‘The’ gospel vs. their gospel

Craig Adams shares a guest post by William Birch about the gospel. Birch outlines nicely a genre of “gospel-ology” that has gained a significant following and has been popularized by writers such as Scot McKnight and NT Wright.

The short version is that traditional and contemporary evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel. They put too much stress on salvation and soteriology and neglect the bigger story of creation, Israel, Jesus, and the New Heaven and Earth.

Birch sums up the conclusion of the storied gospel critique of the plan-of-salvation gospel this way:

Whenever we deconstruct the gospel to a mere formula, ignoring the story of Israel and how Jesus “fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s story,” we then “permit the gospel to collapse into the abstract, de-storified points in the Plan of Salvation.” The blight of such a bankrupt gospel is reduced to what the late Dallas Willard called “sin management,” which presumes “a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind . . .” and that which fosters “vampire Christians,” who “only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven.” That is a scathing critique of modern evangelicalism, and it is true.

What interests me is the rhetorical move being made by McKnight, Wright, Birch, and others. It sounds very similar to the rhetoric of those who they critique. The form goes this way: “Those people are wrong or only partly right. Here is the full gospel and what it means.”

What such folks do not often give me — and what I long for — is advice on how to read or receive the wisdom of all those who have come before who they view as carrying around a deficient gospel. What do I do with the sadly lacking “soterian” gospel of John Wesley, for instance? We are long on critique and replacement, but short on appreciation and thankfulness for the gifts that these others bring.

It seems like we all do this. Wesley did it, too. I’m sure people will say I do it. Paul in Galatians certainly did it. We all proclaim the gospel as we understand it. Since it is the gospel, we want to make sure that people understand it for what it really is. But this leaves us discounting the gospel that others proclaim, often in terms that suggest those others are ignorant, self-interested, or worse.

How do we talk about the gospel while respecting the fact that we all see only darkly now?

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9 thoughts on “‘The’ gospel vs. their gospel

  1. C. S. Lewis alerted us to “chronological snobbery,” our self-congratulatory privileging of contemporary ideas and values over those of another age.

  2. I don’t take this as an attempt to bad mouth the soterian gospel so much as an attempt to recover the full message of the Gospel. I also think those of us who gain inspiration from the teachings of John Wesley have always been more-or-less on the ground in which McKnight and Wright are standing. The Gospel as preached by Wesley always did have this-worldly implications: both for the world and for the life of the individual. One new thing being recovered is an appreciation for the narrative aspects of the Gospel (think of how Stephen recounted the Gospel before he was executed). But, again this is not the replacement of one set of ideas with another — it is the recovery of something vital that needed new emphasis. Wright uses the analogy of a set of speakers that needs adjustment. To lose the soterian Gospel would also to be to lose something vital.

    1. I admit this may be my ears, but the rhetoric around these claims always sounds to me more critical than you describe it. If the concern is only not being reductionistic, then John Wesley shows that a soterian can be fully aware of the entire range of issues. If the claim is only that some people who preach a salvation-oriented gospel reduce it too much to a “vampire” Christianity, then I’m not convinced that you can say the fault lies in the gospel they preach. Not all soterians are vampires, after all.

  3. I used to feel that one of the (theoretical) strengths of the evangelical perspective was that it could renew itself by renewing its contact with its original sources. I think that is what McKnight and Wright and many others (including myself) are trying to do.

  4. In N. T. Wrights book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels he writes (as usual) about how the Church has not always allowed itself to hear the full witness of the Gospels to Christ. But, as he is discussing how various theologians attempted to defend orthodoxy in a way that got the Church somewhat off track, he says on page 37 that “the eighteenth century saw great movements of revival, particularly through the Methodist movement led by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield.” and, he goes on to say:

    Their theology and their understanding of the gospels are quite different topics upon which I am not qualified to speak. But, I suspect that the Wesleyan emphasis on Christian <b.experience, both the “spiritual” experience of knowing the love of God in one’s own heart and life and the “practical” experience of living a holy life for oneself and of working for God’s justice in the world, might well be cited as evidence of a movement in which parts of the church did actually integrate several elements in the gospels, a synthesis that the majority of Western Christianity have allowed to fall apart.

  5. One last thought: some of this rhetoric is coming out of the evangelical American wing of the Church Universal and represents a protest about what has been missing in the preaching / teaching of the conservative churches. For those of us more disappointed by the liberal church than the evangelical church, this rhetoric may sound more radical than it is. I am thankful for the people who shared the Gospel with me. But, I am also glad I heard it in a holiness context. That sent me on a theological and spiritual quest that helped me to see and appreciate the gospel message in a fuller and more complete way than might have happened otherwise.

    1. I am frequently reminded that my ears were shaped by coming to faith in the context of liberal, mainline Protestantism.

      1. And, I totally understand that. For me, long ago, it was the evangelical wing of the church that was speaking life when the liberal side of the church wasn’t. But, I also understand the experience of those who grew up in more conservative, evangelical environments than I did and later came to feel that there was something missing in the faith they received.

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