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.

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