October 22, 2017

First Things First, part one

Shaker Village, D. Cornwell

First Things First
Restoring the Gospel to Primacy in the Church
Part One: Some Books Are More Important than Others

• • •

Some books of the Bible are more important than others.

This is not a matter of inspiration. Most of us know 2Timothy 3:16-17 — “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” I’m not questioning the inspiration or usefulness of any of the Biblical books. I accept the whole canon (I’m a Protestant, so that means 66 books). It’s all God’s Word, and though I’m sure we could have some interesting discussions about exactly what that means, it is not my subject in this post.

I am suggesting that there is indeed a “canon within the canon.” Certain books in the Bible are designed to be given greater priority in the life of the Church and the Christian. They are more foundational. They give “the message,” and the rest of the books set forth outworkings and applications of the message. The other books are superstructure, built upon the message.

To use a more organic metaphor that will shape our discussion from this point on, certain Bible books are like the roots and trunk of a tree, while the other books form the tree’s crown, with branches and leaves that grow out of its central stem.

Which books are more important?

Which books form the root and stem of our faith?

The Jewish people have always recognized that the Hebrew Bible (what Christians often call the First or Old Testament) has a book that is foundational. It is the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Book of Moses that includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is secondary, drawing its life and focus from this source.

  • The book of Joshua-Kings has been called the Deuteronomic History, or the Early Prophets. It contains historical narratives that show how God’s promises and warnings in the Torah (especially Deuteronomy) came to pass in Israel.
  • The books of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi) are poetry and oracles that call Israel back to faithful obedience to the Torah.
  • The Wisdom and Post-Exilic Books (Psalms-Chronicles) likewise look to the Torah and, in a variety of ways, call the post-exilic community to seek wisdom, for: “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (Prov. 3:18 — an obvious reference to Genesis).

Simple Beauty, D. Cornwell

The word “Torah” means “a father’s instruction.” The Torah is the book which sets forth God’s message for his people. The rest of the Hebrew Bible shows the outworking of that fundamental message through the course of Israel’s experiences in the land, the Kingdom, and the exile and return. The Torah gives Israel her theology, her identity and calling; the other books show how she responded.

It should be noted that Israel’s understanding of God, herself, and the world comes primarily through stories. The Torah is not a book of propositional teaching, systematic theology or dogmatics. It is not a work of logical arguments or detailed explanations. The part of it that we call “Deuteronomy” comes closest to this; however, the final book in the Pentateuch is more a book of sermons that provide historical reflection and exhortation than it is a treatise on theological matters.

When we come to the New Testament, we find a parallel pattern. As the Old Testament begins with a 5-part book, so does the New, and it fulfills the same identity-forming function as the OT Pentateuch. What the Torah is to the Hebrew Bible, the Gospel (as recorded in the Gospels/Acts) is to the New Testament. This is the “book” of the Gospel. It comes to us according to Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, and John, and it is the “book” that is designed to form the Christian’s theology, identity, and calling.

Once again, we note the prominence of stories. Like the Jewish religion, Christianity is a narrative faith. And as in the Torah, we find plenty of teaching and exhortation mixed in with the Gospel stories, but in the end it is the recorded actions of God among people in history that instruct us, form us, shape us.

The rest of the New Testament is secondary to the Gospel.

This is where the issue lies.

• • •

Much of my Christian faith was formed among evangelicals who took a different approach. We analyzed the Bible from the standpoint of dogmatics. The Bible taught us propositional truth. It was the doctrine, precisely stated, that mattered. Thus, the common perspective was that Paul’s epistles were the defining documents of the Christian faith. The Gospels recorded the historical events, yes, but Paul’s letters (especially Romans) related the meaning of those historical events — meaning that could be stated in doctrinal language. “The Gospel,” therefore, was understood to be the clear presentation of doctrinal truths about salvation. Once a person assented to those truths and made a decision to accept them, he/she was “in.” It was all very rational, very academic; almost like passing a test or buying a car — a transaction based on grasping certain propositional truths.

Evening Walk, D. Cornwell

I don’t think that way any more, having been convinced otherwise. Some books of the Bible are more important than others. Christians are to be shaped most fundamentally by the Gospel, and the Gospel is set forth in the Gospels/Acts.

I see the epistles, therefore, now in a different light. They are like the books of the First Testament that come after the Torah. The epistles show the outworking of the Gospel in the life of the Church and her mission in the world. Whereas I used to see a letter like Romans as the first systematic theology, a book of doctrine, and a foundational treatise on “The Gospel,” now I read it to see how the Apostle Paul was applying the message of the Gospel to the Church. My take on Romans now is that Paul was making a defense of his mission to the Gentiles and trying to help this important church deal with ecclesial issues growing out of Jewish/Gentile conflicts.

Almost all the epistles transparently address local or regional communities of Christians that were dealing with specific concerns, even Revelation. Paul, Peter, John, and others wrote these apostolic missives to remind the early believers of the Gospel, encourage them to walk in the Gospel, and deal with threats to the Gospel. Like the post-Torah books in the OT, they point believers back to the foundation, back to Jesus and God’s work in history as the only proper way forward in their faith.

• • •

This shift in perspective, in my opinion, is one of the greatest contributions of “The New Perspective on Paul,” and the work of such current scholars as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and J.R. Daniel Kirk. Not only have they helped us better understand the nature of the Gospel message itself in the light of its Second Temple Jewish context, but they are also helping to restore the preeminence of the books of the Gospels in the life of Christians and the Church.

If this catches on, and Christians start focusing more attention on the Gospels, it will certainly have implications for our lives and the life of the Church. Tim Gombis’s article that we featured on Sunday highlights someone who has been working that out with his own local congregation.

What do you think some of those implications might be?

Stay tuned for future posts as we talk about this together.

______

Photographs by David Cornwell and used by permission. Visit his Flickr Photostream.

Comments

  1. Although I tend to treat some books of the Bible like “flyover states”, I do find it interesting that Jesus on the road to Emmaus is able to expound on the law and the Prophets to explain everything that was critical to understand about His work on earth.

  2. Amen and Amen.

    I remember having a conversation with a Seminary professor, when someone told him that you can’t do theology from Acts. His response was “Yes, you absolutely can, and should. It will, however, look very different than if you do your theology from the Epistles.”

    • I had a seminary professor explain this sort of thing from a Barthian perspective. Jesus is the hermeneutic through which all of scripture is interpreted. Neo-orthodoxy is flooding back to me now.

    • I had a seminary professor explain it to me from a Barthian perspective. Jesus is the hermeneutic through which all scripture is interpreted from. My seminary Neo-Orthodoxy is all flooding back to me now.

  3. CM..

    How should 2 Timothy 3:16 be used? I’ve seen it used from the reformed and charasmatic perspectives, and the Mormons. The Mormons used 2 Timothy 3:16 to hold up the Book of Mormon and point to it as being scripture also. Some evangelicals use 2 Timothy 3:16 as a hammer. End of discussion. PERIOD! There’s no negotiation becuase this is God’s word. I emailed a pastor I’ve had some discussions with this very question. So how would you navigate around this issue?

    I for one am curious….but I would suggest that 2 Timothy 3:16 is possibilty one of the most abused verses in the entire Bible.

    Also how does a Christian use 2 Timothy 3:16 in a healthy sense? Okay scripture is used for instruction and correction…..how is it used in a healthy way that can encoruage discussion and be respectful to Christinaity, those who doubt, and posisbly even God?

    • First of all, because of when it was written, 2Tim 3:16-17 can only refer to the Old Testament Scriptures.

      Secondly, the verses say those Scriptures are inspired by God and useful to keep us on the right path.

      Thirdly, the verse right before says, “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The focus of the Scriptures is on Jesus and they are designed to lead us to Jesus. In Timothy’s life that was a process that started when he was a young child and continued to that very day.

      To use these verses in a healthy sense, we emphasize Jesus and encourage people that they can find him in the Bible. I don’t see any reason for using them as a “hammer” to pound anyone for any reason.

      • greg r says:

        Also interesting the reminder that Paul gave Timothy of HOW he received those sacred scriptures (his family, and especially the women in his family). This speaks to me of the necessity of understanding the word in community and through relationship. The riches of the word just dont’ float down from on HIGH, they are passed on like a torch or lamp.

      • I understand the need for context, but it seems like a very dangerous road to travel down to say that scriptures are only authoritative for the period that they were written in and after.

      • As Lutherans, do you think this verse, since it refers primarily to the OT, could indicate a healthy model of relating law to gospel by showing us how to rightly go about the third use of the law? It’s hard for me to see how the gospel corrects, rebukes, and instructs in righteousness, since it is more a declarative of objective historical events than a set of instructions. However, the law quite naturally does this stuff quite well, despite our inability to follow its instructions.

        • Miguel, first of all, I don’t equate “The Old Testament” and “The Law.” Indeed, the overall message of the OT is Gospel — it teaches the inability of the Law to save and calls God’s people to look for him to act in salvation on their behalf through the Messiah.

          Second, I do think that the terms “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” can be used to the renewal that comes about through Gospel truths, especially when read in the light of verse 15 which call the Scriptures “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” We are “equipped for good works” not because we have shaped our lives according to the Law’s demands, but because we have been forgiven and made new in Christ.

          • Ok, that makes sense. I believe in Lutheran categories, “Law” and “Gospel” are terms that describe the two chief doctrines found throughout all of scripture, so the OT isn’t generally all “law” in that sense. But as I read Luther’s Small Catechism, I see the law being used in a highly instructive manner, in terms being a description of what righteousness looks like for moral guidance. Now obviously without the Gospel this is nothing but hopelessly condemning, but I can not help but wonder: As the “full Gospel” must involve both the Law and the proclamation of good news, isn’t there still some value in a moralistic use of scripture, provided it is always done in light of the cross with assurance of our full forgiveness as the foundation of obedience? I totally get the objection to the Law being used as a club to pummel the broken, but I’m having a hard time not maintaining a use of the law as somewhat of a behaviorally orienting compass. I think the “new man in Christ” should naturally desire good works, and to the extent the Law is a perfect description of them, it would seem a useful guide. I know Lutheran’s aren’t supposed to hold the third use of the law, but it just seems that’s how Luther is doing it in the SC.

            • I think one of the Lutheran teachings that needs much more explication (perhaps I just haven’t come across it yet) is the “New Obedience” of the Christian under grace.

    • ChrisS says:

      Paul ran around telling people that if they were circumcised Christ would become of no effect in their lives. On what scriptural authority did he base that statement? Obviously none. He spoke to the Living God, not the letter god and he was almost killed for it. Somebody in power made up a rule, perhaps a few hundred years ago, that God would never, ever, talk to us like that again. “In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…I will be their God and they will be my people…no man will have need of a teacher..” – these are not to be taken seriously. The pastor will give you your baby food one spoon at a time and monitor you to make sure you look right and are using the right words and phrases. Further, he has this secret evidence that God will not speak directly in a way that is personal and vitally embued with life so just find a comfortable place in the now lifeless teachings of your minority and sit back. No cutting edge, current, living faith that requires actual waiting on the spirit will be tolerated. You know that’s a load of bull dung. Eagle, you obviously have a heart and longing for the living Christ so ask Him to reveal Himself alive to you anew. Then run from the lawmakers at breakneck speed and patiently become joined to like minded people who are are in communion with the ressurected Christ. He is a billion facets of brilliant light. He is a large pile of fall leaves waiting to be dived into by the spiritual child in you. Dive into Him. He is a cold margarita on a Friday evening with close friends. He is also suffering and He is also the cross but be sure of this, He is not the “letter, which kills”. He has an agenda that entails real living, not play acting.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The Mormons used 2 Timothy 3:16 to hold up the Book of Mormon and point to it as being scripture also. Some evangelicals use 2 Timothy 3:16 as a hammer. End of discussion. PERIOD! There’s no negotiation becuase this is God’s word. I emailed a pastor I’ve had some discussions with this very question. So how would you navigate around this issue?

      I’d say lock the Mormons and Evangelicals in a room and let them fight it out while the rest of us get on with our lives. But then, that’s getting to be my favorite solution to a lot of things…

  4. One of Wright’s key arguments is that the word Gospel does not only mean justification. Based on the many stupid things he’s written about Lutherans, he’d probably be surprised that Lutherans don’t disagree on that point!

    Here’s the BOC:

    the term Gospel is not always employed and understood in one and the same sense, but in two ways, in the Holy Scriptures, as also by ancient and modern church teachers.

    [First, the broad use:] For sometimes it is employed so that there is understood by it the entire doctrine of Christ, our Lord, which He proclaimed in His ministry upon earth, and commanded to be proclaimed in the New Testament, and hence comprised in it the explanation of the Law and the proclamation of the favor and grace of God, His heavenly Father,…. the description of the word Gospel, when employed in a wide sense and without the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is correct, when it is said that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins.

    [Second, the narrow use:] Furthermore the term Gospel is employed in another, namely, in its proper sense, by which it comprises not the preaching of repentance, but only the preaching of the grace of God, as follows directly afterwards, Mark 1:15, where Christ says: Repent, and believe the Gospel.

    __

    Wright even gets justification, the second use of the word Gospel. For example, he says this: “That is how the word [justification] works in Paul’s writings. It doesn’t describe how people get in to God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in. That may seem a small distinction, but in understanding what Paul is saying it is vital.” That’s an awesome Gospel message!

    But his goal is to separate the doctrine of justification from the definition of the word “Gospel” and avoid talking about justification much. He wants to move past justifiication as fast as possible to talk about how to fit everything into the narrative of the great reversal leading to renewal in the world. The Gospel is that we should follow Jesus’s example in the world because he is king, (even though Christ said his kingdom is not of the world). He would eliminate the second sense of the Gospel which destroys the whole law and gospel dichotomy. The message to the person broken by the world and suffering despair from the shallow meaning offered by the world seems to be, you’re forgiven and part of God’s nation-family but now get to work fixing the world for King Jesus. That’s absolutely wrong! We dont’ find meaning or assurance or comfort in our works of love for our neighbors, we look to Christ for that.

    Making efforts in the world to bring about Christ’s kingdom the number one interpretive principle destroys the distinction between law and gospel and any comfort a Christian can find there. It’s just classic Methodism repackaged. Hopefully without prohibition.

    Rather than works of love in the world, the core aspect of the Gospel is justification by grace through faith. If the church isn’t preaching that first and foremost, then the church is just another type of good works society and we should all join the salvation army.

    • Boaz, I would disagree that Wright wants to “move past justification” or “separate justification from the definition of the word Gospel.” Instead, I think he is trying to root the concept of justification in the story of Israel’s God rather than in 16th century conflicts between Catholicism and the Reformers. I think Wright would say that, overall, Luther made a proper application of the Gospel in his day and situation.

      Furthermore, his “Kingdom” emphasis is not first of all on the Church bringing it about, but entering it and living in it. Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom through his death, resurrection, and outpouring of the Spirit. New creation has begun! When a person turns from the ways of the old creation, he/she is forgiven and brought into the Kingdom. That is Christ’s work, not ours. The rest is application, but even that is empowered by the fact that Christ is on the throne, ruling, and working in and through his Church by the Spirit.

      As a Lutheran, for me that means what I think it means to you: reenacting my baptism every day and praying, “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

    • You bring up valid concerns, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

      Reformed scholar Michael Bird did an interview about it and said:

      “I think the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is correct in what it affirms, but wrong in what it denies. Where the NPP is correct is in emphasizing the social dimension of Paul’s debates and concerns. Paul’s debates about works of law and justification by faith, were not abstract debates about “what must I do to be saved?” but really came down to the matter, “Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to become Christians?”….I find N.T. Wright utterly inspiring when he’s talking about Jesus and Israel and the big picture of the Bible’s storyline, but I also find him utterly frustrating when he’s going on about “works of law” as exclusively boundary markers and his understanding of the righteousness of God in 2 Corinthians 5. Generally speaking, I think the NPP has shown us that we need to read Paul not through the lens of an ordo salutis, but through the lens of a historia salutis.”

    • Phil M. says:

      So have you actually read any of Wright’s books?

      I would not think that Wright would say that justification isn’t at the core of the Gospel, but rather, he roots the concept of justification in the larger story of God’s nature and His historic interaction with His people. Justification through faith isn’t something that exists in contrast to what God was doing prior to Christ, but rather, it’s the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation that existed since the very beginning. Christ is the climax of the covenant, and He shows shows God’s unfailing faithfulness.

      Personally, I find this story much more satisfying than what I heard growing up. Many Evangelicals are not that far of from Marcionism. They act as if the incarnation was a matter of God changing His mind and deciding that the way He was doing things wasn’t working, so it’s time to implement a new management style. The fact is that God didn’t change His mind about His plan to redeem the world. Christ fulfilled God’s purposes that were in place from the very beginning.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “just classic Methodism repackaged”

      I think Wright is far more than that, but Methodism repackaged might be a good idea. I hope they even read his works.

  5. Martin Romero says:

    Chaplain Mike, at my church we’re going to start a new series of sermons on Matthew, I think around the sermon of the mount… One of the things mentioned was that it might be possible that during the reformation there was so much emphasis on the doctrines as presented by Paul and others on their epistles, that preaching straight from the Gospels was neglected. As a consequence a general attitude developed, where the Gospels might be presented as nice stories but that you need to go to the epistles if you wanted “real meat”. It sounded very similar to what you’re saying here.

    I think that focusing in the Gospels, without neglecting the other parts of the New Testament, can only be a positive thing. Frequently I’ve heard, especially within Evangelical circles, that Christianity is “relational”, that it is all about having a “relationship” with Jesus… Well, not sure where else in the Bible better than in the Gospels you can get that type of “relationship” with Jesus.

    It’s hard to express in words and in English (not my mother tongue, by the way), but I feel that the Gospels and the book of Acts are somewhat “messier” than other books in the New Testament. Not “messy” in the sense that they’re hard to comprehend, but messy in the sense that they give “life” rather than clean-cut answers, and life and relationships often are multilayered, complex, messy… They show us a person, a poor man from Israel who also is God with us, engaged in new, dramatic, unrestrained acts of revelation and creativity, as He comes into the world and shows us the Father and brings the Kingdom of God, creating a new people for Himself.

    I do believe that the epistles are also “messy” in the same way as the Gospels are, as we see how that “newness to everything” that the Gospel brings is manifested and applied in real people and in their daily life. However, I guess that by their nature they’re more easily transformed into lists of “do this” and “don’t do that”, losing that relational character in the way. Probably an easier prey for those who prefer clear-cut answers for everything.

    • Pattie says:

      Martin, you and I were saying almost the same thing and posted at the exact same time!!!

    • Excellent comments, Martin.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Weren’t such convoluted doctrines as Dispensationalism (and its lunatic fringe as expressed by the Dake’s Annotated Bible) Victorian attempts to remove the “messiness” from the Bible and leave an airtight Steampunk spiritual-engineering manual?

    • Josh in FW says:

      Amen

    • Dormant Barbarian says:

      Martin Romero writes:
      “One of the things mentioned was that it might be possible that during the reformation there was so much emphasis on the doctrines as presented by Paul and others on their epistles, that preaching straight from the Gospels was neglected.”

      In the history of Lutheran homiletics, preaching from the assigned Gospel reading is far more common than from any other part of Scripture. In fact, there are still some conservative Lutheran pastors today who preach almost exclusively from the Gospel reading.

      • Martin Romero says:

        Thanks! It’s always good to learn something new. I do consider myself relatively new to the ‘Christian world’, as it’s only been about 3 years since I left a denomination where I was a member since childhood and decided to try into more ‘standard’ churches. Just to give an idea, it’s not unusual there to look at other Christian churches with suspicion, and even more the more Roman Catholic they look. So, I wasn’t really knowledgeable about much of what happened ‘out there’… Well, everything was interpreted according to our own perspective and eschatology. I’ve been learning a lot in the last few years, but it’s still surprising how much you come across day by day.

  6. Pattie says:

    Don’t think the primacy of the Gospel is going to cause much Catholic debate, as that has been the deal for as long as I can remember and probably lots longer than that.

    The letters find their way into the readings at Mass (OT, Psalm response, NT, Gospel ,,,,,for anyone unfamilar) but usually take a backseat to what Jesus said, did, taught, etc, etc…

    This is a thought, not a fact or theological point of the Church, but I hve always wondered if non-Catholic Christians invest SOOOO much time into Paul and Timothy because they lack any other basis for how to run a church? Most of what I hear at Mass tends toward the first letter, from those who actually knew Christ before Calvalry, and who still speak directly of His human life and how it leads to Easter and beyond. Most non-Catholcs seem so concerned about Paul, almost to the avoidance of Gospel itself.

    Just an opinion/observation……..be nice!

    • Tokah Fang says:

      I think this is one of those times when the term christian is used to mean protestant.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “Most non-Catholcs seem so concerned about Paul, almost to the avoidance of Gospel itself.”

      Interesting observation, except I’m not sure it is “most non-Catholics” but more of a certain subset of Protestants as being those who grab most of the attention.

      I’m glad Catholics are so centered on the core.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        I think you’re right, David. Anglicans, for example, have always had the Gospel reading as the central lesson for the celebration of Holy Communion. Traditionally, the primary reading was from the Gospel, based on the Church Year and typically supported by a reading from the Epistles. In fact, from what I understand, this was pretty much preserved from pre-Reformation times. Not long after the Catholic Church moved to a three-reading, three-year cycle for Sunday, much of Anglicanism did the same. Where the Reformation innovation kicked in was in the traditional Daily Office readings. These tended to be more systematic, and consisted of a single OT and single NT reading for each of morning and evening services. Their purpose was for every English Churchman to hear the whole bible (or at least the greater part thereof) in the context of corporate prayer on a yearly basis.

        Since the Ecumenical movement of the 60’s and 70’s, most of mainline Protestantism followed a similar three-reading, three-year cycle for Sunday Morning, in which the Gospel reading is the focal point. I’m not sure what all of those traditions did before the Ecumenical movement, however.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Anglicans, for example, have always had the Gospel reading as the central lesson for the celebration of Holy Communion. Traditionally, the primary reading was from the Gospel, based on the Church Year and typically supported by a reading from the Epistles. In fact, from what I understand, this was pretty much preserved from pre-Reformation times.

          That’s just Standard Western-Rite Liturgy of the Word.

          Remember the Catholic/Anglican split was more political than doctrinal or theological.

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

            The initial split was more political (i.e. Henry’s move), but the bishops basically saw this as an opportunity to bring the Reformation to England. So, if you read the 39 Articles or their predecessors, there’s a lot of anti-Rome talk in there and some clearly Reformed thinking. It really took the Church of England 150 years to work out what splitting from Rome was going to look like. Until it didn’t look like that anymore lol

            But, yeah, they intentionally retained many of the pre-Reformation liturgical practices, including the Standard Western-Rite Liturgy of the Word. I think it was mostly unchanged from about the 5th Century until the 1960’s. Ah, the hubris of us moderns :p

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

            Oops… that should say that it was unchanged from about the 14th’ Century, but with roots back to the 5th. My bad.

    • Pattie says:

      I should have said this better…clearly I meant non-liturgical christians, especially Baptists and other fundamental churches.

  7. JoanieD says:

    “Christians are to be shaped most fundamentally by the Gospel, and the Gospel is set forth in the Gospels/Acts.”

    I agree with that Chaplain Mike. Growing up Catholic, it was always the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that had primary importance. It took me a while to realize that it is not always that way among Protestant groups.

  8. Great piece, CM.

    “The epistles show the outworking of the Gospel in the life of the Church and her mission in the world.” This statement hits the nail on the head. When we narrowly define the Gospel as a series of steps that only leads to a personal salvation experience, then we essentially cage the Lion of Judah. The Gospel is not only news about personal redemption, but about the redemption and renewal of all things; of Christ’s role in that redemptive work; the Church’s role; and our response as adopted children of God, kingdom builders.

    Beautifully written.

    • Listen, I entreat you, all that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul…get at least the New Testament, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If grief befalls you, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take from there comfort for your trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather do not merely dive into them but take them wholly to yourself, keeping them in your mind.

      This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how are we to come off safe?

      + St. John Chrysostom +

    • olbaldy says:

      “The epistles show the outworking of the Gospel in the life of the Church and her mission in the world.”
      How do we square this with the fact that most of Paul’s writings were completed before the four snoptic Gospels were written?

      • In 1Cor 15, Paul told the Corinthians that he passed on to them “what he had received” — the Gospel. Though the books themselves may have been composed later (Mark is generally considered early and within a decade of Paul’s early writings), the eyewitness accounts and stories of Jesus were certainly well known in the early Christian communities.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      When we narrowly define the Gospel as a series of steps that only leads to a personal salvation experience…

      …we end up with a high-pressure sales pitch for Fire Insurance.

  9. Being in the evangelical environment, I have always felt that Paul’s epistles have been allowed to hijack the church. The church, from my lowly perspective, seems to have been built in his image of it. While chances are, even though he and Jesus were contemporaries, he and Jesus never crossed paths.
    When Jesus was teaching Paul was a devout Jew and hated the followers of The Way.

    When I want to know what I need to do to be Christ-like, I don’t look to Paul. I look to the Christ and his teachings.
    After all, we’re not called Paulines but Christians.

    Of course I realize that since the time the canon was brought together the world of Christianity has been filled with the opinions of many men and women who have told us what being a Christian really means and how to do it successfully. The Religion sections of bookstores are bursting at the seams with such writings.

    Does anyone think that Paul would be embarrassed that such emphasis has been put on his letters?

    • Damaris says:

      Russ says, “Does anyone think that Paul would be embarrassed that such emphasis has been put on his letters?”

      10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

      13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

    • Russ, the core of Paul’s religion, as you and Damaris have both pointed out, is Christ himself. The gospels weren’t written when Paul was writing his letters, so any hijacking isn’t Paul’s fault but the fault of Christians much later.

      And you may be right, in some ways we have chased off after Paul a bit, but that may be balanced by those in the church who can’t stand Paul, and look more to the gospels. In a weekly bible study I attended years ago there was a woman who occasionally would say in a huff, “Well, I can console myself knowing that these are the words of Paul and not the words of Jesus!” And that gets us back to the question of what is the canon, and whether the words of Paul are, in fact, the words of Jesus or not.

      Paul’s religion is probably nutshelled in Ephesians 2:8, that it is by grace we are saved, through faith [in Christ], not because of works. Also in Galatians chapter 1 where he warns against any other gospel but the grace of Christ.

      And about hijacking, others could say that the church was hijacked by Plato. I also read an account of the Roman Catholic faith in South America that suggested that the church there was hijacked by Islam, indirectly through the form of Christianity that the Spaniards brought with them immediately following the re-conquest of Spain from the Muslims in the late 15th century. But that book was written in the 1930s and I hope things have mellowed since.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And in the Seventies, I remember house churches and splinter “fellowships” who got hijacked by Hal Lindsay.

  10. I think that certainly one of the implications should be a much closer experience to Jesus’ intended meaning when he insisted, not that his teachings were the way, the truth, and the life; but rather that he himself is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). It isn’t through assent to doctrines or truths (even) that people will come unto the father, it is through the person of God the Son, Jesus Christ. So what are the ramifications when people start living in terms of a relationship with a person being the meaning of life rather than being right?

    Maybe that other awkward, non-linear, subjective message of Jesus becomes one’s standard of what’s meaningful in life: “Love God with all of your being” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:38-40; Mark 12:30-32; and Luke 10:26-28; all affirmed and clarified by Paul in Rom. 13:9 and Gal. 5:14, not to mention James in 2:8). What would the life of a Christiaan evangelical look like today if his/her obsession and reason for living were to love neighbors as he/she loves God, above even what he’she believes must be the truth? Imagine if such an ethos were to be the standard for our politics, for instance. What if such were to influence how and where we live, and with whom we rub shoulders day-in and day-out.

  11. Phil M. says:

    One thing I do appreciate about the Orthodox liturgy is that passages from the Epistles and the Gospels are read at every service. The Gospel book is actually given special reverence in the liturgy. It’s not that Paul and Jesus were ever working against each other. Actually, I don’t know how one could read the Epistles and come to the conclusion that Paul was about anything else other than proclaiming the finished work of Jesus. But we have to read Paul in light of Christ, not vice versa.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Many Western churches use a common lectionary. In its full form there are three readings, usually one each from the Old Testament, Epistles, and Gospels. Not every church uses all three every time, but the Gospel reading is the one usually retained, even if the other two are omitted.

    • Tokah Fang says:

      I think part of the orthodox reverence for the gospel book and reading comes from our relationship with time. This doesn’t come out as much in the sunday liturgy, but vigils and feast days and holy week make it clear. We aren’t just recounting something that happened, but actually connecting with that moment in time. In some way that I don’t claim anyone understands, we are there. Our hymns are written in the present: “Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being . . .” Commemorating and remembering are considered to be very different things.

      However that works, it means that when the Gospel reading is read, it isn’t just a reading of what people said and did. It is getting to hear the words of our Lord and to gaze upon his deeds. That’s worth standing up straight for and paying close attention.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “The Gospel,” therefore, was understood to be the clear presentation of doctrinal truths about salvation. Once a person assented to those truths and made a decision to accept them, he/she was “in.” It was all very rational, very academic; almost like passing a test or buying a car — a transaction based on grasping certain propositional truths.

    More like buying Fire Insurance with a free Rapture Boarding Pass thrown in.

  13. It’s about time that this aspect of the NPP started to catch on.

  14. cermak_rd says:

    I don’t know that I would say the Torah isn’t dogmatic. It isn’t also referred to as the Law for nothing after all. But I think what I have found in Judaism is a great emphasis on wrestling with the text. Not just reading it and then blindly applying it, but reading it, studying what it was trying to say in its day and how it can be applied today.

    For instance, we don’t send lepers to the chief rabbi (or any rabbi unless he’s also an MD) we send them to a doctor for treatment. We don’t (unless we’re campers or military) dig latrines, so that segment is more apt for developing a general environmental concern. The passages about not having two scales, while still relevant for drug dealers and small grocers, is also a general rule about not cheating others. Rules regarding not harvesting everything are seen as rules regarding the necessity to charity and Leviticus 19 is understood as applying to everyone in our community, not just fellow Jews. And the command to be fruitful and multiply is regarded as being somewhat outmoded by the reality of a world of billions of inhabitants.

    And yes, the other books are not as important. It is the Torah we read cover to cover every year. It is the Torah we celebrate with dancing.

    • “I have come not to overturn the Law, but to point out to you what it is actually saying.”

    • Pattie says:

      Since I was a Christian LONG before I became a nurse, I am awed by many of the OT laws regarding food and hygiene. From a 21st century perspective, so many of the laws were clearly going to prevent disease from food borne and “waste” borne illnesses. In fact, if I were dropped on a desert island I would for sure keep Kosher and make sure the latrines were far away from camp.

      Gee, its almost like God understood about microbes and disease prevention…..(insert sarcasm font)……like he MADE the world or something!!!

  15. “Whatever drives Christ (and His gospel for the forgiveness of sins)”

    The gospels, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, etc.

    These are where Christ can be found in the greatest relief.

  16. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Some books of the Bible are more important than others.”

    This idea, that there is a canon within the canon, is obviously true. When was the last time anyone did a sermon series, or even a fraction of a sermon, on Habakkuk? Everyone has some schema for the reading of scripture. Some of these schemata are well thought out, while many are unconsidered assumptions. Deny that there is a canon within the canon serves to defend such unconsidered assumptions by denying that they exist at all. In this it is a close cousin to the claim to reading scripture “literally” (or its weaker sibling of a “plain meaning”).

    Both have the problem that such readings produce apparent contradictions in scripture. Various mental gymnastics, often doing great violence to the text, are required to avoid confronting these contradictions. The result says more about the cultural assumptions of the mental gymnast than anything to do with the word of God.

    • “When was the last time anyone did a sermon series, or even a fraction of a sermon, on Habakkuk?”

      I did! I did! And I only preach once or twice a year. Habakkuk 3:17-18. Hey, it might as well be right out of the mouth of Jesus (oh, wait; if we’re talking about the canon…):

      Though the fig tree should not blossom,
      nor fruit be on the vines,
      the produce of the olive fail
      and the fields yield no food,
      the flock be cut off from the fold
      and there be no herd in the stalls,
      18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
      I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

  17. I believe that NT Wright and those who follow are going to release the Protestant wing of the church from captivity. It is good to see these matters brought out here and gives me hope.

    It distresses me whenever anyone refers to the core of the Gospel or the basic Gospel as anything other than the proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The unpacking of that particular suitcase is important enough that Jesus spent over three years doing it, but to dismiss that core proclamation with a flip of the hand or denial or complete silence leaves a hollow space that weakens or destroys the rest.

    Slowly, slowly, we seem to be catching on. Perhaps just in time.

  18. Randy Thompson says:

    Another way of looking at this is through the lens of narrative theology.

    Briefly, the Bible is a story, a very big story.

    What’s the story about, finally? Jesus, crucified and risen. The “canon within the canon” is Jesus.

    The Old Testament is about Jesus, as Matthew’s genealogy tell us (Matthew 1). Obviously, the New Testament is about Jesus. Even more obviously, the Gospels are about Jesus.

    The focal point of the story is Jesus: What he did, what he said, what he taught, how he died, and how he was raised from the dead, and how he baptizes in the Holy Spirit.

    Paul’s letters are a means to an end, and the end is (guess what!) Jesus. (So too is the Old Testament, although our Jewish friends might disagree with us here. . . )

  19. I really appreciate this sentiment and think Christianity in the US would be much better served with a closer focus on the Gospels. However, I do see one fly in the ointment. The Epistles, while written after the death of Jesus, were written down before the Gospels were actually recorded in written form. (Unless one takes the view that the first Gospels were written in 50 AD) Does date of writing carry any weight with these texts? Does it matter if Paul was actually writing before the Gospels were written down completely?

    Also, a biblical scholarship question- did Paul know the groups writing the Gospels? I would assume so, so the question of his influence on the writing could be a question.

    I think some of this might have come about from me trying to rationalize why the Pauline Epistles were valued over the Gospels, but they are questions I’d love to see put to rest.

    • Phil M. says:

      You might find Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses to be useful in answering these question. He puts forth the case – a pretty solid one, imo – that the Gospels were not simply written later and edited, but rather that the Gospel writers had access to actual eyewitness accounts of people who saw and interacted with Jesus. The Epistles were indeed written earlier, but the stories about Jesus were not entirely unknown before that.

    • Traditionally, Mark’s source is said to be the sermons of Peter, when Peter was preaching in Rome.

    • And to bounce off of Phil M and Michael Bell, here are the words of Peter in 2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

      I think Luke was good at interviewing eyewitnesses, and that’s how Mary’s song, and other stories, were written down.

  20. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

    As a caveat to what I’m about to write, let me first say that I love the idea that the Gospels should be our foundational texts. It’s one of the things that attracts me to the liturgical traditions and to writers such as NT Wright.

    That said, I think one point of dis-analogy between the OT framework and the NT framework is that the writers of the Epistles did not have the Gospels, as the Gospels post-date most of the Epistles in terms of date of composition, whereas the writers of the Prophets and Writings did have the Torah (assuming a relatively traditional/conservative point of view on the Torah’s date of composition). That is, Paul was not directly building upon teachings directly found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or Acts when he was writing to the Romans. He did, however, apparently have access to the oral traditions/stories of Jesus that were to eventually be written down in the Gospels.

    So, while the narratives and teachings form the foundation for both the Epistles and the Gospels, rather than the Epistles using the Gospels as a foundation, it may be more accurate to say that the Epistles are the out-workings of the foundation and the Gospels are the reporting of the foundation from various perspectives.

    On the other hand, from what I understand, the Gospels were much quicker to enter the Canon than the Epistles. There was little-to-no debate about the Gospels, but several of the Epistles were debated for generations. From a canonical perspective, the Gospels were certainly the foundation.

  21. It’s ironic. The Swiss Anabaptists came to their conclusions by studying the Gospels, and by giving them “primacy” so to speak. They were beat down and persecuted severely, because they took some of Jesus’ teachings to mean that a follower of Christ shouldn’t “resist an evil person” and should “turn the other cheek”.

    That’s fine for you all to talk about giving the Gospels primacy until you are asked to forgive your enemies, and lay down your arms. American Christians have a real hard time with really treating their enemies as Christ treated His.

    The “problem” is that Christ didn’t talk a whole lot about what place a Christian has in the civil government. (Yes, one can take “render unto Caesar..” and milk it for all it’s worth” ).

    People who radically follow Jesus’ teachings and way of life get called “Hippies” “Liberals” etc. etc.

    Just be aware that you are opening a world of trouble if you truly follow Jesus’ teachings straight, not watered down. However, if you go down this path you will find an answer to the “post-evangelical” wilderness.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Exactly. The Kingdom that Christ proclaims isn’t a tame one, comfortable in any sense.

  22. In the Lutheran denomination I serve, the 3 readings and a psalm (the 3-year lectionary cycle) are read each week – always have been. But preaching is almost always based on the Gospel text. Almost, I say, since the preacher has the latitude to preach on whichever text may best reveal the ‘gospel’ (‘Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again’!) for that congregation, that week.

  23. Highwayman says:

    I’m not saying I agree with this, but I once heard 2 Peter 3: 16 quoted to support the view that 2 Timothy 3: 16 applies to the New Testament as well as to the Old Testament, the reasoning being that Peter refers to Paul’s epistles and to the OTHER scriptures.

    What is rather reassuring is that even Peter admits that Paul can be difficult to understand!

    15And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;

    16As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

  24. Refocusing on the Gospels and what Jesus said and did are probably the most important contributions made by N.T. Wright and those around him to the Church today. It’s encouraging to see that so many others are coming to the same conclusion. Of course there are lots of Christians out there who have been doing this all along, and some churches that have had it as part of their tradition for a very long time. As someone whose journey took him through a doctrinaire fundamentalism “strong on Paul” but, in retrospect, tragically weak on the Gospels, the “discovery” of a Jesus centered faith grounded in the Gospels was the cause of much joy — but also of some regret over years of misdirection.

  25. Observation from several comments:

    It seems that Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans are all claiming that we’ve kept the Gospels central, especially in our traditional liturgical approach to worship. Might I suggest that there is a correlation between a sacramental approach to the faith and recognizing the Gospels for what they are? Perhaps one causes another?

    For non-sacramental traditions, the faith is approached very intellectually, which at times nearly turns salvation into a cognitive accomplishment! Since the Gospel is presented as a philosophy to be understood, one might naturally be drawn toward texts that hash out the mechanical details. However, when the Gospel is presented as a story to be believed, then the outward signs which communicate the story take on heightened significance, and the very story itself (Matthew-Acts) become a spiritually forming narrative into which the community is immersed through ritual.

    • Agree, and I’m sure this will be one of the directions we take this in future posts.

    • “For non-sacramental traditions, the faith is approached very intellectually”

      Depends which non-sacramental traditions you are talking about. Having been involved in groups like the Christian (Plymouth) Brethren, Baptists, and Pentecostals, I have seen pretty wide extremes when it comes to the intellectual approach to faith.

      • Very true. Many evangelical persuasions are suffering form an unhealthy lack of coherent thought, but even in these groups, it seems a compartmentalizing approach is taken to the epistles. They still have their soteriological calculus by which you determine who is in, who is out, and when/how it happens, and for the most part without reference to the means of grace. The Finney-esque emphasis on “making a decision for Christ,” or “inviting Jesus into your heart,” or salvation through an cognitive act of the will, seems fairly pervasive from the thoroughly analytical tribes to the more emotionally driven pietists.

        • I would say that most evangelical churches are clear as to the means of grace. Grace is received by an expression of faith. We may disagree on the way grace is received, but at least they are consistent.

  26. Pastor Don says:

    Chaplain Mike, Wow, where to begin and end. This discussion could end up covering so much it could never be finished. But I thought I’d throw in a thought or two or three.
    First, I think Paul had the Old Testament in mind when he wrote 2 Timothy 3.16-17 but the Holy Spirit had all of Scripture in view when he moved Paul to write that. And I get that from how the Holy Spirit moves Peter to say in 2 Peter 3.15-16 that Paul’s writings are scripture. Different people wrote it, but the Protestant Bible (the 66 books ) is God’s book.
    Second, Christians confess that Jesus is God. Jesus states clearly he didn’t come to change the law but to fulfill it, as in, “You think you understand what God says is anger, lust and retaliation? Let me make it clear to you what I meant!”–Matthew 5. He came to save us from our sin which he continually points out is much worse than we think it is. Grace doesn’t change the law or re-identify sin, it is God’s gift to us who receive him, and who believe in him, and who love him. Grace makes salvation and forgiveness possible. That’s partially what makes it so amazing. That’s also why the Gospel is such good news.
    And yet the third thing: obedience. Some want to cling to obedience as if it is what identifies the true believer. Others want to ignore it because they haven’t been real with themselves about what God says about sin. But I think those of us caught in those to paradigms miss God’s point! Jesus said the work of God is to believe in him whom he sent (John 6.29). Our job is not to be obedient, it is to believe. Paul viewed his calling and his mission as an apostle to bring about the obedience of faith (Romans 1.5). I don’t agree with many Greek professors and other teachers who take off in all kinds of directions with that phrase from the Greek manuscript with the words, “and here we find the Genitive of…” which helps us understand this to mean…! I think it is clear what this phrase means. The Holy Spirit was referring back to his words in John. The obedience he is talking about in Romans 1 is faith. The battle he talks about is to believe. That’s enough work for us. To believe.
    To believe that Jesus is God. To believe the words of all Scripture that we are sinners and are born in sin. To believe that Jesus came to save us from our sin. To believe that by his grace we are forgiven and saved and forgiven and forgiven and forgiven. To believe that all of Scripture is from God and reveals his holiness and his righteousness and his grace and mercy. To believe, not to obey.
    The Gospel is not about obedience. It’s about grace. And how do I know? God’s Bible (all of it) tells me so.

  27. Thank you for this post, CM. I was raised in the evangelical church (non denominational), but it was just religion and no help when I was faced with a sudden marital and then spiritual crisis. I knew a lot about the gospels and the bible, but I didn’t hold the truth in my heart. I thought I did, but I didn’t. Then I literally found the real Jesus of the bible after scream crying to God, “Are you even real?” When I found my help there at the end of an outstretched arm, I became a student of the red letters in my bible. I wanted to know the One who gave me the privilege of knowing Almighty God.

    My last two+ years have been markedly different than all the years prior. I like to tell people, “study the red letter first.” I personally believe that all of the other parts of the bible are important and Spirit breathed, but if we don’t follow first know and follow Jesus we can easily pass by Him on the wide road (even though we think otherwise).

    I’m not a scholar. I am curious, though, do you agree the red letters are the most important?

  28. A few years ago, due in large part to the writings of Michael Spencer, I completely reframed the way I read and study the Bible. I did it to give total unchallenged pre-eminence to the Gospels over all of the rest of Scripture. (Later I began to include Acts). The quest of my entire devotional life is now know the Jesus of the Gospels, and understand the rest of Scripture by his light.

    Some of the results:

    1. I love Jesus more.
    2. I’m excited about reading the Bible again
    3. I’m not constantly trying induce spiritual progress/experiences by reading as if it were a magic wand
    4. I better understand my own life, my failings and God’s redemptive intentions for me.
    5. I have discovered a number of other teachers/writiers out there that are saying the same thing, and have been able to shed light on key issues.
    6. I have a markedly smaller interest in being seen as the best, brightest, or most holy at anything, when it comes to being in my church context.
    7. I get far less angry when Christians screw things up big time because of poor readings of Scripture. I simply think to myself, “well, we’d better get this Jesus-centered thing out there quick, hadn’t we?”