Dan Phillips’ book The World-Tilting Gospel is not a book I would normally read, let alone review. But I like the Pyromaniacs, the book can for now be downloaded free for the Kindle, and it offers another opportunity to try to explain why I think the traditional modern evangelical or Reformed gospel, no matter how cogently presented, gives us a very limited and incomplete understanding of what is going on in scripture.
The book is a good old-fashioned account of the gospel in strongly Reformed terms. It is an exhortation not to get stuck at square one (‘Many professed Christians regard the Gospel as our ticket “in,” and then we’re done with it’); and it is an exhortation not to get lost in the woods once we have started out on the journey of faith—Phillips is not slow to accuse various sections of North American Christianity of gross misrepresentation of the truth.
In the Preface he quotes a characteristic passage from a talk by David Wells in which Wells warns against making Christianity a matter only of experience and not of truth (8). The experience of being reconciled to God through Jesus “happens within a worldview“—and a worldview is how God has “taught us in his Word to view the world”. This is why, Wells argues, the Bible begins with Genesis 1:1 and not with John 3:16.
Phillips is very excited about this “compressed truth”, but it seems to me that there are two basic problems with it, which will show up subsequently in Phillips’ account of his world-tilting gospel. First, the statement assumes that Christianity is all about individuals being reconciled to God. Secondly, there is a great deal that happens between Genesis 1-3 and John 3:16—and, for that matter, after John 3;16—that simply does not feature in the modern gospel.
The gospel presupposes a biblical worldview, of course; but it also presupposes a narrative—one that cannot be reduced to the primal mythology of creation and fall. Wells may not have meant to exclude the story of Israel, but that is the impression that we are left with, and it is certainly how Phillips constructs his gospel.
What happened to Israel’s story?
Chapters 2 and 3 tell the story of creation and fall and establish the universality of sin. Then, despite Phillips’ insistence that we need a “whole-Bible view”, we throw a two and climb a long ladder directly to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus’ call to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand, saving ourselves the trouble of pursuing the ups and downs of Israel’s tumultuous story.
This is, I think, the main problem with the standard account of the gospel. Phillips complains that “People sometimes forget that Jesus and the apostles were not liberal Protestants. They were true Israelites who heartily accepted the OT’s self-testimony” (59). Quite right.
But people also forget that Jesus and the apostles were not Reformed Protestants either. They did not merely accept what the Old Testament had to say about the fallenness of humanity. They were “true Israelites” who spoke to Israel about Israel. We cannot account properly for the gospel without at least explaining—as Scot McKnight attempts to do in The King Jesus Gospel—how the story of Jesus completes the story of Israel.
The Old Testament becomes relevant to the gospel only insofar as it points to Jesus. Three examples are given.
First, Phillips repeats the erroneous claim that the gospel first appears in the so-called proto-evangelium of Genesis 3:16—the belief that the condemnation of the serpent predicts the coming of a singular “seed” of a woman who will destroy satan (99-100). Much is made of the fact that it is “her seed” who strikes the head of the serpent, but this can hardly be taken to mean that “the Seed is conceived by a woman in some unique way”. It is her seed—her descendants—because this verse is addressed to the serpent who deceived the woman, not the man: “her seed” presupposes the statement “I will put enmity between you and the woman”.
Secondly, the Old Testament system of animal sacrifices prefigures penal substitutionary atonement (102-105). There is obviously some point to this, but I don’t think penal substitutionary atonement makes much sense outside the Jewish narrative.
Thirdly, the Old Testament is overflowing—like a hastily poured beer—with predictive prophecies regarding the messiah, notably the prophecy of the suffering servant of YHWH in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (105-12). Some of the particular arguments here are highly questionable: the title “Son of Man” does not mean that Jesus was human and divine; the child whose birth is described in Isaiah 7:14 cannot be identified with the later servant passages. But more importantly, there is again no recognition of the narrative setting of the servant passages, which are much too tightly bound into Israel’s story to be taken as crudely prophetic of a universal saviour.
Phillips argues on the basis of these three facets of Old Testament revelation that the gospel is a “whole-Bible message” (111-12), but this is true only in the very restricted sense that certain elements in the Old Testament can be shown—rightly or wrongly—to foreshadow God’s future rescue operation. Jesus does not complete the story of Israel; he merely fulfils certain isolated typologies.