Deep Church Shallow: Greg Gilbert’s 9Marks Review

The new 9Marks eJournal just arrived, and it’s on–take a deep breath here–church discipline.  I know, right–why don’t they settle down and pick a single issue to focus on already?  Good grief.

I’m just kidding.  In actuality, the new issue looks typically helpful.  Some of you will know that I have a particular affection for the writings of one Greg Gilbert, he of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.  Greg has a nice review of a hot new book called Deep Church written by a PCA pastor named Jim Belcher that includes some very helpful comments on unity, gospel, and how the two relate in our day.

Here’s a nice chunk (read it all–Greg is a punchy but deep penman):

The real irony of Deep Church is that Belcher actually does a pretty good job of laying out the real, substantive, and ultimately fellowship-breaking issues that stand between emergents and traditional evangelicals, but his whole stated project of finding common ground on which those two camps can reunite falls completely apart, I think, in the first few pages of his book. Let me show you why I say that.

In the book’s introduction, Belcher recounts a meeting between Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and John Piper. The meeting ended badly, with Piper telling Pagitt, “You should never preach,” because Pagitt rejected what Belcher strangely calls “Piper’s view of atonement,” which I have to assume is penal substitutionary atonement. As Piper summed it up, because they rejected penal substitutionary atonement, Pagitt and Jones were “rejecting the gospel in toto.”

Now, this is not the place to rehearse the biblical case for penal substitutionary atonement. I and others have done that elsewhere. So let me just skip to the conclusion of that case and say that Piper is right: To reject the idea of Jesus dying in the place of sinners, taking their punishment on himself for their sins, is to reject the gospel in toto. And therefore it is to make any sort of union between yourself and traditional evangelicalism impossible. To reject penal substitution is to reject the gospel, and to reject the gospel is to put oneself outside traditional evangelicalism.

Gilbert goes on to conclude the point as follows:

Knowing what Belcher was trying to do with this book, I entirely expected him to try to show later in the book how emergent leaders don’t in fact reject penal substitutionary atonement. I expected him to quote a passage here or there in one of their writings which leaves open the possibility of penal substitution. That never happens. Quite to the contrary, Belcher concludes in his sixth chapter, titled “Deep Gospel,” that the emergent church (represented here by Brian McLaren) is indeed guilty of “gospel reductionism” (118). “Nowhere,” Belcher says, “does [McLaren] mention…the doctrines of atonement, justification, union with Christ, or our need to be forgiven” (118). True, Belcher makes that statement about a certain article in which McLaren is claiming to articulate the gospel, but his point is that he doesn’t find those doctrines anywhere in McLaren’s writings.

But then, if that’s the case, what’s up with all this hope for a reunion?  How exactly do you find a “third way” between affirming the gospel and not affirming the gospel?  Yes, of course, Belcher softens his hit on the emergents by saying that traditional evangelicals are guilty of “gospel reductionism,” too. They “make the opposite mistake” of “car[ing] only about their own selves” and ignoring the kingdom of God, he says. But even setting that infuriating straw man aside for a moment, wouldn’t you think that when Belcher finally realized—after a third reading!—that Brian McLaren in fact does not affirm the gospel of forgiveness of sins through the penal substitutionary death of Jesus, he would maybe temper some of the “reunion” talk?

Amen to that.  It’s right to want Christians to unite around the gospel.  Problems arise, however, when people who profess to be Christians won’t affirm the core truths of the gospel.  Who on earth would think that it makes sense to pursue unity of this kind?  And why would a pastor from the PCA, a denomination doing such great good in our day, argue along these lines?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Deep Church Shallow: Greg Gilbert’s 9Marks Review

  1. scott

    Owen,

    Did you actually read Belcher’s book or just Gilbert’s review? Because your conclusion seems to have nothing to do with the book itself. If you did read the book, well, I guess you missed the point. If you didn’t read the book, then perhaps you should actually read the book and thoughtfully interact with it rather than just add your “Amen” to Gilbert’s review.

    Which is it?

  2. Owen, I’m going to echo Scott here. I can’t believe you’ve actually read the book if you agree with this review. This is a hack review, plain and simple. I’m embarrassed for 9 Marks and Gilbert.

  3. Andrew

    I haven’t yet finished Deep Church but I have read many of the sections referenced in this review. While it is perfectly okay to critique a book, it’s important to do so with charity: an author should be able to read a review of his or her book and say “well X certainly doesn’t like my ideas, but those truly are my ideas.” I don’t know if Belcher would recognize many of his ideas in this review. For example, Deep Church does not define the emerging church as a monolith as Gilbert and 9 Marks tend to. In this review, Brian McLaren is held up as a spokesman for the entire spectrum of the emerging church – and that is simply not what Belcher argues. There are some in the emerging church with whom I – as an orthodox and Reformed evangelical – would happily unite myself. There are others who deny cardinal tenets of the faith. Even these figures may be able to point out important problems and deserve a hearing. While I need to do more thinking on some of Belcher’s points, I think he has written a very helpful book that is an important contribution to a controversial field.

  4. caleb

    I agree with the sentiments of the commenters above. While Belcher’s book is not perfect, it is humble, irenic, and wise. The atonement conversation has to be had (and there is a very strong argument for the primacy of a penal substitutionary model) but it is not the ONLY conversation worth having, as Gilbert frames it. The kind of pugnacity that Gilbert’s review exhibits to brothers and sisters in Christ along the spectrum of biblical orthodoxy is guaranteed to be unhelpful to anyone who is not already in bandwagonesque agreement with Gilbert’s position. Such work builds a separatist wall around itself that can only end badly.

    Lots of heat here, not much light.

  5. Owen,

    I was intrigued to see that Deep Church is required reading for Bruce Ware’s systematic theology III class in the spring. In an email to me, he said “I think you’ll find it very stimulating and helpful,” referring to Deep Church.

    Trevin Wax had a pretty favorable review of the book if I recall correctly, so I was surprised to see Gilbert’s not so favorable review.

    I look forward to reading the book myself.

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