Progressive versus conservative evangelical spats are one of the very worst things about Twitter, which is really saying something. Such arguments illustrate just how poor a medium Twitter can be for productive conversation, not least on account of its tendency to foreground some of the shrillest and most antagonistic voices on both sides and privilege reactive instinct over considered response. What results is generally more of a predictably polarizing exercise in group psychology than an illuminating exchange. The issues get lost behind the personalities, the party politics, the outrage-mongering, and the emotionality and, rather than making progress, we all end up that bit more alienated from and frustrated by each other.
This is extremely unfortunate, not merely because of the animosity it excites, but also because issues of no small importance become snarled up in the instinctive antagonisms and alignments of a crowd of people who really shouldn’t be in the same room. The form of historic communications media meant that participation in theological discourse was generally heavily restricted to people with extensive learning or significant qualifications, to people who were expected to be able to defend their claims without erecting human shields around them, and to people who were subject to a code of discourse. By contrast, the Internet gives prominence to people who lack either the learning, the self-mastery, or the character to engage in a calm and effective conversation. It gives the young, the popular, and the polarizing an unhealthily high profile. It also has the unfortunate tendency to bring out the worst in people who actually have something to say that is worth hearing.
It is easy to blame individuals for this. However, this is exactly what we should expect when we radically democratize theological discourse. It is also exactly what we should expect when we put a lot of people with very different personalities, beliefs, and levels of intelligence and learning in one single place without clear boundaries between them. A few exceptional people can keep their cool and think non-reactively in such settings. But most, even among highly intelligent and learned people, can’t. The medium is not a healthy one and, save in the case of unusual people who have developed strong antibodies to its dysfunctional tendencies, most people will fall prey to its disease. Indeed, the prevailing culture will usually be one dominated by people who have succumbed to the disease. Every time I briefly revisit Twitter, I am struck by how much it is has become a vast exercise in trench warfare between hostile sides, each demonizing and hating the other. And that this posture infects even many of the best people on all sides.
Seeing worthy conversations lying beaten and bruised on the side of the road of social media, I think we ought often to have mercy upon them, tend their wounds, give them shelter in our inns, and send them restored upon their way. The conversation about evangelicalism and the gospel occasioned by Tim Keller’s recent tweet is a case in point:
The uncharitable and reactive tendencies of the Internet were powerfully evidenced in the conversation around this tweet, along with many failures in basic comprehension and Christian charity. The perennial discussion about the meaning of the term ‘evangelical’ was rolled out again, this time in the context of racial polarizations that have escalated on all sides in the social media climate, in no small measure on account of the dysfunctional character of Twitter’s conversational terrain, which rewards outrage, privileges words to the eclipsing of actions and character, and, on account of its alienation from locality and particularity, privileges totalizing ideology and absolutized political antagonisms over prudence, compromise, collaboration, and the humanization of people who disagree with us. Those wondering at the growing sickness of our social life might want to consider the possibility that one of the contributing factors is that we have built our virtual neighbourhood on a swamp. Until we all begin to appreciate that the context of social media itself is one of the greatest enemies to a productive conversation about race (among many other issues), and consider contexts that are more conducive to conversations that make progress, we will only become more alienated from each other.
In Jonathan Leeman’s TGC post, the response to the discussion swirling around Keller’s tweet plays out in a manner that will be familiar to most of us, with a careful articulation of the relationship between corporate and individual, social and personal, dimensions of the gospel, distinguishing between the primary and the secondary problems it addresses, and calling for the importance of maintaining ‘gospel unity’ by protecting Christian liberty.
Leeman makes several important points along the way, perhaps especially when it comes to the need for charity surrounding political differences. There is a huge need to properly maintain the prudential character of political judgment in the contemporary context. On the one hand, people too easily render Christian political duty partisan or conflate ends with means. For instance, the concern for the poor that all of us must show should not be confused with the duty to support particular prudential policies, which are often unwise or misguided, even when driven by good motives. Conversely, our opponents’ support of policies that may end up hurting the poor may be a result of ignorance or failure to consider their unintended effects.
It is imperative that we recover the issue of prudence in our political discourse. This will cool down our arguments by helping us to appreciate that people with whom we strongly differ on questions of means can substantially agree on questions of ends and in substance of character. It will force us to engage closely with the arguments for and against specific policies, rather than assuming that our good intentions will suffice to ensure their efficacy. More generally, a form of politics that focuses on contextual prudence of judgment, rather than correctness of abstract totalizing ideology (and implied moral virtue), forces us to be attentive to the complexity and specificity of reality in ways that tends to blunt ideological stridency.
All of this is a very lengthy preamble to the issue that I particularly wish to highlight briefly here: the question of the meaning of the term ‘gospel’. This, I believe, is an area of weakness for most evangelicals—somewhat ironically, because the term ‘gospel’ is so central to our theological self-expression.
Andrew Perriman puts his finger on the problem here: the squabbles between progressive and conservative evangelicals are compounded in large measure by our forgetfulness about the particularity of ‘the gospel’. In our world, ‘gospel’ has become a heavily-charged floating signifier, which has become unmoored from its biblical particularity. Christians can treat the specificity of the biblical narrative as if it were a launch pad from which the rocket of a universal and deracinated ‘Gospel’ were propelled into the orbit of the earth. While the biblical narrative is one of a very particular people and God’s historical dealings with them, the ‘Gospel’ is a departicularized and dehistoricized declaration of justification by grace through faith alone for the individual in need of salvation. The word ‘gospel’ then becomes attached to all sorts of other terms in various forms, to give them an added oomph of piety (e.g. ‘gospel-centred’).
Yet this doesn’t work. The biblical gospel is a highly particular message. It is a message that comes at the fulness of time, to a particular people, and has a highly specific context and content. It isn’t about a timeless mode of salvation or a universal soteriology of grace, but about the particular declaration that God has visited his people in the Messiah, bringing forgiveness and judgment to Israel, that his kingdom has been inaugurated and that it will be established over the whole world. All of this is summed up in the gospel proclamation: ‘Jesus is Lord!’
While forgiveness and restoration in fellowship with God for persons of all nations is an implication of ‘the gospel’, the gospel itself is the declaration of God’s reign in Israel’s Messiah. The forgiveness spoken of in the gospels is primarily a forgiveness extended to the people of Israel, not to detached individuals of all nations. It is about God’s gracious restoration of his people.
The story of the Church, in its turn, grows out of the story of Israel and does not cease to be a story rooted in and springing out of that particularity. As Gentiles, we are grafted into the olive tree of Israel, which isn’t simply the tree of personal salvation (God-fearers outside of Israel were saved in the old covenant), but the tree of God’s chosen people. We are saved by Israel’s Messiah, as part of the seed of Abraham by faith in the Christ. We are, at the fulness of the ages, made members of the people of the Messiah, anticipated since the world began. In all of this, God is addressing the cosmic crisis, but he is addressing it from a very particular place within the cosmos.
The salvation announced by Christ and his apostles in the first century AD, furthermore, was articulated primarily against the horizon of judgment in AD70, rather than the final judgment, or even against the personal eschatological horizon of death. This doesn’t mean that those horizons are absent or unimportant, just that they aren’t anywhere near as prominent as most believe that they are.
Once we take all of this into account, what evangelicals typically term ‘the gospel’ doesn’t merely vanish in a puff of biblical theology. Certainly not! However, it is decentred, placed against the backdrop of a far greater canvas, in which the historical, particular, and cosmic character of God’s salvation are far more clearly perceived. We must also learn to speak of it in different, more carefully chosen, terminology. Individual conversion is part of a much bigger picture and not the central element of it. Again, this doesn’t mean that we stop calling people to repentance and faith, or that we simply jettison our theologies of grace. It means that we must more correctly situate them and not lose sight of the bigger picture, nor of the ways in which the gospel is about catching us up into a greater story, rather than merely impacting upon and turning around our individual narratives.
Again, as we appreciate this, we will be better situated to consider questions of ‘social justice’. Both progressive and conservative evangelical accounts of the gospel get us off on the wrong foot here. Jesus’ message was neither a generic message of social justice, nor a generic message of individual salvation. It was a message deeply rooted in the particularity of Israel’s life, history, and peoplehood. This particularity can be a stumbling stone both to conservatives, who desire a universal message for individual salvation, untethered from historical particularity. It can also be a stumbling block to progressives, who desire a message of social justice freed from the unwelcome particularity of the gospel message, which prioritizes a particular peoplehood and ethical mainspring in ways that cause problems for the universalism and religious deracination of the liberal sentimental humanitarianism it seeks to underwrite, also establishing tensions with the secular political movements with which it seeks to align itself.