April 16, 2008
T4G's 5,001 Theology Freaks
Mark Dever asks, is our gospel too big?
I'm sitting at the airport in Louisville, Kentucky, heading back home after spending two days with 5,000 theology freaks, and I mean that in mostly a good way. Together for the Gospel ("T4G" to the initiated) is the second gathering of the friends and fans of Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, C.J. Mahaney, and their very systematic theology (there are XVIII Articles in their doctrinal statement).
The first T4G event in 2006 drew over 3,000 of the "young, restless, and reformed" (Collin Hansen's nicely turned phrase and title of his new book). The event this year was so large it had to be held in Louisville's International Convention Center.
This year's feeding of the 5,000 was a series of addresses on theology, specifically Calvinist theology--yes, total depravity was the topic of an entire session, as was "The Curse Motif in the Atonement"--but, interestingly, traditional Reformed emphases of infant baptism, the covenant, and presbyterian polity were missing.
Each presentation was followed by an informal conversation between Al and Mark and Ligon and C.J., and all 5,000 of us got to listen in to their insights and inside jokes, their questions and affirmations. It's an engaging mixture, at least for the left-brained, and if the couple dozen people I talked to are representative of the whole, these 5,000 aren't just casual about their theology. They love exploring, dissecting, and applying this stuff!
The conference bookstore takes up almost as many square feet as the meeting space, and it's all books! If you've been to other conferences recently, you'll recognize how bizarre this is - no videos, no music CDs, no resources (unless the ESV Study Bible counts). And many of the books are written by authors who aren't available for autographs - mainly because they've been dead for awhile (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Carl Henry) or quite a while (John Calvin).
The most intriguing session for me was Mark Dever's session on "Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology." Since Leadership and Christianity Today are in the midst of a year-long Christian Vision Project focus on "Is Our Gospel Too Small?" I figured Dever would find some points to differ with (which is a spiritual gift that did NOT cease with the apostles among this crowd). He didn't disappoint.
Mark identified five "cries" of our day that he considers unbiblical efforts to "add to the gospel" and thereby confuse people and diffuse the gospel's power. Let me summarize them.
1. "Make the gospel public." Dever cited N.T. Wright's emphasis on how the gospel is not just a private matter and should affect the laws of the land, and observed "there's none of that in Scripture." While conceding that there may be implications of the gospel that should affect legislation, Dever insisted, "We must distinguish the gospel itself from the implications of that gospel. Otherwise the message of God's fully sufficient work in Christ will be mixed and confused with human works?. Never substitute good works for the good news of the gospel."
2. "Make the gospel larger." Dever pointed to Charles Colson as showing signs of an overly enlarged gospel by suggesting that "Christianity is a way of seeing all of life and all of reality. It's a worldview." Mark's warning: There are lots of good things that Christians should do (working for justice, for instance, or practicing hospitality), but they're not the gospel. By bundling such good works with the gospel, we risk confusing the actual gospel with the way people choose to live it. Dever, who has a degree from Duke, observed of southern Christians before the Civil War: "Those who believed the gospel and supported slavery still shared the gospel with us, even if they were wrong about its implications."
3. "Make the gospel relevant." When the gospel is linked to efforts to make evangelism more effective, it leads to pragmatism, which leads to liberalism, said Dever. "Of course we should contextualize the gospel - not to make the gospel more palatable or acceptable to the sinner," he said, "but to make the offense of the gospel clearer." He insisted: "Don't try to improve the gospel by making it more relevant - you'll lose the gospel."
4. "Make the gospel personal." Dever pointed out the dangers of a strictly "me and Jesus" relationship, which leads people to view the church as an optional spiritual accessory. "The idea of being fundamentally identified and submitted to the authority of one particular church is as alien as eating locusts and wild honey. Too many see church as just a plural word for Christian." I couldn't quite tell if Mark intended to bundle the gospel with formal membership in a local congregation, but it sounded that way.
5. "Make the gospel kinder." God's purpose involves both the salvation of sinners and the damnation of sinners for his own glory, said Mark, and it's a mistake to assume that God's purpose is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and therefore we should reach as many as we can. That leads to pragmatism, and "pragmatism is a greater danger than open theism ever will be."
Dever wrapped up by saying, "Keep the gospel clear - free from distortions. Don't try to improve it."
I'd never considered the question, "Is Our Gospel Too Large?" But in light of Dever's session, I might have to. I sure don't agree with everything I heard at T4G (the spirit of finding points of disagreement is contagious), but the energy of the theological interchange was even more contagious. Consider me Theology Freak 5,001.