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.
At the recommendation of a Lutheran brother and for my own edification, I am reading through the Lutheran Confessions (not necessarily in order). [Brief disclaimer: While I’m not a fan of several distinctives of reformed or Lutheran theology which will be clear here, I am, more importantly, a fan of folks in those camps. I’ve been raised in the camps spawned by the reformation and still enjoy their company. This is not a venue to bash such folks; it is a venue to discuss ideas that shape our thinking and practice.]
Part V of the Large Catechism of the Lutheran Confessions is titled “Of the Law and the Gospel.” It only consists of 11 paragraphs (for which I am very grateful), the first of which lays out the issue of:
Whether the preaching of the Holy Gospel is properly not only a preaching of grace, which announces the forgiveness of sins, but also a preaching of repentance and reproof, rebuking unbelief, which, they say, is rebuked not in the Law, but alone through the Gospel. (Emphasis added.)
Right off the bat, we can see a difficulty that never really leaves reformed theology, namely, where does the announcement that the government of God has come near (which dominates the gospels and continues in Acts as “good news”) fit in response to that question? Unfortunately, it doesn’t really fit. The gospel issue as framed by Luther only concerns itself with sinning. Specifically, according to Luther, the issue is whether forgiveness of sin alone is “gospel” or whether the oft accompanying reproof of and call to repentance from sin is also “gospel.” That’s it; it’s “A” or “B”. This “gospel” question is already too narrow to include the much fuller and richer “gospel” usage of the NT that includes God’s revelation of Jesus’ lordship and his government’s agenda for re-creating the earth and the people and activities within it according to God’s desire to redeem and his sense of justice and love. From Luther’s question, one can genuinely wonder whether the larger revelation and movement of God’s reign (which Jesus and the apostles clearly called “good news”) is “properly” called “Gospel” in the Lutheran view.
In the following couple of paragraphs, after naming the issue as Luther sees it, he briefly describes the now famous reformed distinction between “Law” and “Gospel.” Next, in what is perhaps the strangest paragraph of this section, Luther admits that the term “Gospel” is used differently and more broadly in the New Testament (by comparison to his Law-Gospel usage) and is recommended as such by Jesus himself and the apostles:
But since the term “Gospel” is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures, on account of which this dissension originally arose, we believe, teach, and confess that if by the term “Gospel” is understood the entire doctrine of Christ which He proposed in His ministry, as also did His apostles (in which sense it is employed, Mark 1, 15; Acts 20, 21), it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins. (Emphasis added.)
I am in complete agreement with that. In fact, Let me add that “if” we use the term “Gospel” in the broader, more common way that “[Jesus] proposed in his ministry as also did his apostles”, we will “correctly” say not only that the “Gospel” is an announcement of repentance and forgiveness as Luther suggests, but also an announcement of everything that God has done and has purposed to do through his Servant, the now revealed Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus. In other words, to proclaim “the Gospel” according to the New Testament is to announce the identity, purpose, actions, and agenda of God’s chosen Lord of heaven and earth, namely Jesus. And preachers, or announcers of this Jesus and the good news of what God is doing through him will call everyone, in light of this full, and amazing plan in Christ (which includes but goes well beyond forgiveness), to repent and trust this good news, this King.
But that’s not the way Luther continues, which is odd for a guy that is big on “sola scriptura.” Rather, he says, despite the larger usage of “gospel” in the scriptures by Jesus and the apostles, we get a different, preferable, view of “gospel” if we compare Luther’s own smaller concept of “Gospel” to his (arguably larger) concept of “Law” (for reasons he doesn’t really state in this section anyway):
But if the Law and the Gospel, likewise also Moses himself [as] a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with one another, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or reproof, but properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation, and a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify, but comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points alone to the merit of Christ, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of the grace and favor of God, obtained through Christ’s merit. (Emphasis added.)
I hope it is by now obvious where a significant problem may lie, aside from any circular reasoning Luther used: The Holy Scriptures (including Jesus and the apostles) talk about “Gospel” in a large, full way, Luther says, which led to “dissension” (as well as the birth of the Church, to be fair). But if we take one particular component of that larger scriptural concept of good news, namely, the forgiveness of sins, and compare it alone with Luther’s very broad definition of “Law” (which would include not only the Mosaic law, but Jesus’ own teachings and example), then “the Gospel is properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation,” by which he means forgiveness, or justification, or not being condemned for one’s sins.
Think about what just happened there. Luther states that only a part of the usage by Jesus and the apostles of the term “Gospel” is “properly” called Gospel based on Lutheran systematics, namely the Law/Gospel comparitive approach.
This creates the following situation, then: Certainly what Lutherans declare as gospel is gospel (since it is a subset of what the New Testatment calls “gospel”). But, unfortunately, much of what the NT would also unequivocally call “gospel,” Lutherans and many reformed would hesitate upon or even dispute, saying such announcements of God’s will and plan for earth should be called “Law.” This results in a downgrading of everything in God’s plan, God’s dream for the world, that goes beyond forgiveness and justification from “Gospel” to “Law.” I can’t help but see the logical connection between that theology and the silliness of “weak on sanctification” t-shirts, the idea that we are disciples of the gospel (of justification) as opposed to disciples of Jesus, and the large scale phenonmenon of what Dallas Willard has called “bar-code faith.”
Rather than trying to live from a concept of “gospel” that is smaller than that which Christ and his apostles announced, let’s look at the all that God has done and wants to do through Christ and start soaking in it. Let’s take it all in as good news. We might find that God’s love and his “gospel” go way, way beyond just forgiving us, which is really good news.
I want to thank Jen and i-Monk (again!) for some really fascinating discussions, done with grace. Looking back at them, there are so many things that I continue to think about. For starters, Lutheran theology consistently gives the necessary and comforting reminder of how wrong-headed it is to try to earn anything with God. That alone is a good enough reason for keeping some Lutheran company on a regular basis.
Having said that, I still can’t bring myself to view all of scripture as either “Law” or “Gospel.” Too many important concepts get distorted when we try to fit everything into these two definitional boxes, and I’m not just referring to the strange situation of trying to call something “good,” “helpful,” “true” and from God to us, but not an act of “grace.” That’s another take-away I have from these conversations, which is also really valuable. To me, the classic symptom of a systematic theology gone awry is when it starts spitting out conclusions that require a real twist of logic, of common sense or of scriptural terms or concepts in order to make everything “fit,” which is what I still see when I look back at some of the conclusions coming out of “Law or Gospel” hermeneutic (“LGH” for short). Specifically, the first, and I think the biggest surprise in my conversation with Jen was her deep concern about my belief that Jesus called people to be his “apprentices” rather than, to use her words, “students of the gospel.”
Now if we consider everything Jesus said and did as “gospel” then there’s no difference. But if only part of what Jesus did is “gospel” as under the LGH, then this thought that we’re “disciples of the gospel” as opposed to disciples of Jesus attempts quite a distortion of the new testament understanding of a “disciple” which is an absolutely central concept, even if it’s been sidelined for several centuries. The first part of this distortion is that the new testament writings clearly and often portray believers, followers, disciples, etc. as disciples of Jesus. Not disciples of one or two doctrines about him or from him–disciples of Jesus–all he is, all he does, all he says. I can think of dozens of passages talking about disciples of Jesus, even a few talking about disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Moses, but I can’t think of any, out of the hundreds, that attempt to shift the concept from a focus on Jesus as a whole, to just ‘the gospel’ (as the term is defined by the reformers). No, the NT clearly envisions that we are disciples of the whole man. Like the passover lamb, we’re to eat the whole thing. I know this kind of integration of commands, teachings, actions, thinking, teaching, example, etc. together into a whole person is disturbing to the LGH. But we were given a whole person to follow, to trust, to love, not a set of propositions or isolated acts, so that we can be whole people. My concern is that while the LGH purports to be Christ-centered, it is actually more selective that that. It’s more “justification” centered; more specifically concerned with our legal status with God than anything else God may be seeking to accomplish through sending his Son. The result, after a few centuries of widespread use, is that we have loads of “Christians” in the West but very few disciples, because discipleship has been largely thrown into the “Law” category and thereby de-emphasized or even viewed with suspicion. How Jesus shapes our life here isn’t “gospel” under the LGH. In fact, even the suggestion that we are Jesus’ apprentices is troubling to sincere and educated Christians. That’s a strong, strong contrast to the gospels.
The second distortion relates to how we perceive ourselves. The term “disciple” is used over 200 times, I believe, in the NT–far more than any other term (e.g., believers, saints, etc.) to describe those who are buying into Jesus. It’s not a term denoting any legal status. It’s a process term within a relationship. It is the scriptures’ favorite word for describing what we are in relation to Jesus. Just think about that for a second. The NT doesn’t chiefly identify believers according to their legal status (calling them “the aquitted” or something like that) though it does use those terms. The NT primarily refers to us as disciples/apprentices–people in a process of listening to, watching, practicing and becoming like Jesus in thought and action. If you want to know a central theme in the NT, if you want to know the most common shape of Jesus’ own invitations to people, then discipleship to Jesus is absolutely key. One might think from evangelical altar calls that the Great Commission was a commission to get people into heaven, to get them forgiven, get them justified. Of course, the commission doesn’t even mention those things. It’s a commission to make disciples of Jesus, which will include those things and more, because Jesus is the source of all of that and more. In fact, it’s within the process of discipleship that forgiveness starts to make working and necessary sense. God doesn’t just want to forgive the sinner and send him back to his way, his life. He wants to give him a new life, along the lines of Jesus’. He wants to train him, transform him, turn him into something resembling himself, have him participate in God’s healing of others as God’s agent, just as Christ was and his people have always been. Of course, forgiveness and all kinds of grace will be essential to that process from start to finish. We need to learn to let our view of ourselves be significantly shaped by that concept (that we are persons in a process toward and with Jesus) and not merely the concept of our legal status, if we want to think of ourselves as the NT writers do. And we need to see how the availability of that process and God’s intentions in it is good news.