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?

8 thoughts on “What Is the Gospel, Really? (Part 1)

  1. I do love it when you begin to dabble in neo-orthodoxy. Raised as a biblicist I became a “Word and Spirit” person, no longer am I interested in being stretched or sawn to fit some new/old procrusrean bed. In Derrida’s “The Purveyor of Truth”, with regards to text he talks about the “pre-eminence of the signifier over the subject…Any subject of the signifier is subject to the law of the signifier.” The Godhead is more than the text, If I believe that I see but darkly, and that the Spirit is a portion of the revelation which “shall teach” then I need an authority which takes Word and Spirit seriously but somehow with less surety than I have seen to date…

    • neo-shmeo–I’m just orthodox. If word and spirit put me in a camp, I’ll be not so disappointed, since that seems to me what the NT writers themselves profess. I’m careful with Derrida, who somehow always wanted his readers/listeners to know just what he was saying, not what they believed him to be saying.

  2. Are you speaking of The Gospel…or The Scripture? It seems to me that you are interchanging or synonymously using the two….

    While Scripture holds the message of The Gospel, Scripture itself is not The Gospel.

    The 1st century Church knew the Gospel, but they did not have Scripture as we have it today. They did have what we call the Old Testament, which is what much of the New Testament is – reiterated. The Church in Corinth did not have the letters that Paul wrote to Timothy…the Church in Phillipi did not have the written account of Matthew, and none of the churches held the written Revelation of Jesus from John. Sure, many of them probably had the book of James in some form…but the cannonized text of Scripture was not available to the 1st century church…

    So, I wonder why we would expect the same fruit & ministry as the early church when we value a book they didn’t have more than the Holy Spirit they did have….

    Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE scripture, studying, and teaching it….but when we teach and value the book over the very Person of Jesus we run into trouble.

    • Not confusing them at all; what I’m looking at initially is where we find good news and how that is understood. I’m doing that by measuring one man’s answer to the question of what the gospel is. Gilbert begins, legitimately, by asking the question of authority yet again. I’m following his book for the sake of critique, but more so for what alternatives we might suggest and what we might gain from his take. I find it relevant because he is a teacher who writes primarily for a lay audience.

      And I do know a bit about the early church and its relations with the Scripture.

      • So, then…is this more a critique/review of a book?

        I am sure you do know about the early church and its relation with scripture…. :)

  3. Did Jesus say “it is written” when dealing with Satan? Or refer to the Holy Spirit. What they lived is what we read. When Paul says “you have heard” we would be told “you have read”. There is a reason what they heard is what we read, and that is God’s intended purpose. AKA put in place by God’ ….authority…

  4. Being the non-academic that I am, I’m not grasping what the confusion or misinterpretations exist in defining the “gospel”.?
    I have been to Lutheran Churches, Pentecostal, Catholic, Independent Baptist, (even the E.C. Church)…I found that the Gospel, “Christ died for our sins” was one common belief in all of those circles. What am I missing here?
    I think I agree with what Marty posted, but I have no idea what half the words mean! (all in fun Marty).

    • Non-academics welcome. Especially since that’s the audience the author of the book I’m reviewing is writing for. The question he (Glibert) starts with is how we know what the gospel is. Once we say it is the Bible that is our authority, we still have to recognize that the Bible is a long book; how do we condense it to a short message called the gospel? Does that come as clearly off the page as we usually think it does? The next post goes to that question.

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