Why You Need a Theological Vision for Ministry

Why You Need a Theological Vision for Ministry

A conversation with Collin Hansen and Don Carson


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Collin Hansen: What is truth? Pilate famously missed that he was standing before truth himself when he asked Jesus that question 2000 years ago. And ever since, much of the world continues to search in vain for truth apart from the way and life of Christ. We have a cultural crisis of truth, but as the truth of the Bible produces wisdom in us and we live in submission to God’s reality, we can point the world toward the source of all truth.

TGC’s theological vision of ministry was adopted by our Council in 2007. The first point addresses the epistemological issue in our culture today. It not only corrects wrong views of truth in the world, but also pushes back on some mistaken notions in the church. The statement says that “Christian growth is not simply cognitive information transfer,” yet sometimes that’s the discipleship plan our churches seem to convey in preaching in Bible studies. That there’s balance to be found in seeing truth as not only something to be studied and taught, but also as something to be obeyed.

“We are not only hearers of the word, but doers also,” as we read in James 1:22. To talk more about truth, I’m joined on The Gospel Coalition podcast by TGC President Don Carson. I’m gonna ask him about the “epistemological issue,” but we’ll also talk more generally about the role of theological vision in the church and TGC and this cultural crisis of truth. Dr. Carson, thank you for joining me on the Gospel Coalition podcast.

Don Carson: It’s my privilege.

Hansen: Well, great. Well, just start off with the basic, what is a theological vision of ministry and how does it differ from a confessional statement?

Carson: The two categories really do overlap, but a confessional statement is primarily a list of propositions, truth summaries about what we believe, what we hold to be true. There are entailments from those statements about how to live, but the focus is on what we confess to be true, our corporate convictions. A theological vision of ministry by contrast, is talking about how we discharge the ministry we have in the Gospel looked at from a theological perspective that is not so much from a pragmatic perspective, even from a goal perspective, but primarily how the theology reflected in scripture shapes our understanding of what ministry should be. Obviously, the two categories overlap, but that’s the fundamental difference.

Hansen: So I think this theological vision of ministry going all the way back to 2007 when I first read it, is one of the things that makes TGC unique. So take us back to that place of why and how TGC adopted a theological vision of ministry.

Carson: When Tim Keller and I were first talking about these things before the first proto council met, that is between 2002 and 2005. We remarked—I don’t even remember who brought it up first—we remarked how even a detailed statement of faith doesn’t constrain everything. To use the example that he likes, the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is adhered to by those in the high Presbyterian tradition with some small variations in the Reformed Baptist camps, does not determine a lot of things. It doesn’t determine, for example whether or not you’re an expository preacher. It doesn’t determine whether or not you choose this or that particular Bible translation. At the time, some were still debating about how strongly we should buy into the perspectives of the emerging church and so on and so on and so on. How seeker-sensitive should we be in our efforts at evangelism? What are the primary foci of pastoral interest in a good church? And both of us could point to churches that adhere to the same statement of faith, but come out very differently on matters of that sort.

So it was at that point that we decided between ourselves that we needed not only a statement of faith, but a theological vision of ministry to which we could enjoin adherence, and understanding, and shared commitment.

Hansen: If I understand correctly now, Richard Lints writes about this in his Fabric of Theology, if I remember that correctly. And also Tim, picks it up in his Center Church with more detail. And theological vision, as far as I’ve understood, is not intended necessarily to be universal in time or place precisely because of what you’re talking about here. It’s a bit of how you work out the theology. So I’m wondering, is it possible that TGC would need to revise our theological vision at some point?

Carson: I’m happy to answer that, but let me go one step further back. I would argue that even a statement of faith is revisable. Now, one has to be careful. One doesn’t want to say that what we believe should be up for grabs every few months or every few years. But every statement of faith is worded a particular way, in part because it’s interacting with the questions or the denials or the belief systems and so on of its own particular day. And so long as the changes are not done cursorily or too quickly or ignorantly, a good statement of faith can be brought up-to-date by careful, meditative, thoughtful study and examination. Because at the end of the day, the ultimate authority for us is Holy Scripture, not our statements of faith.

Hansen: And we did revise TGC statement of faith, our confessional statement in 2011 to reflect the historic, literal Adam and Eve. So that’s an example of something where we have done that in the past.

Carson: Yes. And the reason we did it was not because in that case we were changing our beliefs, but because we wanted them to be explicitly articulated rather than merely implicit.

Hansen: Yeah. A new problem had emerged, or at least it was an old problem, but it emerged with new force and new import and led us to make that revision.

Carson: That’s right. So if statements of faith are revisable, then why should not theological visions of ministry perhaps even all the more so. So for example, if you live in a country which has relative freedom of worship and, and gathering, and so on. And then you go through a change of government and it becomes illegal to meet in a public place and even host meetings are viewed with suspicion and so on, then the way you conduct your ministry is going to change. And then that’s an easy example where a theological vision of ministry might be articulated a little bit differently once you are operating under an authoritarian regime that is trying to stamp you out.

But it’s easy to imagine a lot of other pressures that could make priorities change just a wee bit. Some things should not be changed in any theological vision of ministry. The centrality of Word ministry, the importance of teaching the Bible, whether in large numbers or small numbers or one-to-one in the family, in small groups, whatever. But, but there are lots of things that might well change and they’re dictated to, at least in part by the place where the Lord has placed us in history and culture.

Hansen: One of the things that you do to serve TGC as president, is you engage in a remarkable amount of international travel, which includes being…working with other expressions or related affiliated ministries with the Gospel Coalition around the world. Some of them have adopted this theological vision as well as our confessional statement. How do you counsel these international expressions or the related ministries with TGC as they consider adopting our theological vision?

Carson: Yes. And it needs be said to preserve all honesty that in a couple of instances, an international culture has pushed back a wee bit and said, “You know, we’d prefer to say things a little differently. We’d say it this way rather than that way,” and so on. And provided the suggested change was in line with what we were trying to do, we’ve allowed that to fly but we haven’t done so for the statement of faith. But we have done so where there has been intelligent, thoughtful, Bible-based pushback on how you go about discharging ministry.

Hansen: The Australians with faith and work are one example that come to mind.

Carson: They’re one example. And it’s easy to think of countries which have had a heritage of hierarchical control. And so they can quote all the verses of scripture that speak of them honoring and obeying those who rule over you, referring to leaders in the church. And finding them less sensitive to passages of scripture that talk about being an example of the flock and not lording it over the flock and so on. And getting those things a right and in balance and in line with what scripture says is not easy for any culture.

But what we’ve tried to encourage both for the statement of faith and for the TVM, the Theological Vision of Ministry, is that before any new proto council forms, any new council, that becomes the locus of a new Gospel Coalition in some new language group or culture, we strongly encourage the would be participants to meet together regularly over a two-year, three-year, four-year period and work through the documents and make sure that everybody is onboard. Not just skim them through, “Oh yeah, I believe all that, no problem,” but to argue them out, to think them through so that they become part of the lifeblood and convictional stance of the council. If you don’t have agreement going in, then when pressures do show up or attacks, comments on, and come they will, then there’s not an intelligent pushback. There’s not an intelligent answer that has thought through how these things reflect the authority of scripture. So what we encourage, in other words, is before they formally adopt our theological vision, or for that matter, our statement of faith, they spend quite a lot of times studying it and thinking about it, praying about it, and making sure they really are onside.

Hansen: Let’s jump into point one on the theological vision for ministry. The statement on epistemology. Our statement walks the line between enlightenment certainty and postmodernist subjectivity. How would you describe that middle ground, our theological vision seeks to carve out between those two?

Carson: How much time have you got?

Hansen: I was afraid of that. You’ve written entire, large and acclaimed books on this topic. So sorry for the basic question.

Carson: But it is an important question. The so-called enlightenment certainty, probably failed to grasp thoroughly how the questions we ask and what we hear by way of answers. And what do we think to be true is shaped, at least in part by where we are in culture. The kinds of questions I ask the Bible, the kinds of study I do, me, an aging White Canadian-born male with a certain education and so on. All of that is going to be a wee bit different as compared with the kinds of questions and impulses and so on adopted by a barely literate prostitute on the streets of Mombasa.

We’re coming at the Bible from different cultural stances and that might be an extreme case. But the fact of the matter is someone who has been brought up in an arts environment may well read text a little differently from someone who was brought up in a computer hard sciences environment. And the more we recognize those things, the more we are prepared to be warned that perfect objectivity, perfect neutrality is an option not for any of us who are finite in our knowledge and biased in our perspectives. But it’s something that belongs only to omniscience. God alone can achieve 100% certainty about everything, about anything for that matter. Whereas our certainty is always of a second order.

And now, that the problem on the other side is that having observed that point, the postmodern tends to say, therefore you can’t know anything. In fact, the one thing you can know is that you can’t know anything. And there’s a certain amount of logical contradiction built into this. But here very often the false ideal is held up to no anything truly, to know anything certainly, you must have perfect knowledge of it, of the thing itself and all of its relationships and so on. But that is holding up a false idol. It’s holding up a false goal, a false standard. The only person who can know everything is omniscience. And now that doesn’t stop the writer, Luke from saying to Theophilus that he’s putting these things in order and presenting them to him in order that Theophilus may know the certainty of the things that have been taught to him, that the Bible speaks of human beings knowing things certainly. But it’s knowing things certainly, the way human beings know things certainly. It’s not knowing things certainly, the way God alone knows things certainly. God alone knows things certainly as a function of his omniscience. He knows absolutely everything about absolutely everything.

And that means that the way he comes to know things, the way he does know things certainly is of a different order from the kind of knowledge that human beings have us with our finitude and also with our sinfulness and delights to twist things. So Christians I think, who are thoughtful in these areas find themselves in a certain tension. They want to avoid the subjectivity of the worst postmodern excesses where it becomes wrong to say that you know anything. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is true only for you, not because it’s true in the public arena, the open market square.

And therefore, the one thing that they’re really certain about is that you can’t be certain legitimately about anything. And this leads to all kinds of moral relativity and relativity with respect to confessing the truth and real suspicion about any sort of exclusive truth claims and so on. And on the other hand, you don’t wanna flip the other way and claim that we can know with the kind of knowledge that only belongs to God himself. So that’s why we tried in our statement to, as you put it, walk a line between enlightenment certainty and postmodern subjectivity and which one use stress depends on what’s being denied, on what’s being ignored.

Hansen: Yeah. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read our theological vision for ministry, not only because it guides everything that we do and then we publish along with our confessional statement at TGC, but simply because it’s been so personally and spiritually captivating for me over the course of these last 12 years. And been so influential in my individual life as well as my professional work. And I was surprised reading it this time in preparation for this interview and for this series where we’re talking with a number of our different council members and writers and people like that about our theological vision for ministry. That this section was probably the one that felt a little bit dated. You could tell just like we’re talking about here of how influential a lot of the emerging church conversations were when TGC was forming back in the mid to late first decade of the 21st century.

And it’s because I’ve noticed a lot more emphasis since 2016 on truth. So many people before 2016 who would have talked in the ways that we’re talking here about…with a postmodern perspective and a subjective perspective, which to be clear, they still do talk about in certain ways. And I might say transgender ideology would be one of those ways, but it’s amazing how much more talk there is now about truth. What do you make of that transformation? Does it change any of what you were thinking about 12 years ago in terms of how this theology was working out in the world?

Carson: It doesn’t change what I think is the case. The careful line between what you have called enlightenment certainty and postmodern subjectivity, it doesn’t change that. But it might change what you emphasize because our hearers are coming from slightly different places. Perhaps the easiest way to give an example is to move outside western culture for a moment. If I’m speaking in any Western university at a mission of some sort, there will be significant numbers who are suspicious of any absolute truth claim in their lives other than what they accede to themselves. As you say, that’s beginning to change. I’ll come to that in a moment. But nevertheless, exclusive truth claims you cannot be saved other than through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross or something like that.

Those statements are viewed as wrong not because they are objectively wrong as just because they’re, they’re too exclusive. They’re too absolutist. Whereas, if I’m speaking at a university in the Middle East, as I sometimes do, there, there are very few people who would want to say that there’s no such thing as truth or as objective truth. They mostly hold that there is such a thing as truth. The question is who’s got it and what is it? Well, obviously that doesn’t change my general stance on the tension between the enlightenment heritage and postmodernism. But what I’m going to emphasize in that context will be a little bit different from what I’m gonna emphasize at a Western university.

So in that sense, nothing much has changed in terms of how I put those things together. But it does change a little bit when you see what is being bought into. And you don’t want to fall under the trap of responding only to one particular crisis or one particular trend today because of cheer up, in 15 years the trend will change [inaudible] Maybe only five years for that matter. Things can change awfully quickly in a digital world. So I know what you mean by saying that that bit feels a bit out of date because undoubtedly when we wrote it, we had certain kinds of errors in view and those errors have changed a wee bit. But the general stance itself of what the TVM says I think is right. I don’t think it’s been shown to be wrong. It’s merely been shown to need applying in slightly different ways as the whims of the culture change a wee bit. And some of the changes in the culture itself, I think our pendulum swings.

Hansen: Right. Yeah. In a different political environment, all of a sudden this emphasis on truth could completely dissipate.

Carson: Oh, it really could. To take another example, it still seems to many of us that the push for recognition of homosexual marriage and so on is overwhelming. But careful polls have shown that the under 25s are changing in this regard. They’re beginning to say, “Enough already. Stop being so pushy.” Maybe there’s something to be said for a traditional view after all. Now, that hasn’t dawned on our political leaders or mass media outlets by and large, but it’s they’re perking away underneath. It wouldn’t surprise me if in another 10 years is a pendulum swing on some of those matters too.

Hansen: Yeah. It would appear at least from some of the analysis that I’ve read on that exact point that you’ve raised there, that the immediate jump from a [inaudible] and the push for gay marriage to transgenderism, and now all of a sudden the conflicts that that’s wrought within the gay community, LGBTQ community there. And then with young people watching, that seems to have really diminished people’s “tolerance” for some of these alternate lifestyles and things like that. So you’re right, it’s amazing how quickly things can change in a variety of directions that are largely unpredictable to us in a digital age. It’s note-worthy, I should say, of just how prescient this document remains overall. There’s one section that I read here. I’m gonna talk about it in a different episode with Darryl Williamson. But this line says, “If we seek service rather than power, we may have significant cultural impact. But if we seek direct power and social control, we will ironically be assimilated into the very idolatries of wealth, status and power we seek to change.” That comes from a further statement, point three, in the section which is on how we should relate to the culture around us on contextualization. So anyway, just to point out, the vast majority of this, it remains, I think in some ways, even more true today than it was 12 years ago in evidence I think of the Lord’s favor upon the drafters there. Another area that we see stand out now, and this relates back to your work on the intolerance of tolerance from several years ago. But explain how a call for pluralism that’s consistent within a postmodern context becomes so exclusive that remains baffling to me this sense that we are so tolerant that we don’t tolerate your type around here. Very confusing. How do you see that playing out today?

Carson: Underneath it, is the lust for power, for control. And once you’ve established that pluralism or open-ended tolerance is the goal, then those who don’t seem to fit into that model, that desideratum, that vision of the good can be labeled non-good. And without many people observing how self-contradictory this pattern is becoming. I think that there’s another subtlety that is sometimes missed, especially with respect to tolerance. In the past, tolerance has always been understood to be a parasitic virtue. That is to say, it’s a virtue that depends on some other worldviews. So other schema of right and wrong, whether it’s Roman government or communist authority or apartheid or whatever it is, there are some things that are tolerated and some things that are not tolerated. And the very notion of toleration presupposes and departure from what is accepted as the norm in that particular culture.

But what’s happened in recent times is that instead of tolerance being seen as a parasitic virtue that is, it’s a parasite on a broader social matrix of accepted conduct, of accepted behavior, it’s become an independent virtue. It’s become a virtue in and of itself, so that provided you are tolerant then that’s the supreme good. That’s a summum bonum. That’s what earns you brownie points and, it’s not tolerance with respect to other things, but just tolerance independently. The problem is of course, that that soon breeds necessarily as a kind of condescending intolerance towards those who don’t buy into the supreme virtue, the supreme good. Once it’s become the supreme good, anything short of it is a supreme bad. And so the line between advocating open-ended tolerance and becoming really intolerant, those who disagree is very thin.

There are many public statements, at the UN for example, we tolerate everything except intolerance without anybody seeing how absolutely ridiculous the statement is. And so I don’t think it’s hard to understand as some think. In fact in university discussions where I’ve sometimes given open-ended lectures on tolerance and intolerance and this sort of thing. You can watch the lights coming on in people’s eyes as they start seeing for the first time that what they thought was their supreme virtue has a hidden dragon at its very heart, at it’s very breast. And they openly start saying, “So what are we supposed to do? Where do we go from here?” Which gives a wonderful opportunity to start talking about an entirely different worldview that’s centered in revelation and the Gospel itself.

Hansen: One of the phrases I mentioned in the introduction here from our theological vision for ministry is that Christian growth is not simply cognitive information transfer. And that lined up with a phrase that really stood out to me recently when I was reading through scripture. It comes from Romans 2:8 and Galatians 5:7. But it’s something I don’t hear often from evangelicals. Paul exhorts us or warns us against not obeying the truth. And I’m wondering, what might it look like for us to put a little more emphasis on godly living by obeying the truth as opposed to, I think what a lot of us emphasize, which is believing the truth and defending the truth, both of which are important, of course. But it seems to me, we run into a number of problems with people who know the truth. They believe it, they defend it, but they don’t seem to obey it.

Carson: And it’s not just that expressional obeying the truth in Paul, but in first John, doing the truth. We’re not only to believe the truth, we’re to do the truth. And obviously it’s possible to take that too far the other way. It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you do. And that’s not anything that can be squared with Holy Scripture either. But the truth, although it is necessarily propositional in many respects, there are some things that are to be believed. Nevertheless, so many of those things are not only propositions, but have built in entailments about how to act in consequence of it. So supposing someone argues that Christ died for our sins and gave himself up for us and when he was a abused, did not retaliate. He suffered on our behalf. And all of that is believed very strongly. You can find it well articulated in let’s say 1st Peter Chapter two. But a little earlier in 1st Peter Chapter two we’re also told that Christ died, leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps.

So the very cross work that is to be believed and trusted because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on our behalf is also a model of how to live. And that’s the kind of thing that shows up more often than we realize. We’re to forgive one another even as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven us. So there’s the heart of the Gospel he’s forgiven us in Christ Jesus. But the entailment is that therefore we are to forgive one another. In other words, so much of the good news of the Gospel, which turns in calling people to repentance and faith to believe certain things has an entailment how to live. And we don’t want to make the how to live part confused with what God has done in Christ Jesus. It is an entailment that is believing the truth will result in life so transformed that they are heading in a different direction from what they were heading in before.

Hansen: In fact, biblically speaking, it’s the evidence that you do believe the truth.

Carson: That’s exactly right.

Hansen: I wonder if we might see change coming for the church, especially with so many of the arguments that we see digitally with more of an emphasis on this because it seems relatively easy in a digital sphere, especially to be able to articulate certain propositions and defend them and to argue them without any evidence of actually practicing the virtues that are commended by those propositions.

Carson: Once again, there are errors on both sides.

Hansen: Sure, right.

Carson: On the one side, people like to say things like preach the gospel if necessary, use words which is simply silly. But on the other hand, preach the gospel and believe it and it doesn’t matter how you live, can’t be squared with Holy Scripture either when the master himself says, “By their fruits, you shall know them.”

Hansen: Well, a couple questions here to wrap up. They’re kind of big questions, but hopefully we can hit them a little bit quickly. I used to hear a lot more complaints about propositional theology. You mentioned that in your last answer. I don’t know if those complaints have died down or I’m just not listening for them anymore. But the theological vision for ministry guards against this, or at least warns about this. What is that issue that it’s trying to address?

Carson: Yes. We sometimes speak of a chastened correspondence-theory of truth. If you get rid of the word chastened, then we’re holding to a correspondence theory of truth. That is the truth corresponds to what we say in our propositions. Our propositions say something is X, and in reality it really is X. It’s not merely analogous to X or something akin to X or something that has the flavor of X, but it is X. It’s a correspondence-theory of truth. With a chastened correspondence-theory of truth, what we’re really saying is, “Yes, we don’t forget we’re not omniscient. So our knowledge of X is always somewhat imperfect. It’s always somewhat corrigible. We need to walk with a certain kind of humility.” And this is true even of really important central doctrines.

You might take the doctrine of the Trinity. Well, what is the doctrine of the Trinity? Well the father is God, Jesus is God, the spirit is God, and there is but one God. You can say that that’s the doctrine of the Trinity. And it’s not wrong, but it’s pretty simplistic. When you think how it’s pretty soon tied up with what we mean by the eternal generation of the Son and things of that order that have captured the best minds wrestling with scripture and history for centuries and centuries. And so we want to say that our doctrinal statements really are referring to truthful things. There’s a correspondence between our confessional statements and the realities themselves. But it’s a chastened correspondence, because we recognize that even our finest statements of faith are not themselves scripture. And we want to walk with a certain kind of humility of mind even while we insist that there is truth there to be articulated and believed.

Hansen: Well, I’ll leave it there, would love to talk even more about this, but I hope to give people through these conversations really a heart to study, to dig down, to read more about this theological vision for ministry and to work it out for themselves. To use this as an example, but to take it back to their churches, to their ministries, wherever they are around the world. We’ve got people listening to us we know from around the world and begin to apply that and to work that out in their lives. I found it incredibly beneficial for me and with our context and in our work here at The Gospel Coalition. And I’m thankful for that, for your work, Dr. Carson on that. And your work in continuing to advance this cause over the last 12 years. So again, my guest on The Gospel Coalition podcast has been Dr. Don Carson, president of the Gospel Coalition. Thank you. Dr. Carson.

Carson: My privilege to be with you.

What is truth? Pilate famously missed that he was standing before Truth himself when he asked Jesus that question 2,000 years ago. And ever since, much of the world continues to search in vain for truth apart from the way and life of Christ. We have a cultural crisis of truth. But as truth of the Bible produces wisdom in us, and we live in submission to God’s reality, we can point the world toward the Source of all truth.

The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry was adopted by our Council in 2007. The first point addresses this “epistemological issue” in our culture today. It not only corrects wrong views of truth in the world but also pushes back on some mistaken notions in the church. The statement says that “Christian growth is not simply cognitive information transfer.” Yet sometimes that’s the discipleship plan our churches seem to convey in preaching and Bible studies. There’s balance to be found in seeing truth not only as something to be studied and taught but also as something to be obeyed. We are not only hearers of the Word but doers also (James 1:22).

For the first in a series of podcast conversations about our Theological Vision for Ministry, I talked with TGC president Don Carson. I asked him about our cultural crisis of truth and more generally about the role of theological vision in the church and TGC.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.