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Archive for July, 2013

reading-the-gospels-wisely“Jesus is not merely a great leader or teacher who exists in a vacuum, but he is the epicentric and climactic point of the grand story of what God is doing in the world.  As John Nolland remarks, ‘The story of Jesus is told as a continuation—indeed as some kind of culmination—of the long story of God and his people.’  The Gospels are not freestanding narratives but are stories that ‘must be set into a larger frame supplied by the history of God’s prior dealings with his people’…The story of Jesus is the consummation of the story of Israel, going back to its beginnings in Genesis 1:1.” (Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, pp. 27-28)

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reading-the-gospels-wisely“Paul and the other New Testament writers presuppose and build on the story and teaching of Jesus.  The story of Jesus and his teachings form the basis for the preaching of the gospel in the early church…Instead of seeing the Epistles as separate from the Jesus traditions, we do better to understand that underneath the Epistles is the assumption of the Jesus traditions on the part of both the writers and the readers…It is the Jesus traditions, later codified into the Gospels, that are presupposed in all the apostolic kerygma, including the specific, written applications of this in the Epistles.  One implication of this, I would suggest, is that we cannot truly understand Paul’s or Peter’s or James’s doctrine or teaching without reading them through the lens of the Gospels…It is the teaching and life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels that formed the entire mind-set and framework for what the New Testament authors preached and wrote.” (Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, pp. 39-43)

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“Do we, however, have a right to know God? In particular, are we entitled to know that God exists without knowing God as Lord, as the morally supreme agent over our lives, including our intellectual lives? Some people uncritically assume so, but this is unconvincing.

Who is entitled to decide how one may know God—humans or God? Given our complete inferiority relative to God, can we reasonably make demands upon God in favor of our preferred ways of knowing God? Many people proceed as if we have a right to know God on our preferred terms. This is, however, nothing more than a self-serving assumption. Nothing requires that God supply knowledge of God on our preferred terms. God evidently owes us no such thing at all, despite common expectations to the contrary.

God owes us nothing beyond fidelity to a loving character and to the promises stemming from such a character. On sincere reflection we see that we are in no position to make evidential demands of God beyond such fidelity. Nothing requires that God allow for (i) our propositional knowledge that God exists apart from (ii) our filial knowledge of God as Lord and Father of our lives. Ideally the two emerge together, although philosophers have a bad habit of neglecting the key role of filial knowledge of God. God can be all-loving in supplying evidence of God’s existence in a manner sensitive to human receptivity to filial knowledge of God. We have no right to demand evidence of God’s reality that fails to challenge us to undergo volitional transformation toward God’s character. So God’s hiding from a casual, or indifferent, inquirer does not count against the reality of God’s existence.

God’s ways of imparting vital knowledge of God do not meet our natural expectations. This is in keeping with God’s surprising offer of redemption by grace rather than by earning. Divine grace has loomed large in Jewish-Christian accounts of redemption, but it has rarely emerged as significant in treatments of knowledge of God. This needs correction. God’s dispensing of vital knowledge of God is truly gracious, a genuine gift calling for grateful reception. How we may know God depends on what God lovingly wants for us and from us. Primarily God wants us to become, in relationship with God, humbly loving as God is. As a result, we truly come to know God only if we acknowledge our unworthiness of knowing God. It is thus illuminating to ask about the attitudes of people inquiring about God. What are our intentions in having knowledge of God? What do we aim to do with such knowledge? Do we aim to use it for our own honor and self-promotion, treating it as self-credit rather than as an unearned gift? Do we have a bias against…filial knowing of God as a personal Lord who lovingly holds us morally accountable and expects grateful obedience from us? I suspect that we typically do.

The epistemology of Jewish-Christian theism disallows God’s being trivialized as an undemanding object of knowledge for our convenient examination or speculation… In filial knowledge of God, we have knowledge of a supreme personal subject, not of a mere object for casual reflection. This is not knowledge of a vague “first cause,” “ultimate power,” “ground of being,” or even a “best explanation.” It rather is convicting knowledge of a personal, communicating Lord who expects grateful commitment by way of our appropriating God’s gracious redemption. Such convicting knowledge includes our being judged and found unworthy by the standard of God’s morally supreme love. God’s will thereby meets, convicts, and redirects our will. Both sides of this relationship are thus personal.”

(Paul Moser, “Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding,” from Divine Hiddenness: New Essays, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser, pp 126-127)

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dunn“Mark’s Gospel, probably the earliest of the Christian Gospels, gave or established a ‘gospel’ shape to the tradition.  Mark told the story of Jesus as a passion narrative with an extended introduction.  He did not remember Jesus only as a great teacher, or a great wonderworker.  He remembered a story which moved steadily towards the climax of Jesus’ suffering, death and (as Christians believed) resurrection.  This was the ‘gospel-shape.’  He was probably the first to give to new form of biography the title ‘Gospel.’  He created a new genre.  And in this he was followed by the two other Synoptic Gospels, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Each in his own way helped establish the remembrance of Jesus as a passion narrative with an extended introduction as the form of that remembrance to be called ‘Gospel.’  Whatever other form is used to recollect what Jesus did or taught, it is not ‘Gospel’ without the climax of the death and resurrection of Jesus…

Given the differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels, it is very striking that John nevertheless has used the same Gospel format given to the Jesus tradition by Mark.  John has set his Gospel within the same framework—a passion narrative with an extended introduction—even though his ‘extended introduction’ is so very different in content and character from the ‘extended introductions’ of the Synoptics…John follows what had been the pattern set by the earlier ‘Gospels’ by setting his version of Jesus’ mission and revelation within the same framework, beginning with John the Baptist and climaxing in Jesus’ passion and resurrection.  For all the freedom the Fourth Evangelist displays in his presentation of Jesus and despite all the differences from the Synoptics, John’s Gospel is far closer to them than it is to the apocryphal Gospels.  What is all the more striking in John’s Gospel is the way he makes the imminent passion of Jesus suffuse the whole of his account.  Even more than Mark, the ‘extended introduction’ foreshadows and prepares for the climax of Jesus’ death and resurrection…For John, Jesus’ decisive saving act was a unitary conceptual whole, Jesus’ dying, rising and ascending a single upward sweep…[Thus], although John never uses either noun (euangelion) or verb euangelizesthai), we can justifiably say that John affirmed and strongly stressed the sine qua non of his message about Jesus as Gospel…

[The Gospel writers] were concerned to show that what Jesus taught and the way Jesus taught were wholly of a piece with the gospel of his death and resurrection…The gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection could not be fully told without being attached to the story of his mission…For Christians, in the face of the contrasts between the Gospels, it is important always to remember that the titles of the four Gospels are not ‘the Gospel of Matthew,’ ‘the Gospel of Mark,’ ‘the Gospel of Luke,’ and ‘the Gospel of John.’  But ‘the Gospel according to Matthew,’ ‘the Gospel according to Mark,’ ‘the Gospel according to Luke,’ ‘the Gospel according to John.’  These are not different Gospels, but the same gospel.  There may be four Gospels, but for Christians there is only one gospel.  And that includes the distinctive variation of John’s Gospel from the rest.  It is still the same gospel, now expressed by John in his own distinctive way.  The point being that the gospel is not a rigid form or format.  There is no single canonically valid form of the gospel.  The gospel of and about Jesus Christ needs ever to be expressed variously, as new and previously unforeseen situations and issues arise.  The gospel remains the same by constantly changing its forms and delivery.  No Gospel shows that more clearly than ‘the Gospel according to John.’” (James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, pp. 70-91)

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In my experience, most Christians would answer this question by mentioning either 1.) the death and resurrection of Jesus “for us”, or 2.) the “formula” of salvation/justification (i.e. apart from works, by grace, through faith, with redemption in the afterlife as the endgame), or perhaps both if they are more theologically sensitive to important nuances.  Both are indeed aspects of the good news of the gospel, but when viewed in isolation like this, both answers forget the larger framework of the New Testament witness.  What is the essential content of the good news that Jesus proclaims in the Gospels?  That the kingdom of God has come!  What is the core focus of Paul’s proclamation as an apostolic missionary?  That the crucified and risen Jesus who saves us is now Lord over all (that is, the King in whom the kingdom has finally come)!  How is it, then, that we are so comfortable proclaiming a gospel that seems to have no necessary, organic connections to the kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ over the world?

If we are faithful to the NT witness, we will ultimately distinguish between the central content of the gospel (the return of God’s saving rule over the world through a faithful, image-bearing human being, Jesus, through whom God has dethroned the tryannical powers of sin, Satan and death), and the means by which this good news was accomplished and made possible (the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus) and why that is good news “for us” (because this is a King–in fantastic contrast not only to the Caesars and Hitlers of history, but also finally to the previous reign of Satan through sin and death–who loves us and uses every ounce of his authority and power to serve our good, and who relates to us by grace and not by what we deserve).  If we maintained these distinctions in our communication of the gospel, we would learn to read the Bible as a unified, comprehensive story so much more compelling and powerful than our reduced, “me-centered” versions of Christianity.

Here are a few other writers who preserve these crucial distinctions when it comes to the gospel, and who see the kingdom of God as logically central to the gospel:

“The Kingdom of God is conceived as coming in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to proclaim these facts, in their proper setting, is to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.” (C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, p. 24)

“[Gospel] becomes the terminus technicus for the missionary message of the coming of God’s rule through the mission, cross, and resurrection of Jesus.” (Peter Stuhlmacher, “The Theme: The Gospel and the Gospels,” in The Gospel and the Gospels, ed. Peter Stuhlmacher, p. 21)

“The coming of God’s righteous rule took place in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.” (Carl E. Braaten, That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church, p. 176)

“Both the singular noun ‘gospel’ and the cognate verb were employed to describe the early Christian preaching of the coming of God’s rule as evidenced in the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection.” (P. T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis, p. 80)

“The ‘gospel’ is the message about the promised return of God’s reign, now appearing through the person of Jesus from Nazareth.” (Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, p. 11)

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o'brien“Proclaiming the gospel meant for Paul not simply an initial preaching or with it the reaping of converts; it included also a whole range of nurturing and strengthening activities which led to the firm establishment of congregations….Gospel preaching was the focus and goal of all [Paul’s] activity (cf. Romans 1:11-15)…In what sense, then, does he ‘preach the gospel’ to Christians?…Although this verb [‘to preach the gospel’] is often taken to refer only to initial or primary evangelism, Paul employs the word-group to cover the whole range of evangelistic and teaching ministry—from the initial proclamation of the gospel to the building up of believers and grounding them firmly in the faith…Paul did not understand his apostolic separation for the gospel or his service in the gospel solely in terms of its initial proclamation.  The gospel is not simply ‘the initial impulse on the way to salvation.’  It is the message by which men and women are finally saved.  The Christian life is certainly created through the gospel; but it is also lived in the sphere of this dynamic and authoritative message.  It needs therefore to be preached to those who have already received it and have become Christians.  Believers do not leave the gospel behind or progress beyond it as they grow and mature in their faith.  They should stand fast in this kerygma and are being saved through it if they hold firmly to it…[Thus] a wide-ranging series of activities [must be] subsumed under the notion of preaching the gospel…We conclude that when the apostle states he is ‘eager to preach the gospel to you also in Rome’ he has in mind the whole range of evangelistic and teaching ministry—from the initial proclamation of the gospel to the building up of believers and grounding them firmly in the faith.  His language points to both primary evangelism and a full exposition of the gospel.” (P. T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis, pp. 43, 62-64)

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schreiner“The call for good works is not a foreign element in Paul’s gospel but a constitutive part of it…The need for good works to avert judgment is an integral part of Paul’s gospel…Judgment according to works cannot be isolated from the Pauline gospel.  Any good works are the fruit and outworking of the gospel itself.  They do not constitute an earning of salvation, nor does Paul conceive of anyone attaining perfection in this life (Phil. 3:12-16).  Those who practice evil reveal that they have never trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation (Rom. 3:21-26), and they have not experience the transforming work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 2:28-29).  Good works in the lives of believers testify to the power of the gospel, and hence those who lack good works reveal that they have never placed their trust in the gospel.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, pp. 469-71)

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