October 21, 2017

The Gospel Coalitions Accommodation to Postmodernism in their Statements on Inerrancy

New Evangelicalism and New Calvinism: The Same Disaster, part 6

Matt Recker

Part 1 ♦ Part 2 ♦ Part 3 ♦ Part 4 Part 5 ♦ This is Part 6 ♦ Part 7

In the Christian Life article, “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” the seventh point of the New Evangelical agenda was “A re-opening of the subject of biblical inspiration.”[1]

That re-opening of the subject of Biblical inspiration in the 1940’s-50’s unlatched the door later for broad evangelicalism to fully question Biblical inerrancy by the mid-1970’s. At that time controversy erupted over the Bible’s authority when Harold Lindsell wrote The Battle for the Bible, unmasking “the hypocrisy of many New Evangelicals who publicly affirmed inerrancy but inwardly did not.”[2] Please note that it took about thirty years for the bad fruit of an original tenet of New Evangelicalism to arrive.

In similar and subtle ways there has been an analogous re-opening of this subject, especially in the foundation statements of The Gospel Coalition network (TGC). Those involved in this network of churches ought to be aware of their weak statements in reference to the Word of God and the accompanying fruit this compromise may yield over time.

The Watershed Issue of Disaster

In 1984, just before his death, Francis Schaeffer marked the watershed issue that led to the great evangelical disaster as “compromising the full authority of Scripture.” That compromise, he said, “affects what it means to be a Christian theologically and how we live in the full spectrum of human life.”[3] According to Schaeffer, many evangelicals were “accepting the higher critical methods in the study of the Bible.”[4] While evangelicals were happy to use the words “infallibility, inerrancy, and without error,” upon careful analysis they actually meant something quite different.[5] Schaeffer pointed to the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 as an example of this:

“We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written Word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” [Emphasis mine.]

On the surface that statement appeared strong and true. However, it was meant to undercut the true Scriptural inerrancy as many took it to say that the Bible did not actually affirm many things, specifically what it said about history, science, or geology.[6] Potential errors lurked in what the Bible did not “affirm.”

Billy Graham further illustrated the New Evangelical compromise on inerrancy when he emphasized that the deity of Christ and not biblical inerrancy was the ground of fellowship.[7] Many New Evangelicals of his day concluded that one could deny inerrancy without surrendering other essential doctrines of the faith. This is theologically impossible, for the Bible is the basis for all the doctrines of our faith that we deem essential for fellowship. For instance, the only source of truth we have for the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary blood atonement, bodily resurrection, or any other doctrine foundational to our faith, is the Scripture. McCune well states, “There is no gospel apart from Christ and His work, and there is no knowledge of Christ and His work apart from an inerrant Bible”[8] Without inerrancy, all doctrines come into question and nothing can be known for sure.

Some New Calvinists Strongly Assert Inerrancy

So where do the New Calvinists stand on this issue of Biblical inerrancy? Thankfully, many do affirm inerrancy, and in contrast to New Evangelicalism there is a stronger emphasis overall on the inerrancy of Scripture.

For example, Together for the Gospel (T4G) has a statement of Affirmations and Denials. Their first three articles are related to the Scripture. Article 1 states:

We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible, verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible, and totally sufficient and trustworthy. We deny that the Bible is a mere witness to the divine revelation, or that any portion of Scripture is marked by error or the effects of human sinfulness.[9]

This statement is concise and sound, and I do pray they hold this line on Biblical inerrancy. Articles 2 and 3 below also deal with Scripture’s authority from the T4G website. In the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International 2011 resolution (11.2), the T4G was recognized as a “serious attempt within Evangelicalism to contend for the gospel… including the delineation of orthodox truth and militant exposure of error through a series of doctrinal affirmations and denials.” Concern was expressed in that resolution, however, for the failure of T4G to stand for “the Biblical mandate of ecclesiastical separation,” however, and more will be said of this in my next article in this series.[10]

The Gospel Coalition’s Confusing Statements

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) takes quite a different approach than T4G. TGC foundational documents include a brief Preamble, a Confessional Statement and a Theological Vision for Ministry. Certainly The Gospel Coalition can be commended for strong positions in these documents. They are responding to the philosophical attack of postmodernism against Christianity. They do seek to relate the Gospel to our culture. They reject theological liberalism and the seeker sensitive movement, and there are some very gifted communicators in TGC.

However, in a review of their Biblical view, Stephen Cope says that “the writers of TGC’s foundational documents, rather than offering a more Biblical approach to the understanding of truth, have instead simply embraced the spirit of this age and are articulating nothing more than a ‘Christianized’ version of postmodernism.”[11] Let’s look more carefully at this to see if this is indeed an accurate assessment.

Their confessional statement on the Scripture reads:

Revelation: God has graciously disclosed his existence and power in the created order, and has supremely revealed himself to fallen human beings in the person of his Son, the incarnate Word. Moreover, this God is a speaking God who by his Spirit has graciously disclosed himself in human words: we believe that God has inspired the words preserved in the Scriptures, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, which are both record and means of his saving work in the world. These writings alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative and without error in the original writings, complete in its revelation of his will for salvation, sufficient for all that God requires us to believe and do, and final in its authority over every domain of knowledge to which it speaks. We confess that both our finitude and our sinfulness preclude the possibility of knowing God’s truth exhaustively, but we affirm that, enlightened by the Spirit of God, we can know God’s revealed truth truly. The Bible is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it teaches; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and trusted, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises. As God’s people hear, believe, and do the Word, they are equipped as disciples of Christ and witnesses to the gospel. [Emphasis mine.][12]

This statement appears strong in parts, but it could open the door to error as they speak of the Bible written in “human words.” That is a strange and uniquely odd nuance to make on a statement on God’s Revelation. Rather than saying Scripture is God’s Word, they emphasize that Scripture is “human.” And while the statement does say the Bible is “without error” it intentionally omits using the word inerrant.

The Theological Vision for Ministry statement is a bit more complicated. In this section, they attempt to confront the challenges of postmodern thinking. Here is their first point:

We affirm that truth is correspondence to reality. We believe the Holy Spirit who inspired the words of the apostles and prophets also indwells us so that we who have been made in the image of God can receive and understand the words of Scripture revealed by God, and grasp that Scripture’s truths correspond to reality. The statements of Scripture are true, precisely because they are God’s statements, and they correspond to reality even though our knowledge of those truths (and even our ability to verify them to others) is always necessarily incomplete. The Enlightenment belief in thoroughly objective knowledge made an idol out of unaided human reason. But to deny the possibility of purely objective knowledge does not mean the loss of truth that corresponds to objective reality, even if we can never know such truth without an element of subjectivity. See CS–(2). [Emphasis mine.][13]

This statement is somewhat troubling as it fails to define truth with the clear Biblical statement that truth is the Person of Jesus Christ and the Word of God (John 14:6; 17:17). This paragraph concludes with the caveat: “But to deny the possibility of purely objective knowledge does not mean the loss of truth that corresponds to objective reality, even if we can never know such truth without an element of subjectivity.” (Emphasis added) By this, they yield vital ground to the post-modern view that personal experiences, cultural prejudices and language limitations hinder any definite truth claims. They concede that all truth claims are subjective rather than objective. In seeking to defend Christianity against postmodernism, they surrender to it and come dangerously close to opening a door that would lead to a Neo-orthodox view of Scripture more in line with Barth or Bonhoeffer.[14]

If we can never know truth without an element of subjectivity, does this mean that foundational doctrines essential to the faith can be questioned? Is my belief in the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection subject to my subjective experiences? And, were the “human words” of the writers of Scripture subject to those same limitations and prejudices? This evidences a new “re-opening of the subject of Biblical inspiration.”

In the second Theological Vision for Ministry statement, we read:

We affirm that truth is conveyed by Scripture. We believe that Scripture is pervasively propositional and that all statements of Scripture are completely true and authoritative. But the truth of Scripture cannot be exhausted in a series of propositions. It exists in the genres of narrative, metaphor, and poetry which are not exhaustively distillable into doctrinal propositions, yet they convey God’s will and mind to us so as to change us into his likeness.” [Emphasis mine.][15]

“Weakness” is the operative word I would use to describe that first sentence (underlined above). In an attempt to deeply understand the confusion that postmodernism has brought to our culture, they water down the most offensive area to the postmodern mind: truth. The Scripture does much more than convey truth. The Scripture is the truth. Jesus is the truth. That is a triumphant declaration, but as we shall soon see, they do not want to have a “triumphalistic,” or seemingly proud attitude to a culture that is so unsure of being sure.

Perhaps their most troubling statement on truth found in paragraph 4, section 1:

“We adopt a “chastened” correspondence–theory of truth that is less triumphalistic than that of some in the older evangelicalism. But we also reject a view of truth that sees truth as nothing more than the internally coherent language of a particular faith–community. So we maintain, with what we hope is appropriate humility, the principle of sola Scriptura.”[16]

Here the TGC leaders affirm that no faith community can interpret the Scripture and declare they have the truth. That statement seemingly says we cannot know for sure what truth is. It compromises with postmodern thinking, and it is confusing. Does it mean that no one may triumphantly declare: “We have the truth in the Person of Christ! We have the truth in the Word of God!”? Statements like this may open the door to great attacks against the propositional truths we find in Scripture. On one hand they say that Scripture is “pervasively propositional” and all Scripture is “true and authoritative.” Yet we are to be “chastened,” “less triumphalistic” and we are not to think the truth is in our “faith community.” I confess, I am confused! Which is it? It sounds like postmodern Christianity. Cope rightly concludes, “According to them, the Christian faith is not rooted in God’s words recorded in Holy Scripture, but in an experience…derived from our own subjective understanding of reality.”[17]

So while T4G has a clear statement on Scriptural inerrancy, TGC’s statement is muddled and can open the door to its denial. Interestingly, essentially the same people are involved in both groups. The founders of the T4G, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and Albert Mohler are all notable members of TGC. TGC founding documents were drafted by D.A. Carson and Tim Keller and then their draft was redacted by a group of about fifty members.

I would encourage the reader to remember history and reflect on the Downgrade Controversy during the final years of the life and ministry of Charles H. Spurgeon in London, England[18] Apostasy was being welcomed in England as ‘new light.’ Nonconformist denominations in England, those not connected with the Anglican State Church, were coming together in a sort of ‘gospel coalition’ of their day. Spurgeon was wary of this as well and also saw the doctrinal weakness in the Baptist Union of which he was a member. Seeing the downgrade of true doctrine and standing almost alone, Spurgeon pressed the Baptist Union leaders for a clear doctrinal statement. When a statement was made, Spurgeon saw that the language of their declaration used could legitimately have “two meanings contrary to each other.”[19] Spurgeon said, “Right is safe, and compromise by the use of double meanings can never in the long run be wise.”[20] He knew men were saying one thing and meaning another. The outcome was for the alleged ‘new light’ and Spurgeon was censured by the Baptist Union by a vote of 2000-7!

In closing, TGC statements on Biblical inspiration give a similar ring to the New Evangelical tenet of a “re-opening of the subject of biblical inspiration.” Like the Lausanne Covenant and the Baptist Union declarations of old, the TGC statements on the face appear evangelical but the nuanced language can have more than one meaning. My desire is not to impugn bad motives or to tear down the men or TGC movement, but to sound a warning of the potential danger now and in the years ahead in movements like TGC. The lives and souls of countless men and their ministries are at stake. The accommodating phraseology built into the founding documents of TGC can most definitely lead to a denial of Biblical inerrancy, and thus a New Calvinist disaster. It behooves evangelicals involved with T4G and TGC to fight for the clear and unmistakable divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Word of God. It behooves young men to resist being enamored by seemingly successful ministries of many leaders in these movements. Let us do as Paul told the Ephesian elders of old: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers…” for “grievous wolves” shall “enter in among you, not sparing the flock… therefore watch.” (Acts 20:28-31).


Matt Recker is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in New York City.


Appendix 1:

Article 2-3 of T4G Affirmation:

Article II

We affirm that the authority and sufficiency of Scripture extends to the entire Bible, and therefore that the Bible is our final authority for all doctrine and practice.

We deny that any portion of the Bible is to be used in an effort to deny the truthfulness or trustworthiness of any other portion. We further deny any effort to identify a canon within the canon or, for example, to set the words of Jesus against the writings of Paul.

Article III

We affirm that truth ever remains a central issue for the Church, and that the Church must resist the allure of pragmatism and postmodern conceptions of truth as substitutes for obedience to the comprehensive truth claims of Scripture.

We deny that truth is merely a product of social construction or that the truth of the Gospel can be expressed or grounded in anything less than total confidence in the veracity of the Bible, the historicity of biblical events, and the ability of language to convey understandable truth in sentence form. We further deny that the Church can establish its ministry on a foundation of pragmatism, current marketing techniques, or contemporary cultural fashions.

http://t4g.org/about/affirmations-and-denials-2/

  1. “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” Christian Life, March 1956, pp. 17-19. See part 1 or 2 for a complete listing of New Evangelical principles. []
  2. Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled, p. 189. The Battle for the Bible was written by Lindsell in 1976. []
  3. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, p.44-45. []
  4. Ibid, p.37. []
  5. Ibid, p.56. []
  6. Ibid, p.56. []
  7. Billy Graham, “Billy Graham on Separation,” Eternity, November 1958, p. 18. []
  8. Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled, p. 169. []
  9. http://t4g.org/about/affirmations-and-denials-2/. Articles 2 and 3 appear as an appendix to the body of this article. []
  10. FrontLine, FBFI 2011 Resolution 11.2, May/June 2011, p. 9. []
  11. http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=295, p. 7. []
  12. http://thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents , click on “Confessional Statement” tab. []
  13. http://thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/, click on “Theological Vision for Ministry” tab, see point 1.1. []
  14. http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=295, p. 7, 11. []
  15. http://thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents, again, click on “Theological Vision for Ministry” tab, see point 1.2. []
  16. http://thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents, click on “Theological Vision for Ministry” tab, see point 4.1. []
  17. http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=295, p.7. []
  18. Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, p.139-150. Note: This chapter is well worth reading as history often repeats itself. []
  19. Ibid, p. 147. []
  20. Ibid. []


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