Why I can be a part of The Gospel Coalition as a confessional Presbyterian (and some thoughts on posts at TGC that contradict my confessional commitments)
Recently, as I was posting some notes and an outline of Samuel Miller’s wonderful little essay defending and commending the church’s use of creeds and confessions, a social media interlocutor asked me a completely fair question: “how could I promote confessionalism, and be a Westminster Confession-subscribing minister in a Presbyterian church, and at the same time be a part of and participate in The Gospel Coalition (TGC), since TGC posts things on their website and blogs that are contradictory of my confessional commitments.”
In particular, my questioner was concerned about a recent TGC article that denied the continuing obligation of believers to the moral law, as revealed, for instance, in the Ten Commandments. He wondered: “how can you participate in a coalition that publishes views contrary to your vows?” Again, fair enough. Presbyterians along with most Christians in history and all the great Reformed Protestant Confessions believe that the moral law (summarized in the ten commandments) remains an obligation for Christians, because it is an enduring expression of God’s own moral character.
That is a perfectly legitimate query, in good faith, from one Presbyterian to another. I’m happy to answer it. None of us should get defensive when people ask us things like this. If we are ministers of the church, we are accountable according to our ordination vows. I never mind being “called on the carpet” to answer for my commitment to my church or her confession.
Here’s how I answered. First, I’m not sure people realize how many confessional Presbyterians are involved in TGC. The President of TGC (Julius Kim) is a confessional Presbyterian, one of the co-founders is a confessional Presbyterian (Tim Keller), the chairman of the board is a confessional Presbyterian (Kevin DeYoung), a number of TGC board and council members are confessional Presbyterians (including at least four former PCA moderators, by my count). None of us are a part of TGC because we don’t care about our ministerial vows or because we don’t really believe our Confession.
We are a part of TGC because TGC beautifully promotes certain important things in the wider Christian and evangelical world that are needed, vital, true, good, right, timely, healthful, and which are also perfectly consistent with our own confessional theological commitments, so we want to be a part and a help. We also think that we have a thing or two to learn from our non-Presbyterian friends in TGC that “sweetly comport” with our vows and our church’s doctrine and practice. And we love the friendship and fellowship we enjoy with like-minded brethren from and ministering in settings denominationally different from our own, but committed to the same big things.
Just as Charles Hodge of Princeton (not one shy of his confessional Presbyterian commitments), for similar reasons, was happy to participate in the Evangelical Alliance in the nineteenth century, so also I am happy to participate in TGC. TGC stands for a high view of Scripture, a high view of God, non-pragmatic theology-driven ministry in the church, historic Protestant soteriology, a passion for the Gospel (articulating it biblically and sharing it profusely), and a ton of other things that confessional Presbyterians can say a hearty “Amen” too.
Second, in thinking more specifically about the offending article, allow me to point out that the theological documents of TGC do not advocate for antinomianism (however defined). The two most common ways of defining antinomianism in our time are: (1) the denial of the continuing obligation of the moral law (as the article in question did, and as is typical in much of current evangelical biblical studies), or (2) someone who denies that obedience or obligation is an ongoing part of the Christian life (which even those in TGC who hold to view 1 don’t embrace). The TGC foundation documents do not propose either of those views. So, when someone advocates for view 1 in an article on the TGC website, it does not carry the endorsement of TGC’s documents or Council. Even though view 1 is shared by or consistent with the views of some within TGC (Don Carson, John Piper and others, for instance), it is not part of the confessional affirmations of the TGC documents, which are embracive of people (like me) who differ on that issue. I therefore happily affirm the TGC statements without contradiction of my own confessional commitments. My confession is more specific than TGC’s statements, and TGC’s documents allow for more leeway on the issue, but do not contradict the Westminster Confession.
I do think that authors writing on the TGC website (and the TGC editors who review article entries) can do a better job of indicating when they are speaking for themselves and not for TGC, and could be more careful of kicking hornets’ nests needlessly. So, if one advocates for the non-obligation of Christians to the moral law, summarized in the ten commandments in an article on the TGC website, one should remember: (1) the TGC foundation documents do not affirm this view; (2) this is not an animating issue for the mission of TGC; (3) many TGC Council members do not embrace this view, and (4) this view contradicts many of the particular church confessions that TGC council members subscribe as a part of our ordination vows, and thus some in our constituencies will be less than chuffed to see us associated with its advocacy (and understandably so). We’ve talked about this at the Board level of TGC ad infinitum. We really don’t intend the TGC website to “troll” the confessional reformed world. We’re supposed to be commending our shared theology (which is entirely consistent with our whole Council’s commitments to our particular confessions).
Third, we should remember that the dominant views in modern biblical studies (on almost all sides) regarding Paul and the law, as well as the nature of the Mosaic law, and the ongoing validity of the moral law in the Christian life are out of accord with the interpretation of the decalogue (ten commandments) and the view of present status of the moral law held by most Christians in history and all the great Reformed Protestant Confessions. To quote the Westminster Confession of Faith, “the moral law doth forever bind all.” There is zero novelty about that view. The very earliest Christian theologians explicitly affirmed that from the first days of the post-Apostolic church. My very first academic paper delivered as a postgraduate student to the faculty of New College at the University of Edinburgh in 1989 surveyed the pre-Nicene fathers’ appeals to the moral law, summarized in the ten commandments. They all affirmed it and applied it directly to Christians. But modern evangelical students, even ones like in TGC who are influenced by Reformed theology, may be excused for not realizing the newness of the current majority view or that it baldly contradicts the Reformed consensus.
Now, I am not personally offended or surprised when people articulate such a view. I can hardly pick up a new evangelical commentary on any book of the New Testament without reading a view that contradicts the historic Reformed Protestant view. And these are my friends. People I know, love, respect, and learn from (like the author of the article that prompted this little reflection). So, I must admit, when I saw the article, I did not have an adverse reaction to it. I took it as my friend saying, “Hey, this is why I think today’s dominant view is right, stated in laymen’s terms.” Even though I subscribe a confession that says: “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.5). Actually, the article gives me a good quick summary to use in my Covenant Theology course when I am explaining alternative views of the Mosaic economy in relation to the New Covenant.
But I realize that not everyone reacts that way to TGC articles, or understands how or why the things there get there, and how they relate to TGC’s “official position.” I must admit, it feels to me like there are folks out there that wake up in the morning hoping to be offended by something on the TGC website. They don’t like movie reviews that highlight redemptive themes (hey, um, don’t read them then). They think TGC is pushing intersectionality and critical race theory (though the accusers would fail a college-level exam on said subjects). They think TGC is on the doctrinal downgrade, pushing egalitarianism, caving in on LGBTQ issues, too critical of President Trump, etc. Or, alternatively, TGC is misogynistic, racist, captive to white privilege and heteronormativity, pushes patriarchy, is theologically chauvinist, a Reformed boys club, yada, yada, yada. You get the point. TGC is now getting the treatment that CT used to get.
This is just not how I think of TGC or the TGC website. I view it as a place where some of the more serious and thoughtful voices in my part of the evangelical world have useful and significant conversations, inform me of things I need to know about, give me a feel for what’s going on “out there,” articulate a lot of classic Protestant theology in a form that reaches places where some smaller confessional communions don’t have much of an impact, and where my theological convictions, even if not fully shared or advocated, are at least given a respectful hearing and sometimes embraced. Generally, my reaction to something on the TGC website that is contra my confession is not “hey, somebody said something wrong!” but “you know what, TGC lets Kevin DeYoung argue for my view 24/7.”
So, as a board member of TGC, I want to be supportive of my TGC writers and editors, who are really smart, godly, committed, gifted, theologically-minded, Christian young people (well, at least they are young in comparison to a geezer like me). They are a blessing to me. I learn from them. Appreciate them. Want to encourage them in every way I can. And they get criticisms every, single, day. Most of which have all the value of the insights of guys who never played football commenting on online college football recruiting forums. I also don’t want to unnecessarily trigger Christians who are part of confessional traditions that are theologically “tighter” than TGC. Remember, almost all of the TGC Council is part of some kind of confessional church body or denomination, whose confessions may vary on theological particulars, and whose confessions are probably more specific that TGC’s foundation documents which are meant to sketch out the animating center of what TGC is about, rather than provide an exhaustive or alternative confessional framework to existing statements of faith.
I think we can do a few things to help on all this. 1. We can make sure that the website is theologically pushing what unites us (and is at least deferentially self-aware when speaking into controverted areas). 2. We can more clearly delineate when a TGC writer is articulating his own views, which are not contradictory of the TGC foundation documents, but which are also not affirmed by them. And that he is aware when he is contradicting the views of TGC Council members and their particular church confession. 3. We can more clearly explain what the TGC website is trying to do. 4. We can remember that there is a lot that TGC can celebrate in the historic Reformed Protestant confessions, that are not explicitly mentioned in the TGC founding documents, but which are broadly shared in the TGC Council’s constituencies.
As for me, let me be clear. I’ll just paint the target on my back in bold. I am an unapologetically confessional Presbyterian minister whose goal in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, especially by the gathering and perfecting of the saints, by the proclamation of the Word of God and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I attempt to do this in every place I am in life. To that end, I aspire to promote confessional Reformed doctrine and practice, because I think it’s biblical, in my own congregation, presbytery, the PCA at large, TLF, GRN, other particular churches and denominations, NAPARC, through Reformed Theological Seminary, T4G, TGC, CBMW, WRF and any other place that will allow me to do so. I am not hindered in doing any of this by being a part of TGC, and in fact, I am much helped by it.
Confessional Reformed theology is not sectarian. We understand that we are not the only faithful Christians, but as a school of historic, orthodox, Protestant Christianity who confess the sovereign, triune God; the inspired, authoritative, infallible, inerrant Scriptures; the sole sufficiency of Christ as mediator; God’s grace in salvation; and the necessity and significance of the church in the purposes of God, we are happy to join common cause with other Christians who share substantially the same commitments and concerns. We ourselves exist in a variety of confessional denominations, for various historical, theological and geographical reasons, and happily work across those bounds, without compromising our principles. Thus we do the same in places like TGC, with firm and clear convictions, and deep and wide sympathies with other brethren.