Monday, June 29, 2020

St Peter's Day Pot Pouri

Professor James D.G. Dunn has died

One of the great privileges of my life was to have Professor James (Jimmy) D.G. Dunn as my supervisor when I studied for a doctorate in Durham, UK, 1990-93.

Jimmy was a prolific scholar, excellent teacher and communicator in written and spoken word, with his career summarised in this Wiki entry. Warm tributes have been flowing around the world over the past couple of days via Facebook and other internet comms. Good examples are here, from Scot McKnight and Jeff Wisdom.

I endorse everything everyone has been saying. Jimmy was simply one of those remarkable people in life who are gifted in ways most of us are not while also being a wonderful person to be around - warm hearted, hospitable and humorous.

Perhaps the best thing said is by Jimmy himself, because it glorifies God, captured in this Tweet by Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley:

‘I doubt if I could commend (or blame) any one book for who I am today and would rather attribute any praise (or whatever) to the Holy Spirit’

What is the Gospel?

I spent a bit of time over the weekend thinking about the Gospel.

Yes, again!

If we ask the question, What is the Gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John? we get a different answer each time if we focus on the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel.

From Matthew, focusing on the Beatitudes, we see the Gospel as God's blessing of people against the normal criteria of life.

From Mark, the Gospel is the coming of the Kingdom which manifests itself in signs of power and wonder. (I acknowledge this is a summary of Mark, not a specific statement he tells us Jesus made).

From Luke, focusing on the first preaching of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum, the Gospel is the proclamation of liberation for the oppressed.

From John, the Gospel is the promise of abundant, eternal life, symbolised by the first sign of Jesus, changing water into wine.

We could also think about the Gospel according to Paul - the Gospel is the power of God to save every person, Jew and Gentile, reconciling humanity to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Are there many Gospels? (Is Christianity confused? cf. ... many denominations ... or, worryingly, video memes doing the rounds this week as some American Christians argue against face mask wearing because God created us in his image and breathed his breathe into us ...)

I kept pondering through the weekend (you may be pleased to know!)

Notwithstanding the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel, each Gospel is a rich array of events and expositions, of miracles and messages. No Gospel is solely defined by its basic programmatic message. Thus, I conclude, the there is one Gospel which is expressed in a variety of ways across the variety of the four Gospels (and the other New Testament writings).

The Gospel is Jesus encountering people and changing them for the better - where the change for the better is always a turning towards God, a transforming of lives in love and holiness.


Peter Carrell said...

From Bowman Walton:

Jens used to startle seminarians by telling them that they would not often be preaching the gospel. Of course, he did insist that they know the gospel and distinguish it from counterfeits. He conceded that there are occasions (eg baptisms) and Sundays (eg Easter) when a review of the gospel is entirely proper. But his point was that, otherwise, a preacher was most often not addressing people who do not know the gospel (eg children, heathen), but mature churchfolk who needed to hear something else-- given that the gospel is true, what sort of world is this, and how does God want us to live in it?

Anonymous said...

"A movie is never more successful than its villain." --Alfred Hitchcock

Peter, I like your deft distillations of the gospels of the five evangelists ;-)

Even more, I like that you avoided the temptation to boil them together to make a gospel stew that is all of them and so none of them. Grant Macaskill is right that their common theme is more simply the believer's allegiance to and union with Jesus.

But I do wonder sometimes whether they are most unified in the dark backstory to which each contrasts an act of God. That is, the "normal criteria," the absence of the king, the ubiquity of oppression, the zombie lifestyle, and the rebellious powers seem to be leaves of the same poisonous weed.

Comcretely, even if say a Matthean believer doubted St Paul's proposition on the circumcision of the Gentiles, he could still have recognised that s/he was trying to be a peacemaker over against rebellious powers from which God did indeed want Gentiles to be free. Conversely, some of St Paul's most difficult statements on the law are supposing that those powers had used the "normal criteria" for their own ultimately rebellious purposes, so that it was no surprise that Jesus had supervened in surprising ways on debates about their meaning.

All five narratives show antagonism to Jesus both in persons and in the powers ultimately controlling them. St Mark's narrative makes the credal points most simply. But can we say that Matthew and John develop the psychomachy within persons more, whilst Luke-Acts and the letters have more to say about battling the powers?

Hitchcock's point about villains is a corollary of Aristotle's insight that story arises from the tension between intention and obstacle. If our hero meets no obstacle, then we have his class notes for a university alumni magazine, not a compelling narrative. Indeed, a hero can only be shown to be great as he overcomes a great obstacle that would vanquish the rest of us. The greatest heroes overcome great villains.

In recent centuries, some readers have fretted about the documentary reliability of the New Testament. Did the Lord walk on an unreported sandbar? Which was the night of the last supper? Would any real traveler follow a NT itinerary? The anxiety is that the apostles might not have been good journalists. Some like a kind of preaching that reassures us that the apostles were as reliable as a newspaper.

But, with due concern for a greater truth, they might have wondered instead whether the apostles had been directors great enough to make movies about God. After all, if your hero can do anything, then the details of what he did are not nearly as important as the question whether he overcame an adversary as relentless and resourceful as [insert contemporary face of evil here]. Did the movies they made show Jesus overcoming the evil that we actually see?

If the gospel is true, the answer is yes. But just as there are few or no Christmas carols about Revelations 12, so good gospel preaching about Jesus overcoming evil is rare indeed.

A movie cannot be more successful than its villain, but if the hero is God, he can be more successful than a movie.


Anonymous said...

"We could also think about the Gospel according to Paul - the Gospel is the power of God to save every person, Jew and Gentile, reconciling humanity to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus."

-- + Peter

"The Kantian basis of respect is “a kind of secular analogue of the Christian conception of the respect owed to all men as equally children of God. Though secular, it is equally metaphysical: in neither case is it anything empirical about men that constitutes the ground of equal respect.”

-- Bernard Williams (1962) “The Idea of Equality,” 115.

"...Williams presents us with a dilemma: either we look to
empirical characteristics of human beings, in which case we shall be
hard put to find a basis for equality; or we look to the Kantian nou-
menal self, in which case we may well find a basis for equality, but
such a basis will fail to convince anyone who doubts the existence of
the noumenal self or who believes, in any case, that concepts like
those of moral agency and responsibility must have an empirical basis
(if only because a publicly justifiable theory of justice cannot rest on
such controversial metaphysical premises)."

-- Ian Carter (2011) "Respect and the Basis for Equality," in Ethics 121, 3. 544.

No matter what country you are in or what party or policies you like, the politics of 2020 are shaped by the present absence of social consensus on civil equality.


Peter Carrell said...

Expect complaints, Bowman, from the politicians in this year's elections (US and NZ), that they are battling for position on an uneven playing field :)

Anonymous said...

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Ecclesiastes ix 11, Authorised Version

"“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Ecclesiastes ix 11, George Orwell

A parody of bloodless writing. For a similar parody of eviscerated design see--