April 23, 2018

Friday with Michael Spencer: Warning! Be Careful!

From 2008

Is it just me, or are some Christians putting too much emphasis on the Gospels?

There’s a lot of talk about the Kingdom of God in the Gospels. That gets many people off on the wrong track entirely.

Some people are always quoting the parables or Jesus’ sermons. All of these things need some further elaboration, footnotes or clarification, not to mention lots of additional verses from the rest of the Bible.

And what about all the things that Jesus keeps telling people to do? If you can’t do things perfectly, what are you supposed to do with them? Reading the Gospels could cause you to be deluded about the whole Christian life.

Then there’s all the things Jesus says are just true about his disciples. They ARE the salt and they ARE the light. All that. That makes some fans of good theology break into a cold sweat. Jesus can be all those things, but what’s the deal saying them about us?

Jesus seems to spend a lot of time accepting the unacceptable, elevating the oppressed, inviting the unwanted and including the excluded. Assuming that those things are just types and shadows of God accepting us, could someone explain exactly what we’re supposed to do with those kinds of commands and examples?

You could get a lot of wrong ideas reading the Gospels too much. You could start thinking that Jesus is in favor of some kind of social gospel where people give away lots of things, live in community, get in trouble for their radical compassion and stand outside of the religious establishment much of the time.

In fact, really….the Gospels have some good stories, but wouldn’t we be better off to study things like Romans 3 more often, so we really know what the Gospel is about?

Spending a lot of time in the Gospels could make you a person who is confused about discipleship as compared to grace. We should go to church, hear about grace, and leave much happier. If we read the Gospels too much, we’ll get the idea we’re supposed to do a lot of things that we really don’t have to do to be saved.

Let’s be careful with the Gospels. Don’t go overboard with them. They could mess up your whole religion.

I’m glad we talked about this. A lot of people could be easily confused.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    “Jesus seems to spend a lot of time accepting the unacceptable, elevating the oppressed, inviting the unwanted and including the excluded. Assuming that those things are just types and shadows of God accepting us, could someone explain exactly what we’re supposed to do with those kinds of commands and examples?
    You could get a lot of wrong ideas reading the Gospels too much. You could start thinking that Jesus is in favor of some kind of social gospel where people give away lots of things, live in community, get in trouble for their radical compassion and stand outside of the religious establishment much of the time.”

    oh whoah . . . . I sometimes wonder if extremist-fundamentalists who are heavily political have even read the Holy Gospels (?)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > have even read the Holy Gospels (?)

      Answer: No.

      see the “crisis of biblical illiteracy” in any internet search engine

      • Also, this is the big advantage of using the common lectionary. The Bible has oodles of “difficult” passages. Which are difficult depend on what tradition you are coming from, but every tradition finds some passages difficult. If you don’t use the lectionary, the natural tendency is to discreetly overlook those passages. If the people in the stadium seating don’t know that Jesus droned on incessantly about feeding the poor and about the plight of the oppressed, who can blame them? Their pastor has put a lot of work into ensuring that they remain ignorant. My tradition has a different set of passages it finds difficult. We know that they are there, if only because they come up every three years when we hit that part of the cycle. Even if the pastor preaches on one of the other, less difficult of that day’s passages, everyone sitting in the pews (and awake) heard that difficult bit. There is no pretending it isn’t there.

  2. Ben Cribbin says:

    I understand Michael’s comments when applied to a rigorous neo-reformed theology that he interacted with often in his life.

    However, why must the Gospels have the absolute central position in someone’s life?

    As I understand it, the Hebrew-Christian stream is broad and diverse, and Jesus and the Gospels have not always been of central concern. The Desert fathers don’t seem to reference Jesus that much, nor do the mystics.

    I also believe that the scriptures are developmental, and the knowledge of God and right conduct expands as they progress. Why would that not continue today?

    • Robert F says:

      Though I’m a liberal in many respects, I agree with you. I think the whole New Testament, Gospels/Acts and Epistles (though not so much Revelation), are equally authoritative as witness to Jesus Christ, with some of Paul’s letters being considerably older than the finished Gospels (though perhaps not older than some of the strands that were used to weave the Gospels). I consider the Gospels to be intepretative documents as much as the Epistles, though they use a different literary style, that of narrative, to interpret their subject. I consider nothing in the New Testament more foundational for my faith, or more primitive in its witness to the resurrected Jesus (and I consider the whole NT to be primarily witness to his resurrection; the Gospel teachings are significant because they are the teachings of the resurrected Christ), than 1 Corinthians 15: 3 – 8: my belief in the resurrection rests more surely on this text than on the all the Gospel accounts of the risen Lord put together.

    • I have argued that the Gospels are primary, akin to the Torah in the Hebrew Bible.

      http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/first-things-first

      • Radagast says:

        +1

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1

      • Patriciamc says:

        I like that, “canon within canon.” I totally agree. The Gospels are the foundation of the NT, everything else is commentary, explanation and examples of how to carry out Christ’s commands. That’s why I reject interpretations that seem to add to what Christ said (example, women can’t teach men) because I don’t think anyone can to Christ’s commands; they can only explain them. So yes, I see the Gospels as the cake and the other NT books as the icing.

      • Robert F says:

        By primary, I assume you mean first in importance, CM? Do we agree that they are not first in antiquity, or chronology?

        • Right, Robert.

          • I certainly do agree that oldest does not equal most authoritative. Only when Christian theology is captive to secular historiography do we end up with that equation; Christian theology has led much of its life in just such captivity.

            • That Other Jean says:

              “. . .the oldest does not equal the most authoritative.”

              As an historian, I would have to disagree, in the sense that the oldest documents tend to have the fewest errors, and are therefore probably closest to the original. For the books of the New Testament, of course, we have no originals. We know that, as handwritten documents were copied and shared, errors crept in, additions and omissions happened, copyists may have inserted their own opinions, and “corrected” what they perceived to be faulty. A late copy of one of the Gospels, for example, may be somewhat different from an early version. How is the book copied the fewest times, presumably closest to the original, not the most authoritative?

              NB: This method works only when multiple copies of a work are available, of different ages, so that changes can be tracked over time. A single copy may be the work of a careless, inattentive scribe, whatever its age.

              • Robert F says:

                In terms of the morphology of religious experience, of a person or community, the oldest does not equal the most authoritative. In the case of Christianity, if the Holy Spirit is truly at work in the Church, then truths may be revealed or discovered at a later date that were not available earlier. For instance, the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation could only come into full form in the Church after the experiences they were and are based on had worked changes in the community’s conceptualization and language about God. The same is true about the New Testament canon, which itself was stimulated by and stimulated new experiences, language and conceptualization. It may easily be the case that the later Gospel of John reveals or discovers truths that were not available in the earlier Gospels or the strands that made them up; in fact I and most other Christians believe this to be the case. Historians should continue their investigation and analysis of documents and traditions, but what I’m talking about is beyond history’s ken.

                • That Other Jean says:

                  Yes, I do think that religion can, and should, grow and evolve. I have never subscribed to the Biblical canon being the first, last, and only word of God. I am not at all sure, however, that some of the newer (or for that matter, some of the older) “truths” of religion have much to do with truth, but I am glad that people are still examining them..

    • If Jesus and His teaching is not central then what is?

      • Robert F says:

        Jesus’ teaching is central, it’s just that in neither the Gospels nor the Epistles do we have that teaching uninterpreted, directly from Jesus. The New Testament is proclamation and interpretation through and through; the very narrative shapes of the different Gospels interpret Jesus, his actions and his teachings, in different ways. And we get Jesus teaching, indirectly again, in parts of the Epistles; in much briefer form, and without most of the narrative setting, or in condensed narrative form. 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8 is the outline of a narrative that obviously preexists Paul’s encapsulation of it, and is widely known throughout the community that Paul is writing to.

        On a side note, I find it very interesting that this earliest account of the resurrection contains no reference to an empty tomb.

      • Robert F says:

        In the New Testament, we only have Jesus interpreted by others. The fact that this is the case means that, for the purposes of Christian faith, we do not need Jesus uninterpreted; it is likely that if that were necessary, it would have been arranged by having us receive something directly from his hand. It seems from both the Old and New Testaments that God preferred in scripture to come to us narrated/interpreted by others.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I understand Michael’s comments when applied to a rigorous neo-reformed theology that he interacted with often in his life.

      “Gospel(TM)” has also become a meaningless buzzword among those “rigorous neo-Reformed”. Just a propaganda buzzword, like “People’s Democratic” in the official name of a Third World Dictatorship.

      The more you Say it, the less you Show it.

  3. Am I sensing a spirit of tongue-in-cheek on Michael’s part?

  4. I think Michael was probably right, except for John. John is pretty safe, what with the ‘new birth’, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’, and all that. But be careful with that water to wine stuff – that’ll get you into trouble. But John gives us a Jesus we can relate to – the divine Jesus, almost a docetic Jesus, someone Paul would like.

    No, the real problem is the synoptics, especially Luke. Luke’s Jesus spends entirely too much time talking about money, women (half the incidents in Luke involve women – scandalous!), and hangs out with those ‘sinners’. Luke must be some kind of first-century Democrat or something. Yes, Romans (or even John) is much safer.

  5. Ahhhh, Michael, Michael……he could kick you in the spleen and make you laugh at the same time. That’s talent well used (not that it gets him to heaven or anything…..)

  6. Radagast says:

    “In fact, really….the Gospels have some good stories, but wouldn’t we be better off to study things like Romans 3 more often, so we really know what the Gospel is about?”

    If memory serves correctly from when I read Michael back in the day… this is Michael’s slap at his tradition’s focus on everything Paul at the expense of ignoring the Gospels……

    • Yup. Remember that one of Michael’s favorite books was Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three.

      • BTW, one of Capon’s dictums (or is it dictum or dicta??) is that the Gospels were written as commentary on Paul.

        • Dana Ames says:

          They may have been written down, at least in part, in answer to what Paul had written, but their narrative tradition is older, going back to the eyewitnesses. See N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas – good Protestant academics both 🙂 Whoever wrote them down certainly was looking back from a later vantage point, and that means – as Robert noted above – some amount of interpretation, if only regarding what was selected to be written. However, it was important to people in those days to preserve oral tradition as it was handed down, without elaboration. It was NOT another version of the game of Telephone; IIRC, even Bart Ehrman thinks that.

          Dana

          • Robert F says:

            I will admit that I’m sometimes overly zealous in defending the authority of the Pauline Epistles when it is compared with that of the Gospels, and put in second place; please pardon me that overreach. But I don’t think there is any real conflict between Paul’s interpretation and those of the Gospels/Acts. Paul’s witness to the resurrection, and his account of the community-wide Church witness to it that existed during the time he was writing his Epistles, is very important to me, and carries much weight; I doubt many of the details in the Gospel narratives regarding the resurrection, and I can do so without my faith being undermined, but if it were to be proved to me that I Corinthians 15: 3-8 is a lie or hoax, a fairy tale made up by a lying or deluded Paul, my faith would be shaken to its foundation, and might not survive.

            • Paul is in agreement with the gospels here in regard to the resurrection—but there is a discrepancy.

              Paul says that the risen Christ was seen by Peter (Cephas), then by the Twelve, then by 500, then by James, then by the rest of the apostles, and finally, as to one untimely born, Christ appeared to Paul.

              But… but… the women at the grave! what about the women???

              • Robert F says:

                Either Paul is not counting them because he hadn’t escaped the misogynist bias in Jewish law of not counting women as witnesses, or he was not familiar with the tradition that the women had seen the resurrected Jesus first. Either one is possible, you know. Not all the traditions were universally known, and Paul may not have known that one…..or he may not have believed it because of enduring misogyny….

                • I don’t think Paul was all that misogynistic. In my post to Dana just now I mentioned Paul being well balanced, as in Romans 7 & 8.

                  I was also thinking of Ephesians 5, “Wives submit to your husbands,” which is followed by the often-omitted “Husbands, love your wives,” and preceded by the nearly-always omitted “Submit yourselves one to another out of reverence to Christ.” That was probably less misogynistic than the culture around him, but he gets bad press for it nowadays.

                  • Patriciamc says:

                    This is exactly why people need to read Paul through the lenses of Christ and the Gospels to interpret Paul correctly. That why I say that Ephesians 5:21 and the rest are not about authority but an example of Christ’s command to love one another.

              • Robert F says:

                Or perhaps the accounts Paul was familiar with were even more varied than the ones in our canonical Gospels, which differ in significant details with each other, and he wanted to stick to a noncontroversial, existing skeleton narrative that was the already existing consensus of the communities.

                • The oral equivalent of the Q document?

                  • Well, my understanding is that, according to some scholars, Q was not necessarily a written document, but could have been a stable and widespread oral tradition. It could be that Paul was relying on Q for his resurrection witness list in 1 Corinthians. Of course, there are some reputable scholars, like Luke Timothy Johnson, who question the existence of Q.

          • I’m with Dana, and with N.T. Wright. But I’ve never heard of Habermas. I think Paul was commenting on earlier oral accounts of the gospels.

            I’ll say again that I think Paul is really pretty balanced,and usually gives an “on the one hand” followed by “on the other hand.” For example, Romans 7 (I do the things I don’t want to do, wretch that I am, who will save me from this body of death…) balanced by Romans 8 (There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus). Capon picked up on this.

            Also, since we’re talking satire, I think Capon’s “theology” in Between Noon and Three is a kind of satire, or perhaps a jolly kind of hyperbole in order to make the extreme point of grace. And knowing Wright’s sense of humor, perhaps he agrees with Capon.

        • Dana Ames says:

          BTW,

          “dictums” is allowable in English, but if you want to be a Latin purist, the plural of dictum is dicta 🙂

          D.

        • Robert F says:

          In other words, Capon disagrees with CM’s statement that the “Gospels are primary”; he also disagrees with most of the comments on these threads, which favor the Gospels as primary over the Epistles; he also seems to disagree with the tongue-in-cheek gist of Michael’s post.

          I agree with Capon.

          • Robert F says:

            Actually, I’m not sure that I agree with Capon completely. But, if he actually asserts that the Gospels are commentary on Paul, then he definitely does not agree with the purport of this post, CM, or most of the comments today.

          • Patriciamc says:

            One problem is that many evangelicals give lip-service to Christ and actually worship Paul. They act as if Christ was John the Baptist to Paul the Savior. I attended a church like this as a teen.

            • I get it, Patriciamc. That’s why I regret my sometime tendency to overstate my trust in the authority of Paul; I didn’t grow up in that kind of Paul-centric church, since I was raised in Roman Catholicism.

          • Actually, what I call “Capon’s dictum” is his repetition of a common observation among theologians as to the written chronology. With the possible exception of Mark, all of the actual Pauline corpus existed prior to the gospels being penned.

            • Robert F says:

              Yes, but many of the strands of tradition that went into the finished gospels already existed when Paul was writing his letters, and he was no doubt familiar with many of them and assuming they were widely circulated and known among those to whom he wrote. This means that Paul was commenting on already existing traditions that later went into the gospels; no doubt the gospel writers were also in places responding to Paul’s epistles. In all this I think Dana’s comment was most on target.

        • Tom, I just clicked onto your blog and saw some good stuff there by and about Capon.

  7. Short, sweet, and satirical. I still miss Michael’s way of saying things.

    I urge most everyone I have a close relationship with as a Christian friend and brother: read one of the four gospel accounts at least once a year to remind yourself how Jesus did it, and get a better sense of who he is, what he is unafraid of, and what is important to him.

    • Jesus did it in different ways in each of the accounts…

      • Rick Ro. says:

        Agree completely. And I’m not sure any healing is shown being done the same way twice.

        Yet the consistency of his character and nature are there in all of them. For instance, compassion, 24/7, 365 days of the year.

        • Yes Rick, totally agree.

          “Yet the consistency of his character and nature are there in all of them. For instance, compassion, 24/7, 365 days of the year.”

  8. john barry says:

    I thought most evangelicals believe in 1. Christ alone for salvation 2. Scripture alone for salvation 3. Grace alone 4. Faith alone and etc. but these are the big 4 to me.

    I agree
    Paul is the big promoter , the big explainer and if you will the big salesman of the good news to the world.

    We cannot work or earn our way to heaven, which most of the dreaded evangelicals believe however they do not take lightly or dis regard the Gospel to the extent that is reported here. I guess “they” believe they should be like Jesus, they can never be but keep on trying.

  9. Ummm, help?
    I get this is sarcasm, but could someone explain to me the romans 3 reference?
    I grew up evangelical/fundie…but missing this point /reference?

    Maybe I just haven’t had enough coffee yet…only 9:45 here in the OC??

    Thank you.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      I take it to be the Great Evangelical Hand Wave derived from “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” – – – so I’m good, see ya’ll next Sunday, I have to swing by my 3,500sq/foot home on the all white leafy green cal-de-sac to fetch my golf clubs, me an the other boys from the Chamber of Commerce are gonna do 18 hours and then get some beers.

      • Patriciamc says:

        Exactly, the comfortable, appearance-based Christianity that only pays lip-service to Christ.

    • As scholars like N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell have pointed out the whole evangelical (and much of Protestantism as well) understanding of salvation (and how one gets saved, what Campbell calls ‘Justification Theory’) stands or falls on one particular interpretation of Romans 1-4 (when interpreted in light of presuppositions of the late Medieval period through the modern era).

  10. john barry says:

    Is not the Reformation based on the Pauline Epistles? Does Paul disagree with the teaching or beliefs of the Gospels? In Christ Alone for everyone who believes. Paul teachings was Christ came for everyone. Was Paul teachings not understood correctly since the Reformation and the Gospels ignored ? I do not believe that. What was the whole point of the Reformation? Paul teachings have much of the doctrine that Christian faith is built on especially in salvation doctrine. I see no conflict in the Pauline Epistles and the Gospel. Faith alone in Christ alone, the Christ who we certainly find in the Gospel. I see no conflict.

    • “Was Paul teachings not understood correctly since the Reformation and the Gospels ignored ? I do not believe that. What was the whole point of the Reformation? Paul teachings have much of the doctrine that Christian faith is built on especially in salvation doctrine.”

      These are exactly the questions New Testament scholars have been wrestling with for the last 40 years (since E. P. Sanders published ‘Paul and Palestinian Judaism’ in 1977, launching the whole ‘new perspective’ movement). More and more conservative NT scholars have come to the conclusion that Paul and his ‘gospel’ have been misunderstood, particularly by Luther and his successors. For a good popular-level introduction, I’d recommend N. T. Wright’s book ‘The Day the Revolution Began’. if you want to dig deeper, Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’ and ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’ are worth the read (but together they are about 2350 pages!).

      • john barry says:

        Greg, thanks for the info and the clarity. So if E. P Sanders and the more conservative NT scholars are correct the Reformation was a mistake? I will check it out.

        • I’m sure many mistakes were made in the Reformation, however, what is presently often not understood is that the Reformers as Medievalist were reacting to a different ecclesial setting/milieu than what most of us have had to deal with. The essential wedge issue was that of Purgatory and how that relates (or doesn’t) to how sin was dealt with by God in Christ at the cross.

          • Robert F says:

            Like jb, many people seem to think of it as an all-or-nothing thing: either the Reformation was wrong, or it was right. But it was both wrong and right, in different places and about different things. What is definitely wrong is for us to evaluate it as if we still had a medieval sitatuation and were reacting to medieval religious excesses; that is impossible for us, though many Protestants (and a fewer Catholics) continue to act as it that is where we are.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

              Like jb, many people seem to think of it as an all-or-nothing thing: either the Reformation was wrong, or it was right.

              Dealing in Absolutes like a Sith?

          • Robert F says:

            And Purgatory in the Middle Ages had definitely become a metastasizing tumor that occluded the awareness and practice of grace in the Church, as manifested in the cross of Christ.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

              Purgatory does present an elegant solution to a dilemma that pops up all the time in Evangelicalism:

              You have two individuals; one’s a Christian for most of his life, the other’s a deathbed conversion after a life of some really horrible things. With Evangelicalism’s version of salvation, both are Saved and rewarded in Heaven (never mind Resurrection), even though the second left a much larger trail of damage and destruction. “It’s all Under the Blood”.

              With Purgatory, the second has to “take care of his unfinished business” before he can fully enter God’s Presence in complete Sanctification. (The idea here is that Purgatory is not a “Temporary Hell” as George Carlin put it, but an antechamber on the borderlands for those who need a little more work before they can go in deeper.)

        • Along with Greg I would also recommend N. T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began.

  11. Thanks!
    As I thought it…I realized it must mean, I’m saved , I’m in, but be Christ -like…ummm, not sure what you all are talking about…

    And you guys helped clarify that.

    Again-why I no longer identify as evangelical …. much to the chagrin of my ex-best friend…still friends but she’s kept her distance—really doesn’t want to know or hear it. My life group, either.

    That’s ok…I’m not here to ‘convert’ anybody. My journey.

  12. I was wondering if Michael posted this on April 1st.