Keller: Gospel Complexity Demands Gospel Contextualization

This post continues my “digesting” of Keller’s book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Is the Gospel a simple thing? Yes and no. If by “simple” you mean “understandable,” then the Gospel certainly is simple. It was simple enough for me to understand when I was a preschooler. But there’s another sense in which we can say that the Gospel is not simple. It is complex and multifaceted. You can’t stuff it into a “one-size-fits-all” presentation. Where in Scripture do we find an ultimate paradigm for presenting the Gospel? Matthew, Mark and Luke conceive of salvation in terms of the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.” In contrast, John frames the Gospel in the words “eternal life.” Paul’s precise theological terminology–reconciliation, propitiation, redemption, adoption, etc.–reveals even deeper nuances of the Gospel.

So we see that the Gospel is complex in that the human authors of Scripture present it in different ways. But this does not mean we cannot identify its irreducible components. Indeed, this is what Keller does. He sees that “at the heart of all of the biblical writers’ theology is redemption through substitution.” A systematic theologian sees the Gospel essentially as God, sin, Christ and faith. Someone reading Scripture as grand narrative (the redemptive-historical method) sees the Gospel essentially as a story of God’s restoring fallen humanity to a right relationship with himself. In what sense, then, is the Gospel “complex”? It is complex in that you can’t see the whole thing from only one angle. Or, as Keller puts it, “A person can explain the gospel from beginning to end through any of these themes, but no single theme gives the full picture” (41).

How is the Gospel’s complexity an advantage to us? It is an advantage to us because we are complex creatures. The multi-dimensional quality of the Gospel speaks to the multi-dimensional make-up of human beings. The Gospel meets us on every front of our nature. We are broken in every way. The Gospel restores us in every way. Beyond this, different human cultures (and different people within those cultures) grasp truths in different ways. In the complexity of the Gospel, then, we see God’s grace and wisdom.

Keller argues that the Gospel’s complexity demands Gospel contextualization. There is no stock formula for presenting the Gospel. The bearers of the Gospel have the privilege and responsibility to choose which face of the diamond to display to their hearers. Keller cites Paul’s “contextualization” of the Gospel. To the Greeks, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of speculation and philosophy with the ‘foolishness’ of the cross” (44). To the Jews, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of power and accomplishment with the ‘weakness’ of the cross” (44).

Although Keller gives no formal definition of Gospel contextualization at this point in the book, it appears that contextualization is merely the choice each Christian must make about how to present the unchanging truth of the Gospel in a way that most directly speaks to the hearts of the listeners. What are their idols? What is their conception of salvation, and how have they been pursuing it? Contextualization is not tampering with the Gospel. Contextualization is not tickling the ears of the listeners. It is waking them up to the jolting reality that they are in desperate need of what Christ has done. If Keller is right, then we have no choice about whether or not we will contextualize the Gospel. Rather, it is a matter of whether we will do it intentionally. It is a matter of whether we will do it well.

Digesting “Theological Vision” in Keller’s Book, Center Church

Timothy Keller

Center Church, Timothy Keller’s recently published book, deals with a topic that is close to my heart. I love the church of Christ, and I am constantly interested in what the church should be and do. Because there is much to digest in Center Church, I have been working through it slowly.

Keller’s first chapter introduces the concept of theological vision, which Keller believes has been ignored or misunderstood in many books about the church. In this respect, Keller has been heavily influenced by Richard Lints (professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Fabric of Theology). According to Lints, “the modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.” Theological vision, explains Keller, is the “middleware” between doctrine and methodologies (17). He defines theological vision as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (19).

While I understand completely Keller’s intent, I couldn’t help but squirm a bit at the way he put it here, specifically the words “restatement of the gospel.” Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that theological vision is a setting forth of the gospel’s implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.

That clarification aside, I like what Keller is doing here. He is neither writing another book on ecclesiology, nor advocating a set of methods that has worked for Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Rather, what he suggests might mean even more work for pastors and church leaders. To develop theological vision for his own ministry, a pastor must reflect deeply and decisively on the gospel, his city’s culture, and his own theological tradition (denomination or movement). No church growth guru can do this work for him.

As I continue to read this book, I looking forward to Keller’s answers to some of these questions that begin to surface in my mind:

  1. Is it practical to expect that the average pastor with college or seminary level training will have the time and expertise to study (in addition to theology) his city’s culture, and formulate a theological vision for ministry that is both accurate and comprehensive enough to drive his methods?
  2. How can a pastor be a student of his culture?
  3. What is the right approach to “Christ and the culture?”
  4. Where does Keller find Scriptural justification for his emphasis on understanding the culture?