Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How many gospels are there?

Paul couldn't countenance a gospel different from the one he preached/lived. You can see his frustration in Galatians 1 as he takes on the problems that "another gospel" has created for his converts, "which is really not another" gospel--for he believed there was only one gospel, his.

I wonder what St. Paul would say today, what with all the different versions of the gospel we see and hear every day. Some of these gospels are familiar to us because of the labels we use to categorize them, e.g., the "health and wealth" gospel or the "social gospel." But, for all the labels, I think there are only three gospels in America:

1. the spiritual gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was save us from eternal death. The down side of this gospel is that Jesus is Lord only in heaven and not on earth.
2. the political gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was make the world a better place. The down side of this gospel is that it ignores the problem of hell.
3. the therapeutic gospel, i.e., the essence of what Jesus came to do was make me a better person. The down side of this gospel is that it is anthropocentric.

Can you think of "another gospel" other than these? And, considering the question we all assume has already been answered, what is the "real" gospel, in this case, the gospel St. Paul would recognize as the one he preached/lived?


Matt Kimbrough said...

Without being exhaustive, it seems as if the simplest way to describe Paul's Gospel is by using his most direct statements about it. To keep it short, I'll avoid commenting on specific passages (already wrote it and it's several paragraphs). But, here are my conclusions based on 1 Cor 15; 2 Tim 2:8; Rom 1:16; 2:16; much of Galatians and other direct references to euangelion.

Paul's Gospel is rooted in the historical Jesus, who died a sacrificial death as the Jewish messiah for the sin of mankind, resulting in both present and future salvation. The Father raised Jesus to life, guaranteeing a future resurrection and eschatological salvation for all who believe. The Spirit accompanies belief in the Gospel, resulting in transformed, virtuous lives. For Paul, all these components line up with the work of God in the OT. Furthermore, he does not feel the need to directly command what his life proves to be true: the Gospel message must be proclaimed in word and deed.

The only way we create a subordinate Gospel is by ignoring one or more of these components, resulting in one of the three American gospels. Yet, another important element, at least for Jesus, is the Kingdom of God. I believe that is where we get the "political" or "social" gospel, rather than from Paul. Point being, once we move outside of Paul and look at the Gospel in the Gospels, I think the picture gets much more detailed (and complicated).


Rodney Reeves said...

Well said, Matt.

Do you think it's significant that Paul doesn't write about hell and therefore (does it naturally follow that)he doesn't have a "social action" gospel either?

Matt Kimbrough said...

Dr. Reeves,

I cannot say that I have ever considered a relationship between hell and social justice. It seems sometimes in Christendom that concerns are almost mutually exclusive, as if "already" and "no yet" can never meet.

To answer the first part of your question, though, I do think the insignificance of Hell in Paul is significant. Obviously, Jesus refers to it at times, especially within parables. But for Paul, it was not a central element of Christian theology (or maybe he talked about it so much that he didn't need to write about it... but I doubt that).

Stepping back a little further, I'm amazed that Paul uses so little of the Jesus tradition. Why isn't he retelling the parables, the sermon on the mount, or recalling Jesus' healings and miracles? Is it because, according to Gal 1, he doesn't rely on "human" tradition but only on his spiritual(?) encounter(s) with Jesus?

Also, maybe this could be a future blog topic (wink, wink), but what do you think of Christian Smith's new book and the ensuing discussion about "Biblicism?" It has really been bothering me. Thanks!