Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Gospel, according to the gospels and the epistles...

If you can see past the Wrightian over-generalizations, there is a good corrective here:
     Christians, particularly in the Western world, have for a long time been divided between "epistles people" and "gospels people."  The "epistles people" have thought of Christianity primarily in terms of Jesus's death and resurrection "saving us from our sins."  The "gospels people" have thought primarily in terms of following Jesus in feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and so on.  The "epistles people" have often found it difficult to give a clear account of what was going on in Jesus's kingdom-announcement and his call to his followers to be "perfect."  The "gospels people"--or perhaps we should say the "beginning-of-the-gospels-people," since the line of thought they embrace usually screens out the last few chapters--have often found it difficult to explain why the Jesus who was doing these remarkable things had to die, and die so soon.  They have often found it difficult, in consequence, to relate to the central themes of Pauling theology. 
     This either/or split does no justice, in fact, to either the epistles or the gospels.  Still less does it do justice to Jesus himself.  For him, the kingdom which he inaugurated could be firmly established only through his death and resurrection.  Or, to put it the other way around, the main purpose of his death and resurrection was to establish the kingdom he had already begun to inaugurate.  The way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus's death, with prolonged sections of preliminary teaching followed by quite detailed accounts of the "hearings" before the chief priests and the Roman governor, was chosen not for the sake of "local color" or mere historical reminiscence tacked on to the front of an event (the actual crucifixion) whose theological "meaning" must be culled from elsewhere.  The "meaning" of the cross, in the gospels, is that it is the execution of the kingdom-bringer, the one who gathers up the "royal" and "priestly" vocations of Israel and of all the human race, the one who at the same time embodies Israel's God coming to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven.  The famous passages which encapsulate what later writers have thought of as "atonement theology" (such as Mark 10.45: "The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many") are interpretive clues to understand one key dimension of what the whole story is about, not the superimposition of a supposedly "Pauline" theology (about Jesus "dying for our sins") on a narrative which is basically "about" something else.
     Likewise, for Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus did not accomplish merely a "supernatural" salvation having nothing to do with God's rescue of creation....for Paul the whole point of the achievement of Jesus and his death and resurrection is that, through Jesus, a redeemed people has come to birth, and that through this people the creator will ultimately set the whole world to rights. The point of it all is "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5.17; Galatians 6.15).  The gospels, the epistles, and Revelations itself "work" only when you see them as detailed elaborations of the large, complex, but utterly coherent story we sketched earlier: the call of Human to be God's image-bearer into creation, the call of Israel to be the rescuer of Human, and the vocation of Jesus to be the one who, completing Israel's task, rescues Human so that, through redeemed humankind, the whole creation can be liberated from its corruption and death and the project of new creation decisively launched.  Shrink this narrative, or leave out one or more key stages within it, and you will never understand the New Testament as a whole, still less its call to learn the habits of heart and mind that anticipate the final goal.
                                                                - N.T. Wright, After You Believe, p. 110-12.

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