I was recently offered a FREE copy of Matt Chandler’s new book, The Explicit Gospel. Since I am not in the habit of turning down free books, I gladly accepted the offer. Now, I had some reservations. First, the book is part of the RE:LIT series (Resurgence Literature, a project launched by the always controversial leaders of Mars Hill Church). In other words, this book gets a seal of approval from Mark Driscoll and the leadership of Mars Hill, which raises concern right off the bat. But, RE:LIT does have titles authored by some folks who I sometimes disagree with, but respect enough to take seriously (particularly D.A. Carson). I knew little of Chandler himself, but co-author Jared Wilson is someone whose blog I have occasionally read. But Chandler and Wilson’s connection to The Gospel Coalition and Acts29 (Chandler has taken over from Mark Driscoll as President of Acts29) had me concerned. Would this be an apologetic for their brand of reformed evangelicalism which is raising all sorts of problems and warnings around the blogsphere? The ringing endorsements on the back cover came from some interesting folks (David Platt, Ed Stetzer, D.A. Carson, Rick Warren and of course Mark Driscoll- but to be fair Driscoll has endorsed books I have found helpful). Nevertheless, I decided to give Chandler and Wilson the benefit of the doubt. The title and blurb inside the book jacket intrigued me. I love the gospel. I’m a pastor, called to proclaim the gospel. This book says it will help me do so plainly. Ok, I’ll give it a fair go. But then I read the book… my bad. In short, it’s troubling and aggravating. First, it’s aggravating mainly because there are moments of sheer brilliance here… moments… isolated paragraphs in which Chandler seems to “get it” and provides key insights worth noting. But then there’s the rest of the book. I should have realized when the second paragraph of the introduction included the line “I am a good interpreter of Scripture”. When a pastor feels the need to say that out of the blocks, it should be red flags all over the field. He does interpret some parts very well, and like I said, even bringing keen insights I hadn’t heard anywhere else. But then he says something so odd or even ridiculous that it makes you wonder.
So, here’s a rundown of the most problematic issues- first let’s address some fatal flaws which can be seen before even getting into the content:
Lack of Research
One thing I usually do when I pick up a new book is take a quick scan through the bibliography. What type of research is the author doing (are they doing enough, and consulting varying perspectives)? What kind of books and articles is the author putting his/her faith in? And then it helps to check out the footnotes… how many of the resources are being interacted with regularly? Or is the author pulling everything out of nowhere or pulling things out of books without providing citation? In essence, has the author done enough homework, and consulted reliable sources to speak authoritatively? I overlooked this habit until I was almost done reading the book. My bad. Well, here’s a problem- there is no bibliography. Ok, this is common in non-academic circles and smaller publishing houses. There are endnotes though (as a side tangent, why do people use endnotes and not footnotes? Seriously. Big pet peeve of mine). So I skim through the endnotes. This doesn’t take long, because there isn’t much there. Even at the undergrad level, profs would encourage students to cite everything or else you may be inadvertently plagiarizing or making baseless claims. Then you look at what he’s got in these notes. Oh my. To say that Chandler hasn’t done his homework is an understatement. His sources are few, and not surprisingly come only from folks within his own circle- Driscoll, Kuyper, Sproul, Carson, Kilgore, Piper. No commentaries. Few academic theologies. A shocking shortage of citations overall. If he had done even the most basic level of research, he would know he’s saying things that need to be cited. Part 2 of the book (“The Gospel in the Air”- part 1 is “The Gospel on the Ground” which is a slightly awkward distinction which I don’t like, but I get what he’s trying to do- relate the meta-narrative/narrative distinction without using the scholarly jargon) is basically lifted from Calvinist works like Al Wolters’ Creation Regained. Sorry, Matt, you have committed plagiarism (I’ll assume though it was not done deliberately, but a serious oversight)! I can see this just by looking at your citations and table of contents.
Anyway, fact is, Chandler is making claims that he knows the bible better than mainline protestants and any non-reformed thinking folks, but he writes without consulting (or perhaps just without citing) theological works of the folks he’s critiquing or those he’s drawing from. Sorry Matt, but why should I believe you on this alternative understanding? Why should I buy into your version of the gospel and not someone else’s? Because you say you’re good interpreter of the Bible? Because your church has 10,000 people? Because you know Mark Driscoll and D.A. Carson? I should just take your word on it? I know this isn’t an academic theology book, but c’mon, seriously? You want Christian leaders to take you seriously?
A canon within the Canon
We all do this. We all rely on certain sections of Scripture more than others. Some of us are more honest about it than others. But it happens. The Explicit Gospel features a handy-dandy Scripture reference index- which is a good idea, and good on RE:LIT for including this. But in this case, it’s rather revealing. If I were to pick some passages to use a lot when talking about making the gospel clear, I would go to certain places. So, do Chandler & Wilson go where I would go? Let’s check a few relevant passages:… Philippians 2… 0 references. John 3… 0 references. Romans 5… 0 references. Colossians 3:1-17… 0 references. John 1:1-14… 1 reference. 2 Cor. 5:17-20… 1 reference. So where does Chandler go? Well, by far the most frequently cited chapter is Romans 8- ok, good place to go- BUT, Romans 8, 9 & 11 get more page space than Mark and Luke combined and the 4 resurrection narratives are notably absent. I find this troubling. In a book which claims to be about making the gospel of Jesus Christ clear, it might be good to present the whole of the gospel. In his attempt to present the gospel explicitly Chandler has (hopefully) inadvertently presented a narrow, limited, restricted, and I would even say impotent gospel (I’ll get to that as we address content). When we reduce the gospel to this or that passage to the exclusion of others, we misrepresent the gospel. The gospel is much bigger than Chandler seems willing to see. Ironically, in the introduction, Chandler himself says “If the gospel is reduced because of our preferences or misunderstandings, we leave ourselves open to heresies and to attacking our brothers-in-arms” (p. 17)… facepalm as the kids say these days. If only he’d listen to his own wise advice.
Like I said, I usually check over of this stuff before diving into a book, especially when it’s an author I’ve never read before. This time I didn’t. My bad. I jumped in, hoping for the best. I got let down. So let’s get on with some actual content.
The book is divided into three parts: “The Gospel on the Ground”, “The Gospel in the Air” (what he calls “One gospel, two vantage points” in the intro, p. 17) and “Implications and Applications”. Part 2, like I said is regurgitating reformed understanding of the meta-narrative of Scripture (the creation, fall, reconciliation, consummation reading of Scripture). Nothing new here, except that chapter 5 (“Creation”) is essentially an attempt to discredit science. Science changes, comes up with new conclusions, has biases inherent in it… blah blah blah. This anti-intellectualism is not helpful. Science is not the enemy. When you take this approach it creates this reputation that we are all uneducated, bible banging hillbillies. Evangelicalism does have a history of this (See Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995 for a rundown of the anti-intellectualism inherent in American conservative Christianity). But it is in Part 2 that we see more moments of brilliance. Part 1 was hard to even finish (and not just because the God-Man-Christ-Response structure is lifted from other books without citation, like Greg Gilbert, who I’m not sure is the original contributor of that formula). I kept hoping it’ll get better, he’s going somewhere. My bad. Part 1 is made up of 4 chapters (mirroring the creation-fall-reconciliation-consummation model presumably) God, Man, Christ, Response. So God is a good place to start right? Sure. Absolutely. Overall it’s not a horrible chapter… not horrible… not great. He waxes eloquently over Romans 11 and the doxology suggesting it is uncharacteristic of Paul to break into song like words. He forgets that Paul uses doxologies all the time (there’s even another one in Romans 16! See also Eph. 3, Phil. 2:5ff, Col. 1:15-20 & 3:15-17 just to rattle off a few)! Chandler may want to do some homework in epistolary frameworks; even just something like the IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters might help here. This is typical Paul, not Paul breaking form. Romans 11 is not atypical for Paul. Anyway, point of chapter 1 is basically God is big, sovereign, and deserving glory. Anything that robs God of the glory he is due is idolatry and evil. Ok, not the way I would go about summarizing God, but not something I haven’t heard before. I went to Redeemer College (a Christian Reformed school) for a while. I heard this same stuff, just worded better, almost daily. But the way Chandler writes it makes God sound like an egocentric, narcissistic, selfish and insecure god. Yes God is glorious and deserves to be worshipped. But this is pushing it.
Chapter 2 is where the wheels fell off for me. Man. Most theologies when writing about mankind would start with the image of God (see Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God, for a good example of how this works). Chandler however devotes this entire chapter to total depravity. This is how evil mankind is. We are objects of wrath. That’s how he starts. He also includes another blunder here which I want highlight as a great example of lack of citing. He is commenting on Jeremiah 2:11-12, and offers a linguistic tid bit: “In the original language, Hebrew, the essential idea is that they’re literally terrified that God might snap and rip the universe to shreds.”) So, I checked. I pulled up the Hebrew text and my translation aids (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon, and Mark Futato’s Hebrew textbook). To say he’s stretching is an understatement. When you’re reading into a text like this, you have to demonstrate where you are getting this from.
Then of course he gets to Jesus. After 9 pages of the fact that mankind deserves wrath (not disputing, just missing a lot) he looks to Jesus… or at least the cross. He skips the miracle of incarnation (when the birth happens the Angels εὐαγγελίζομαι “bring the gospel”Lk. 2:10 – yep Christmas is as much a part of the gospel as Good Friday), the miracles, teaching, loving, forgiving sins (yep, Jesus forgives sin before the cross- Mk. 2:5, and releases people from enslavement to sin- John 4 & 8) and even the resurection! No really, he doesn’t mention the resurrection in the Chapter on Christ! For the entire chapter on Christ, all we see is cross. He does make note of the resurrection elsewhere, but these are rare and not really central to the point. All Jesus is, is the recipient of God’s wrath. We even get this fun line: “The cross now stands as the central tenet of all we believe about salvation” (p. 58). Seriously?!? Seriously?!? I almost threw the book out the window at this point. But he had to expand and clarify right? Afterall, Paul does say that the cross is the summation of all we believe about salvation, right? Well let’s see… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God sent him to absorb wrath, you will be saved… right? No wait, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) But surely salvation is achieved through sin atoned for on the cross… “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10) Yes, there is more than the cross to salvation! Yes the cross matters, but only because of the resurrection. A chapter which claims to be about the gospel of Christ but ignores the resurrection is not the gospel.
So at this point I was stuck with a dilemma, do I finish this thing, hoping it gets better? Drop it? Write angry letters to the author? Well, I did finish it. It did get better… but not much. What we get through the rest is basically if you don’t preach penal substitution you’re misrepresenting Christ. You have to preach it. People may not like it. God will harden hearts or soften as he sees fit. If they aren’t accepting, it’s because God has closed their ears to the gospel.
And then of course, he drops the complementarian bomb. I should have seen it coming. I know where Acts29 and TGC stand on this. But surely this book doesn’t need an apologetic on male headship right? This is about preaching the gospel plainly, surely we don’t need to get into gender roles. Oops. My bad again. Apparently egalitarians deny biblical authority:
The egalitarianism in mainline Protestantism is a concession to our culture, a way of rejecting biblical values and saying “The Bible, when all is said and done, is not our authority. The culture is our authority” (p. 194)
Facepalm. He really wrote that. Not, they are interpreting the Scriptures differently. Or, they are drawn to texts other than 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14. They reject biblical authority. Sigh. I wish I was making that up. But he goes on for a bit talking about ignoring clear biblical principles… you know, clear biblical stuff like, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.“(Galatians 3:28). Oh and this, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7). Oh, and of course, the fact that all four gospels tell us that women preached the resurrection before any man! But he would never ignore clear biblical principles… only mainline folks do that. So, ok, there’s more to say, lots more to point out in terms of poor understanding of history, theology and people, but this is actually making me sad. Every week, Chandler has an audience of 10,000 at his church, and million via podcast. This sort of narrow, arrogant, intolerant sort of preaching is actually popular. And even I got suckered into the hype. I actually read this. My bad.