guest post: Mark Earngey reviews Foster’s Suburban Captivity of the Church

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earngey_profileOf the shortlisted books for sparklit’s Australian Christian Book of the Year Award 2015, without a doubt the one which I have been repeatedly asked to review is Foster’s Suburban Captivity of the Church. Short
of time I’m not going to get to it, but I understand a couple of reviews are being written out there the first of which is by Mark Earngey.

Rev. Mark Earngey is an Anglican minister from the Diocese of Sydney currently undertaking postgraduate research into Reformation theology and history at the University of Oxford.

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A Clear or Cloudy Gospel?

An interesting juxtaposition of events happened to me last week.  I found myself reading Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church at the same time as eagerly following the consultation conference of the Australian chapter of The Gospel Coalition.  Tim Foster is the Vice Principal of Ridley Theological College in Melbourne and the book has been shortlisted for the Australia Christian Book of the year award.  The Gospel Coalition Australia is a local iteration of The Gospel Coalition originating in the US.  Two voices labouring to see Australia won for Christ.  Yet, given the difference in descriptions of the gospel were so significant, I felt it prudent to review Foster’s recent book. 

The major purpose of Foster’s Suburban Captivity is ‘… to develop a theology of gospel and culture, and then illustrate how contextualisation works.’ (p. 5).  He spends the first half of the book unpacking the theological nature of the gospel and culture, and the second half of the book applying this to suburbanites, urbanites and battlers.  It’s not a pedestrian read.  Foster strongly denounces conceptions of the Gospel that center upon the sacrifice at Calvary, and calls for a reconceptualisation of the Gospel around God’s wider purposes.  We are told in no uncertain terms that this is the only way to break the shackles of our suburban captivity. 

The strengths of Foster’s book lie in his cultural insights and innovative methods of engagement.  His first hand ministerial experience in urban areas shows great pastoral sensitivity and demonstrates why he specialises in practical ministry courses at Melbourne’s Ridley Theological College.  The brief discussion of the concept of subversive fulfilment reminded me of the important missional concepts brought to light in the work of Dan Strange from Oak Hill Theological College, London.  Alas, for this reader, these few strengths were utterly undermined by some critical weaknesses. 

The first major weakness is Foster’s framing of the discussion around anecdotal evidence and heavy utilisation of strawman arguments.  The launchpad for the book is the negative response given by a couple who attended an evangelistic presentation he once gave.  This presentation asked the question ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ but after some time Foster claims to have realised that ‘my gospel message had a focus on what happens in the afterlife, but had very few implications for this life.’ (p. 12).  Whether Foster had in mind the popular Christianity Explained course which uses the aforementioned question is hard to say, but it is clear that he sees this kind of presentation as ‘distorted’, ‘middle-class’, ‘as a ticket to heaven’, ‘truncated’, ‘framed around the issue of punishment for sin’, ‘a patch on the problem of sin’, and makes the resurrection ‘not necessary to the logic of the presentation.’ (pp. 2, 3, 4, 6, 15, 50, 20).  By extrapolating out from an anecdote to an uncited Gospel presentation, Foster has a vague and ambiguous target in mind.  Whatever it is, is bad.  Enter his good alternative.

This leads us to the next major weakness: the presentation of a false dichotomy between the ‘punitive gospel’ and the ‘telic gospel’ (his terms).  The punitive gospel apparently makes God’s judgement the major problem to be solved, whereas ‘we frame the gospel around God’s purposes’ (p. 21).  These purposes fall broadly into personal, ecological and social categories.  In fact, Foster overlays another dichotomy on top of this: a reduction of ‘the gospel to a truncated set of propositions’ versus the gospel as ‘an alternative cultural narrative’ (p. 26, 44).  The fact that Graeme Goldsworthy, one of Australia’s most important theologians of late, has built his life’s work on holding narrative together with propositions, and holding the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement with God’s wider purposes, surely gives us pause to ponder the disjunction in Foster’s argument.  There is however, a more serious downside to the dichotomy.

With Foster’s emphasis on God’s purposes in the world, there are few positive words concerning Christ’s glorious work of satisfaction for sin at Calvary.  In fact, Foster staggeringly describes this as ‘a subsidiary question.’ (p. 15).  Any affirmations of this aspect of the Gospel seem to come as reluctant concessions: ‘While there is a punitive aspect to this …’ and ‘But this is just one aspect …’ (p. 19, 20).  What the conjunctions hint at are made explicit later.  The punitive gospel actually ‘needs replacing’ with Foster’s telic gospel (p. 28).  After reading and re-reading his book, the most charitable interpretation I could put on Foster’s dichotomy is that it is a very uneven presentation of the Gospel and God’s purposes.  It’s not the sort of presentation that inspires us to sing those wonderful lyrics: ‘on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.’ One wonders what Leon Morris, that great defender of propitiatory atonement and former Principal of Ridley, might think of such a proposal (See, for instance, L.L. Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (1965; repr. Exeter: Paternoster, 1998), pp. 404-5.).

Unfortunately, that’s not where the weaknesses of the book end.  The next weakness is that there seems to be a confusing of the root of the Gospel with the fruit of the Gospel.  Foster puts forward a innovative proposal: ‘The call of the gospel is to believe that this new order has arrived in Jesus, and in believing to live according to this new way in the power of the spirit.’ (p. 23).  This suggestion raises the question of what precisely we are to believe in: the crucified and resurrected Christ, or the new order of living?  Surely the call of the Gospel is to ‘believe in the Son of Man’, for ‘how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?’ (John 9:35; Rom. 10:14).  Surely, it is only faith in the risen Christ that opens up obedience in the new order of things (2 Cor. 5:17).   Perhaps this is just one infelicitous phrase, but there seems to be some confusion between faith and works here in Foster’s proposal.  In fact, one wonders where faith, regeneration and justification fit into the proposal.  Perhaps part of this emphasis on the new order of things comes from Foster’s fear that we will have ‘nothing to say about how to live this life (p. 48, italics original).  But of course, the great evangelical proponents of the Gospel across the ages knew that faith issues in good works; that faith issues in life according to new order.  As Tyndale wonderfully put it: ‘the euangelion of God (which we call gospel and the new testament) is joyful tiding … all men that were in bondage to sin wounded with death, overcome of the Devil, are without their own merits or deservings, loosed, justified, restored to life, and saved, brought to liberty and reconciled unto the favour of God and set at one with him again which tidings as many as beleve laud, praise, and thank God, are glad, sing, dance for joy.” (A Path Way in to the Holy Scripture RSTC 24462, sigs. Aiii.r-v).  And if that’s not enough, Cranmer’s homily on good works should suffice to demonstrate that the fruit of the Gospel comes from the root of the Gospel.  Entering into the wonderful new order of things surely comes as a result of entering into a living faith in the crucified Christ.

The last weakness concerns Foster’s argument that this supposed distorted gospel arises from the suburban origins of 19th century evangelicalism.  He writes: ‘Evangelical Christianity provided the values and the vision that drove the formation of the suburbs.’ (p. 63).  Among the problematic features of this distorted Gospel are the domesticity of women, the emphasis on ‘Family first’, homogeneity, aspirational values, the ordered natural environment, and social security.  By tying the origins of these supposed suburban values to the Clapham saints like Wilberforce, Foster argues that evangelicalism promoted what he sees as the distorted gospel.  But this argument conspicuously ignores the fact that origins of evangelicalism predated Clapham, and the breadth of evangelicalism went far beyond Clapham.  One only needs to think of Whitefield and Wesley preaching outdoors to hundreds of working class miners to make the point.  Recent works from the likes of Andrew Atherstone and Grayson Carter on the breadth of evangelicals in 19th century makes this point even more acute. 

Alas, Foster extends his thesis out to the origins of Australian evangelicalism.  He claims that ‘from the very beginning the evangelical church in Australia gained legitimacy by serving the interests of the powerful at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.’ (p. 118).  This again, is a little outlandish.  Evangelicals in Australia were not the privileged suburbanites. Richard Johnson suffered personal hardship by seeking to minister to the convicts, and the military (the powerful, esp. Grose) were against him in many ways.  It was the early evangelicals who formed societies to help the disenfranchised (e.g., the NSW Philanthropic Society for the protection of the natives of the South Seas, the Benevolent Society; the Bible Society and the Religious Tract Society; the schooling; the laying in houses for the Poor, and the list could go on).  Even Johnson and Marsden’s agricultural renown was to serve the colony, to help people know how to get the most out of their soil.  Their social movement to press for marriage, to care for orphans, to stop drunkenness – all these were directed at the poor to help them rise to better things.  While Foster’s suburban argument has some sense of explanatory power, it lacks the most important factor to make it believable: historical accuracy.

Taken altogether, the weaknesses of this book far outweigh its strengths.  In light of recent calls for Gospel clarity, The Suburban Captivity of the Church only clouds the much needed call of the Gospel in 21st century Australia.  The Old Testament prophets looked forward to the one who would be ‘pierced for our transgressions’ (Is. 53:5).  The New Testament apostles saw the wisdom of Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23).  The Oxford martyrs died for the atoning sacrifice of Christ.  The evangelicals of the 19th century took up the evangelical call of ‘Amazing Grace’.  And 21st century Australia needs precisely the same.  Yes, we need the full-orbed picture of all the Gospel metaphors presented in the Scriptures.  Yes, we need to take hold of the good works and purposes of God prepared in advance for us.  But the core of the Gospel message necessarily upholds the very features which Foster downplays.  If we want to free our 21st century world from captivity we don’t need a cloudy message, but rather the clear Gospel of Christ.

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Mike Wells

    I haven’t read the book, but I do remember when I started at Tim’s church, all sorts of Moore college student came and told me my minister didn’t believe in sin, or judgement , or in penal substitutionary atonement. I found their allegations to be rubbish. But he did encourage me to preach what the Bible actually says, and not feel as though I have to tack PSA on to every sermon, that the bible might have more to say to our lives than ‘read you Bible and evangelise your friends’.
    Guess I’ll have to read the book and see what it is like

  2. James Dawes

    Well this is worrying. Pushing Jesus’ death out of the centre is a terrible idea. And it’s discouraging that a theologian of Foster’s status has mis-stepped so badly.

    To answer Mike Wells, in part: I’m sure it would be absurd to say that Foster “didn’t believe in” those biblical concepts. But emphasis matters a lot, especially in a teacher of the Church.

    (Also, I suspect that “tack PSA on to every sermon” and “read you Bible and evangelise your friends” are exactly what the reviewer is calling straw men.)

    1. Mike Wells

      Nope. Not straw men. I’ve seen it in action. I believe there was a study done in Sydney in the 90’s, perhaps early 2000’s that found exactly this phenomenon in our pulpits. Like I said, I’ll have to read the book.

      1. J Dawes

        You’re right – straw men is the wrong term, since those tendencies are definitely around. What I mean is “the badly-done version of a good thing”.

    1. James Dawes

      Thank you Tim, will read.

  3. MichaelA

    “It was the early evangelicals who formed societies to help the disenfranchised (e.g., the NSW Philanthropic Society for the protection of the natives of the South Seas, the Benevolent Society; the Bible Society and the Religious Tract Society; the schooling; the laying in houses for the Poor, and the list could go on).”

    Good point. I would also add the work of Lancelot Threlkeld in ministering to aboriginals, working on cross-language dictionaries and gospels, and speaking out against repression of aboriginals, in the early 19th century.

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