Thursday, 29 September 2005

The Bible and the gospel

At the centre of the Bible is the gospel. Our entire doctrine of Scripture should be determined by this evangelical centre.

This has been my argument over the past couple of weeks. And several readers have raised questions about this distinction between the Bible and the gospel. How can we distinguish between the Bible and the gospel, when the gospel itself is found solely in the Bible? What are the criteria for identifying any “core” or “centre” of Scripture?

Simply put, my answer is that Scripture itself demands that we identify its own evangelical core, its own central message. The gospel is not a preconceived theological category which we then bring to Scripture, but it is rather something which we encounter in Scripture itself, and which demands to be taken seriously as the centre of the whole biblical witness.

In other words, our identification of the gospel as the core of Scripture is nothing more than an attempt to follow the ancient hermeneutical rule: Scripture interprets itself (Scriptura sui interpres). And this means that we should aim to use the word “gospel” as it is used in the New Testament itself—not as a narrow theological slogan but as a fundamentally open concept which remains always related to the decisive saving act of Israel’s God in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

Hans Küng offers a useful discussion of the centrality of the gospel in his important book The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), pp. 40-41. He notes that “[i]t is certainly possible to look impartially for a ‘centre’ in Scripture, by working exegetically from the New Testament texts rather than dogmatically from established preconceptions.” After all, what was form criticism except a massive (one-sided, but still largely successful) endeavour to identify the Bible’s central “gospel” using critical tools?

But what is this gospel? Küng continues: “On the one hand the word ‘gospel’ is not restricted to a particular doctrine..., but is fundamentally open; on the other hand, the word ‘gospel’ in the New Testament is indissolubly linked to the saving event in Jesus Christ.” Thus we can identify the gospel through critical and exegetical research, but this identification will always remain provisional. Precisely because the gospel is the centre of the Bible itself and not some external theological preconception, any identification of the gospel will always remain open to revision in light of further research into the biblical texts.

Küng is also right to point out that the word “gospel” refers not just to one part of the Bible in isolation from other parts, but to the biblical witness as a whole. And it is precisely the evangelical centre of Scripture which allows us to take seriously the witness of Scripture as a unified whole. Without this evangelical centre, we would undermine the unity of Scripture either by selecting certain portions of Scripture in isolation from others (as in Marcionism), or by reducing all Scripture to a single “harmonised” level (as in fundamentalism).

An exegetical and critical identification of the Bible’s evangelical centre, and a sharp theological concentration on this centre, allow us to avoid both the Scylla of Marcionism and the Charybdis of fundmantalism, and to view the whole Bible—with all its inner tensions and divergencies—as the gospel of God.

4 Comments:

eddie said...

Ben,

If we are going to go by NT usage of the phrase, do we go with Paul or Jesus? I dont see how the "gospel" in either Paul's letters or Jesus ministry was "a fundamentally open concept which remains always related to the decisive saving act of Israel’s God in the man Jesus of Nazareth." It is good news, and news always has a content.

"Küng is also right to point out that the word “gospel” refers not just to one part of the Bible in isolation from other parts, but to the biblical witness as a whole."

Does not this betray the NT usage?]

What are your thoughts?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Eddie. I didn't mean to suggest that the gospel has no content, only that it does not have a narrowly defined theological content in the NT. The concept is interpreted in very diverse ways, but it is always related to the eschatological salvation of Israel's God which appears in Jesus (i.e., this is its general "content").

In answer to your second question, it seems to me that it's appropriate to speak of the whole biblical witness as an evangelical witness, since the biblical writings themselves are basically kerygmatic in character.

I'm not making any claim here for every individual part of the Bible, but only for the biblical witness "as a whole". So I'm just suggesting that the "gospel" is the central witness of the Bible, and that the unity of the whole Bible is constituted by this message. In this general sense, I think Küng is right to say that the Bible as a whole is evangelical.

Of course, I may well be wrong about all this, and that's fine with me! After all, my main point is that our understanding of the gospel (and thus of the biblical witness) always remains open to further insight into the biblical texts themselves.

eddie said...

Ok, that makes things clear for me.

Limudyah said...

It is written that God (Yah) preached to Abraham and in Hebrews it says the prophets of old heard the Gospel and the people of faith. Paul's Gospel was all about the death and resurrection, but the Gospel that Yashuah preach would have had very little of that. So you are right the Gospel is all over the place. Isaish said how lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who teach the Gospel of peace. Hmmmmm do you suppose peace has something to do with it from Alef to Tav?

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