include a specific statement on the kingdom of God in the confessional statement but not specific statements on things like “church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like”? Where does an inaugurated form of the kingdom fit in their explanation for what doctrinal specifics are included? Is it “central to the preaching of the gospel”? Is it a difference that “evince[s] deep hermeneutical differences, and [is] practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism)”? Does it “so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that [it] must be made explicit”? I don’t see how it fits in any of those areas. So why include a statement in a confession designed to unite believers around the gospel that excludes a large number of believers who fully embrace the gospel?

18 Responses

  1. Mark Snoeberger

    The Gospel Unity Movement can’t handle “hard-line” dispensationalists for the same reasons that Carl Henry couldn’t handle “hard-line” dispensationalists, as detailed in his Uneasy Conscience. Hard-line dispensationalists had a distinctive view of the spiritual mission of the church in its culture that flowed from its distinctive view of the kingdom, and that view was fundamentally at odds with Henry’s evangelical agenda.

    I don’t think that much has changed in this matter since 1947.

  2. Mark’s right – our agenda isn’t their agenda.

    Our agenda is applying Scripture only after interpretation, instead of making application a part of interpretation. That pre-commitment to Scripture makes us take Scripture as sufficient to teach us what activities we are to be involved in, and which one’s we aren’t.

    We’re the fly that makes the ointment worthless.

  3. Jason Woelm

    Mr. Snoeberger’s comment is right on the mark, and it is one I needed to be reminded of when thinking about the new evangelical landscape. The Gospel Coalition is simply another permutation of the neo-evangelicalism Rolland McCune addressed in his stellar book Promise Unfulfilled (perhaps this blog and its readers have heard of it ;)). They have no tolerance for a postponed kingdom or working alongside those who hold to such a view. One tweet (or retweet, as it were) by Thabiti Anyabwile in the wake of the Eric Garner grand jury decision was very telling. It said, “If your theology isn’t speaking about justice, for this present age, your theology is meaningless.” He also called those who believed that social justice wasn’t the mission of the church “gospel escapists.” Statements such as these certainly don’t help the cause of understanding those who disagree with you.

  4. Jason,

    You say that Thabiti Anyabwile also called those who believed that social justice wasn’t the mission of the church “gospel escapists.” I just went through all of his tweets over the past 2 months and his articles to see if that was true. I couldn’t find it. Where exactly did he make that comment?

  5. As someone who has a lot of interaction with both traditions, I would like to suggest another possibility. I suspect the issue is not primarily eschatological. Rather, I think it is probably related to the understanding in some classical formulations of Dispensationalism that God’s distinct historical purpose for Israel entails a a distinction between the content and basis of saving faith for Israel and the Church.

    There have been many developments on both sides in clarifying these issues over the years but I suspect that the term “hard-line Dispensationalists” is intended to refer to those who hold views that they would see as two distinct systems of salvation.

  6. Excellent article. A Calvinistic dispensationalist does not view the nature of saving faith any differently in the NT as in the OT. The content of faith obviously increases with increased revelation. One cannot expect Adam to have the exact same content of saving faith as Saul of Tarsus when he met Christ on the Damascus road. An unreserved trust in the Person and Promise of God based on substitutionary sacrifice is what Adam believed. The content of faith has increased since then, but not the nature of repentant faith. The idea of two systems of salvation in Dispensationalism is an old, tired cliché which has long since been debunked. Gospel Coalition advocates should know this.

  7. Many Reformed people I know do not consider the current formulations to be dualistic but still consider the classical formulations as being so. They would also probably not consider a Calvinistic Dispensationalist “hard-line”.

    At any rate, this was just my own speculation based upon years of conversations with people in both camps.

  8. Perhaps they’ve forgotten one of their book reviews of dispensationalism? :)

    “…dialogue between dispensational, covenantal, and other theologians in recent decades has generated meaningful reevaluation and retrenchment of eschatological views. Consequently, a restatement of dispensational eschatology is welcome…Robust, respectful debate on these issues should be fostered among representatives across the spectrum of gospel-centered evangelicals, particularly as a counterbalance to Christ-centered hermeneutics run amok into allegory. This book may well serve that purpose if its authors continue to dialogue with those who still disagree.”
    http://legacy.thegospelcoalition.org/book-reviews/review/christs_prophetic_plans

    Perhaps though “hard-liners” must simply redefine themselves as ‘leaky’ to get their foot in the door at TGC? :)

  9. BE

    Thanks for the interaction here. I wanted to touch on a few things that have been brought up.

    My first inclination was that of Snoeberger’s, but I’m not convinced that is why an inaugurated kingdom is included, for two reasons: 1) there is no clear statement linking their cultural agenda to the kingdom (though the “How Should We Read the Bible” section comes close. (2) One of the authors of the article I cite, DeYoung, has co-authored a book that argues against much of the discussion about “expanding the kingdom” and doing “kingdom work.” That’s why I wonder why it is included.

    Further, I’m not comfortable equating TGC and “The Gospel Unity Movement” (whatever that might be). I don’t seem the same issues with T4G as I do with TGC. But that’s probably a conversation for another time.

    Perhaps DeYoung and Kelly do have a different group in mind when they refer to “hard-line dispensationalists”. If they mean dispensationalists who beieve in two-ways of salvation, that means they understand dispensationalism even less than I would have hoped (why mention a fringe group that is mostly used as a straw-man argument). But if they did have another group in mind, the reality still stands that the inclusion of a statement about an inaugurated kingdom does exclude most traditional dispensationalists. (Obviously, a large number of dispensationalists have no problem affirming an inaugurated kingdom, since that matter is not an essential to dispensationalism. Those dispensationalists would at least be able to affirm the TGC confessional statement. Whether or not they would be truly embraced–I can’t say.)

    Finally, I should note that I don’t have a problem with a confessional statement excluding genuine believers. I’m in favor of robust confessional statements, since I believe confessional churches are better equipped to preserve the gospel than a bare bones gospel network/fellowship/coalition. The problem is when you call yourself “The Gospel Coalition” you better have good reasons for excluding believers who affirm the true gospel with the statements you include in your confession. I can see reasons to include complementarianism, but I don’t see any reason to include an inaugurated kingdom.

    Ben

    1. Ben, you wrote,

      “I should note that I don’t have a problem with a confessional statement excluding genuine believers.”

      Don’t you think an apostle like Paul would? Where would he ever exclude a single one the Son laid down his life for?

      Is not dispensationalism the fruit of a faithful outworking of apostolic doctrine in all areas, or just eschatology?

  10. BE

    Ted,

    I think you took me to be saying ” I don’t have a problem with a confessional statement that is unbiblical” but that is not what I said. In an ideal world every believer would confess all of biblical doctrine, but we still live in a fallen world. That means some people are genuine believers but are also wrong in some areas of doctrine, so even a perfectly biblical confession will exclude genuine believers in this fallen world.

    Ben

    1. Hi Ben, no, I got your meaning the first time.

      I’m just saying that dispensationalists don’t have to feel left outside the dance.

      Dispensationalism aspires to be the faithful outworking of apostolic teachings in the NT. As such, the creation of knowingly exclusionary statements reflects a sub-apostolic theological approach to the New Testament.

      Such as, TGC. And so, we don’t have to do the Watoosie two-step. Like them.

  11. Ted,

    You said, “Dispensationalism aspires to be the faithful outworking of apostolic teachings in the NT.”

    Are you suggesting that other theological traditions aspire to something other than this?

    I have read Dispensational faith statements that would exclude others they understand to be believers from full fellowship if they do not accept certain distinctives. Are they not doing a “watoosie two-step”?

    Would not the alternative be the assertion that the entire Church itself is only composed of those who agree to a distinctively Dispensational theological statement? Only then could one express systematic distinctives as the basis of (local) fellowship without excluding any true believers.

    1. Hi Kevin, Merry Christmas,

      To the first two questions, “yes.” Just be a bit careful to make a distinction between making a statement that is true to apostolic doctrine (though not all regenerate agree with it), and excluding others from fellowship (i.e., church worship –> Lord’s Supper).

      TGC claims itself a gospel fellowship, just not ecclesiastically defined. OK. Whatever. They don’t exclude dispensationalists from preaching at conferences, or posting on the web site.

      To Ben’s point, they call themselves a gospel coalition, and then define themselves as excluding in some vague many other regenerate who they know believe and preach the substitutionary gospel. It isn’t even a matter of being a 5-pointer, for they have major contributors who aren’t. So their real unifying thread is something else. What is it? I suggested above it is an unwillingness to separate interpretation of Scripture from application.

      To your final question, what do you mean by “the entire Church?” That determines the rest.

      If you mean the Universal Church the apostles wrote about (i.e., Eph. 1:22) then most of that Church today is in heaven and much is perhaps yet unborn. Or, when that phrase is used of those possessing saving faith on earth we either embrace a peculiarly Roman Catholic expression or the Protestant teaching on something called the “Invisible Church.” Are either of those what you mean?

      Or perhaps as a good Bible student you limit the meaning of church to agree with the teachings of Christ and His apostles and limit its meaning to 2 expressions – universal and local – see here – http://www.churchsonefoundation.com/the-church-dissonant/ ?

      Until C/church is defined, its hard to answer these questions without being speculative.

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