Late spring had pushed buds out of the ends of what used to look like dead branches covering the trees on campus. My old, weathered frisbee sat in my satchel propped against my seat that was pulled up to the kind of folding table churches use at potlucks, only this table was in a seminary classroom. My third and last year of seminary was dragging along toward the cusp of expectancy. I had received a call to be the pastor of youth and families at a church in Jackson, MS upon my impending graduation. My wife was pregnant with our first child, a son to be born six months later. Life was stable and looking to get even more stable in the coming months. The lecture would end soon and my classmates and I would spill out onto the green lawn in Charlotte to toss a frisbee a few more times before we all went in our separate directions after graduation.
And then Dr. Kelly arrested my attention. He said something that let me know I had been tuning him out, tuning out part of his lecture, likely daydreaming about what was to be. He said something along the lines of, “The gospel is at the core of all theological study, the center of pastoral ministry and all of life. If you missed the gospel in what I just said a few minutes ago, you need to take stock of why you’re doing what you’re doing right now.” My professor was pastoring me and calling me on what I needed to hear. I had tuned out the gospel in what he was saying. I was a third-year student with a lifetime of pastoral ministry in front of me. I knew this stuff. I’m sure Dr. Kelly doesn’t remember that day. He was just doing what he always did in lectures: teach us theology that centered on Christ while pastoring us as students he loved. But that day, though I didn’t know it when I woke up that morning, I needed my professor to say just that, to remind me of the centrality of the gospel in the work of theology. I’ve never forgotten that lesson and I’ve never forgotten how quickly students of theology can assume and displace the gospel in their studies.
The Hard Work of Gospel Centrality
But gospel centrality, especially in theological study, doesn’t work like a magic spell. It isn’t ex opere, operatum. You can’t just say, “I believe that the gospel is central and primary,” as some sort of liturgical start to a class lecture, at the beginning of a reading assignment, or when you hammer out the first word in your position paper. My wife and I learned this lesson as we began church planting. We found ourselves saying things like, “Well you know, because of the gospel.” We used that phrase as a shorthand to describe how the gospel supported a particular emphasis in the church plant or solved some common problem in the Christian life. We ended up deciding to ban the use of “because of the gospel” for a time. It forced us to do the work of describing how the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus applied to whatever it was we were talking about in a real way. We must do the same thing in theological study today; we have to do the hard work of showing how the gospel is central, not just saying it and hoping it might be true.
To start with an example of how this is done in theological study, consider the implications for systematic theology. We typically speak of systematic theology as composed of seven major areas: prolegomena, theology proper, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. We might be tempted to believe that we should place equal weight and give equal priority to all seven. In so doing we would be making a mistake. We can only know theology proper because Christ has revealed the Father to us (Matt. 11:27). We can only know eschatology because Christ taught us about his imminent return (John 14:1–3). We can ultimately only know about the maximal authority of the Bible because Christ attested to that authoritative Word and fulfilled it (Matt. 5:18). And so we could go through each of the six areas of systematic theology, proving that Christology (and the gospel at the center of Christology) takes priority and gives meaning to the entire field of systematic theology.
“We have to do the hard work of showing how the gospel is central, not just saying it and hoping it might be true.”—Joe Holland
Now consider biblical theology. The amount of vague speculation in this area of theological study is legion. How do we remain grounded in clear orthodoxy as we consider the foundational themes and patterns that run through the Bible? We do so by preserving gospel centrality. To illustrate, students of biblical theology often make a mistake when they directly see the church as the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel. Students (and politicians) also make a similar mistake when they define Israel as a type of junior varsity church. The clear storyline of the gospel teaches that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament people of God (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15), that Old Testament believers are saved through faith in what they knew as the promised messiah (Jude 5), and that Christians are a part of the people of God (Eph. 2:14), including the Old Testament saints (Gal. 6:16), because of our union with Jesus Christ. The centrality of the gospel places Jesus and his work at the center of all biblical themes and doesn’t allow us to tie together themes without making him and his work central. The centrality of the gospel in the types of Scripture grounds biblical theology as a theological discipline.
Lastly, consider church history. We err when we view the study of church history as a chronicle of the people and events that occurred over the past 2,000 years in the trans-global organization called “the church.” Instead, church history is the culmination of the gospel in the Great Commission. Jesus commanded that the good news of his cross-work, the glory of his empty tomb, be shared to the end that his followers would make disciples of the nations. He said that the church would prevail against the gates of hell. The church was born out of the plan of God to proclaim the gospel of God. Church history is gospel theology before it is recorded chronology.
We could go on, working our way through other theological disciplines, showing how gospel centrality is necessary for each one. But the point is not that it can be done, like an intellectual parlor trick, a neat thematic gimmick. The point is that students of theology must do this hard work whenever they study theology. This is exactly what Dr. Kelly was driving home to me, exactly what I needed to hear as I looked down at my frisbee and thought I already knew it all.