Some Critical and Personal Thoughts on the Theology Offered by The Gospel Coalition a essay written by The Evangelical Calvinist
Posted on April 1, 2019
What is it about The Gospel Coalition that I don’t like? For starters, I’m not a fan of coalitions that use the language of the Gospel to modify them; it makes it seem as if they have the corner on the Gospel, and anyone who might disagree with their presentation is probably not an orthodox Christian. I don’t like the notion of “coalition” because it starts to function like a monopolizing corporation wherein all other comers, if they want to be part of the movement, need to sign onto the mission and confession statement to be included. Indeed, this is the effect it is producing among the many evangelical churches out there. TGC, because of its breadth have church resources, and packages for various programs for local churches to easily implement into the body life of their respective churches. But what has come along with that is the attending theology that funds TGC. Now, this might not pose a problem for many pastors and ministries out there, but I think it has indeed had a homogenizing effect; such that many churches and pastors who weren’t necessarily Calvinistic previously, have now become so. In fact, I personally know of more than one pastor out there where this is the case. Indeed, I think this was the desired hope to begin with; i.e. to introduce Calvinist theology into churches wheretofore this sort of theology was not necessarily on tap at the various evangelical churches. It has had an amazing impact over at least the last decade; the growth has been exponential, and people who never would have been open to Calvinist theology previously (say like at churches like Calvary Chapels) are now full-fledged Calvinists (or they’re at least on the way).
Clearly, not all evangelical churches have given into the machine known as The Gospel Coalition; I mean there are a variety of self-conscious Arminian and other sorts of churches out there. But this is the problem, at least for me personally. Movements like TGC have largely co-opted the conservative evangelical movement. In other words, if you want to be intentionally doctrinally oriented in your church, and you’re looking for resources in that direction, the only place really going is TGC (and like conference oriented movements). On the other hand, we have many evangelical churches, clearly, which are still stuck in the 80s and 90s focusing on church growth, being relevant, meeting felt needs types of churches. But this is the dilemma for us evangelicals out here who don’t want either of these alternatives. This obviously is not TGC fault, per se, but their ‘coalition’ model has helped contribute to this sort of polarity in the evangelical world. Of course, they think they are offering a really good product to the churches; they believe they do indeed have a corner on what the orthodox and Protestant Gospel actually entails; they think the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Post Reformation Reformed orthodox developments offer the best footing forward for the evangelical churches. But I don’t agree!
It is interesting; the appeal for many is that TGC still comes with the warm-hearted piety so many evangelicals have grown up with, historically and in their own lives. But what many unsuspecting churches don’t realize is that TGC’s mission is to get the Gospel, or the Doctrines of Grace, into the pulpits all throughout the land. My contention is that the piety they come with is not supported by the theology that stands behind them. The theology that stands behind TGC is what is called Covenantal or Federal theology. It starts with the Covenant of Works and ends with the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works presents a system wherein God relates to the people through a juridical/forensic frame rather than first relating to people as a God of Grace and Triune Love. The Covenant theology that gives TGC theology shape operates with a metaphysic of God that is legally shaped, decretally determined, and impersonally given. In other words, because God’s first relationship with Adam and Eve, in the Garden, was based upon a legal contract of obedience, between God and humanity, this then ends up coloring the whole theology as it develops in salvation history and eventuates in what Christ does in the Covenant of Grace; i.e. he meets the conditions set out in the Covenant of Works. The whole relationship between God and humanity, in this framework, is one that is based on a concept of God that emphasizes His monadic oneness, rather than emphasizing his filial threeness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a genuine problem that people don’t really understand when they sign on with TGC. But most evangelicals think this is the best thing going. And most evangelicals who are busy with life, attend church maybe bi-weekly or weekly, don’t have the strength or time or resource to critically evaluate what in fact they are being fed; even the pastors in most evangelical churches don’t have the background to critically engage with the history of ideas that have shaped the theology of The Gospel Coalition.
The ultimate problem with what is being presented by The Gospel Coalition, in my view, is their doctrine of God. As I’ve noted numerous times: get the doctrine of God wrong, and everything following will be wrong. Most proponents of TGC theology, the ones who have the time to study, teach and write for TGC, are operating in good-faith; and they think they have found something that is rich and wonderful for the churches. But I am here to protest that! I am conservative evangelical, but one who thinks that the piety I grew up with, of the sort where intimacy with God in Christ is of a premium, can indeed be better supported by alternative streams of theological inquiry available in the history of ecclesial ideas. In other words, and this is of course where Evangelical Calvinism comes in, I KNOW that there are a variety of developments in the Reformed faith that are distinct and fundamentally different than what is being offered to folks through the theology of TGC. If you read me for any length, you know who I think offers better ways forward; unfortunately, people like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have been smeared in many of the TGC quarters. People have been given the impression that Barth, in particular, cannot be trusted; indeed, people have been told that he does not trust the sufficiency of Scripture, among other things. Of course, none of this could be further from the truth.
But beyond this, the critique of Federal theology, as I have noted in a variety of my posts, comes from within the Reformed tradition itself; it comes contemporaneous with the developments that eventuated in the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith so on and so forth. But people don’t know this. Indeed, many of the folks, the theologians involved with the development of TGC theology itself don’t seem to be aware of the various antecedents and movements in the history of Reformed theology. They are spoon-fed by people like Richard Muller as their historians, and simply use his thinking, and others, as the foundation upon which they do their recovery work. This, in my view, is a tragic development, and one that unfortunately impinges upon TGC and what they then offer the churches, theologically.
I haven’t written much on The Gospel Coalition recently; I used to write about its theology quite frequently. But their annual conference is currently underway in Indianapolis, and so I was prompted to think about TGC’s impact once again. People in the evangelical churches need to know what they are getting into when they sign up with TGC, or at least allow their materials into their churches. They come bearing ideas, and their ideas have theological and real life spiritual consequences in the lives of the people you are ministering to (pastors). Now, again, for many of you this is a good thing. But I am writing for those who might not be aware of this, or for those who are, and yet haven’t fully thought out the implications of all of this as that comes to the impact TGC theology can potentially have in your churches, respectively. I would think we would want to introduce people, at a foundational level, to an understanding of God that is thoroughly shaped by an emphasis upon Who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and allow that Grace filled, relational life to bleed through all that you teach into the people’s lives in your churches. There is a better way, theologically, than TGC offers.