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?


Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John, for those thoughts.

It's interesting in Rom 1:2 that Paul asserts that the gospel he preached was in continuity with what was promised in the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament prophets very much viewed the law being written in the heart (Jer 31:33) and Israel being moved in the end to obey torah (Deut 30:1-14; Ezek 36:26-28) as an important component of the gospel.

One of the key "gospel" passages of the Old Testament is Isa 40:9-11. The preacher of the gospel (according to Isaiah) is to proclaim the coming of God to rule, to repay/reward (both good and evil?), and to lead his sheep. Being led by God as part of his flock is part of the gospel, according to Isaiah. In other words, Isaiah incorporates ecclesiology (among other things) within the gospel.

To deny that Israel and the nations being moved to walk in the Spirit and obey God is part of what constitutes the gospel does not do justice to the Old Testament presentation of the gospel, and must presumably also be at variance with the gospel preached by Paul himself. Romans 7:6 is a good summary of the Pauline gospel, I reckon. A key reason why Christ has come is to set the people of God free to serve God in accordance with the empowering of his Spirit.

billy v said...

Good work, here. I just went through a study with college students and we looked at these passages that discussed "the gospel." It is so richly nuanced and wonderful that I hesitate trying to encapsulate it in a twitter post.

Mick Porter said...


Thanks for this - some really good thoughts.

I agree with Steven's comments too: both Roman imperial and OT themes lie behind "gospel" terminology.

Wright did a great job of bringing the two aspects into view in this paper:

BTW, I've found that one has to tread with care when discussing this. I love your comment that "We suffer from a truncated and impoverished gospel if it ends up looking simply like a get-out-of-jail-free card" - but it can be a dangerous thing to say!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the question of what defines the Gospel is clarified when consideration is given to what defines 'a different Gospel' which is no Gospel at all. (Cf. Galatians)
That such contrary non-Gospels exist and are to be rejected is a matter of biblical obedience.
It is always useful to recognise the danger of being too harsh or too lenient.
Further complicating the issue, the Gospel can be rendered 'another' or 'false' by addition and not only by subtraction.
The expression of the Westminster Confession seems to use the term 'Gospel' as a synonym for the New Covenenant.
Ch 27, para 4 identifies two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel.
Ch 7, para 6 speaks of the ordinances by which the covenant is dispensed under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited.
Ch 20, para 1 spells out the liberty which Christ purchased for believers under the Gospel.
But reading Chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator, seems to hit all the high points of the Gospel as summarised.
After all, the Gospel is about what God has done.

Dave Thurston said...

I enter into this discussion as a pastor/teacher. While I agree that the background to ‘gospel’ is rich in associations, both in regards to the OT and the Graeco-Roman world (Augustus , and I would say Alexander the Great), and that there is a richness with regard to associations concerning the use of the the word ‘gospel’ in the NT, does this mean that it can’t be summarised or defined? Surely, in a pastoral context when we are dealing with a person who is dying, or wants their baby baptised etc we’re not expecting them to enrol in a course on the Background to the NT. I know John, you’re not suggesting that but there is a place for the summary, there is a place for the crystallisations of the essential outline. And there is also a place for definitions. Our definitions allow us to exclude wrong positions. The Reformation catchcries of ‘Christ alone’, ‘Faith alone’, ‘Grace alone’ and ‘Scripture alone’ were polemical. They defined core elements of the gospel over and against those who were perverting the gospel. Surely, the discussion in Reformed circles, about a definition of what the gospel is, is because in our own day, there are developments that need to be defined as being unhelpful and gospel denying - the Federal Vision and the New Perspective are examples. I don’t believe that those who are working on the definition are unaware of the OT or Graeco-Roman background; they are engaged in the difficult task of shepherding the flock and protecting it from the ravages of wolves.
As to Seven’s comments, from the outside I’m not sure there is much to disagree with. From what I understand, gospel preachers have not stopped preaching the second half of Paul’s letters. Grace calls for a response, the Spirit empowers and enlightens; but surely the real issue is whether this is a response to what Christ has done, in his death, resurrection and ascension or whether we build the response back into the gospel in a way that undermines the gospel itself.

John Davies said...

I’m not saying there is no place for definitions or summary statements. No treatment can ever be exhaustive. I’m saying we should not treat our (or the Bible’s) context-sensitive definitions or summaries to cover every possible aspect of the proclamation and then use these to be reductionist to exclude other aspects in other situations. The way we formualte the definition or summary of the Christian message will take account of the situation (such as a dying parishioner) and present the most salient aspects for that context. The way I explain the gospel to a four-year old is quite different from what happens in my adult Bible study group which is different again from my OT class. That’s not the same thing as saying (and this is more what the current debate in the blogs is about) that some things are inherently excluded as not forming part of the “gospel” message (such as who Christ is) simply on the basis that one can find some passages which mention gospel but don’t say everything.
I’m also concerned with a take-it-or-leave-it approach where the gospel is presented primarily in terms of how it will benefit me, rather than with the fact that God has done something stupendous in Christ for his own honour and glory. The solas are of course not definitions but slogans, and serve a purpose as such, but were never intended to take the place of reflective discourse.

Dave Thurston said...

John, I agree that the vision of Christ’s work and purposes are cosmic and all-encompassing. That to reduce it to ‘how Christ’s work will benefit me’ is reductionistc and truncates ‘the fact that God has done something stupendous in Christ for his own glory’. We do need to be careful that when we have done our analysis on any Biblical issue, unlike the 8 year old who pull apart a clock to see how it works but cant put it all back together, we place it once again within the larger set of God’s purposes and see it rightly in relation to the other parts. But having said that, the emphasis in the Bible, from beginning to end is that the big picture of what God is doing has human beings as the pivot of his actions to bring the cosmos into worship and conformity with his purposes. As I read the story of the Bible it is a plan to rescue human beings so that that purpose can move forward. That purpose subverted by Adam, stalls with Israel’s disobedience and exile and is fulfilled in Christ and awaits his return for consummation. In the mean time he is gathering a people to save and to live out that purpose in between the now and the not yet. That’s a long way around to get to my point; if human beings are so essential to the cosmic plan of God, then being clear about how they become rightly oriented to this God through Christ is fundamental ie justification or what is the gospel, because getting it wrong at that point will mean that God’s cosmic plan is also impacted (I realise I am speaking in human terms at this point).
If the present discussion about defining the ‘gospel’ in Reformed circles, fails to put the defining of the gospel back into the wider context of God’s vision of a restored creation in Christ, that will be unhelpful and a disaster but if we get the centre wrong, how humanity is reconciled to God through Christ, then that will be death, not to God’s plan, he is sovereign, but to our witness and work as the people of God.

John Davies said...

Amen to all of that except that, important as justification is, I would not simply equate it with the question “what is the gospel?”. Jesus did not come proclaiming just a gospel of justifiation by faith, he came proclaiming a gospel of the breaking in of the kingdom of God.
Let me tease out a little more of the concordance study I suggested. The gospel concerns the rule of God (Luke 4:43) in the person of Jesus. It is about the fact that Jesus is God’s appointed Messiah (Acts 5:42) with all that this involves. It concerns his incarnation (Luke 1:19) through to his resurrection (Acts 17:18; 2 Tim. 2:8) and by extension ours. It is about the restoration of wholeness (peace) to the creation (Acts 10:36; Eph. 2:17; 6:15). It is about personal physical healing and social justice (Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18). This gospel is to be obeyed (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 4:6; 1 Pet. 4:17) as well as believed (Mark 1:15).
No, I haven’t been exhaustive. I haven’t touched on the OT which is where the gospel is first announced (Gal. 3:8), so our gospel must take full account of the teaching of the OT as well as the new with regard to God’s program. That’s my point — you can’t be exhaustive with something as rich as the gospel. I’m not downplaying justification. I’m upplaying the more neglected aspects of gospel as I see it.

Mick Porter said...

John and Dave,

Very interesting discussion! John, I love the brief overview in your last comment in particular.

Dave, you said that you are approaching it as a pastor/teacher; I have also approached the question from that angle and also from a missional angle. How "gospel" may be summarised in a pastoral context is important, but that's not the only context out there. As we started sharing the gospel to the homeless, outcast and broken on Brisbane's streets we found that the typical summaries didn't cut it - does the gospel speak to people groups who have had their land taken? Or to communities where the entire concept of family has disintegrated? Or women who have never known a non-abusive man?

I have a blog post on this:

Dave, you also said "because in our own day, there are developments that need to be defined as being unhelpful and gospel denying - the Federal Vision and the New Perspective are examples."

I feel really sad when language as strong as "gospel denying" is applied in this way.

My own experience in this regard was to start a discussion around broadening the view of the gospel - I said the gospel was not just about justification by faith for the individual but was communal, eschatological, cosmic, and applied to our whole lives. I was told that my views were "outside of the orthodox doctrine handed down from the Reformation" - thus making it impossible for our family to function within that church.

Interestingly, the pastor there aggressively reduced the gospel and separated out things like eschatology as being useful to teach to mature Christians but not part of the gospel to be proclaimed (!!!). In fact, when pressed on this he separated Galatians 1:3-4 so that "gave himself for our sins" was gospel, and "to deliver us from the present evil age" was not. And that's in a prominent Reformed church in Brisbane.

Nobody ever seems to get accused of "gospel denying" or heresy or being unorthodox when they reduce the gospel but these labels are appropriated **way** too quickly to those who would genuinely attempt to revisit the Biblical position.