Its not often I blog just for the sake of one other post, I normally collect them together in my bi-weekly round ups, but as I read this post this morning at Kingdom People it really struck a chord in me.
It’s been something I’ve been wrangling with on and off for a while, how to approach a definition of the gospel. Trevin does a great job of explaining this all, but for the sake of those who don’t read his post, I’ll try and sketch out the context before giving some of my own thoughts.
The Two Camps of Gospel Definition
Traditionally, and rather simplistically there has been two camps, social gospel and saviour gospel. Those who lean towards Social Gospel see the implications of Jesus’ resurrection as the start of an outbreak of the kingdom of God which we are called to further with our hands and feet. Those partial to a Saviour Gospel emphasize that the Gospel primarily affects our personal and private spirituality the pinnacle of which is Christ’s atoning for our sins at the cross.
I have been brought up in the latter camp and have been wrangling with how to include the former, social gospel, without negating the saving and atoning work which is central in the Saviour Gospel.
There are, again, broadly speaking a number of stones thrown from each camp against the other,
- Saviour Gospel Christians say that the Social Gospel has neutered the Gospel by taking out the cosmic salvation narrative of the gospels effectively stripping the Social gospel of its distinction from forms of secular philanthropy.
- Social Gospel Christians say that Saviour Gospel Christians are focused on themselves whilst ignoring those who Jesus seemed to serve and call us to serve.
Some thoughts on the difficulties of effective synthesis
The difficulty I have found is that when trying to develop a way to speak about a synthesis of these camps there can be great communication difficulties, there is significant language baggage in both camps. Begin speaking about personal holiness with a Social Gospel Christian and you will receive a barrage of complaints that the Church is too introspective and needs to get out and feed the poor (please accept my generalisations for the sake of illustration!), likewise start using Kingdom language at any length with a Saviour Gospel Christian and you will probably hear something along the lines of, ‘We just need to see people coming to Christ’.
Of Course both contentions are entirely accurate, the problem here is that people are working with either/or distinctions instead of both-and as Trevin so helpfully concludes.
"We should not have to choose between making the gospel either about personal salvation or cosmic renewal, seeing the gospel as public or private, making it all about the kingdom or the atonement, centered on the cross or resurrection, proclaiming Jesus as personal Savior or Lord of the world. Can we not hold these together at the same time? Doesn’t the Bible affirm the gospel as a message about a king and his kingdom? Doesn’t the Bible affirm the gospel as a message about Jesus’ death and resurrection? Doesn’t the Bible affirm the gospel as a message about personal repentance and corporate witness?"
So finally as someone who is traditionally found in the Saviour Gospel camp I want to speak to those of us who had tended to lean in that direction.
How effective Synthesis might begin: evangelical self-awareness and a commitment to engaging with scripture
Evangelicals have done much for the Gospel, we have ensured that what was properly positioned at the centre remained, but while standing firm in the doctrinal positions that we saw as central to the Gospel we have in some areas encouraged a form of gnosticism.
As one generation of evangelicals fought for Christianity to be faithful to the texts of scripture it has resulted in some cases to take away the freedom for second generations to engage the texts in a meaningful way. By holding up doctrines which were derived from scripture we have had the tendency to step too far and to place our doctrinal blueprint on the readings of this second generation of readers. This has resulted in an encouragement to second generations and congregations to hold to doctrinal positions they don’t fully understand because they haven’t had the opportunity or even permission to think critically, read the text in its context without being told exactly what the text is, and what it isn’t.
If evangelicals continue to do this we risk giving congregations and second generation evangelicals Sunday school answers to questions they didn’t even get a chance to ask for themselves.
Maybe this is good time to take a quick break, and say that there is certainly a place for doctrine to be taught and for scripture to be preached in an expository manner, in fact if this isn’t done the Church has missed its calling, BUT when we hold our doctrinal statement as primary texts and use scripture as secondary we have subordinated the text.
Earlier I mentioned that there is a risk that certain approaches to read the bible and understanding the Gospel can be Gnostic, let me unpack that a bit:
Ancient Gnosticism was a Christian heretical sect which put knowledge on a one to one tier with salvation. An example of what this might look like for evangelicals today is the feeling of superiority over other traditions; thinking that you and your friends are the ‘real’ Christians, and that your doctrinal correctness will assure your salvation. The reality is, none of the traditions of the Christian faith have ever had theology wrapped up, we are all, saved by Grace, brought into a Kingdom by the providence of it’s King, not because we held to 5 point Calvinism or could construct a great argument for substitutionary atonement, nor are we saved because we have proclaimed the Kingdom with our acts of service or Charity, the Gospel is a Gospel of Grace, of undeserved forgiveness.
This Gnostic tendency has created in some evangelicals automated alarm bells to certain words or sentences which cause reactions which are pre-programmed with the answer but have not engaged the issue at any real depth. This is the type of reaction that we must stop if we are to ever reach a working synthesis of Gospel definitions. If we trust that our stand points and doctrinal positions are biblical, and for us to think of them as having any authority they should be, we should be confident that they will stand up against scripture, and if they don’t we should apply ourselves to scripture and understand the issue afresh.
What other ways might there be to encourage this synthesis? How can we encourage each other to drop unhelpful word-association reactions and be willing the engage issues thoughtfully, biblically and faithfully?