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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Gathercole’

There has been quite a debate in recent years over the definition of the word ‘gospel.’

Now, right there many of my readers (if I may be so bold as to presume multiple) are ready to write this off as another instance where scholars waste time and ink arguing about things we already know.  After all, the gospel is about how a person gets saved and has a relationship with God.  Why complicate something so simple a child could understand it?

Problems with the Popular Conception

The critique of this concept of the gospel has already been leveled by many people.  Here are some of my issues with it, in no particular order:

1. Why are the Gospels called “Gospels?’  The standard definition doesn’t fit this usage.  “How You Get Saved, According to Mark.”  Sorry, doesn’t work.  Because if that were the case, I’m not sure why we have 4 different Gospels.

2. It doesn’t quite fit with the OT usage of the word (or at least the Greek word, euanggelion).  Take, for example, Isaiah’s usage of it in Is 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1 (paying attention to the surrounding context, of course).  Those passage, indeed, most of Isaiah 40-66, are about God rescuing, restoring and re-establishing the nation from their exile.  That, of course, includes individuals, but that’s not at all the focus.

3. It doesn’t always fit the NT usage, either.  Some frequently point to Romans 1:1-4.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Again, the standard answer can’t simply be substituted and work well.

4. Nor does it fit too well with Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The gospel here is not simply having the debt of sin paid for and the promise of relationship with God.

5. Or consider Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).  There is no mention of Jesus dying for our sins so we can have eternal life.  I want to be clear, though: I think what we have here is a condensed version of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians.  I have serious doubts he went too long without mentioning the cross of Christ.  But, it is interesting that Luke doesn’t include that aspect of Paul’s proclamation in this passage.

Okay, we could probably multiply passages and the like, but I think I’ve proven my point.

Where the Popular Conception Is Right

On the other hand, though, those who want to diminish the individual aspect of the gospel- that we are sinners in need of good news that God has made a way for us to know and have a relationship with him- also fail to deal adequately with the biblical data.  One would only have to read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, where Paul clearly delineates the gospel he preached (here are vv3-8):

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

So there it is, in plain language: Christ died for our sins, was raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers.  That the biblical writers didn’t believe in or emphasize individual salvation is a wrong-headed idea, considering one of them once wrote “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

So I don’t want to appear as if I’m saying the traditional definition of the gospel is wrong.  It’s just that it doesn’t exhaust all that the Bible says the gospel is.  It’s not simple, it’s simplistic.

Keller & Gathercole on the Gospel

I want to highlight two resources, one of which I only recently learned about.  First, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s (free!) talk, appropriately called “What Is the Gospel?”  My coblogger, Brian, recommended it to me with this sales pitch: ‘it was like hearing the gospel for the first time!’  The second, recommended by Keller, is an essay by NT scholar Simon Gathercole called “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom” (this is a pdf, HT: JT).

Both of these resources take a careful look at the biblical material, but are by no means technical.  Anyone can use them, most probably should.  Keller’s talk if about 49 minutes, whereas Gathercole’s essay is 17 pages (with huge margins).  In the meantime, I’ll highlight the keys points.

Keller gives 3 aspects to the gospel, all of which are important and irreplaceable.

1. The Historical Aspect (the gospel events).  “The gospel is news about what Jesus has done, not primarily advice about how to live.”

2. The Sonship Aspect (the gospel identity).  The gospel is about a status you receive now, not just a reward you receive later.

3. The Kingdom Aspect (the gospel administration).  “The gospel is a completely transformed reversal of the world’s values, not just strength to live according to the old values.”   Also, this aspect is about God making this world a great world again.

Gathercole’s essay deals with the question of what is the gospel in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels, and are they ‘different gospels.’  Here is his summary of Paul’s gospel: “the gospel is God’s account of his saving activity in Jesus the Messiah, in which, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he atones for sin and brings new creation.”  In other words, the gospel is about both who Jesus is (his identity) and what he has done (his work, which includes both salvation for people and bringing about a new creation).

Regarding the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Gathercole doesn’t try to ‘over-harmonize’ them with Paul.  They are different, as seen in the usage of the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom,’ which isn’t not prevalent in Paul.  But while the linguistic ties aren’t always there, the basic thematic outline of the gospel is the same in both sets of writings:

The unity of their presentations of the gospel can be seen in the broad outlines of these three key themes: (1) the identity of Jesus as Messiah, (2) his work of atoning sacrifice and justification, and (3) his inauguration of a new dominion.  These lie at the heart of the apostolic gospel.

What both Keller and Gathercole do well is note the ‘broad gospel’ without losing focus on the individual aspect of it.  While their three categories don’t exactly match up, it’s actually pretty close.  What I like about them both is this: they keep the big picture (new creation/dominion) and the narrow picture (forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death and resurrection), but also tie it in to the historical events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would would restore not only them, but the nations of the world (Is 49:6).

One Last Bit of Wisdom from Keller

Some would, understandably, ask how this should affect our proclamation/sharing of the gospel.  After all, the 4 Spiritual Laws are nothing if not easy to share and understand, why make it harder by having to include everything in one shot?

I recommend Keller’s blog post here.  Among other things, he notes that the biblical writers themselves rarely include everything about the gospel in a one-stop shopping manner.  Even before twitter, we were accustomed to trying to make everything ‘short, sweet and to the point.’  But maybe we’d be better off casting a full blown gospel vision before people rather than aim for pithy.  For a people who have lost even the basic biblical categories (sin, justice, forgiveness, etc), this might be exactly what we need to do.

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