My guess is that we can all tell stories of defining theological moments in our lives. Moments were we realized that the answers we were getting from parents, Sunday School teachers, or learned university professors weren't able to meet the challenge of the questions we were asking. Borrowing the theory of scientific revolutions from Thomas Kuhn, our theological paradigms (Step 1) were facing too many anomalies--unexplained data points (Step 2)--leading to a theological crisis (Step 3). A paradigm shift--a theological revolution (Step 4)--was in order.
We've all wrestled with theological anomalies and the crises they create. Sometimes the anomalies can be incorporated by adjusting the theological paradigm. Just like the astronomers who added epicycles to Ptolemy's perfect circles of geo-centric planetary motion. In a similar way, we create theological epicycles to fit new and troublesome data into our current theological systems.
But sometimes the data can't be incorporated. Too many epicycles and the system gets clunky and baroque.
I distinctly remember one of these moments in college.
I was taking a class on the gospel of Luke. On the day in question we were discussing this passage from Luke 5:
Luke 5.17-21The professor was talking about the great faith of the friends and commending them to us as an example. But I had zeroed in on another part of the text. I raised my hand.
One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
"Excuse me, professor."At this point the professor went on to explain that the answer to my question was that Jesus's blood flowed both backward and forward in time. So when Jesus was forgiving sins in Luke 5 it was under the blood shed on Calvary flowing backward in time. Those sins weren't really forgiven until after Jesus died. The forgiveness in Luke 5 was anticipatory.
"The text says Jesus forgave the man's sins. Here and elsewhere in the gospels it appears that Jesus was able to forgive sins."
"Yes, that's true. Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. Jesus was God Incarnate."
"Yes, I agree. But all that makes me wonder about why Jesus had to die."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if Jesus could forgive sins, if God can just forgive sins because God can do anything, then why did God need a blood sacrifice?"
I let this answer pass, but something snapped inside of me. "Bullcrap," I said in my head.
I had smelled an epicycle.
Something was getting brushed aside. Something important. Later on, I realized it was the gospel itself.
Let me commend to you the new book by Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel. Many of you read Scot's blog Jesus Creed so you are aware of the book. And many other blogs have posted reviews as well. But if you missed it I wanted to make you aware of this very good book. More, I expect to use many of Scot's ideas in the years to come on this blog. So I'd like to formally get those ideas out on the table.
Scot's book orbits around a simple question: What is the gospel?
Scot suggests that we to try to answer that question before going far into his book. And I'd ask you to do the same thing: In a sentence, what is the gospel?
It's Scot's argument that many of the answers we give to that question--in fact, the answer most given by evangelicals--has conflated the gospel with salvation. More, we've come to emphasize salvation at the expense of the gospel. That seems like a strange claim. Here is Scot introducing the contrast:
Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really "evangelical" in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here's why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really "salvationists." When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) "salvation."... We ought to be called soterians (the saved ones) instead of evangelicals. My plea is that we go back to the New Testament to discover all over again what the Jesus gospel is and by embracing it we become true evangelicals.One of the reasons I wanted to review Scot's book is that I'd like, as might many of you, to use the label soterian from time to time to describe how many Christian think.
Again, the crux of Scot's argument is that the Plan of Salvation isn't the gospel. No doubt they are related. And Scot discusses their relationship in the book. But they aren't the same. The "Good News" isn't the Steps of Salvation. In my tradition these Steps were as follows: 1) Hear, 2) Believe, 3) Repent, 4) Confess, and 5) Be Baptized (for the remission of your sins). Your tradition might have a different list of Steps. Still, at Scot points out, these Steps aren't the gospel. They are, rather, compressed descriptions about how we are to respond to the gospel. Yes, there is a close relationship between the news and the response to the news, but the distinction is important as The King Jesus Gospel is keen to point out. Scot on the distinction:
It is customary in America to refer to the "gospel plan of salvation," by which we mean how an individual gets saved, what God has done for us, and how we are to respond if we want to be saved...[Now it] may strike you as uncommonly odd for me to make this claim, but I'm going to say it anyway: this Plan of Salvation is not the gospel...[W]hat I hope to show is that the "gospel" of the New Testament cannot be reduced to the Plan of Salvation.Okay, so if the Steps of Salvation aren't the gospel what is the gospel? Scot goes back to the earliest apostolic tradition and finds it in 1 Corinthians 15:
First Corinthians 15 is nothing less than a lifting up of the curtains in the earliest days of the church; it tells us what everyone believed and what everyone preached. This passage is the apostolic gospel tradition. Thus...Here it is, the gospel distilled:
Before there was a New Testament...
Before the apostles were beginning to write letters...
Before the Gospels were written...
There was the gospel.
In the beginning was the gospel.
That gospel is now found in 1 Corinthians 15.
1 Corinthians 15.1-5This is the gospel: The life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. More specifically, the gospel is how the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled God's promises to Israel and, through Israel and Jesus, God's promises to the nations and all of the Created Order.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
Another way to say this is that the gospel is the Good News about the identity of Jesus (particularly how Jesus brings the Story of God to its culmination). The gospel, Scot says, is about a person:
There is a Person at the very core of the gospel of Paul, and until that Person is put into the center of centers in Paul's gospel, we will not comprehend his--scratch that--the apostles' gospel accurately. The gospel Story of Jesus Christ is a story about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Savior, and Jesus as Son...If I had to sum up the Jesus of the gospel, I would say "King Jesus." Or I would say "Jesus is Lord" or "Jesus is Messiah and Lord."The gospel is the proclamation of a new new reality that has dawned upon us in Jesus Christ. This is why the gospel is an apocalypse (an "unveiling"). In the life, death, burial and resurrection Jesus is revealed (apocalypse) to be both Lord and Christ. Proclaiming the gospel is to proclaim this news. Jesus is both Lord and Christ.
Of course, once you hear this news, you will want to adjust to this new reality. How to adjust to this new reality is what we call "the steps of salvation."
Stepping back, some might object that Scot is marking a difference that doesn't exist. But the implications of focusing on the gospel rather than upon personal salvation are pretty profound. I refer you to Scot's book for his discussion on this subject (creating what Scot calls a "gospel culture" rather than a "salvation culture").
But the most obvious implication that Scot points out is this: the gospel is bigger than my personal salvation. This really is a Copernican paradigm shift, moving from a me-centric story to a Jesus-centric story. The me-centric story of salvation is just about me "getting saved." Harps in the clouds and all that jazz. But a Jesus-centric story--the proclamation that Jesus is Lord--is a whole lot bigger.
And, truth be told, a whole lot scarier.
Plus, the Jesus-centric, gospel story answers my old undergraduate questions about Luke 5. That story isn't about me and my guilt. That story isn't about a theory of salvation. That story is a gospel story, a story about Jesus.
That story is the proclamation of the Good News. Jesus is Lord.
No more epicycles.