I’ve got a series of posts starting at Jesus Creed on how we build our theology, using Wesley’s quadrilateral as an outline (Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience). Today’s post is the first of what should be a really interesting series. Come by and contribute!
Anyone who’s read this blog more than twice knows I’m big on a big gospel. Another way of saying it is that I disagree with reduced modern usages of the term “gospel” or “salvation” that are significantly narrower in scope than the usage of that term in the scriptures. I’ve said it before and I say again, the gospel of the New Testament is more than “God forgives/justifies sinners.” Likewise, “salvation” in the New Testament, let alone the whole bible, is more than forgiveness and justification; just do a New Testament word study on the greek word “sozo” to see what the NT writers think when they think about Jesus “saving” people.
So here’s what I’m wondering: When we narrow the concept of “salvation” to a smaller concept than the biblical one, how does that also narrow our ecclesiology, our ideas of what a church is and is called to be? How does our idea of “gospel” shape our idea of “church?” How would a more robust gospel change our idea of church and our practice of it?
In the first post in this brief series, I said I’d post on each word of this central, and original “creed” of Christianity. I could (and may still) end this series with a post on “Jesus.” I mentioned at the end of the last post:
I’ll leave you to the gospels, to Acts, to the letters to find out what all is in this king’s agenda and regular activities. It’s good, good stuff, though, I’ll tell you that right now.
Because of the power of this government, everything about Jesus, the one Christ-ened with power by God to lead and transform, is news. The specifics of what he does with God’s power and what he commands and empowers us to do is what makes the news good.
Who is this Jesus that God has given all authority in heaven and the earth? What’s his agenda? What are his priorities? To answer this question I urge people to read the gospels. Please intentionally try to shelve what your own tradition tells you are Jesus’ priorities. Let Matthew give you his take. Let Mark and Luke do the same. Let John. Let Jesus. Look at his actions and words and try to discern what this guy is about. Reading any one gospel only takes a half-hour or so. I guarantee that reading any one of them, if you’ve never done it, will shift your idea about who Jesus is and what matters to him.
Warning: you may find yourself wondering why your church does what it does and how.
In the course of teaching Greek (both classical and Koine) the past 34 years I’ve found that translating Greek into English is a very different enterprise from understanding what the text means. A translation may at times sound very erudite, but to be relevant and beneficial the text must be understood — and then applied. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher has been to get my students to see the need to give up theological jargon when translating from Greek into English. If we can use simpler and clearer words to express the truths of Scripture, then by all means let’s do so. Why, for example, should we render Rom. 12:11 “distribute to the needs of the saints” when “share what you have with God’s people who are in need” will do the job and is much clearer? Or why should we insist that the purpose of pastor-teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” when we can say “to prepare God’s people for works of service”? If all we do is parrot the standard English versions while translating from English to Greek, I’m afraid we’ll end up with nothing but another secret religious society. If insisting on the use of theological jargon actually helped people to become more obedient to the Word of God, I’d say do it at all costs. But is there any evidence that it does?
To admit this inadequacy honestly can be very intimidating to the teacher. It means, in fact, that we can no longer be content to offer courses in Greek exegesis that fail to include serious self-examination.
We lose meaning and truth and community when we take a universally understood concept like “service” and consistently prefer to translate it as “ministry” when the concept shows up in the scriptures. Stop it! I still remember when I quoted Jesus to a law school buddy like this “Father, forgive them, cause they don’t know what they’re doing.” He had heard that comment from Jesus many, many times (in the yoda-speak version–who talks like that?!?), but he said he had never really heard what Jesus was saying until I said it like that. Think about that folks. Why had this man who had attended so many services and heard that text quoted never “heard” it? How many other messages have we failed to deliver, I wonder? And this wasn’t a listener issue, as if he lacked ears that wanted to hear Jesus. It was because in church, we’re proud of our mastery of Christian-ese and we revere the yoda-speak of so many translations like a badge of honor. It’s not. It’s a reason for shame. Building or maintaining barriers to God’s message that aren’t necessary, or saying his message in ways that only insiders can understand when we don’t have to is nothing to be proud of. It’s trying to mark our churches off as ‘separate’ and more mature, more reverent, more godly by our religious sounding language. It’s going the way of the Pharisee.
Scot McKnight asks this question in his second post discussing Greg Boyd’s new book, The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution:
How central to the gospel and to the Christian faith is following Jesus? Is a Christian someone who follows Jesus? Or, would you define “Christian” in another way? How would you define it?
Go by Scot’s blog to read and comment on those and some other great questions posed by Scot about Boyd’s book. Here’s my comment:
On the first set of questions, yes, following Jesus is central to the Christian (little Christ) faith and to the gospel, IMO. Are we called to trust the atonement? Yes. But that is only one facet of trusting Jesus, which is the focus of the New Testament. Putting our faith in him simultaneously includes trusting his atonement, his resurrection, his promises, his teachings, his plan for overcoming evil, his Spirit, his ongoing leadership, joining his people, etc. The gospel is at the core, the proclamation of a person, the “Christ”-ened King, and his great deeds and plan for the world. This gospel calls us to quit working against him (because of what we all naturally trust and love) and start trusting, loving and following him above all.
But Luther defined “gospel”, despite the much larger NT usage, as “properly nothing else” than our justification. (Very odd for a founder of the ‘sola scriptura’ movement.) Our idea of God’s “salvation” has also been similarly whittled down from the much larger biblical usage of that term to our legal status alone. Our “orthodoxy”, our ‘right teaching’ or ‘right belief’ of Christianity only includes facts about Jesus, generally speaking, but no teachings of Jesus. I think it is hard to understate how thoroughly, at least in its core concepts and our mental mapping of the faith, that we have divorced being a Christian from becoming a little Christ. Kudos to Boyd and the many others that point this out.
The following is an excerpt from one of several posts at i-monk’s blog interviewing Bryan Cross, who is a thoughtful Catholic philosopher and apologist. My reason for posting this has nothing to do with Bryan’s Catholicism; I’m personally ambivalent about that landing place for him within the Body. But his story within the protestant church is one that I think many will resonate with. All church leaders should hear his story and be mindful of the stumbling blocks that we can so easily set before people, like the ones that were set before Bryan.
During my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, I was exposed to Christians of all different traditions, and this raised a number of questions for me. By the end of my senior year, I was reading various books on theology, and I became convinced that Reformed covenantal theology was more biblical than the dispensational theology in which I had been raised. For the following three years my wife and I led an international student fellowship composed of students from Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. During that time I continued to read books on Reformed theology. By the end of that three years, I came to see that if I was going to be a pastor, I needed much better theological training. So we moved to St. Louis where I studied at Covenant Theological Seminary for four years, earning an M.Div.
In my last year of seminary, I took a graduate philosophy class at Saint Louis University on the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. Studying Aquinas raised many questions regarding the Reformed tradition. I couldn’t answer those questions at the time, but it was clear to me that there was at least a deep tension between the philosophical and theological positions and methods of the Reformers, and those of Aquinas. I had hoped that a rigorous study of the biblical languages and exegesis would provide the means to resolve interpretive disagreements between the Christian traditions. I had poured myself into exegesis with that hope, so much so that at graduation the seminary faculty honored me with the exegesis award. But I began to see the implicit role that philosophy was playing in our interpretation of Scripture. My belief as a seminarian was that other Christian traditions didn’t agree with us (Presbyterians) primarily because they didn’t know exegesis as well as we did. At the seminary we believed that exegesis was on our side, that it was exegesis that validated our position over and against that of all the other Christian traditions. But when I began to see the degree to which philosophy was playing an implicit role in our interpretation of Scripture, my beliefs that exegesis was a neutral objective science, and that it was sufficient to adjudicate interpretive disputes, began to crumble. So I decided to study philosophy, in order to get a better understanding of the relation of philosophy to theology throughout the history of the Church. If I couldn’t avoid bringing philosophy into exegesis, at least I was going to do my best to bring in true philosophy.
I completed the internship required for ordination and continued to teach Sunday school at the Presbyterian church we were attending. But at that point I decided not to pursue ordination, because for me there were too many theological questions unanswered. Two years after finishing seminary, my youngest daughter went through a very seriousness illness, and during the following year I went through what I would call an intellectual crisis concerning theology and the ecclesial practice of Christianity. It wasn’t a personal faith-crisis; my belief in Christ and love for Him was never in question. At the time, I couldn’t have explained exactly what was the problem. Anglicanism and Catholicism were not even on my conceptual horizon. I knew that I didn’t want to go to church to hear any more “man-talk,” i.e. opinions of men. If church were primarily about “man-talk,” I could go to the library and find much more erudite thinkers and writers. With what I was learning from ancient philosophers and medieval theologians, I found myself mentally refuting sermons point-by-point as they were being delivered during every service. Of course I knew we are not supposed to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, and yet existentially I couldn’t see any good reason to “go to church.” At one point I stopped going to church altogether because I was so frustrated with the whole scene, a scene that to me seemed spiritually vacuous and human-centered in its continual “man-talk.”
Eventually a friend of mine suggested that I visit an Anglican church, so I did. I went by myself. It was completely different. It was quiet and reverent before the liturgy began. The liturgy itself was beautiful, rich, and meaningful. Here for the first time I found freedom from “man-talk.” There was no personality at the front of the church with a microphone, saying whatever came into his head at that moment. There was no speculative exegesis or theological argumentation which I could critically dismantle. The liturgy is God’s speech spoken back to Him by His people or by one representing them. Of course Holy Communion is the climax of the liturgy, and it too is not “man-talk.” In this sacrament God was speaking to me not through words and propositions, but through a physical action, giving Himself to me in a very intimate way. This was not something toward which I could take a critical, disengaged stance. I could only receive it humbly and gratefully. In that respect, this sacrament almost bypassed my intellect and went straight to my heart. We received Holy Communion at the front of the church, on our knees. The very form of worship communicated something altogether different from the way of taking communion I had previously known. I found God to be present there in the beauty, reverence and silence of the liturgy. In that sacredness my heart, which had been starved under a diet of mere propositions, was drawn anew toward God.
Thankfully, Bryan eventually came back to the Body instead of staying out permanently. We need to know that there are people in the congregation more studied than we are, smarter than we are, even more mature than we are. And we need to know there are the opposite as well. For all these folks we need to exercise humility and not put forward our words as God’s. We need to know the difference, say the difference and find ways to minimize our words and maximize God’s. Lastly, we need to learn and increase our own appreciation for the many ways God speaks outside of a sermon. We should treasure these and give them appropriate space among the meetings of God’s people.
The following quote is from Scot McKnight, from the opening post discussing Greg Boyd’s new book: The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution. Hear, O evangelical church:
The reason there are Greg Boyds in this world is because American evangelicalism has been a thin remix of Romans, a religion shaped too much by a simplistic gospel and too rarely shaped by the robust kingdom vision of Jesus that itself gave rise to a much more robust gospel in Paul. (Emphasis added)
Scot goes on to ask some great questions. Feel free to join the conversation.