Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?"

I can't remember, exactly, how I came across these videos.  I don't know who Scot McKnight is - he says here he's an Anabaptist - but I somehow found my way here, and then listened to this talk all the way through, both videos.  McKnight is, as far as I can tell, talking about Evangelicalism to Evangelicals, and his purpose here is to ask the question, "What is the Gospel?" - and then to answer it.

I've wondered about this question, too - because awhile back, I came into contact with what I think of now as "Reformation Ideas" through a priest in the Episcopal Church.   The priest in question, when talking about another priest (a liberal one, very into what might be called "the social Gospel"), said to me:  "He really can't ever preach the Gospel, can he?"   I wondered at the time what that actually meant; I had always assumed "the social Gospel" was "the Gospel," and I was kind of at a loss to understand what was being said.  What was I missing?

Everything about the church is new to me, and so was this; I learned eventually that, at least according to that particular priest's understanding of Reformation Theology, "the Gospel" is "what Jesus Christ did on the cross for our sake" (AKA, "Justification by Faith"). 

Scott McKnight, in this video (and perhaps elsewhere?), says he started to wonder about this, too.  In a very interesting anecdote (in Part 1), he mentions to a pastor of his acquaintance that he's thinking about the question, "What is the Gospel?"  The pastor responds:  "Easy.  'Justification by faith.'"  McKnight then asks:  "Did Jesus preach the Gospel?" - to which the colleague responded:  "Nope.   He couldn't have.   No one understood the Gospel until Paul.  No one could understand the Gospel until after the crucifixion, the Resurrection, and Pentecost."   McKnight said:  "Not even Jesus?"  The pastor said:  "Nope.  Not possible."  (McKnight adds his silent, sardonic thought at this point:  "Poor Jesus.  Born on the wrong side of the cross....")

As I've said before:  there's something about Reformation Theology - particularly the American Evangelical version of it - that really doesn't sit well with me.  I couldn't quite say what until now, but McKnight's put his finger on it for me here:  the Gospel, in Reformation Theology, has become all about us, and really not very much at all about Christ.    And that - the self-regarding, self-referential thinking - is, for me, exactly the primary flaw in Evangelicalism.   I've written about this before, from another angle, after coming into deeper contact with Reformation Theology and the idea of "grace":
It’s true that we can do nothing to merit the Grace of God; it’s true that we don’t deserve it, and that we can’t earn it. And sometimes it appears to me that the Evangelical thing is a worry that somehow we’re going to lose God’s love by “improving”! In other words, unless we acknowledge at all times that we are bad, bad, bad – and that nothing we do can change that fact – God will abandon us. Because that is the basis of the relationship! But of course, that is – as they say in A.A. – “pride in reverse.” It still leaves us at the center of the universe; we’re still focused on ourselves! The point, really, is to let go of all that, and become “channels” or “instruments” of God’s will.
But this did not get at the heart of the problem, as McKnight's analysis does; the "what Jesus did for me" idea keeps people stuck thinking about themselves; this shows up, though, apparently, all the way through Evangelical theology.   The whole point of the thing, though, is to stop thinking about ourselves!  That is the sine qua non of all spiritual endeavor, and the heart of Christianity, too.   (I've always had a bit of difficulty with the "what Jesus did for me/justification by faith" idea anyway; it's always seemed to me way too much like a kind of quid pro quo - a bizarre kind of "Salvation Equation" - and one that, tragically, ignores the story itself!   Because the story itself is where all the power is.  McKnight talks about this in Part 2.)  

McKnight goes on to say, simply, that:  "The Gospel is the announcement that Jesus is the Messiah - and that he is the point, and goal, and telos of the narrative."

All that means, naturally, that yes, of course:  Jesus preached the Gospel.  He announced himself:  not just once, but many times.  As McKnight says:  "The Gospel belongs to the narrative.  But the text has disappeared under interpretation."

It's a strong talk - and I think a real broadside across Evangelicalism's bow.  I'm assuming this is part of the "New Perspective on Paul," but don't know for sure; I'm very glad, though,  to see the move away from things like "imputation" and "justification by faith," neither of which have ever made any sense, or seemed very real, to me.  And I'm glad that "the narrative" is being put back front and center here; as McKnight says:  "The Gospel, or to 'evangelize,' in the New Testament, is to herald the story of Jesus as Messiah."


Caelius said...

Paul Zahl in Grace in Practice writes about a maxim of Ernst Kasemann, "Paul Taught What Jesus Did." I found this maxim compelling in reconciling Paul's focus on Law and Grace with the social implications of Grace evidenced in what Jesus did and taught well before He was crucified.

The New Perspective on Paul (or its cousin the Federal Vision) demote Law and Grace in Paul's teaching to a secondary themes such as covenant or incorporating Gentiles into Israel. These views tend to demote the personal nature of salvation, but they are also less compelling.

The alternative is to see the theological grounding of "curved in on itself" American Evangelical obsession with personal salvation in the holistic depravity and bound will of each and every one of us. (The ugliness of the human heart that Jesus talks about when disputing with the Pharisees about ritual purity.) That makes us all objects of compassion, in need of forgiveness rather than judgment, grace rather than the continued working of the law. It helps us see the poor as unfortunate rather than morally distinct from us. It helps us understand the solidarity Jesus sought with outcasts and calls us to the same solidarity.

I think American Evangelicals understand the Gospel better than many of their critics, but then want to neuter its power, in the same way that many American Episcopalians embrace the Social Gospel but are blinded to the spiritual dysfunction in their own lives.

bls said...

I don't know, Caelius. I think I'm more interested in the Jesus that McKnight talks about.

"Curvatus in sei" disappears, too, if our eyes are on Christ, rather than on ourselves. And that, for me anyway, seems to be the one and only point; that is the Gospel. Look at him.

(In A.A., the Steps focus on us and our behavior only so that we can acknowledge and get rid of the things that block us from relationship with God. And, also, so that we don't increase our own guilt levels by acting out our psychological issues on other people; that's a win-win there. We have better relationships with others, and we are healthier ourselves.)

And I'm not so interested in the Evangelical idea of God as "infinitely holy." This makes God completely inaccessible to (which of course God is, in some ways) forever, and forever distant, regarding His creation with a disdainful, judging eye. It splits the psyche between the two personalities of Jesus and God.

But Jesus is the image of the invisible God! And the place you get Jesus is in - ahem - the Gospel. So: watch Him. Look at Him. Hear the story in your heart.

When I was outside the church, I still found the story itself extremely affecting. I don't think I'm alone in this; Gandhi and Einstein both said the same thing!

I agree with McKnight that the story itself has gotten lost in the interpretation. (I think that's probably very Anglican of me!) The story itself is awfully compelling; every time I look at the crucifix in my parish I become instantly aware of this again - how full-blooded the narrative itself is.

bls said...

(In fact, the lack of the crucifix in Protestantism might be a clear demonstration of the fact that the narrative has been lost in interpretation!)