N.T. Wright provides his answer to the question many have been asking in recent years:
This week I read an essay on Paul’s Gospel that was an exegetical summary of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This seems strange to me. Does this section summarize Paul’s Gospel?
Now, if I were to ask Paul to summarize his Gospel he might say something like “the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.” Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Paul, so his letters will do. Paul’s Gospel may present these events as the pinnacle or climax of Paul’s message, even a condensed summary, but a complete representation? What about Jesus’ teachings, his messianic identity, his miracles and exorcisms, his empowerment by the Spirit, his ascension, his present reign and priestly advocacy, and his appearing? Would Paul have thought these things to be secondary or peripheral? I doubt it.
When we read Paul’s letters we cannot forget that these letters are occasional. When he wrote to the Church in Thessaloniki he addressed eschatological concerns. When he wrote to the Church in Galatia he addressed the difference between Covenants Old and New, especially as this relates to the Spirit. When he wrote to Rome he summarized how the Gospel unites Jews and non-Jews under the reign of Christ. When he wrote to Corinth he had to correct some things, including the idea that although Jesus may have resurrected from the dead, there is no future resurrection.
Paul writes, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believe in vain.” These words may sound like he is about to summarize the Gospel he preached, but that doesn’t seem to be what he does at all. Instead, Paul appears to remind them that he has preached the Gospel, it was received, and it is that which continues to save them, so now, let me remind you of those things that are of “first importance” or those things Paul presented to the Corinthians first of all (ἐν πρώτοις): Jesus died. Jesus was buried. Jesus resurrected.
Paul is saying that he began his proclamation with this message. This was his opening proclamation: Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, he was dead, even buried, but God has resurrected him from the dead. Everything follows from this, but that does not mean that everything else is unimportant.
It was not the chapter I read that alone made me revisit Paul’s words, but my recent post on evangelicalism (A Dialogue between a Catholic and an Evangelical: Why I am an E/evangelical) caused me to revisit the definition of “the Gospel,” since it seems “Evangelicals” might want to take seriously the content of the “Evangel” itself. Similarly, I’ve mentioned Paul many times on this blog and I realize that there remains an misperception among admirers and detractors of Paul that his Gospel was radically divorced from Jesus’. Now, if Paul’s Gospel is “justification by faith” or even the death, burial, and resurrection without the context of Jesus’ person and message then yes, there is a disconnect. I don’t think this is the case though. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and Jesus acted as the coming King of that Kingdom. Now, the Father’s plan included allowing the King to die, then vindicating the King by means of an apocalyptic, eschatological resurrection before the anticipated great resurrection, but that doesn’t mean Jesus’ Kingdom message doesn’t matter. Instead, Jesus’ Kingdom message was made unique by the means of God establishing his chosen King. Paul on the other side of the resurrection understood this. Therefore, Paul emphasized it, which is not surprising since the Evangelists do the same thing. All four of our earliest, preserved Gospels give more attention to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection than to the rest of his story. We may not be able to explain how Jesus understood his death (though he appears to have anticipated it), or his resurrection, but we do know that after the resurrection Jesus’ earliest followers reinterpreted all of his words and deeds in light of God’s action on his behalf. If one affirms that the resurrection happened it makes sense to presume that Jesus himself would have come to fully understand his life, mission, and identity more fully than before he had overcome death (if you struggle with accepting that Jesus learned propositionally, then at least we should acknowledge experientially/existentially).
I saw that the other night Al Mohler and Jim Wallis debated whether or not proclamation of the Gospel includes social justice. I admit that I didn’t watch it. I am sure these two men had nuances to their position that I am oversimplifying, but I don’t understand why this is debated. If we believe that in the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ everything is being recreated by God, and he is choosing a people to conform into the image of his Son, so that his Kingdom can be on earth as it is in heaven, why would there be a disconnection between that affirmation and seeking the justice sought by the prophets, by Christ, and by the actions of the Apostles?
If I believe God’s Kingdom will destroy the walls between race, gender, socio-economic class, and the like then won’t I live now in anticipation of that Kingdom because I believe it is the best thing because it is what God wants for the world? If in Jesus the Kingdom was previewed through healing and exorcism, why would I think the Gospel is divorced from the well-being of others? If our King told stories of Samaritans risking their own health for the Jewish other as the prime example of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self what excuse do I have for saying that the Gospel doesn’t impact everything from my view of war and warfare to whether or not people in my city go to bed hungry.
Listen, I say this as a person who doesn’t give money to buy Tom’s shoes. Sometimes I purchase from companies that I have heard have questionable ethics (I am typing on a Mac and I have a pair of Nikes). I don’t give much to charities at home or abroad and my greatest contribution to the poor and down trodden are to those who are in my local church whom I try to teach and for whom I pray. Even in this I stand on the shoulders of men and women who do much, much more than me for the poor, the sick, the addicted, and the homeless. I am no Mother Theresa looking for the next wound to cover.
But as I continually wrestle with what it means for me to say that I believe God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead as an act of enthronement that previews the day when God’s Kingdom is fully established then I can’t help but think that this means I have a responsibility as a citizen of God’s Kingdom to be light and salt to the world around me, as the Spirit works through me, and this includes seeking justice in society. Sure, we may debate how this unfolds practically (e.g. I know some bloggers have participated in the Occupy Movement while I have no idea what it is intending to accomplish practically and therefore am a bit befuddled by its existence), but do we debate that it is something we must ponder in seriousness and that our meditation must lead to action as people of God’s Kingdom? I don’t think so, but maybe I am missing something?
I am grateful to Scot McKnight and Zondervan for making this book available to me for review. From the moment I viewed the book trailer in which McKnight appears, I was interested in what he had to say about the widely debated meaning of “the gospel”. One of things I appreciate about Scot McKnight as an author is his ability to think critically about issues which matter to the church in a way which makes scholarship accessible. One might say he is a scholar of and for the church in an age when so many are simply “of”.
This review will not seek to interact at a scholarly level with McKnight. This is not my area of expertise. I will leave this to the likes of Witherington, Kirk, LePort. In this review I will discuss my impressions of the book, what I liked and what I didn’t. In a series of upcoming posts I will interact with the book chapter by chapter on my turf and how it realtes to ministry at my personal blog, The Parson’s Patch.
First up let me say; this book may be short and easy to read but one gets the feeling it has a lifetime of scholarship undergirding it. In what I would describe as an easy to follow conversational style McKnight takes us on a journey to understand what the “Gospel” really means in a way I would identify as scholarly but pastoral.
McKnight begins by carefully deconstructing his own experience and understanding of the word “Gospel”. I suspect many readers will identify with his experience. Begining with 1 Corinthians 15 McKnight seeks to establish what he considers the earliest witness we have to the content of the gospel. I appreciated the way in which McKnight worked his way back through 21st century, through the Reformation to Paul’s, Peter’s and finally Jesus’ understanding of the gospel. In my opinion, by approaching the subject this way, I believe McKnight Unleashes the Gospel from our 21st century misunderstandings and ties it back to the King Jesus Gospel!
If I had one criticism of the book it is that I felt McKnight overemphasized salvation culture as the predominant culture in the church. Although I agree with his assessment that 21st century evangelical culture is not gospel culture I am not persuaded that most churches focus primarily on getting folks saved. I think this might be true of mega churches but because the vast majority of churches are small I think the point is overemphasised. I also felt this part of his argument is out-dated. I am speaking from my own context here in Australia and could therefore be wrong. What I do agree with however, and what McKnight provides, is a clear biblical (including historical) and theological understanding of who and what the gospel is. McKnight has done a great job defining the word within its original first century context as well as providing a theological summary for the 21st century church to consider.
A couple of points which really stood out for me were McKnight’s ability to critique those with whom he disagrees with and yet extend a level of respect expected between Christians. In short, McKnight is polite. Also, in each chapter McKnight interacts with well known, sometimes pseudnomynous “Pastors”? This was incredibly helpful in framing the discussion in my mind for use in ministry.
I can highly recommend this book to Pastors and lay people alike. It is short enough to read in a day or two or, as I would encourage every reader to do, take a chapter each day and read it over two weeks. Anyone who reads this book will come away refreshed, challenged and with a lot to think about. It would make a great study book for small groups.
Finally, this book does not feel like a reaction. As you read it you get the idea that McKnight has been mulling this stuff over for quite some time; researching and reflecting on this issue. At the end of the day he has written a book which is easy to read but certainly not lightweight! I can say with confidence that McKnight unleashes the Gospel from 21st century meaning for 21st century meaning!
It is often noted that the epistles say very little about the Kingdom of God in juxtaposition with the gospels. This is one of the reasons why many are very confident that the historical Jesus spoke often about the kingdom. It seems to be something that his followers did not emphasize as much; therefore, it doesn’t make sense that they would have invented his Kingdom sayings. This has led to quite a bit of speculation as to why the church forsook a concept so important to Jesus himself.
I am beginning to think that “the gospel” may have come to include the proclamation of the Kingdom so that when the Apostle Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” (Rom 1.16) it was taken for granted that this included the proclamation that God has enthroned Christ as his King (see Rom. 1.3-4).
The first thing that made this come to mind is Mk. 1.14-15 which reads:
“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
As one can see when Jesus comes to Galilee “preaching the gospel” (κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον) he discusses the soon coming Kingdom of God (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ), which demands that one responds by “believing the gospel” (πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ).
Could it be that many in the early church simply assumed that any talk of “the gospel” assumed “the kingdom”?
In 1 Maccabees 2.7-13 a priest named Matthias grieves over the destruction of Jerusalem and its pagan conversion under the thumb of Antiochus Epiphanes. These are his words:
“Woe is me! Why was I born to see the ruin of my people and the ruin of the holy city, and to sit idle while it is given into the hands of enemies, and the sanctuary into the hands of strangers? Her temple has become like a man disgraced, her glorious ornaments have been carried off as spoils, Her infants have been murdered in her streets, her young men by the sword of the enemy. What nation has not taken its share of her realm, and laid its hand on her possessions? All her adornment has been taken away. From being free, she has become a slave. We see our sanctuary and our beauty and our glory laid waste, And the Gentiles have defiled them! Why are we still alive?”
This narrative must have been imbedded deep into the psyche of faithful Jews. Now imagine hearing the Apostle Paul say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3.28)
The Pauline gospel was an act of reconciliation. I don’t mean simply that the Jews were asked to embrace Gentiles whom they understood to be impure. That is part of it, but not all of it. These impure pagans had a history of mistreating Israel. The Babylonian exile was still part of Jewish memory. At the time of Paul the empire of Rome controlled the land of the Jews, Judea. Yet Paul calls them to equality before the Messiah…Israel’s Messiah!
Paul is asking his fellow Jews not to forsake their covenantal markers in order to compromise in the face of pagan persecution. Rather, he tells them that the very actions that once determined faithfulness to YHWH under pagan persecution were not preventing the pagans from finally recognizing Israel’s God as God of the world and Israel’s Messiah and the King of the world.
The same markers that saved Jewish identity were now preventing the Jews from realizing their greater identity as Abraham’s children through whom the whole world was to be blessed. I admit, if I were a Jew, it would be very difficult to accept Paul’s claim that the true people of God are both Jews and Gentiles in Messiah, and Gentiles can come as they are without proselytizing to Judaism.
We have a lot of “gospel-definitions” in circulation these days. While it could be a discussion that leaves us a bit burnt out after a while I think it has been one worth having for the time being. Michael Horton is the most recent to give his take which you can find in this video here. I have summarized some main points so I welcome you to watch and then return here to discuss if you would like to do so.
- “Gospel” is not the equivalent to whatever is good and important in Christianity.
- It is a precise: “From Genesis to Revelation” it is “God’s promise of a Son that will crush the serpent’s head, forgive the sins of his people, raise them from the dead, and give them everlasting life solely on the basis of his grace for the sake of Christ.”
- Euangelion = good news related particularly to military battles. It is a
“victory report”. This makes it not only “good news because of its content” but also in the “form of its delivery”.
- It doesn’t tell us what to do; it tells us what has been done. Law is good, but not the “good news”. We don’t contribute to salvation. Horton adds that we are not an extension of Christ or his redemption in the world; we are his redeemed in the world and witnesses to his redeeming work.
I think I agree with most of this. I did find it confusing that he doesn’t see us as an extension of Christ in the world and therefore God’s saving work. I think I know what he is trying to say, but as I ponder concepts like Paul’s “body of Christ”, and his belief that he shared in Messiah’s sufferings, it does seem like we participate with God in the world’s salvation, though it is totally by God’s grace and Spirit through us.
What do you think of his presentation?