Gospel determinism has two elements.
- We know the Gospel.
- Gospel determines everything.
The elements are simple. Together they are total. The Gospel rules all.
The elements spawn their implications in two rounds. The first round is their implications about Scripture. The second is their implications for a host of doctrines and practices.
First Round: On Scripture
In the first round, the elements imply that the Gospel precedes Scripture as the source of knowledge. Gospel determinism does not subscribe to Scripture because it is God-breathed and true. Gospel determinism subscribes to Scripture insofar as it accords with the Gospel.
Second Round: On Doctrine and Practice
Once the Gospel puts Scripture into a dependent position, then in the second round, any doctrine historically believed from Scripture can be changed to meet the demands of the Gospel. Belief in what Scripture says always remains provisional and contingent upon Scripture’s agreement with the Gospel. Anything Scripture says may be jettisoned so long as the Gospel is preserved. The authority of Scripture is replaced by the authority of the Gospel.
Examples of Effects
Some of the well-known earlier examples of what the Gospel determines to be unnecessary are: creation, the fall, the flood, Old Testament miracles, the virgin birth of Christ, the miracles of Christ, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the miracles of the apostles. These can be mythical, unhistorical, un-biographical, or un-factual so long as by teaching them people hear the Gospel. Scripture does not need to be true so long as the Gospel remains true.
Some of the popularly tolerated examples of what gospel determinism approves relate to: divorce, remarriage, adultery, and fornication. Forgiveness in the Gospel means it is fine to go ahead with these. Whoever says anything against them is denying the Gospel. There is no Word of God but the Gospel. The Gospel is total.
Gospel determinism mandates the ordination of women into the Office of Public Ministry. While gospel determinism likes to reduce the Bible right down to Paul as if he alone among Bible writers knows what the Gospel is, even he often forgets the Gospel as happens when he teaches that only men should be ordained. Those unforgiving sayings of Paul, while they are part of Scripture, are not God’s Word because they are not Gospel.
Some of the well-known contemporary examples of the implications of gospel determinism are: homosexuality and transgenderism. Love is love. Nothing but the Gospel can tell us what love is. God cannot say anything but the Gospel. The Gospel shushes God.
Less known among lay people are the dictates of gospel determinism on: the Incarnation, atonement, justification, sanctification, canonicity of Scripture, text criticism of Scripture, hermeneutics, exegetics, homiletics, and ecclesiology.
Escaping the notice even of most pastors and theologians is the eventual sovereignty the Gospel will exercise over God. Gospel determinism will change the Trinity. It will determine that God evolved to beget the Son because the Gospel needed the Son. Oh wait! Already there are theologians who say that. The Trinity qua Trinity is abolished.
Without the Trinity there is no Baptism.[i] Gospel determinism does not need the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Without the Sacraments, there is no Divine Service, no liturgy, and no worship of the communion of saints. Though Christ said, “I will build my church,” that really is not necessary either. The Gospel doesn’t need it. No more than the Gospel needs marriage or family in any scriptural sense does it need the Church in any scriptural sense. The Gospel creates the Church in its own image.
Having deconstructed everything, gospel determinism stands as Creator, Author, and Finisher.
Caveat 1: Partial Partakers
The dizzying array of theologies and theologians who depart from the truth of Scripture on particular things do not all partake of everything about gospel determinism in its fullness. This one partakes of this part, and that one partakes of that part. When, on another day going beyond a preview, we look at specific examples, to give a theologian or a theology as an example of a particular point within gospel determinism is not to suggest that everything which is true of gospel determinism is true of that theologian or theology. The example and point go only as far as they go. Thank God for incompleteness and inconsistency in theologians and theologies! That is how truths can remain amidst errors.
Caveat 2: Individual Salvation
In identifying a part of someone’s theology as partaking of gospel determinism, we are not judging an individual’s saving relationship with Jesus Christ. “There are Christians who offer bad examples of theology, just as there are Christians who offer bad examples of morality.”[ii] Christianity in the individual depends on fear, love, and trust in God incarnate in Jesus Christ dying to atone for the individual’s sin and rising for the individual’s justification. As confusing and complicated as it may seem, one might actually have this saving faith in Christ despite bad theology because of a gap between their heart and mouth. At heart, they really do not trust what they are saying. The trouble is that because of their false teaching, they might lead others to actually trust according to their error. For the sake of that, we must call out the false teaching.
The Throbbing Question
The throbbing question gospel determinism raises is: How do we know the Gospel?
Epistemologically, gospel determinism replaces Scripture with the Gospel. Somehow we know the Gospel before and without Scripture, and from there we know everything else. But how? Had Scripture not first revealed the Gospel, how would we have known it?
Upper-Story with No Ground Floor
Gospel determinism is like a second story, an upper floor of a house with no ground floor. Our knowledge of the Gospel just floats in the air without Scripture as its ground. Then from this floating upper-story experience, we know when Paul, Peter, or Jesus says something that cannot be God’s Word because it is not Gospel. We know, out of the air up there, that Paul is wrong about ordination of women, for example, or about closed Communion. What does Paul know? He only met the resurrected Christ directly and was taught by him. But we mustn’t let Christ’s own inspiration of an apostle trump our self-knowledge of the Gospel.
Jesus: The Word Living by the Word
Supposedly, gospel determinism makes life kinder and gentler. It tolerates everything. Love is whatever you want to do. Everything else is bibliolatry, legalism, phobia, hatred, and fundamentalism.
But how did Jesus live? His Baptism and wilderness temptation show. First, He heard the Word, “You are my Son.”[iii] Immediately[iv] the Spirit drove him into the wilderness[v] to be tempted by the Devil.[vi] Having just heard the Word, “You are my Son,” the Devil says, “If you are the Son.”[vii] Immediately the Devil challenged the Word of Christ’s Baptism.
Understand: Temptation is a challenge to the Word. As Baptism is about the Word,[viii] the baptized life is about the Word. The challenge in life is the challenge against the Word. The way of life is “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”[ix] That is how Jesus defended his life when tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Not some words or just one word, the Gospel, but every word.
Jesus is the Word.[x] Gospel determinism uses that to set Jesus, the Word, against “It is written.” But the Word lives by the written Word and every word. They are not against each other.
Can we expect to live some other way? Where do we get the promise that we can live some way other than how Jesus lived? Adam dies losing the Word. He failed to echo God’s words just as God had said them.[xi] Jesus lives holding the Word, quoting it verbally and exactly, defeating the Devil’s distortions, denials, lies, and murder.
Jesus lived by “It is written,” not by gospel determinism.
Is “Gospel” Actually the Gospel?
In gospel determinism, is what is being called the Gospel actually the Gospel? Gospel determinism deconstructs everything else. How do you know it has not deconstructed the Gospel?
Recalling Caveat 1, things get messy. Variants of gospel determinism may be distinguished in two general ways:
In the first element, the source of our knowledge of the Gospel.
In the second element, the extent and thoroughness of carrying out the determinism.
At a nascent stage of development, gospel determinism still could uphold the Gospel. Suppose that in the first element, a theology accidentally lands on the true Gospel. Suppose further that this adoption has little momentum. The theology travels part way down the road of gospel determinism, and then stalls out. It could hold on to a lot of orthodoxy. I do not deny there are instances of this. But the risk is momentum. For the majority of theologies, adoption of the first element in and of itself is a transitory state. The inertia of moving from orthodoxy to the first element carries on past the first element into the second. That is why it is important to identify gospel determinism in nascent form and warn against it.
The momentum might not carry through in one generation. But we should not endanger the next generations with the risk. I think of a friend, now departed, who urgently asked me during a taxi ride from one conference venue to another, “Tom, why has my son become a nihilist?” The anxiety was so heavy that I had to defer giving an answer until a time when my friend could endure it. My friend’s philosophy was of this sort: “A truth for you and a truth for me.” A parent might say that and not develop past that. But there is an intergenerational momentum. The inertia of the parent having moved from another philosophy to “A truth for you and a truth for me” carries through to the children. A teenager listens to “A truth for you and a truth for me” and calls balderdash on that. The teenager recognizes more rapidly than does the parent “A truth for you and a truth for me” just means there is no truth. Sometimes we don’t hear what we are saying, but our children do. The answer I never could say overtly to my friend was, “Your son is a nihilist because of you. You taught him there is no truth.”
We might adopt the first element of gospel determinism and stop in our own time. But what have we done to our children? Be careful about the foundations, the ground floor, that we place under the feet of our children
[i] Matthew 28:19, ““Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
[ii] Harold O. J. Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), 134.
[iii] Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; and Luke 3:22.
[iv] Mark 1:12.
[v] Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; and Luke 4:1.
[vi] Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:13; and Luke 4:2.
[vii] Matthew 4:3; and Luke 4:3.
[viii] “What is Baptism?
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.
How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.
Small Catechism, Baptism, First and Third.
[ix] Matthew 4:4; and Deuteronomy 8:3.
[x] John 1:1.
[xi] God said, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Eve did not echo that word accurately. She did not say, “You shall surely die.” She said, “lest you die.’” Today’s translations do not bring fully to light what she said in the word “lest.” That word speaks of peradventure. Her meaning would be expressed more clearly as, “You shall not eat it, perchance you might die.” Maybe, perhaps, possibly, conceivably, feasibly, imaginably, you might die.
That movement from faith to unbelief in the Word was an opening for the Devil. After Eve said lest, perchance, or peradventure we die, then he brashly declared, “You will not surely die.” (Genesis 3:4)
She does not mention the punishment as God had stated it. He had simply stated (Gen. 2:17): “On whatever day you will eat from it, you will surely die.” Out of this absolute statement she herself makes one that is not absolute when she adds: “Lest perchance we shall die.”
This is a striking flaw, and one that must not be overlooked; for it shows that she has turned from faith to unbelief. For just as a promise demands faith, so a threat also demands faith. … On her own she is adding to God’s Word the little word “perchance.” And so the deceit of the lying spirit met with success. What he sought to achieve above all – to lead Eve away from the Word and faith – this he has now achieved to the extent that Eve distorts the Word of God.
Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis in Luther’s Works, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958) 1:155.
Johann Gerhard expresses the same thing this way.
On her own she added “perchance,” as if it were uncertain that they would die if they had eaten of it, though God nevertheless had expressed His will openly and clearly [Gen 2:17)]. She also adds on her own that the tree was indeed not even to be touched. …
Afterward, on the basis of the answer of Eve, who did not correctly recount God’s prohibition, the devil becomes more bold and completely denies the Word of God.
Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On Original Sin, On Actual Sins, On Free Choice, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 7, 15.
1 thought on “Gospel Determinism: A Preview”
Please criticize my post: ”
First, everyone needs to know I am searching for truth here – not trying to convince anyone of true Lutheranism. (I have not yet read the entire book below).
I know there are people out there who have been to seminary (maybe I will go one day!) and can go deeper on this than just a post from a neophyte like me.
Here, the author is showing us that the Gospel is not superior to the Word. It is instead subordinate, descends from, and serves the Word of God. So, the scripture is true: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the WORD WAS [is] GOD.” Jn 1 … double whoa.
This first premise indicates that everything descends from God (Word) – there was nothing before the Word. Therefore, even if the message someone is delivering is drawn from the Word, it gets polluted at the mixing of “great ideas” and true inferences from Scripture.
Thus, gospel determinism is a false doctrine that muddies the waters of our understanding and gets in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work. It confuses the listener’s understanding of scripture because of the conflation (mixing) of human reason (“this is what the scripture means”) and the message. Many of us have heard someone say something that was a “good idea” but it was hardly Scripture.
Starting with John 1, the gospel determiners’ argument gets wacky when people attempt to apply “great ideas” (improper inferences) instead of Scripture. So what happens in gospel determinism is that it allows itself to be preached apart from scripture – this is the moment that gospel determinism takes entire denominations off the rails. When “good ideas” [like political opinions] replace the preaching of scripture, it becomes human reason. If scripture is preached instead, then the Gospel follows – but in gospel determinism it is the opposite: the “message” is backed up by scripture, regardless what the message is. The great idea comes first and then it is backed from some part of the Word taken out of context or otherwise misapplied. Example: When I was growing up, I heard it said “smoking is a sin.” What utter garbage I was taught. They taught me the perfect Pharisaical deductive method: “God said your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (True.) But if you smoke, you are damaging the temple. If you damage the temple then you are sinning, and that is against the Spirit. Ergo, you are sinning when you smoke. HORSERADISH. It is UNREPENTANCE separates us from the God. There is NOTHING we can do to keep ourselves from sinning BUT Christ can help us not to sin and to have a heart of repentance. As scripture teaches:
1 John 3 ESV
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Until the resurrection, NO ONE can live apart from sinning. That does not mean “all is lost,” nor that there will be times when “I think” I have not sinned…then I get proud of not sinning… If someone is of the opinion that it is possible to live without sinning, “they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them.” The practice of repentance is the solution. Instead of practicing sinning without repentance, we should follow the practice of repentance and thus clear our accounts. Pride is a mature Christian’s besetting sin.
When we see people openly practicing unrepentant sin, their status is blatant, but not our own. THEREFORE, if I change the message to something that does not descend from scripture (e.g. a political opinion, conservative or progressive, who cares), where I say: “Jesus said we are to love our neighbors. He also said do not judge. Ergo, if I judge (condemn) someone for their lifestyle choices, I sin because after all – Jesus loves everyone and if you love everyone you want them to be happy.”
“Thus, if I am happy with a same sex partner, or happy when I am stone drunk, or happy when I go fishing on Sunday morning when I should be at worship service, or happy when I make a political point based on scripture (major fail as it is an “appeal to authority”), then it must be ok ’cause Jesus loves me and that means He wants me to be happy.” The failure is to “draw an incorrect inference.” EVERY inference MUST agree with all of the Word without error, and if not, it is human reason and not scriptural, and THAT is a sin by “adding to the Word.” So, in that case the offender will attempt to change what the Word says. Example, the ELCA, Episcopals, United Church of Christ, and others have all begun to interpret Scripture from a political point of view. In fact, some say that the Bible “contains” the Word of God rather than “is the Word of God.” 🙁 They want to make the Word of God captive to their politics or opinions…
“Elements [and Premises of the Argument]
Gospel determinism has two elements [:]
1. We [the speaker] know the Gospel.
2. Gospel determines everything.
The elements are simple. Together they are total. The Gospel rules all….[according to gospel determinism].”
This preview mentions one thing that I have observed and known or at least had a STRONG assumption about almost all my life: that a person can have inaccurate theology and still be saved.
However, that is a dangerous and miserable place to reside. The first time I realized it was probably the phenomenon of “legalism” when I was growing up in the 20th Century. In that case, entire denominations were (are) teaching the Gospel as Law, as a set of rules to follow and interjecting politics. That “truth” they say they find breaks down in the face of
Scripture. Political opinions like Progressivism, conservatism, or any “ism” (or any other lifestyle, political philosophy, etc: Insert Your Favorite Here_____) that is antithetical to the Word, breaks down and does not meet the standard: properly interpreted Scripture.
The author lists the rest of the resulting errors from a twist of the proper relationship between God (The Word) and His Gospel (The Message), that the message is superior to the Word, and if so, allows the entry of all kinds of theological errors, of which some will send people to hell. 🙁
What we believe matters.
“The theology travels part way down the road of gospel determinism, and then stalls out. It could hold on to a lot of orthodoxy. I do not deny there are instances of this. But the risk is momentum. ”
“Understand: Temptation is a challenge to the Word. As Baptism is about the Word, the baptized life is about the Word. The challenge in life is the challenge against the Word. ”
“The way of life is “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”[ix] That is how Jesus defended his life when tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Not some words or just one word, the Gospel, but every word.”
“In identifying a part of someone’s theology as partaking of gospel determinism, we are not judging an individual’s saving relationship with Jesus Christ. “There are Christians who offer bad examples of theology, just as there are Christians who offer bad examples of morality.”
“Christianity [according to gospel determinism] in the individual depends on fear, love, and trust in God incarnate in Jesus Christ dying to atone for the individual’s sin and rising for the individual’s justification. As confusing and complicated as it may seem, one might actually have this saving faith in Christ despite bad theology because of a gap between their heart and mouth. At heart, they really do not trust what they are saying. The trouble is that because of their false teaching, they might lead others to actually trust according to their error. For the sake of that, we must call out the false teaching.”