Saturday, 27 June 2009

Defining the Gospel

There is continuing discussion in Reformed circles about the definition of “gospel” (see e.g. Mike Bird’s useful comments here in the context of a discussion on Piper and Wright). Should such a definition be based narrowly on Rom. 1:3-4? Or should it be broadened to incorporate 1 Cor. 15.3-5?  Should it include the person as well as the work of Christ?

My comment is that the discussion is wrongly framed if we are expecting a virtual definition to be located somewhere in Scripture. Definitions are a linguistic construct based on our knowledge of (in theory) every occurrence of a term. Words mean what they are used by speakers to mean in a range of contexts. The word “gospel” (euangelion) occurs some 76 times in the NT, while the related verb occurs some 54 times, and of course the LXX and early Christian writings provide additional linguistic data. When a given passage says “the gospel is …” or some other formula giving content to the word (as in Romans 1), it does not follow that we have a “definition” or that the nuance in one passage is applicable to others.

I tire of those who want to reduce the gospel to a neat formula, a set of words to be asserted and assented to as though this will cover the rich tapestry that is the Biblical gospel. We suffer from a truncated and impoverished gospel if it ends up looking simply like a get-out-of-jail-free card. I encourage a good concordance study for starters. Even that will not suffice, for a linguistic definition is not the same as a doctrinal formulation. Aspects of the content of what the NT writers meant by their gospel might be found in places where the word is not used.

Popular Christianity tends to work with a “gloss” (different from a definition) on the word gospel = “good news”. While this looks like it has etymological justification, and may appear to fit in some contexts, it is hardly appropriate, e.g. for Rev. 14:6-7 where the “eternal gospel” is one of judgment — not particularly good news for those who experience the judgment. To base a meaning on an apparent etymology is a fallacy which would result in us believing that anthology is the study of flowers.

To understand the word translated “gospel” we need some background in Roman imperial terminology, where a “euangelion” was an official proclamation of the emperor, requiring a response. What the Christian euangelion does is proclaim the rightful lordship of God’s appointed messiah as the one whose appearance and entire ministry, in fulfilment of the script laid down in the Old Testament, demonstrates him to be worthy of our total allegiance, and calls for repentance and a commitment of wholisitic faith. How then is any aspect of the proclamation of the person or work of Christ, or what that should evoke, to be excluded?