What Is the Gospel, Really? (Part 1)

Thanks to those who have taken time and thought to offer what they believe to be the gospel in short. We even heard from the Roman Catholic perspective–not a bad addition to the discussion, either. At this point I’d like to offer a synopsis of Greg Gilbert’s take in his short book, What Is the Gospel?

The author’s first point is to ask what our authority is going to be in coming to a conclusion about what the Christian message is at its core. Regular readers of this blog will immediately recognize that familiar theme of authority; here, it’s not about who has the right or responsibility to decide standards of belief and practice, but about who or what tells us what we’re all about in the first place. I’m unaware of any self-designated Christian denomination which does not believe there is good news–gospel–to be proclaimed. But we are all well aware that which is spoken by various churches does not sound like the same message. So who has it right? Or are all versions equally valid, with some being more central while others are true but peripheral?

In deciding where we should go to find the “true gospel” Gilbert offers these options: the Bible as interpreted by Church tradition, with tradition taking the higher role; reason as that which will guide us to the truth; our own experience of and in the world will lead us to recognize truth “in our hearts”; or, we can rely on the Bible itself as the Word of God. The first option (tradition) is simply dismissed by equating it with the opinions of men, which can and have been wrong. Reason is dismissed by pointing out (correctly enough) that bare reason leads to nothing but skepticism. Experience means we have no confidence beyond ourselves, providing no certainty of anything we were looking for in the first place; it’s only a matter of how strong our will is, not of how the world is actually structured.

This, of course leads to the fourth option for finding the truth, or the real gospel: the pure scripture. Since it is all God-breathed, there is nothing to trump it or legitimately challenge its assertions. It comes from the Creator Himself; what more could be said? This is, of course standard fare in conservative circles. And I’m not interested in arguing against the idea of inspiration, without which we really do not have much to be confident about.

But is it so easily assumed that what everyone reads is the same message? Does the concept of inspiration override the differences in how people read or hear what the Bible says? The idea that what the authors penned and what we perceive are identical is open to serious question, as can be demonstrated through the history of interpretation. And the idea that any of us come to the text without some kind of tradition that tells us how to receive certain passages is mistaken. Maybe we need to at least open ourselves to a role for the options Gilbert dismisses out of hand–because in point of fact, he will use each of them to some measure throughout his writing. Tradition, reason, and experience may be difficult if not impossible task masters; but they may also be indispensable tools.

In the next entry we’ll discuss the hermeneutic Gilbert employs–and whether or not it actually affects the conclusion about his basic question of what the gospel is. For today, what do you see as the role of these factors–the other three sides of the so-called quadrilateral–in determining just what the gospel really is?