Almost two weeks ago I asked whether or not there was a basic confession that initiated people into the Kingdom of God (here). I am not asking this in order to settle for doctrinal relativism or pseudo-ecumenism. Rather, I have two motives: (1) determining what it means, and what it has meant, to be a true follower of Christ, so that despite our differences we can journey together and (2) what it means to name heresy and error when it may be salvific so that we have some sort of taxonomy of doctrine.
If our differences are important (like the difference between the Catholic and various Evangelical views of the Eucharist/communion rite) we should acknowledge that without condemning one another. If our differences are more serious (like seeing Jesus as the risen Lord or merely a good, historical Jewish prophet) than we need to be aware of this as well because more is at stake. If our Lord prayed that we would be one (Jn. 17.20-21) we must ask what it means to be unified in spite our disagreements while also asking the hard question, “Who is actually a follower of the Lord?”
While some understand the Gospel of Thomas to be the earliest gospel because it is a so-called “sayings” gospel, most agree that the Synoptics are the three earliest, preserved narratives of Jesus that we have today. Most scholars affirm Markan priority of some sort with the Gospel of Matthew or Luke being the next, likely dependent upon Mark for much of the content, though different in some important areas where the evangelist had differing nuances that needed to be emphasized for their audience.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see a lot of what these writers wanted us to know about Jesus. In Matthew we may suggest Jesus is the Shepherd-King of Israel, in Mark he is a Apocalyptic-Messianic figure who shares continuation and discontinuation with common Jewish messianic expectations (if we can say there was much in common). In Luke he is the Jewish Lord and there are implication for Gentiles who must now recognize the God of Israel. (For those who have given more time to these various gospels, please feel free to provide a different emphasis, as you see it, in the comments section.)
All three gospels ask us to affirm one thing specifically: Jesus is the Messiah of God. This cannot be disconnected from all that has come before it in the story of Israel as the various gnostic sects attempted as well as Marcion and his followers. Jesus as the Messiah is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. While each evangelist has his own particular approach this seems to be the common thread.
The pinnacle confession (what must be believed about Jesus) in the First Gospel is Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” (Mt. 16.16) In the Second Gospel we have the shorter confession upon which Matthew expounded: “You are the Christ.” (Mk. 8.29) In the Third Gospel this reality leads to Christ’s own crucifixion. The elders of Israel ask Jesus if he claims to be the Messiah and the son of God. Jesus affirms this (Lk. 22.66-71).
In acknowledging this commonality do I also suggest that the synoptic evangelists had the goal of merely seeing people say the words, “Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God.” No, each evangelist described how this tied into Israel’s story as well as what it “looked like” to make this confession.
One thing we sometimes forget when discussion creeds, confessions and orthodoxy is that it is more than the cognitive aspect. We cannot say “Jesus is the Christ, the son of God” and then live as if this is a lie. We cannot confess this and ignore the narrative within which the evangelist placed this confession. We must realize that the early Christian communities understood that once one confessed this truth (and the public manner in which this was done appears to be baptism, which leads us to a whole different discussion) there was an adjacent submission.
If a Roman citizen confessed “Caesar is Lord” and then disobeyed the laws of the Empire, one could conclude that this person did not see Caesar as Lord. Lordship includes obedience and political allegiance. To confess Christ as Lord includes obedience and allegiance. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord, the Satan is not.
One final statement: it is not as if we can say now, “Well, the Matthean community confessed this about Jesus and since they did not have what we find in the other gospels, or the Pauline epistles, this must be a sufficient confession.” Maybe this is true to some extent, but I think this is a bit anachronistic. If we have any Pneumatology at all we can expect that the Spirit would lead the church catholic to a greater understanding and unity by bringing together what we now see as the canon of the church. No, we should not see every canonized author as parroting one another (Matthew is not Luke, Luke is not James, James is not Paul), but the Spirit brought together these basic writings to provide us with a greater understanding of who Christ was and is. We are responsible to acknowledge that as the Spirit shows it to us.
At the same time, if a new convert to Christianity sits in a jail cell in Iran with only two-third of Matthew’s gospels, and the affirming conviction that he believes what he was told about Jesus by the Christians who preached the gospel to him, I have no doubt he is part of the Kingdom. Does he know the fullness of who Christ was and is? Unlikely, but he confesses as Lord the one whom he knows in part. Don’t we all do this? Don’t we all see Christ through a glass darkly? Don’t we all await the day we will be like him because we see him face to face and we know him as he knows us?