Friday, 27 July 2012

The gospel and the Gospels

When, as a 22-year-old undergraduate, I first became a Christian, I pretty quickly became aware that ‘the gospel’ was very important to Christians.  But I was a little bit confused that, by this, they didn’t exactly seem to mean the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They seemed to mean something like Two Ways to Live.  What, I wondered, was the connection?

I am far from being the only person to have gotten mixed up on this point.  Here are a couple of personal anecdotes:

  • While still a very young Christian I remember having bible studies on Revelation with a church worker who is now a close friend.  At some point or other I said something to the effect that Revelation was written by John the Apostle and Gospel writer.  My friend corrected me: the book was written by someone known as ‘John the Evangelist’.  Not until years later did I realise that a Gospel writer is (by definition) an evangelist.
  • A young man from my church who went off to university remarked later that he had initially had some difficulties in relating to fellow members of his Christian Union.  He had been trained to talk about evangelism in terms of ‘telling people about Jesus’, while they would talk about ‘telling people the gospel’, and he didn’t really understand what they were on about.  I explained that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, and that this is good news about Jesus Christ.

This kind of confusion can go to some quite extreme lengths.  N.T. Wright has had reason to lament having heard

the suggestion that since Paul's epistles give us 'the gospel' while 'the Gospels' simply give us stories about Jesus, we shouldn't make the reading of the latter into the key moment in the first half of the Communion Service. (In case anyone should rub their eyes in disbelief, I have actually heard this seriously argued more than once in the last year or two.)

I had been pondering these matters recently when, providentially, a friend of mine (the same church worker mentioned above) returned to me a book that he had borrowed, and which I thoroughly recommend, called Promoting the Gospel.  The book has an appendix called ‘What is the gospel?’, containing the following very helpful passage:

The gospel (message) and the Gospel (books) are one.  The gospel message is not a set of theological ideas that can be detached from the events that gave these ideas definitive expression.  Nor is the gospel a simple narrative devoid of theological content.  One without the other is not the gospel.  To recount Jesus’ words and deeds without explaining their significance for our salvation is not what the Bible means by ‘telling the gospel’.  Then again, to explain the doctrines of salvation without recounting the broad events of Jesus’ life as contained in the Gospels is not telling the gospel either.  The gospel message is the grand news about how God’s kingdom has been opened up to sinners through the birth, life, death and resurrection of God’s son, the Messiah.  This is the content of the Gospel books; this is the content of the gospel message.  This is the news the first Christians took to an empire of false (imperial) gospels.  It is also the news we are to promote to our friends and neighbours.


Monday, 16 July 2012

The risk of creating monsters

Many Christian (and other) theodicies involve the claim that evil and suffering give us the opportunity to experience, witness and take part in certain goods that would otherwise be impossible.  So for example, this kind of theodicy

points out that certain kinds of especially valuable free choice are possible only as responses to evil.  I can (logically) show courage in bearing my suffering only if I am suffering (an evil state).  I can ‘show’ sympathy for you […] and help you in various ways, only if you are suffering and need help. […] It is good that we should have the opportunity (occasionally) to do such actions as showing courage or sympathy, actions that often involve resisting great temptation because thereby we manifest our total commitment to the good. […] Help is most significant when it is most needed, and it is most needed when its recipient is suffering and deprived.  But I can (logically) help others who are suffering only if there is the evil of their suffering.  In these cases, if there is a God, he makes possible the good of free choices of particular kinds, between good and evil, which – logically – he could not give us without allowing the evils (or evils equally bad) to occur.
– Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd Edition (OUP, 2004), 241

If someone were to offer this analysis as the whole of their thinking about suffering in the world (which Swinburne does not do), that would be vastly inadequate.  But there is something to it.  If nothing else, it poses the following questions to the believer who either experiences or witnesses suffering (or both): How will you react to this?  With courage or with cowardice?  By helping others or by ignoring their plight?  Trusting in God or sulking at him?  As an opportunity to grow in faith or as an excuse to give up?

I’ve been reflecting on disagreements among Christians recently, and I think that something like the above analysis can be applied to that situation as well.  I’m not saying that God allows people who trust in Jesus to disagree about theology in order for some good to result; I don’t know that.  But I will say that disagreements in theology offer the opportunity for some goods that otherwise might not be possible:

  • they encourage to seriously check the basis we have for holding the beliefs that we do by asking searching questions of our own assumptions,
  • they force us to be clear in our own minds about which of our beliefs are central and which are more peripheral, and to what extent,
  • they afford us an opportunity to show grace towards those with whom we disagree about less than essential matters by genuinely thinking of and treating them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

This last point is so important.  Perhaps if we always agreed with all Christians about everything then we would be even more at risk of treating the church as a mutual congratulation club than we already are.  I’ve long been deeply affected by the following story:

A few years ago when I was working in Johannesburg, I was troubled when a student I had discipled spoke to me about another church in the area.  I had some theological disagreements with the leadership of this particular church, but there was no doubt that they were genuine Christians.  What upset me most was not so much that the young man spoke so dismissively about the church, but that he clearly thought I would be delighted that he did so.  He was copying the example I had unconsciously been giving him.  I felt like Dr. Frankenstein must have felt after creating his monster and I thought to myself, “What have I done?  It’s my fault that he is so critical of others.”  Seeing my own harsh attitude reflected in someone else made me realize how ugly it was and that I needed to repent.
– Vaughan Roberts, Battles Christians Face (Authentic, 2007), 100

If nothing else, this analysis poses the following questions to the believer who encounters theological disagreements with fellow Christians: How will you react to this? With pride or with humility?  By seeking clarity or refusing to listen?  By examining your own beliefs or by closing ranks within your own group?  By building up disciples or by creating monsters?

Monday, 2 July 2012

Everyone who exalts himself…

Service Leader:

And now PCC Member will lead us in prayer.

PCC Member:

God, we thank you that we are not like other churches.  We thank you for our visionary and faithful leaders and for the powerful work of the Spirit in this place.  We are growing in numbers; we have vibrant youth and children’s work with lots of volunteers, and healthy community engagement. 

Luke 18:9-14