Is DA Carson right about the "Heart of the Gospel?"

On another thread here at vanguardchurch, Moses commented, "At no point whatsoever in the book did I read Carson saying/assuming that the emerging church is aiming to overthrow Reformation Calvinist Christianity. I think Carson thinks emerging by and large ignores/misreads/misunderstands Reformation Christianity but you are putting words in his mouth saying he assumes emerging is trying to overthrow it. That's not fair!"

I want to be fair, especially to a scholar I respect as much as DA Carson. So, I had better define what I mean when I say, "I think that the problem lies in the fact that DA Carson assumes that the goal of emergent is to overthrow Reformation Calvinist Christianity"

Disclaimer: I have not read (nor do I intend to read) Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (having listened to the Staley Lectures from Cedarville, and having read Scot McKight's analysis of the book, I think I've had my fill). The comments here are based solely on my listening to the Staley Lectures and from being pretty familiar with Carson's theology, having studied under him and having been very influenced by him in my own theology.

Here's the main reason I feel that Carson feels that Emergent/Emerging Church is a threat: Carson states in lecture #2 that the heart of the gospel is God's loving plan to remove our guilt and shame and to set aside His wrath justly in keeping with His own integrity. "Unless you see THAT as the problem, you cannot possibly be faithful to the gospel!"

He then says that other themes relate to this "heart of the gospel" theme: like Christus Victor (Christ victorious over Satan and God's enemies). Carson basically feels that anyone who does not see forensic justification as the heart of the gospel is a threat to orthodoxy. Carson basically accuses anyone who is articulating the gospel in other historic forms or with other biblical concepts as being eccentric, off-center, and in danger of sliding off into the occult or the irrelevant. He accuses anyone who does not make Penal Substitution the foundational doctrine of the Atonement as not knowing where they are going—into heresy.

But in reality, Forensic Justification is one of many ways to describe the gospel. Christus Victor and other biblical articulations of the Atonement are not “sub-themes” but are equal themes, on par with Forensic Justification. Just because the Reformation stressed Forensic Justification does not make it the “heart of the gospel.”

But since Carson is convinced that the Reformation got this one right (never mind what the rest of Christian theological history has to say about the Atonement), anybody that does not make this Reformation Calvinist Christian Doctrine the center of the gospel must be seen as a threat to “orthodoxy.” (I am not saying that forensic justification is not a major theme in some important parts of Scripture--the question is whether or not it is the FOUNDATIONAL doctrine of the Gospel).

His “heart of the Gospel” statement shows that Carson has been very influenced by the Reformation. The Reformation has shaped the way he approaches the Bible. Therefore, other ways of explaining the Gospel (even if it is found in the biblical text) gets submerged as a “sub-theme” to the Central Doctrine of the Reformation—Forensic Justification.

This is why I say that he sees the threat of Emergent as the attempt to overthrow Reformation Calvinist Christianity.


Matt said...


Do you think that the gospel has a "heart," and if so, what is it?


Bob Robinson said...

Hey MATT!!!

Good to see your face!

I think the HEART of the gospel must be along the lines of what Jesus Himself preached as the "good news":

"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom." (Matthew 4:23)

It seems that at the "heart" of Jesus' Gospel was the announcement that the Kingdom of God is now available to all people.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hey Bob,
I think your heart of the gospel thing is rather reductionist. MArk 1:15 also has 'Repent and believe' in the good news of the kingdom. Are we justified in saying that the heart of the gospel is repentance and faith in Jesus? I'm sure you would agree. But this then involves us in certain key entailments - repentance from what? And why is it good news that the kingdom is at hand? What would the situation be if we didn't have Jesus?

I think we've got to guard against reducing things to lowest common denominators ... and this, I would argue, is at the the heart of some of Carson's critiques of emerging and his definitions on the atonement etc.

Can I say that if you're posting on Carson and aiming to be responsible you owe it to him to read the book, surely. He states in it that it is an expanded version of the lectures, plus he responds in it to at least one online critique of his lectures.

In the book, Carson seems less interested in the views emerging folks do hold about the cross (although granted he does criticise McClaren here) than in the ones they deny with such barbarism - penal substitution as cosmic child abuse etc. As Carson says, no-one who loves evangelicals would describe the doctrine like this. This means that were emerging folks to be truly rigorous in their doctrine of atonement (at least, say, McClaren and Chalke) and THEN say but we also want to talk about other models of the atonement then I cannot see that they would not get a fair hearing from Carson given that he holds these other models too. His language is ratcheted up a gear precisely because key emerging figures have been manipulative and reprehensible in their description of something he cherishes in conformity with the catholic (small c) tradition throughout the centuries.


Bob Robinson said...

It does not help to tell me I am "reductionist" any more than it would be helpful to say that Matthew 4:23 is "reductionist." Come to think of it, Jesus emphasis on the Kingdom of God is less the "Heart" of the gospel than a holistic statement about all the aspects of the Gospel. We DO get in trouble when we try to reduce the Gospel to a singular thing that could be the HEART.

There is a whole lot involved in the announcement of the Kingdom of God. As Scot McKnight has been talking about over at his blog, we need a more holistic gospel--one that embraces more than Good Friday (Penal Subsitution) but also Easter Morning (Resurrection) and Pentecost (The Gift of the Holy Spirit). A Gospel that does not include all of these aspects comes up short.

The Gospel of Reformation Calvinist Christianity focuses in on Good Friday only--Penal Substitution (Forensic Justification) as the FOUNDATIONAL HEART of the Gospel. But to do so is to elevate one aspect of the Gospel over the others. And besides, Penal Substitution (though a very important theory of the Atonement) is only ONE theory of the Atonement. There are others that are just as valid and helpful in helping us to understand the Grace of God in Christ.

In other words, the it's hard to say that there is a "heart" to the Gospel when it is so multifacted and deep and encompasses an alwul lot in the history of redemption.

Matt said...


Thanks for the warm welcome! I read your blog nearly every day (and got tuned into Scot McKnight's "Jesus Creed" from you, too). Always interesting to see what's on your mind, though I often don't agree.

It seems to me that the heart of the Gospel is Christ Himself and knowing Him (John 17:3). That's why Paul calls it the "Gospel of [God's] Son" (Romans 1:9).

The Gospel of the Kingdom is the news that the King is present and bringing the rescue and salvation that was promised and is so needed because of sin and suffering. And it is worth dying for.

In my reading of the New Testament, we really can't talk about Christ without thinking about His saving work: Cross and Empty Tomb. It seems to me to be something that the evangelical Reformers did get right and should should be central (I think it was for the Apostle Paul - Romans 1:15-17). Forms of Christianity that stray too far from the Great Rescue seem, to me, to be missing the Main Thing (1 Timothy 1:12-20).

John Piper is writing a book right now called "God Is the Gospel" and I think that's right. But for God Himself to be good news for us, the Cross has to be central. That's what I think. Thanks for asking.


Bob Robinson said...

I'm with you Matt. I think that what you're saying is right.

Check out my Created for Glory, a "Work in Progress" presentation of the Gospel (as I seeeez it!)

ScottB said...

If the statement is "repent and believe in the gospel," (Mark 1:15), wouldn't it follow that repentance can't be the message of the gospel, but rather our response? It seems to me that the gospel is more "The Kingdom of God is at hand." This fits with the meaning of euaggelion, which originally comes from the political realm and would refer to an announcement of victory in battle or birth of a ruler. So it seems to me that to locate one particular theory of atonement at the heart of the gospel is to put the cart before the horse - the gospel message as understood by Jesus seems to refer more to the what ("The Kingdom is at hand") than the how (substitutionary atonement).

Scot McKnight said...

Moses and Bob,
There is clearly a tendency on the part of Evangelical Protestants of the Calvinist side to focus on penal substitution of the atonement. And no has states this view better than JI Packer in his Tyndale Bulletin piece, later published in his collection of pieces, "The Logic of Penal Substitution."

I for one am loathe to deny this theory as having solid biblical foundations, though the notion of propitiation is not as prevalent as many of Packer's followers contend. Anselm, incidentally, does not really relate atonement so much to wrath as to the divine honor. So, put me on the list of those who think it is in the NT.

However, there are plenty of issues to discuss: (1) why the early churches never felt any need to articulate a theory of the atonement and why they let the manifold metaphors of the NT remain manifold? (2) why do we need to "reduce" atonement theories to one dominant or master narrative? (3) why did the penal substitution theory get so central following Luther?

I could go on, but I think this is not the best way to get to the heart of the issue: which is that we need to let the variety of atoning metaphors be what they are -- "stories of redemption." Let each play its own language game, let us be sensitive to our audience to know which to tell at what time, and let us avoid ruining each in attempting to mash them all together into one synthetic theory.

Bob is also expressing something, so it seems to me, that is central to my own theology: I love Paul, and I teach him, but I'm not too keen on letting his theology trump the categories of Jesus. Now there's a lot to discuss here, too -- and I for one want to stand in line to purchase tickets to read Paul and I know that his theology shaped plenty of early Christian theology, along with John's, but if we take Scripture seriously and we believe in Jesus as Lord, then we ought at least to learn how to express our theology in his terms.

One last point: what I most like about kingdom is that it enables us to have a theology that includes the history of Israel from Gen 4- to the New Testament. In other words, it thinks God actually does care about government, buildings, taxes, prophets, and the like -- this, after all, is the sort of thing we see over and over in the histories of the Hebrew Bible.

I've gone on too long here. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys,
Apartt from Bob's initial blog on this thread there's virtually nothing I disagree with here in the ones that followed it ... I think scottb's thing on repentance as response is helpful.
Moses. I'm massively keen on kingdom too as over-arching motif - see the work of Graeme Goldsworthy, for instance - and I would argue that kingdom starts in Gen 1-3, not from ch4ff. In Eden what you have is God's people, in God's place, living under God's rule ... exactly the content of the promises to Abraham in ch12.


Bob Robinson said...

What you're reading on this thread actually explains my initial blog:
As much as I respect DA Carson, and as much as I am a Calvinist myself, and as much as the Penal Subsitution theory of Atonement is biblical and I believe it, I cannot buy Carson's insistence that the penal substitution theory of the Atonement is the "Heart of the Gospel."

As Scot McKnight said above, "why do we need to 'reduce' atonement theories to one dominant or master narrative?" It is but one of the "atoning metaphors" available to us. It certainly is a good one; and it certainly was very helpful in Luther and Calvin's day. But I don't think it needs to be the central (heart) metaphor of the Gospel in our day. The gospel is more encompassing than that. That's why I like "The Kingdom of God;" it includes so much more than (and includes) the atonement metaphor that "God's Son died on the cross to remove our guilt and shame and to set aside His wrath justly to set us free from Hell and get us into Heaven."

That is why I say to Matt above, "I'm with you Matt. I think that what you're saying is right." Because anybody who has read the NT must affirm what he is saying as a major "story of redemption." It is true.

But it is not the ONLY way to tell the story of the Atonement: We also have the Recapitulation Theory, the Ransom Theory, the Satisfaction Theory, the Community theory, and many more nuanced theories of Atonement.

Also, Atonement only deals with the Cross. It seems to me that the Gospel is only half told if we do not include the Empty Tomb (as Matt said above).

And the message that Jesus preached was not, "I'm going to die for your sins" (though that was part of it). It was "The Kingdom of God is Available." Our repentance (as ScottB suggested) is a response to the overall proclamation of Jesus: "Do you want to be in the Kingdom? Then you must be Born from Above."

Anyway, to make the gospel "reductionist" (as Moses is loathe to do) by making Penal Subsitution the "Heart of the Gospel" is what this blog post has been all about from the beginning!

Sivin Kit said...

Just to leap out a little ... I just got a book by NT Scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel just to dig deeper behind this phrase "the heart of the Gospel". I think subconsciously this post bugged me to get the book :-)

Bob Robinson said...

Here's what I. Howard Marshall, as referenced in Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy (p. 59) says:

"During the past sixteen years I can recollect only two occasions on which I have heard sermons specifically devoted to the theme of the Kingdom of God...I find this silence rather surprising because it is universally agreed by New Testament scholars that the central theme of the teaching of Jesus was the Kingdom of God."

What is the "heart?" And what are we preaching?!?!

James said...

Scot McKnight, I'm a fan of your work...so please don't take my interactions here as any disrespect...

"Anselm, incidentally, does not really relate atonement so much to wrath as to the divine honor."

Yes, but Anselm clearly assumed that "dishonor" lead inexorably to wrath. How is our dishonoerable response to Majesty remedied (such that divine wrath is assuaged)? That is the central question. We have a debt to pay (infinite honor due infinite Majesty), which we cannot pay, and Christ pays it for us through His life and death. Particularly, Jesus stood as a substitute, assuming our guilt, in the infinite suffering he endured at the cross (i.e., divine wrath), thus satisfying the demands of divine honor. This sure looks a lot like penal substitution. Though Anselm does not develop this view along the lines of divine justice (as Aquinas would go on to do), he does seem to equate 'giving due God honor' with justice, writing, "This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us."

You go on to write,

"However, there are plenty of issues to discuss: (1) why the early churches never felt any need to articulate a theory of the atonement and why they let the manifold metaphors of the NT remain manifold?"

Th early apologitst and fathers were also content to leave precise boundaries and relationship bewteen the dual human and divine nature of Christ undefined (e.g., it would seem that Justin Martyr leaned toward Tri-, or at least, -di-theism in his logos theology) ... until first Arianism, and then the various Christological heresies of the 4th centuries demanded a more precise definition.

Likewise, Anselm addressed a very real weakness (i.e., the ransom theory as propounded in the early medieval church) and ambiguity of the church. This, I would suggest, is yet another example of the healthy progress of doctrine.

"(2) why do we need to "reduce" atonement theories to one dominant or master narrative?"

We don't. That's precisely the point of most proponents of penal substituation I've read. They are simply arguing aginst those views which would deny penal substition as a legitimate aspect of the atonement, as many are framed in contradistinction and contradiction to substitionary and piacular atonement (e.g., Aulen's "Christus Victor," or the classical Arminian "Governmental Theory," or modern "Moral Influence," and "Example Theory" or other subjectivistic conceptions of the atonement. J.I. Packer, John Stott, Roger Nicole, et al. have all affirmed legitamacy to all these views, provided that they are not so understood as to exclude penal substition. E.g., the example and moral influence theories rightly point to the subjective function of the atonement, but of course this does not mean that the atonement has no objective reality or God-ward aspect.

"we need to let the variety of atoning metaphors be what they are -- "stories of redemption." Let each play its own language game, let us be sensitive to our audience to know which to tell at what time, and let us avoid ruining each in attempting to mash them all together into one synthetic theory."

I'm not sure about your last statement (we need to ensure the coherency of the biblical story, including their mixing metaphors), but i would agree. In fact, I understand from the penal substitutionary perspective, that the law, as it stood against us, in answered (Gal.2:19), Satan is thereby "disarmed," (Col.2:14-15), we are swayed by the depths of Christ's love (Gal.2:20), and called to likewise "suffer for righteousness sake," (1Pe.2:21-25) in pursuing the kingdom of God.

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