If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

The Gospel Allies are not helping to clarify what is and what is not a gospel issue. Their brand is slipping away.

Kevin DeYoung comes the closest to adding clarity when he writes:

“gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.

But then he the North Carolina pastor taketh away with this:

And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.

In a similar way (as Justin Taylor observes), D. A. Carson says something good:

For some Christian observers, cessationism is a gospel issue. In their perception, the charismatic movement is characteristically afflicted by one brand or another of health, wealth, and prosperity gospel that distances itself from the gospel of the cross: this makes the matter a gospel issue. Some forms of the charismatic movement so construct a two-stage view of spiritual wholeness, the second stage attested by one or more particular spiritual gifts, that the nature of what Jesus achieved on the cross is in jeopardy. Others, it is argued, adopt a view of revelation that jeopardizes the exclusive, final authority of Scripture, and this threatens the gospel that the Scripture heralds. But other Christian observers, fully aware of these dangers and no less concerned to avoid them, nevertheless remain convinced that at least some charismatics manage to display their gifts without succumbing to any of these errors, while self-consciously holding to the same gospel that the observers hold. In other words, for them the charismatic movement (or, from the obverse direction, cessationism) is not necessarily a gospel issue. They want to avoid building legalistic fences around their positions. Once again, it is difficult not to see that personal experiences and sustained habits of assessment have entered into one’s judgments. Determining whether X is a gospel issue is often more than a narrowly exegetical exercise.

To put the same matter another way, another sort of example might be introduced. We have seen how the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement is usefully considered a gospel issue provided (a) that we have adopted a robust definition of the gospel, such that (b) to disown that facet of the cross-work of Christ necessarily diminishes or threatens the gospel. But I have not heard anyone recently suggest that the exemplary function of the cross is a gospel issue, even though Peter unambiguously insists that Jesus died leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. This is as much a gospel issue as is penal, substitutionary atonement, even though it is not treated in that way today, precisely because it is not one of the controverted points. In other words, the things that we debate as to whether they are gospel issues reflect the hot topics, and especially the denials or errors, of our age. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the filioque clause and the eternal generation of the Son at the head of this editorial: at one point, they were very much considered gospel issues. The second of these two is currently making something of a comeback—but certainly if we are careless about them, our carelessness suggests how our own theological foci have shifted with time and demonstrates once again that discussions of the sort “X is a gospel issue” commonly address the errors and dangers of a particular age. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is in any case an inevitable thing. But it should be recognized for what it is.

In other words, the nature of salvation is at stake either explicitly or implicitly in debates about the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ on the cross.

Then Carson raises matters of politics and social relations to the level of “gospelly”:

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue. They might point out that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation; that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile; that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself; that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community.

But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

More worrying, survey after survey has shown that in America today, even among those with a robust grasp of the gospel, black Christians and white Christians do not view these matters exactly the same way. Even where both sides agree, on biblical grounds, that this is a gospel issue, black Christians are far more likely to see that this is a crucial gospel issue, an issue of huge importance, one that is often ignored, while white Christians are more likely to imagine that racial issues have so largely been resolved that it is a distraction to keep bringing them up.

Carson seemed to recognized that doctrinal matters are properly theological and concern the way that man becomes right with God. But then he gives ground an allows that questions surrounding social relations, and specifically societies that are comprised not simply of Christians but of non-Christians, are “gospelly.” He does not seem to consider why should non-Christians ever consent to be governed by the “gospel issues” defined by Christians. And whatever happened to allowing those with expertise in public policy, law, governance, and electoral politics set the debates about race relations and laws about bigotry rather than thinking any Christian whose read a book by Keller or Carson think he is competent to pontificate about laws governing hatred or prejudice (which is kind of complicated in a society where freedom of thought is a long and cherished ideal).

And then, a golden oldie from Thabiti Anyabwile on how a matter of policy becomes “gospelly.” After the federal grand jury’s determination not to indict Ferguson police offer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, Anyabwile told readers (I am assuming they are Christian because of that “gospelly” thing) that they have three options:

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. . . .

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” . . . Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

Notice the move back and forth between we “the righteous” and “civic ideals.” I assume and have heard Anyabwile enough to know that he believes a person is only righteous because of faith in Christ imputes that righteousness to the Christian. So why mix a theological category with a political one — righteous with civil? This is not clear, but it does in lean in a Social Gospelly direction. The mixing of civil and theological categories becomes even more intermingly:

There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God.

If the United States is a Christian country, maybe this sort of co-mingling of theology and law works. But we are not in Christian America anymore.

If you listen to Anyabwile’s comments about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, you hear him complain about the failure of the statement to define terms like “social justice,” “intersectionality,” Marxism, and the like. It doesn’t seem particularly fair or just to be prissy about words when after four years you are not any more clear about the gospel and social justice than John MacArthur.

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How to Achieve Racial Solidarity — Apply Ben Franklin’s Racism

When Thabiti Anyabwile complains about white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump, he should remember that Ben Franklin defined racial solidarity differently than the Washington DC pastor does. According to Franklin:

The Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.

By that reckoning, many people of color voted for Donald Trump on Tuesday. It might undermine Anyabwile’s point (already attempted). But it would be a way of achieving the “white” identification with African-Americans for which the pastor strives.

He’s Only a Priest and Only Gives Homilies (now)

But Bill Smith still raises good questions for any pastor, priest, bishop, or pope who pretends to think his spiritual jurisdiction gives him credibility in the civil realm. His questions also apply to those w-w advocates who think that Christ’s lordship justifies Christian rule (of course, in a benign way these days unlike those old heretic executing ones) over all things:

a) What would Jesus preach about Black lives matter?

b) What would Jesus preach about the economic system in the United States?

c) What would Jesus preach about Wall Street?

d) What would Jesus preach about healthcare? Would he want to repeal, maintain, or expand the ACA?

e) What would Jesus preach about the upcoming national election? Would he preach that one party serves the interests of righteousness and justice better than the other?

f) What would Jesus preach about Islamist terrorists? the godly U.S. response?

e) What would Jesus preach about voter registration, voter ID, etc.?

g) What would Jesus preach about military readiness, the military budget, and the use of military power?

h) What would Jesus preach about foreign aid?

i) What programs to aid the poor would Jesus endorse in his preaching?

j) What would Jesus preach about immigration? Would he preach in support of a wall? of barring Muslim refugees? Would he preach in favor of deporting, granting citizenship, or granting permanent residence to illegal immigrants?

k) What would Jesus preach about gun control?

l) What would Jesus preach about the vacancy on the Supreme Court?

Our favorite priest puts these questions to Thabiti Anyabwile who said “I don’t think [politics] can be avoided if you’re committed to expositional preaching of the sort that makes contact with contemporary life.”

But isn’t it the case that if you want to connect with contemporary life, you really connect and talk about specifics? Or is the point of bring politics into the pulpit a way for the pastor to seem like he’s not operating in an ivory tower or removed from real life? (At least when Pope Francis comments on contemporary life he doesn’t go to Scripture but to — ahem — the authoritative magisterium of social teaching.)

But what happened to Paul’s preaching which distinguished between contemporary and ephemeral things and those truths and realities that endure?

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:11-16 ESV)

The priest’s lesson, then, is that pastor’s need to be wary about appealing to the itching ears of the natural man that still lurks within.

Male Pattern Sensitivity

Who is more sensitive?

Bill Smith in response to Thabiti Anyabwile on crazy Confederate uncles?

I should not have to say these things, but I will, though I know some, perhaps including Brother Anyabwile, will take it as the equivalent of “I have black friends”: (1) I have no sympathy for the League of the South. I have never been to Monroe, Louisiana, or attended a Confederate Ball. While I am eligible for membership, I have not joined the Sons of the Confederacy because I do not want anything to do with the racism of some of its members. (2) In seminary in the early 1970s I spent two summers working as an assistant to a black Presbyterian pastor in Jackson, MS. (3) I was run off as a RUM campus minister, with a wife and five babies, in part because of my racial views and practice. Ours was the only integrated RUF in Mississippi, and we integrated the statewide conferences. I stood by an interracial dating couple which included my sitting in an office hearing one of them described as a “white N-word” by a person threatening my job. (4) I have a love-hate relationship with the South, and particularly with Mississippi. Mississippi is a place where place (both geography and status) and people (your family and social group) make a great deal of difference. I hate indirection and insincerity in relationships. But the South is like my family. I can point out theie faults, but if you go to talking bad about my people, I’ll bow my neck and clench my fists. (5) I read B.B. Warfield and listen to B.B. King.

But, nevertheless I am one of those crazy Confederates I suppose because I am (1) white (so far as I know, though there are questions) , (2) Reformed (in my case defined by the 39 Articles); (3) western (in civilization – the “dead white guys”); (4) Southern (by heritage and affection).

Like all paranoid schizophrenics, I feel I have been persecuted.

Or Jemar Tisby on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson?

So, Blacks were happier during the Jim Crow era? Does he assume that all Blacks now are on welfare?

I’ve actually heard similar reasoning quite often. Usually these comments come from older Whites who grew up in the South and remember it fondly. I understand their point. They look back on their experience of a historical moment that was mostly positive, and they want to remember it that way. The problem in a segregated society, then and now, is that our perceptions tend only to reflect our particular realities. We have little exposure to the realities of others, including an awareness of their hardships.

What Phil Robertson and others get wrong is how they diagnose the state of race relations in America. They use external cues like the frequency of a smile, and their personal exposure to overt instances of racism to judge the climate of a culture. But what some people fail to understand is that there are unwritten rules of conduct when Blacks interact with Whites. . . .

It’s possible that Phil Robertson knew Blacks who were genuinely happy. It’s possible that in his community there truly were exceptionally positive relationships between Blacks and Whites. It’s possible, but not likely. What’s probably closer to reality is that he saw Black people who knew the rules. They knew what they could say and do around Whites who held the power. Even if those Whites were lower-income or “white trash” as Mr. Robertson describes it. There was still a cultural curtain separating the races.

I am merely asking, since it seems that everyone is sensitive and that everyone also expects others to moderate their sensitivity for the sake of getting along, though Joe Carter may differ.

I do believe that Tisby is correct to conclude that:

We all need to examine our tools of discernment. What are we using as evidence for a hypothesis about a people? Are we employing superficial and anecdotal proofs for our theories? Or are we engaging in meaningful dialogue with those who are different from us?

I am not sure that Anyabwile or Smith’s posts meet Tisby’s guidelines, nor do I think either man is without a point. The issue may be whether each man can acknowledge the other’s grievance, or whether one grievance trumps the other and lowers Tisby’s threshold for “meaningful dialogue.” That’s why Ross Douthat’s point (in the context of “12 Years A Slave”) is worth repeating:

A fruitful conversation about race in America, then, would require both sides to somehow pick a different starting point. To get a fair hearing from liberals — and, more importantly, from black Americans — the right would need to begin from a place of greater empathy for the black experience, and greater respect for the historical reasons that voter ID laws and Rush Limbaugh soliloquies can raise so many hackles. To get a fair hearing from conservatives, liberals would need to begin by imputing racism less frequently, attacking racially-entangled policies that aren’t remotely like Jim Crow on the merits rather than just calling them Jim Crow, Round Two, and recognizing that (as with Hitler analogies) the sooner you link your interlocutors to slaveowners, the faster they will tune you out.

Obama-era conservatism has often gone backward, not forward, where this potential conversation is concerned. But a liberalism that expects conservatives to see their present-day positions and rhetoric illuminated and condemned by a cinematic portrait of the evils of slavery in 1840s Louisiana — or that declares them unreachable when they don’t — is a liberalism that’s as unready for dialogue as any insensitive right-wing talk show host.

Will Piper, Carson, and Keller Alone Be Left Standing (or why don't rappers rap about Native Americans)?

Readers at Old Life know that Puritanism is not on the A-list of favorite topics (unless it is to kvetch about experimental Calvinism). But the recent discussion of Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans,” has me reaching in my apologetics tool box (as if John Frame taught me nothing or that I ever heard of Propaganda before).

The issue so far seems to be whether or not to criticize heroes. Anthony Bradley, defender of Propaganda, argues for a sensible outlook on historical actors:

Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.

Thabiti Anyabwile concurs at his Gospel Coalition blog (though the irony is rich since TGC is pretty averse to criticism of its theological celebrities):

That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting.

2kers, Matt Tuininga and Scott Clark, approve generally the points made by Bradley and Anyabwile. First Tuininga:

. . . we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this.

And Clark:

If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.

What is missing from this discussion is not a defense of the Puritans or of slavery — though I would suggest it is possible to defend the Puritans without defending slavery — but what is lacking is a critique of the holier-than-thou anti-slavery meme. Of course, slavery is unjust and of course, racism is despicable. But is it possible to see problems with the anti-slavery? The charge of slavery, like that of racisim, paints with a broad brush. It lacks nuance. It renders the world manichean, akin to the old line about pregnancy — you can’t be a little bit with child. In which case, if you owned slaves or are guilty of racism, no need ever to consider anything you have to say. You will forever be known as a slaveholder and racist the way that we now know Jerry Sandusky as a one dimensional pervert.

For instance, is it possible to make distinctions between orthodox slaveholders and Unitarian ones? If so, is it possible to say that the orthodox slaveholder’s theology is better than the Unitarians? In which case, is it possible to read slave holders’ theology and benefit from it? Can we separate aspects of historical actor’s life or does his wickedness go all the way down? The differences between Reformed confessionalism’s 2k posture, which separates holy, common, and profane matters all the time contrasts here with Reformed pietism which disdains all such distinctions under the canopy of “all is religious.” Of course, if we can’t separate matters, then readers should avoid Old Life at all cost not because I own slaves but because I — can you believe it — sin.

In other words, inherent in the anti-slavery position is not a form of genuine Christian reflection but one of perfectionism. This is a one-strike and you’re out scorched earth policy, with certain sins achieving red-letter status. If you break those, we’ll never hear from you again. This has happened with the American founders, slaveholders and chauvinists that they were, among large sectors of the academy. It also explained why mainline churches don’t read older theologians — the PCUSA’s awkward attitude to Princeton Seminary’s bi-centennial is an example. This trend seems to be afflicting evangelical Protestants. No surprise there since nineteenth-century evangelicals fell prey to this binary perfectionism back in the antebellum era.

And if a similar cultural perfectionism is seeping into the evangelical world, when will denunciations of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and the West more generally follow? The lyrics of Propaganda’s song point out the problem.

Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.

So what is the pastor to do? If he says, “the English theologian,” before quoting doesn’t he bring up all the enormity that went with English colonialism? What will the Native Americans in the congregation think? Or how about “the Calvinist theologian”? All monarchists who think well of the Stuarts will be put off with that nasty business of regicide. Or how about if the pastor quotes a male theologian, will feminists quiver and melt?

Are all of these offenses equal? Probably not and it would be hard to find any monarchist these days. But other minorities do have their list of offenses and if we only listened to the pristine, we’d be left quoting Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Keller, and Mrs. Carson.

Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to toughen up. After all, how happy were the early Christians hearing the apostle Paul quoted in their worship services? Wasn’t he the guy who helped kill Christians? In fact, if we apply our standards of social justice all the way through the past, we will have to close the good book altogether. The reason is that none of the Bible’s saints could withstand our moral rectitude.

The Gospel Coalition Goes Racial

Several recent developments among the gospel allies have revealed that no matter how much we denounce racism, race is a category that is alive, well, obscure, and still divisive. Race, for instance, is almost as foggy as evangelicalism. Try to tell the difference and explain it briefly between race and ethnicity. Try to tell someone of African descent who came to the United States by way of Haiti that they are “black” in the same way that descendants of African-American slaves are. Try even to explain how President Obama is more black than white. Or for lighter shades of racial characteristics, try to explain how the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, despite historic animosities, are all “Asian.” And don’t forget about the Irish, white people whom other whites – in this case Boston Brahmins – called black. Race is, as you may be able to tell, slippery. What is more, the persistent appeal to it ironically keeps alive the kind of quasi-scientific claims that fueled eugenics and other early twentieth-century schemes for preserving racial purity.

But the folks with good intentions, the allies of the gospel, keep stepping in the gooey subject of race with consequences unbecoming their wholesome (even if sappy) aims. First it was Christianity Today’s publication of an excerpt from John Piper’s new book, Bloodlines. The provocative title of the piece was, “I Was A Racist.” It chronicles Piper’s life, from his southern youth where he presumed the superiority of whites to blacks, to his days at Wheaton College where he was confronted at an InterVarsity Fellowship conference to consider the legitimacy of inter-racial marriage, to his studies in Germany which allowed him to visit concentration camps designed by the “master” Aryan race, to his decision as a middle-aged man to adopt an African-American child. Along the way, Piper employs tropes and taps sentiments designed to show the wickedness of racism, all the while he avoids a technical definition of the concept. And without a definite idea of what constitutes racism, readers don’t know if Piper really was a racist or whether his self-absolved declaration of innocence is justified.

Here’s one example of the sentimentality that lurks around Piper’s reflections:

I was, in those years, manifestly racist. As a child and a teenager my attitudes and actions assumed the superiority of my race in almost every way without knowing or wanting to know anybody who was black, except Lucy. Lucy came to our house on Saturdays to help my mother clean. I liked Lucy, but the whole structure of the relationship was demeaning. Those who defend the noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other’s personal celebrations, seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading.

No, she was not a slave. But the point still stands. Of course, we were nice. Of course, we loved Lucy. Of course, she was invited to my sister’s wedding. As long as she and her family “knew their place.” Being nice to, and having strong affections for, and including in our lives is what we do for our dogs too. It doesn’t say much about honor and respect and equality before God. My affections for Lucy did not provide the slightest restraint on my racist mouth when I was with my friends. . . .

So Lucy was only as good as a dog? Is that really the way that whites viewed blacks when they taught them the Bible? Do dogs have souls? Were Boston Protestants “nice” to Irish Roman Catholics? And was this sort of treatment the same that the Nazis showed to Jews? Whatever the answers to these questions – and they will be decidedly mixed depending on the answerers’ bloodlines – Piper avoids a systematic treatment of race and opts instead for associations. Please do not misunderstand. Slavery was abhorrent, skin-color based slavery more so. But do we need to liken slavery to the Holocaust in order to condemn it? Meanwhile, notice the flip side of these associations – Piper’s kin were the equivalent of the Nazis. Is this any way to regard our families (as if Nazis were only evil all the time, as if people who believe in total depravity would locate wickedness in one ethnic group)?

Another observation to make about Piper’s piece is the way that adopting a child of African descent seems bestow racial innocence. I admire Piper for doing this, and for the kind of life he tries to lead by living in a specific neighborhood in Minneapolis. But is he not aware of African-Americans who might regard his adoption as simply another way of saying that “some of my best friends are black”? Of course, the folks who might say this about Piper, from Al Sharpton to Cornel West, could be harboring views of race and racism that a person of European descent could never avoid. But if that’s the case – which it is (think about Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s basketball team) – then why bring up race at all? Why not write a book about families, adoption, and urban living? Why the need to talk about private matters that are so patently alarming and have the potential for manipulation? If evangelicals read and adopt this book as a clear and incisive statement on race, they will surely be surprised the next time they enter a discussion or read a news item which reveals how deep and contested are the politics of identity.

One more thing — why does Piper not apply his assumptions about diversity to African-American churches? When I taught a course on religion in Philadelphia I showed students some videos from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not at the same time, but to cover the African-American experience one week and the experience of some ethnic-Europeans another. What was striking in these videos was how proud the African-American churches were of being black. They made no effort to reflect the diversity of their congregations because they didn’t have much racial or ethnic diversity. But not so for the Lutherans. We saw Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and even European-Americans in the Lutheran videos, even though the appeal of Lutheranism outside German and Scandinavian settings is tiny.

This does not mean that Lutherans or Piper are wrong to seek diversity in their churches. It does mean that if diversity is a biblical imperative – as opposed to an outgrowth of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism – then Piper should be communicating to black church leaders the importance of enfolding white’s and Asians into their congregations. But if he did that, would he be able to claim that he WAS a racist and isn’t one anymore?

Around the same time that Piper’s piece appeared in Christianity Today, the Gospel Coalition was engaged in some soul searching thanks to James McDonald’s decision to interview T. D. Jakes for Elephant Room. The problem apparently (since I don’t know the work of MacDonald except for the excruciatingly painful video he did with Mark Driscoll and Mark Dever about pastoral ministry, nor do I know about T. D. Jakes except for Don Imus’ regular invoking of and praise for the bishop — note the irony) was the terms under which MacDonald invited Jakes. Was Jakes a fellow believer in gospel? Or was and is he guilty of faulty view of the Trinity? MacDonald’s explanation of the situation was not good enough for a number of bloggers, white and black. The problem was particularly the mixed message that MacDonald (and by extension) the Gospel Coalition would send to the black church about the doctrine of the Trinity. According to Thabiti Anyabwile:

The news of T.D. Jakes’ invitation to The Elephant Room is widespread and rightly lamented by many. I’m just adding a perspective that hasn’t yet been stated: This kind of invitation undermines that long, hard battle many of us have been waging in a community often neglected by many of our peers. And because we’ve often been attempting to introduce African-American Christians to the wider Evangelical and Reformed world as an alternative to the heresy and blasphemy so commonplace in some African-American churches and on popular television outlets, the invitation of Jakes to perform in ‘our circles’ simply feels like a swift tug of the rug from beneath our feet and our efforts to bring health to a sick church.

Justin Taylor jumped on the bandwagon. “The most sobering and painful commentary on this controversy has been penned by Thabiti Anyabwile and Anthony Carter, who have both labored winsomely and heroically for a reformation in the black church and see this invitation as a tremendous setback for the cause of grace and truth. I’d encourage you to consider their perspective on something like this.”

What is remarkable in this reaction to MacDonald is, first, the assumption that the white church has a sound doctrine of the Trinity. Unless I missed something, the Gospel Coalition is a wart to the Matterhorn (thank you Henry Lewis) of the Trinity Broadcast Network and the larger Pentecostal and charismatic world which consists of Americans of European descent as much as blacks. In other words, the black church has no corner of heresy and the Gospel Coalition has a lot of work to do if it is going to labor winsomely and heroically for a reformation in the white church.

Second, the Gospel Coalition’s doctrine of the Trinity is not exactly Nicea. The first point of their doctrinal statement reads:

We believe in one God, eternally existing in three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who know, love, and glorify one another. This one true and living God is infinitely perfect both in his love and in his holiness. He is the Creator of all things, visible and invisible, and is therefore worthy to receive all glory and adoration. Immortal and eternal, he perfectly and exhaustively knows the end from the beginning, sustains and sovereignly rules over all things, and providentially brings about his eternal good purposes to redeem a people for himself and restore his fallen creation, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Compare this to the Westminster Confession and you see a lack of precision:

1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.

3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Of course, the Westminster Confession is not Nicea either. But it does have the important Nicene bits – the affirmations about substance and person, and the one about the Son being eternally begotten of the Father. In which case, if the Gospel Coalition wants to set itself as the standard for orthodoxy in the white church, especially on the Trinity, why not actually affirm (or teach about) the Nicene doctrine of God?

In the end, I’m not sure what race has to do with the current status of orthodox Trinitarianism in the United States, or with one pastor’s decision to adopt a child. But a lot of people seem to think that race still matters and that is not a recipe for overcoming racism but for keeping the vague concept of race alive.