This series of posts follows on from my post entitled ‘The Denominational Church’. My two previous posts can be read here and here. My original post and the two subsequent posts have sparked a number of interesting discussions in various parts of the blogosphere and in the comments. The comments of the posts in question have lengthy discussions of such issues as the content of the gospel, baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession and the primacy of the Roman See.
In such inter-denominational discussions we should always seek to be humble and patient. We have much left to learn from our siblings. However, there is a danger of a false humility in this area. True humility is not unwilling to rebuke a brother in love. There are occasions on which we must rebuke other denominations, for their compromising of the gospel. To fail to do so would constitute a betrayal of the love that we should have for them.
Furthermore, true humility will not deny the light that God has granted to the denominations that we belong to. We may have much still to learn, but God has taught us a lot already. We should not denigrate the work that God has done in us simply because it is still incomplete. We should keep faith with those who have gone before us and value the insights that they have bequeathed to us.
When we begin to appreciate that the Church is far broader than our particular denomination we should begin to appreciate that orthodoxy cannot merely be defined in terms of the particular theological tradition that we are heirs to in our small wing of the Church. If that becomes the touchstone of orthodoxy we are well on the way to becoming sectarians and heretics. Orthodoxy is far more catholic than that. Not only must we keep faith with those who went before us in the history of our particular theological tradition, we must also keep faith, in various ways, with the rest of the wider Church.
This involves, among other things, a recognition that the beliefs that distinguish us from all other denominations are probably not as central to the gospel message as we sometimes are tempted to believe. For instance, TULIP is not the gospel, and it never will be. One can strongly reject TULIP and still hold to the central truths of the gospel, albeit perhaps somewhat inconsistently. Keeping faith with the wider Church must also involve an attempt to confess our Christian faith in language that is recognizable to those outside our immediate communion. Ideally, we would like the rest of the Church to be able to join us in confessing our faith. We don’t expect the rest of the Church to agree with everything that we say, but we do want them to see that we are closely related in many ways.
Sadly, for many denominations orthodoxy is merely a matter of conformity with a particular interpretation of confessional documents from their narrow tradition, without any regard for the wider Church. In such cases we must resist the sectarian majority. Though we might be accused of being unorthodox sectarians, we are not, but simply hold to a bigger view of the Church.
Central to many of the differences between denominations are disagreements about the content of the gospel. In Reformed circles one comes across a number of people, for instance, who insist that those who deny doctrines such as the imputation of Christ’s active obedience are denying the gospel. The gospel is thought to be at stake in debates about such fine details as the correct use of the language of merit or the covenant of works. I humbly submit that these are sure signs that something is seriously wrong.
I believe that a careful examination of the biblical meaning of the term ‘gospel’ can help us considerably here. In the gospels the term ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the message of the coming kingdom. Such a usage is consistent with uses of the language in the LXX (where it is used to refer to the news of victories, or of Messianic restoration and glory) and elsewhere in ancient literature (where, for instance, it refers to the birth of Augustus and the new world order that his birth brought in). This meaning becomes refined as it becomes clear that the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection and ascension as Lord of all. ‘Gospel’ is the narrative of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in history, whether in extended or potted form.
The claim ‘Jesus is Lord/the Christ/the Son of God’ is a claim that sums up the truth that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. This is the central Christian confession; to make this confession is to believe the gospel (Matthew 16:16; Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 5:1). In the OT the gospel message is the awaited message of God’s saving reign (Isaiah 52:7). The NT gospel is the message that this reign has come in Christ.
This claim should not be taken in abstraction from the gospel narrative, but as that which is designed to summarize it as succinctly as possible. It is the gospel narrative that clarifies exactly what is meant by this claim. For instance, it makes clear that the Jesus is always the crucified Lord and declares His rule to us as the forgiving Lord. This is the claim which draws together all of the various threads of the gospel narrative. In this sense this claim can be said to stand at the heart of the gospel.
There are a number of summaries of the gospel in the Scriptures, ranging from brief statements (e.g. Romans 1:1-5), to more lengthy summaries (e.g. Acts 10:36-43), to full length narratives of the Gospels themselves. Sometimes the gospel message focuses on the Lordship of Christ as a message of final judgment (e.g. Romans 2:16), on other occasions on Christ as the risen Davidic Messiah (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:8), on other occasions the death of Christ is central (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). The gospel is for Paul, clearly the gospel ‘of Christ’, even if this is less accented in the Synoptic Gospels.
From the various biblical usages we can see that the gospel message includes a number of regularly recurring elements. F.F. Bruce writes as follows:
The basic elements in the message were these: 1. the prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ; 2. he was born into the family of David; 3. he died according to the Scriptures, to deliver his people from this evil age; 4. he was buried, and raised again the third day, according to the Scriptures; 5. he is exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God, Lord of living and dead; 6. he will come again, to judge the world and consummate his saving work.
I find this summary helpful. Speaking in terms of ‘deliverance from this evil age’ helps to clarify what is meant by the gospel declaration of the ‘forgiveness of sins’. The ‘forgiveness of sins’ is an eschatological and national blessing (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), without ceasing to be deeply personal. Bruce’s definition is also potentially weakened by failing to mention the Jew-Gentile dimension of the gospel message.
This definition of the gospel is more or less what we find in the ecumenical creeds. When a Roman Catholic believes what the Nicene Creed says, he is believing the gospel, even if nothing is said about imputed righteousness. Such doctrines, important though they are, are not central to what the Scriptures refer to as the ‘gospel’.
In much post-Reformation debate the word ‘gospel’ has taken on something of a life of its own. The word is used to speak of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (as articulated by the Reformers) and other such truths. The problem here is not that these doctrines are unbiblical, but that this is not what the word ‘gospel’ actually means. In Scripture the gospel is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God and the gospel is summed up in the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’, the claim that the kingdom has actually come in Christ.
The nature of the kingdom that has come and the character of its Lord is, of course, deeply significant in Scripture. Used in the wrong way, the claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ could be quite misleading. For instance, Jesus is not Lord in the way that many among the Jews would have anticipated Him to be.
All of this said, the gospel is not primarily a message about how individuals can go to heaven when they die, but is the proclamation of the advent of God’s kingdom in history. Sadly many Protestants use the word ‘gospel’ to refer to the way of individual salvation and lose sight of the importance of the word’s connection with the kingdom of God. People are certainly saved within the kingdom of God, but the message that they are saved by believing is the message of the kingdom’s arrival in Christ, not a timeless message of how an individual can get right with a holy God by justification through faith.
Many post-Reformation uses of the word ‘gospel’ have been driven primarily by theological and pastoral concerns and have obscured the biblical usage of the term. While sympathizing with many of these theological and pastoral concerns, I believe that we need to be careful to use the word ‘gospel’ in the manner in which the Scriptures use it. Opposing ‘Gospel’ with ‘Law’, for instance, breeds confusion as the NT does not use the terms ‘Gospel’ and ‘Law’ in the same theological sense that Luther and his heirs do. This is not to deny the great value of Luther’s theological insight. It is simply an expression of my disappointment that he choose to frame many of his insights in the terms that he did. Many Protestant uses of the term ‘Gospel’, for all of their valid theological concerns, have allowed the term to diverge in meaning from that of the Scriptures. The gospel has become closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in and through Jesus the Messiah.
A simplistic distinction between believing the gospel and obeying the Law, for instance, can be deeply misleading. One is also called to believe the Law and to obey the Gospel. The gospel message is a message of the Lordship of Christ, which demands obedience (cf. 1 Peter 4:17; Luke 3:18). In proclaiming the Gospel of Christ we must call people to obey everything that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).
If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience, an obedience that we will one day be judged on. John the Baptist, for example, can ‘evangelize’ (Luke 3:18) people by proclaiming the coming kingdom and wrath of God and calling people to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ if they are going to escape imminent judgment. If the biblical meaning of the term ‘Gospel’ were prominent in our mind this would appear entirely natural to us. However, as we tend to think in terms of categories that have become quite detached from those of Scripture, John’s preaching on such occasions strikes us as ‘Law’.
After my original post, a discussion arose on the Boar’s Head Tavern, helpfully summarized here. The discussion started with the distinction between a map and a territory as an analogy for the relationship between our theologies and God’s truth. This discussion, in turn, was discussed by Macht, on his blog Prosthesis.
I am not sure that I find the map metaphor the most best, although I think that it is not a bad one. Maps are spatializing and totalizing and the map-reader is not necessarily rooted in the territory. Perhaps it would be better to speak in terms of ‘itineraries’. In theology we don’t hold all of the terrain in our gaze from a great height, but navigate it on the ground, following particular paths and observing the details along the path.
We always follow itineraries, whether we intend to or not, although I for one do not generally travel with much of a map in my head. However, there are many ways of narrating the itinerary that will take us via one path, rather than others.
The gospel is the safe path that we must take. The various itineraries that we narrate must retain the simplicity of this path. Losing the traveller is the worst crime that such an itinerary can commit and, for this reason, nothing should be kept clearer and simpler than the path.
Nevertheless, such an itinerary ought also to draw the traveller’s gaze to the wonderful complexity of his surroundings, without focusing his attention too much on easy to miss or doubtful details that may result in his losing sight of his path. An itinerary should also not make the path any narrower than it needs to be. For instance, provided that you are on the right path, the side of the street on which you are walking is probably not a matter to be that concerned about.
Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.
The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.
Itineraries can become confusing when misleading details are included. In a number of the different narrations of the itinerary that we must follow to remain on the path of the gospel, details are included that are potentially vague or misleading. As these details are emphasized, we are in danger of ending up at a different destination altogether. Even if we remain on the right path we will be unsure of whether we are and will only able to proceed hesitantly.
In following the itinerary of the gospel we are not merely tracing a route on a map of the territory with our finger, but are actually on a journey through the territory, on a pilgrimage towards God. We have many fellow-travellers. Some walk on the other side of the street. Some are looking out for street names, others are counting the number of their steps, still others are paying attention to the names of the different shops along the way. Some look confused and perhaps a little bit lost, failing to see a particular landmark or feature that that they were trying to look for. Some decide to leave the main path to try to find an easier route through the side streets. Others are rejoining the path after having been lost for a while. In such a situation a good itinerary is invaluable if we want to travel confidently towards our destination. However, our particular itinerary is not the path. There are those who find the way to the destination, even though they are using very poor itineraries.