Thursday, May 22, 2008

Defining 'the Gospel' and 'Evangelical'

I have been pondering recently how different people define "the gospel" and "Evangelical" differently.

For a lot of people, "the gospel" is a short message of the kind given in gospel presentations. It covers sin, holiness, Jesus, atonement, salvation etc. It is essentially a bit of systematic theology rooted in a particular interpretation of Paul's writings which calls the hearer to some sort of response.

In particular it has been striking just how strong a contrast there is between this Pauline gospel and the "good news of the kingdom of God" that Jesus is depicted preaching in the gospels. A lot of Christians seem to assume that when Jesus preached the gospel he was in fact preaching what they think of as the gospel, without bothering to pay any attention to how the bible depicts Jesus' ministry.

Evangelical is one of those words where everybody seems to have a different definition. It also seems to be one of those words that comes with a built-in value judgment - it's implicitly a good thing to be "evangelical" as it has connotations of committed to God, and believing the gospel. I was browsing this Evangelical Manifesto and was quite surprised to find that throughout the document numerous different (and in my view, mutually exclusive) definitions of Evangelical were given.

One of the definitions suggested that Evangelicals were true to and preached that gospel that Jesus preached. I found that comment surprising, since in my observation, Evangelicals tend to far prefer a Pauline form of the gospel to Jesus' form of it.

Another interesting suggested definition is that Evangelical is the name for any and all Christians in history who are simple stock-standard committed lay Christians. What came as somewhat of a shock to me (as someone who has done of lot of research into the history of the development of doctrine) is that they followed this statement up with a short doctrinal list of allegedly what these average Christians throughout history have always believed... opps. They appear to have taken a list of what Evangelicals today hold to be their defining doctrinal views and arbitrarily assumed that throughout history average Christians also held those beliefs...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who knows their bible best?

Thanks Doug for the link to this article. Apparently the Vatican commissioned an independent and extensive worldwide survey in an attempt to gain insight into people's knowledge of the bible.

They found that the class of readers who knew their bibles best were the discerning readers who took the bible as authoritative but felt it was important to apply critical thinking and interpretation skills. Fundamentalists did not score nearly as well.

It seems the study also found high biblical knowledge to not correlate with particular denominations (in other words Catholics are level with Evangelical Protestants, in general!) nor with political voting tendencies. Apparently, also, most people wanted a fair level of assistance in interpreting and understanding the bible, preferring not to do it alone.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Resurrection of Jesus

In the last week I have been studying passages in the NT (minus the gospels) that deal with the theological significance of Jesus' death and resurrection.

One of the first things that became obvious is that there are significantly more passages that deal with Christ's resurrection than his death. A number of passages also assert that the resurrection is absolutely central to Christianity and without it Christianity is nothing (there are no corresponding statements made about the death of Christ). In short it is safe to say that the New Testament Christians saw the resurrection as more important than the death of Christ. Interesting how times have changed...

The resurrection seems to be so important to the Christians because it proves that death is not the end - that there will be an afterlife, that there will be postmortem judgment and restitution, and in the act of resurrecting Christ God affirms Christ's teachings and publicly indicates the type of behavior God chooses to reward. As a result, the resurrection inspires Christians to live self-controlled lives, imitate Christ, and suffer martyrdom gladly.

Silly quote of the day

From here (italics in original):
The Christian gospel is in serious danger of being melted down into a call merely to do good works here and now in the social and political realms. ...a “gospel” that majors on good deeds and social work to the detriment of the atoning, saving work of Christ is no “gospel” at all. As I’ve put it elsewhere, it winds up making Christianity just another boring moralism that’s no different from any other religion in the world....

I think you’re right to define and emphasize justification by faith alone in Christ alone as the heart of the Christian gospel. That is without doubt or equivocation the fountainhead of everything else, and you don’t get to the rest of the “good news” unless you start there. In other words, to tell someone that it’s not really important to focus on the atonement, but rather that you can be a Christian just by being a “follower of Jesus” and by “living like Jesus” is not Christianity. To be a Christian is to believe in Jesus, repenting of sins and trusting for salvation in his atoning, reconciling, justifying, substitutionary death on the cross.
Okay, so I didn't manage to read through to the end of that before I cracked up laughing.

A message "to do good works here and now in the social and political realms" strikes me as an extremely accurate description of the content of Jesus' public ministry as depicted in the gospels. The gospels present Jesus' ministry as a campaign over social issues, period. The social gospel is certainly well-founded in the biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry. So, according to the above writer, the Christian gospel is apparently "in serious danger" of being reduced to, well, the gospels. Dang, we surely can't allow that, can we? Apparently not, because as our above writer continues, that is "no gospel at all". Excuse me while I go and cut the four gospels out of my bible. One wonders why Christ bothered preaching "no gospel at all" in the course of his three year ministry.

Next, the writer makes the accusation of moralism. 'Moralism' is the most common term historians of doctrine use to describe Christianity in the pre-Nicene period, namely because early Christianity was extremely moralistic. So as I was reading the above I mentally substituted: "it winds up making Christianity just another boring (?!) moralism that’s no different from any other religion in the world early Christianity." Of course, according to the above writer's definition, pre-Nicene Christianity is not Christianity, so maybe the writer wouldn't be concerned by this.

Sadly, for some reason a popular apologetic tactic at the moment among some groups is to assert the totally arbitrary idea that "human religions" are about man trying to get merit before God whereas "true religion" is about man trusting in God for salvation, and it is usually further arbitrarily asserted without evidence that Christianity is the only religion in world history that fits the category of "true religion". Somehow I doubt the author's implicit claim that all non-Christian religions in world-history are "boring" rests on any evidence or any actual experience of other religions! I also note that if all non-Christian religions are moralistic then it means that the vast majority of humans in world-history felt that moralistic religions are a good type of religion, and suggests that non-moralistic forms of Christianity would generally be considered bad, thus calling the arbitrary value judgment that such religions are good into serious doubt.

As for the claim that "justification by faith alone in Christ alone [is] the heart of the Christian gospel", well it seems then that the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century therefore marks the beginning of Christianity. Can we therefore consign the first 15 centuries of Christians, martyr and theologians to the dustbin?

For me, the most amusing quote in the above is: '[the idea] that you can be a Christian just by being a “follower of Jesus” and by “living like Jesus” is not Christianity.' Excuse me while I go cut the rest of my New Testament out of my bible...