Friday, August 13, 2010

What the gospel is not!

Trying to answer the question 'what is the gospel?', it may be useful to first set down what the gospel is not. But before that, a brief acknowledgement that what the gospel is involves some diversity of expression (as we will see in future posts). Then, a possibly helpful analogy to get us going.

Take the concept of 'health'. Some diversity of expression of 'health' is reasonable. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, for instance, we have found it useful to understand 'health' for Maori and 'health' for Pakeha (European-background Kiwis) in different ways with consequences for different approaches to diagnosis and treatment. To give a one example, the communal aspect of Maori culture means that the presence of whanau (extended family) with a patient in hospital, to the extent of several people sleeping near the patient each night, can be vital to recovery. But these differences should not obscure the fact that a cancer growing inside a Maori body is the same as a cancer growing inside a Pakeha body, and if radiotherapy will treat the cancer in one, it will treat it in the other. So some difference of expression of 'health' between Maori and Pakeha is reasonable, but what is not reasonable is to say that one with cancer is 'healthy' and one without cancer is 'healthy'. What 'health' is not is that health means one thing to one person and another thing to another.

So, to what the gospel is not. Briefly, and without citation and argument. I hope things are fairly obvious here!

The gospel is not:

(1) One thing for one people group, or one era in history, and another for a different group or era.

(2) A message for some (those disposed to live by it) but not for others (those disinterested in it). Another way of putting this: the gospel is not the charter or constitution of a hobby group or club called 'church'.

(3) A human proposal up for debate because, like all human proposals it has flaws, needs revising for the needs of the day, etc.


Suem said...

I'm not sure about point one! If the gospel is exactly the same for all of us, would we have different denominations. These different strands of our faith have developed through time, so obviously the gospel has meant different things to different people at different times!

What about the 16th century when the whole of Christendom split over a different interpretation of the gospels? Martin Luther saw in the gospel the message of justification by faith over good works and a direct relationships with God without the intervention of a priest?
I agree that the basic message of the gospel, that Christ died for our sins and rose again, is a consistent one, but there simply ARE different perspectives and different people emphasise and promote different elements.

When I was a child, many in my church considered it appalling if a woman attended church hatless. This arose from social attitudes and biblical texts. Tomorrow, only one or two of the older women may be wearing a hat. In the 16th century it was debated whether women had souls.

What about Christ saying he had much to teach us, but that we could not bear it at the moment? Does that not mean that his gospel was a living word, with new messages?

What about those who used the bible to support slavery - and there were many? What about those who find in the gospels a message to support anti Semitic beliefs and practice? I could go on...

If you think that the gospel - or our interpretation of it- has remained static throughout human history, you are sadly misinformed.

You analogy is not workable either, our basic idea of "health" may be constant - but ideas about health have changed radically through time as well.My mother was told it was good for her to smoke as it cleared the lungs. We bled people in the 14th century for all manner of things, we don't now. We believe in the humours, we thought Negros head size indicated lower intelligence.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Interesting series about the gospel you've got going here, Peter. I like your three points about what the gospel is not. My sense, however, is that many who belong to the Liberal Party within the Episcopal Church would dispute your third point (and perhaps the first one as well, or even all three). Particularly those who see themselves as heirs to the revisionist legacy of figures like Bishop Spong.

Suem said...

Well, don't just say that liberals would/ might dispute these three points - look at WHY! Unless you can engage with the arguments, how can you claim any moral or intellectual credibility?

Personally, I would dispute point one, but not points two and three. I can't see that the gospel is a "hobby", it is a revelation of Christ's love for us and how he bought our salvation and a set of radical teachings about the self giving nature of that love available to be worked out in our lives.

Neither is it a "human proposal". If you believe in Christ as the son of God (I do) then it is a record of his life and teachings and thus contains divine revelation and everything necessary to salvation.

However, it is a living, breathing text and can be approached and understood ( and sadly often misused) through different levels of understanding and perspectives. Set in a specific moment of time and history, it also transcends time and history and speaks to us as individuals who are of necessity bound by our own times and attitudes. Like God himself, it is never changing and always new, this is part of its beauty and wonder.

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,
I think you've hit the nail on the head with these 3 points. As well as being right, they also define the boundaries of the current debate. Perhaps if we phrase them as questions, the different views may become clearer.

1) Is the gospel trans-cultural?
Yes the message is the same, but it will impact different societies in different ways.
(Others will say it has different content in different cultures)
2) Is the gospel intended for all people?
Yes - the gospel is the means by which "God desires all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth".
(Others will say it is only true for those who find it helpful for them)
3) Who is the source of the gospel - God or people?
The source and content of the gospel is God. Therefore, we have no authority to change it. God has chosen his people to share the gospel with others by the power of His Spirit.
(Others will say it is a human creation, and therefore subject to revision.)

When thinking of analogies for the gospel, I prefer the imagery of a jewel that Paul uses in 2 Cor. 4 There is one jewel, it is God's jewel to be offered to everyone, but we can see it from different facets or angles and appreciate its beauty in different ways.

Andrew Reid

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for comments!

I would distinguish between 'the gospel' and 'Scripture' within which it comes, so that whether we should or should not keep slaves, or should or should not work urgently to end slavery if we live in a slave-keeping economy is not part of the gospel but part of working out how gospel people may live ... and on such matters of ethics, Christians have differed in their answers to some questions. (Even if we all agree that slavery is wrong, would we all agree that the lack of urgency to end slavery in the NT writings is acceptable?)

Re the gospel and denominations: over this period of postings about unity and about the gospel, I am exploring whether we can get beyond the current impasse of 'we have these differences in understanding, represented in differences called 'denominations', and they will continue ad infinitum because we cannot change'. Perhaps we cannot get beyond the impasse ... but I am hoping we might (even if it takes 500 years)!

Suem said...

"I am exploring whether we can get beyond the current impasse of 'we have these differences in understanding, represented in differences called 'denominations', and they will continue ad infinitum because we cannot change."

We can get beyond the impasse if we are able to allow for differing opinions. This does not mean we all have to agree, just respect each others right to respond to the gospel differently. I think for some people this is just too difficult though.