Posts Tagged ‘Gospel’

In What St. Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright takes our understanding of “the Gospel” to what it would have meant for Paul and his contemporaries. Modern Christians–evangelicals in particular–have tended to define “the Gospel” as having to do with how people are saved. It is, to modern ears, primarily a soteriological concept. To some degree, then, “the Gospel” leans heavily towards being about us (this is my conception, not Wright’s).

Wright argues that for Paul, the Jews and the people of the first century Roman world, “the Gospel” would have been understood as something quite different–or perhaps it could be better phrased: something much bigger than just soteriology in a narrow “how are we saved” sense.

Jews and Romans would have understood the term “Gospel” in different ways, says Wright, be we don’t need to pit them against each other. On the one hand, the Jews understood the term “Gospel” or “Good News” in Isaianic terms: “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9, Wright’s own translation) and “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7, Wright’s translation).

These passages, in company with others (e.g. 60:6; 61:1), are among the climactic statements of the great double theme of the whole section (Isaiah 40-66): YHWH’s return to Zion and enthronement, and the return of Israel herself from her exile in Babylon. They are not simply miscellaneous ‘good news’, a generalized message of comfort for the downcast; they are very specific to the plight of Israel in exile… The ‘good news’…would be the message that the long-awaited release from captivity was at hand (42-3).

For Israel then, the term “gospel” would refer to return from exile (in Jesus’ day, I suppose, it would be under the Roman “Babylon”). This is, I suppose, to some degree about salvation, but more analogous to our notion of being released from captivity to sin, which is not something evangelicals regularly consider when they think of salvation. It is certainly a result of Christ’s saving work, but not salvation per se. Salvation, and therefore “the Gospel”, for evangelicals tends to be about “going to heaven” or “eternal life”. But this concept does not appear to be on the Jewish radar–the “afterlife” was not something they spent much time talking about, if the Old Testament is any indication.

As for the Romans, the Greek word for “Gospel” (euangelion)

is a regular technical term, referring to the announcement of a great victory, or to the birth, or accession, of an emperor… The coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world, not least at the time of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor in 31BC following a long period of civil war (p. 43).

So to the Romans, then, “Gospel” was not understood as “salvation” in our modern sense of the term, either. They wouldn’t think of the afterlife–to them the term had more to do with enthronement. According to Wright, scholars have historically tried to make Paul be either one of these two–a Jewish thinker or a Greek thinker. But Wright notes that

the Isaianic message always was about the enthronement of YHWH and the dethronement of pagan gods; about the victory of Israel and the fall of Babylon; about the arrival of the Servant King and the consequent coming of peace and justice (44).

To force a choice between a secular and a sacred understanding of “Gospel”, is to not recognize that for both Jews and Romans at the time claims relating to the emperor (including the move towards his divinization) were religious to the core.

[“The Gospel”] is not, then, a system of how people get saved. The announcement of the gospel results in people being saved — Paul says as much a few verses later. But ‘the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus. He can speak equally of ‘announcing the gospel’ and of ‘announcing Jesus’, using the term…’to act as herald’ in each case… When the herald makes a royal proclamation, he says ‘Nero (or whoever) has become emperor.’ He does not say ‘If you would like to have an experience of living under an emperor, you might care to try Nero.’ This proclamation is an authoritative summons to obedience… (45).

(Here I’m put in mind of and tempted to go to Bonhoeffer’s “Christ, Reality, and Good” in Ethics, but that might be forcing it.)

In summary, a classic N.T Wright line: “To announce YHWH [and by extension, Jesus] was king was to announce that Caesar is not” (44).

It seems to me that evangelicals have been very good at setting up a system of salvation, of telling people how to “go to heaven”, but we have not been so good at preaching the Lordship of Christ. Have evangelicals missed the Gospel?

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