Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

This series of posts follows on from my post entitled ‘The Denominational Church’. My two previous posts can be read here and here. My original post and the two subsequent posts have sparked a number of interesting discussions in various parts of the blogosphere and in the comments. The comments of the posts in question have lengthy discussions of such issues as the content of the gospel, baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession and the primacy of the Roman See.

In such inter-denominational discussions we should always seek to be humble and patient. We have much left to learn from our siblings. However, there is a danger of a false humility in this area. True humility is not unwilling to rebuke a brother in love. There are occasions on which we must rebuke other denominations, for their compromising of the gospel. To fail to do so would constitute a betrayal of the love that we should have for them.

Furthermore, true humility will not deny the light that God has granted to the denominations that we belong to. We may have much still to learn, but God has taught us a lot already. We should not denigrate the work that God has done in us simply because it is still incomplete. We should keep faith with those who have gone before us and value the insights that they have bequeathed to us.

When we begin to appreciate that the Church is far broader than our particular denomination we should begin to appreciate that orthodoxy cannot merely be defined in terms of the particular theological tradition that we are heirs to in our small wing of the Church. If that becomes the touchstone of orthodoxy we are well on the way to becoming sectarians and heretics. Orthodoxy is far more catholic than that. Not only must we keep faith with those who went before us in the history of our particular theological tradition, we must also keep faith, in various ways, with the rest of the wider Church.

This involves, among other things, a recognition that the beliefs that distinguish us from all other denominations are probably not as central to the gospel message as we sometimes are tempted to believe. For instance, TULIP is not the gospel, and it never will be. One can strongly reject TULIP and still hold to the central truths of the gospel, albeit perhaps somewhat inconsistently. Keeping faith with the wider Church must also involve an attempt to confess our Christian faith in language that is recognizable to those outside our immediate communion. Ideally, we would like the rest of the Church to be able to join us in confessing our faith. We don’t expect the rest of the Church to agree with everything that we say, but we do want them to see that we are closely related in many ways.

Sadly, for many denominations orthodoxy is merely a matter of conformity with a particular interpretation of confessional documents from their narrow tradition, without any regard for the wider Church. In such cases we must resist the sectarian majority. Though we might be accused of being unorthodox sectarians, we are not, but simply hold to a bigger view of the Church.

Central to many of the differences between denominations are disagreements about the content of the gospel. In Reformed circles one comes across a number of people, for instance, who insist that those who deny doctrines such as the imputation of Christ’s active obedience are denying the gospel. The gospel is thought to be at stake in debates about such fine details as the correct use of the language of merit or the covenant of works. I humbly submit that these are sure signs that something is seriously wrong.

I believe that a careful examination of the biblical meaning of the term ‘gospel’ can help us considerably here. In the gospels the term ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the message of the coming kingdom. Such a usage is consistent with uses of the language in the LXX (where it is used to refer to the news of victories, or of Messianic restoration and glory) and elsewhere in ancient literature (where, for instance, it refers to the birth of Augustus and the new world order that his birth brought in). This meaning becomes refined as it becomes clear that the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection and ascension as Lord of all. ‘Gospel’ is the narrative of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in history, whether in extended or potted form.

The claim ‘Jesus is Lord/the Christ/the Son of God’ is a claim that sums up the truth that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. This is the central Christian confession; to make this confession is to believe the gospel (Matthew 16:16; Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 5:1). In the OT the gospel message is the awaited message of God’s saving reign (Isaiah 52:7). The NT gospel is the message that this reign has come in Christ.

This claim should not be taken in abstraction from the gospel narrative, but as that which is designed to summarize it as succinctly as possible. It is the gospel narrative that clarifies exactly what is meant by this claim. For instance, it makes clear that the Jesus is always the crucified Lord and declares His rule to us as the forgiving Lord. This is the claim which draws together all of the various threads of the gospel narrative. In this sense this claim can be said to stand at the heart of the gospel.

There are a number of summaries of the gospel in the Scriptures, ranging from brief statements (e.g. Romans 1:1-5), to more lengthy summaries (e.g. Acts 10:36-43), to full length narratives of the Gospels themselves. Sometimes the gospel message focuses on the Lordship of Christ as a message of final judgment (e.g. Romans 2:16), on other occasions on Christ as the risen Davidic Messiah (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:8), on other occasions the death of Christ is central (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). The gospel is for Paul, clearly the gospel ‘of Christ’, even if this is less accented in the Synoptic Gospels.

From the various biblical usages we can see that the gospel message includes a number of regularly recurring elements. F.F. Bruce writes as follows:

The basic elements in the message were these: 1. the prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ; 2. he was born into the family of David; 3. he died according to the Scriptures, to deliver his people from this evil age; 4. he was buried, and raised again the third day, according to the Scriptures; 5. he is exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God, Lord of living and dead; 6. he will come again, to judge the world and consummate his saving work.

I find this summary helpful. Speaking in terms of ‘deliverance from this evil age’ helps to clarify what is meant by the gospel declaration of the ‘forgiveness of sins’. The ‘forgiveness of sins’ is an eschatological and national blessing (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), without ceasing to be deeply personal. Bruce’s definition is also potentially weakened by failing to mention the Jew-Gentile dimension of the gospel message.

This definition of the gospel is more or less what we find in the ecumenical creeds. When a Roman Catholic believes what the Nicene Creed says, he is believing the gospel, even if nothing is said about imputed righteousness. Such doctrines, important though they are, are not central to what the Scriptures refer to as the ‘gospel’.

In much post-Reformation debate the word ‘gospel’ has taken on something of a life of its own. The word is used to speak of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (as articulated by the Reformers) and other such truths. The problem here is not that these doctrines are unbiblical, but that this is not what the word ‘gospel’ actually means. In Scripture the gospel is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God and the gospel is summed up in the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’, the claim that the kingdom has actually come in Christ.

The nature of the kingdom that has come and the character of its Lord is, of course, deeply significant in Scripture. Used in the wrong way, the claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ could be quite misleading. For instance, Jesus is not Lord in the way that many among the Jews would have anticipated Him to be.

All of this said, the gospel is not primarily a message about how individuals can go to heaven when they die, but is the proclamation of the advent of God’s kingdom in history. Sadly many Protestants use the word ‘gospel’ to refer to the way of individual salvation and lose sight of the importance of the word’s connection with the kingdom of God. People are certainly saved within the kingdom of God, but the message that they are saved by believing is the message of the kingdom’s arrival in Christ, not a timeless message of how an individual can get right with a holy God by justification through faith.

Many post-Reformation uses of the word ‘gospel’ have been driven primarily by theological and pastoral concerns and have obscured the biblical usage of the term. While sympathizing with many of these theological and pastoral concerns, I believe that we need to be careful to use the word ‘gospel’ in the manner in which the Scriptures use it. Opposing ‘Gospel’ with ‘Law’, for instance, breeds confusion as the NT does not use the terms ‘Gospel’ and ‘Law’ in the same theological sense that Luther and his heirs do. This is not to deny the great value of Luther’s theological insight. It is simply an expression of my disappointment that he choose to frame many of his insights in the terms that he did. Many Protestant uses of the term ‘Gospel’, for all of their valid theological concerns, have allowed the term to diverge in meaning from that of the Scriptures. The gospel has become closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in and through Jesus the Messiah.

A simplistic distinction between believing the gospel and obeying the Law, for instance, can be deeply misleading. One is also called to believe the Law and to obey the Gospel. The gospel message is a message of the Lordship of Christ, which demands obedience (cf. 1 Peter 4:17; Luke 3:18). In proclaiming the Gospel of Christ we must call people to obey everything that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).

If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience, an obedience that we will one day be judged on. John the Baptist, for example, can ‘evangelize’ (Luke 3:18) people by proclaiming the coming kingdom and wrath of God and calling people to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ if they are going to escape imminent judgment. If the biblical meaning of the term ‘Gospel’ were prominent in our mind this would appear entirely natural to us. However, as we tend to think in terms of categories that have become quite detached from those of Scripture, John’s preaching on such occasions strikes us as ‘Law’.

After my original post, a discussion arose on the Boar’s Head Tavern, helpfully summarized here. The discussion started with the distinction between a map and a territory as an analogy for the relationship between our theologies and God’s truth. This discussion, in turn, was discussed by Macht, on his blog Prosthesis.

I am not sure that I find the map metaphor the most best, although I think that it is not a bad one. Maps are spatializing and totalizing and the map-reader is not necessarily rooted in the territory. Perhaps it would be better to speak in terms of ‘itineraries’. In theology we don’t hold all of the terrain in our gaze from a great height, but navigate it on the ground, following particular paths and observing the details along the path.

We always follow itineraries, whether we intend to or not, although I for one do not generally travel with much of a map in my head. However, there are many ways of narrating the itinerary that will take us via one path, rather than others.

The gospel is the safe path that we must take. The various itineraries that we narrate must retain the simplicity of this path. Losing the traveller is the worst crime that such an itinerary can commit and, for this reason, nothing should be kept clearer and simpler than the path.

Nevertheless, such an itinerary ought also to draw the traveller’s gaze to the wonderful complexity of his surroundings, without focusing his attention too much on easy to miss or doubtful details that may result in his losing sight of his path. An itinerary should also not make the path any narrower than it needs to be. For instance, provided that you are on the right path, the side of the street on which you are walking is probably not a matter to be that concerned about.

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Itineraries can become confusing when misleading details are included. In a number of the different narrations of the itinerary that we must follow to remain on the path of the gospel, details are included that are potentially vague or misleading. As these details are emphasized, we are in danger of ending up at a different destination altogether. Even if we remain on the right path we will be unsure of whether we are and will only able to proceed hesitantly.

In following the itinerary of the gospel we are not merely tracing a route on a map of the territory with our finger, but are actually on a journey through the territory, on a pilgrimage towards God. We have many fellow-travellers. Some walk on the other side of the street. Some are looking out for street names, others are counting the number of their steps, still others are paying attention to the names of the different shops along the way. Some look confused and perhaps a little bit lost, failing to see a particular landmark or feature that that they were trying to look for. Some decide to leave the main path to try to find an easier route through the side streets. Others are rejoining the path after having been lost for a while. In such a situation a good itinerary is invaluable if we want to travel confidently towards our destination. However, our particular itinerary is not the path. There are those who find the way to the destination, even though they are using very poor itineraries.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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14 Responses to Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

  1. Pingback: The Boar’s Head Tavern »

  2. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Have Lutherans got “law and gospel” wrong? Discuss.

  3. John H says:

    Hi Alastair: as I’ve raised this on my blog and on the BHT, it seemed only fair to post something here so you have the opportunity to respond.

    You say (and I’m glad you do) that the gospel narrative “declares [Jesus’] rule to us as the forgiving Lord”.

    However, I still find myself wondering whether (1) the forgiveness of sins is more peripheral in your summaries of the gospel message than it was in the apostles’ proclamation, and (2) that you are turning the forgiveness of sins into something that has to be deduced from the message of Jesus’ lordship and resurrection, not something “core” to the gospel itself.

    As I said on the BHT, I’m sympathetic to – indeed, very supportive of – a lot of what you (and N.T. Wright) have to say on the wider ramifications of the gospel. But passages such as Acts 2:38, Acts 5:40, Acts 10:42,43 etc., or Colossians 1:14, or 1 John 1:9; or (for that matter, and bearing in mind Michael’s “three years with Jesus” principle) Mark 2:5 or Luke 7:48 or Matthew 26:28, all seem to place the forgiveness of sins at the heart of the gospel proclamation, not merely as a deduction from it.

    And again, as I said on the BHT, I’m very happy to agree with your summary of the gospel as “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead”, provided we add to that (as did the apostles), as part of that core proclamation, “… and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”.

    Am I missing the point of what you are saying here? I know you wouldn’t deny what the gospel says about forgiveness, far from it, but I wonder whether you give due weight to the pastoral urgency of the message of forgiveness as a central aspect of the gospel.

  4. Al says:

    My claim is primarily an exegetical, rather than a theological one. I simply believe that the word ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the coming of the kingdom of God. This is the fundamental meaning of the word in the NT, closely related to its usage in the LXX and other ancient sources. The claim that this has taken place in Christ is summed up in the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’. This becomes the key statement that encapsulates the gospel message.

    Forgiveness is a key element of the gospel message, simply because this is what the coming of the kingdom of God involves. The coming of the kingdom of God is the return of God to His people, the overcoming of their exile and the defeat of the powers that had enslaved them. It is the sign that Israel’s warfare has ended and her iniquity has been pardoned (cf. Isaiah 40:1-11). And proclamation of the ‘gospel’ that excludes forgiveness is a huge distortion.

    It is because I understand the kingdom of God in such a manner (i.e. with forgiveness of sins as an integral part) that I believe that the gospel can be truly be summed up in the claim that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (i.e. the kingdom of God has come in Christ).

    Just one last remark: The message of the kingdom is not merely that forgiveness is now possible, but that the Forgiveness of Sins has actually taken place and that all who will believe can enter into this. The return from exile is not mere presented as a possibility for every individual, but as something that has come to be a reality in and through Christ and something that we can enter into in Him. In other words, the gospel proclamation is less a message that we can be saved, as it is a message that salvation has taken place in history and we are called to enter into it.

  5. John H says:

    Alastair: thank you for your response. I wonder whether part of the issue here is the whole question of seeking statements that “encapsulate the gospel message”, or interpretive keys to Scripture, or whatever.

    I’m sceptical of the value of any single, short statement claiming to “encapsulate the gospel message”, whether that’s “Jesus is Lord” or justification by faith or law and gospel. I’d prefer to locate the gospel not in summary statements but in the life of the church taken as a whole, as it preaches the gospel, absolves, baptises and celebrates the Lord’s Supper.

    At times the aspect of that gospel that needs to be articulated most clearly is “Jesus is Lord”. At times, what people need the gospel to be for them is “Your sins are forgiven – go in peace”.

    This makes me wonder if we’re perhaps just coming at this from different angles. The Lutheran understanding of law and gospel is not primarily one of exegesis or hermeneutics. Indeed, Walther writes that it is perfectly possible to preach the Word entirely without error, but to fail properly to distinguish law and gospel – in other words it is a matter of application (in pastoral practice) rather than interpretation.

  6. John H says:

    The message of the kingdom is not merely that forgiveness is now possible, but that the Forgiveness of Sins has actually taken place and that all who will believe can enter into this.

    100% agreed. Remind me which of us is the Lutheran here? 😉

    Seriously, I’d be interested to know whether you’ve ever come across the Lutheran concept of “objective justification” (or “universal justification”) and if so what you think of it. There seems to be scope for significant interaction between this concept (which I admittedly know very little about) and Wright’s emphasis on justification as something that goes beyond merely the question of “How do I get to go to heaven when I die?”

    There’s an essay on universal justification here, but I haven’t read it yet. Ditto this.

  7. pduggie says:

    Weird, I just read that essay yesterday.

    Al, I like your emphasis on the coming of the Kingdom being the in context of Israel standing in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

    We sometimes too much emphasize the “God breaking into history” with the kingdom, and forget that God is breaking BACK into history after having left it with the first exile.

  8. Alastair,

    I really can’t thank you enough for the service you are providing we who are of a similar mind (and hopefully even those who are not) with these posts. It seems to me that you have the foundation for an eventual publishable short book with the four posts you’ve provided here.

    Grace and Peace,


  9. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Jesus is Lord and your sins are forgiven

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Alastair’s own precision of language does help me to see where some of the problem is. He states that he is speaking of an exegetical question rather than a theological one. I think our guys made a similar distinction. C.F.W. Walther distinguished between “Gospel” used in the broad versus the narrow sense. He made a similar distinction for conversion. Gospel in the broad sense includes both Law and Gospel (in the narrow sense), just as Repentance in the broad sense includes both repentance (in the narrow sense) and faith.

    Walther also is clear about the fact that what he is distinguishing is the doctrine of the Law from the doctrine of the Gospel. The doctrine of the Gospel will be derived from passages that use the term Gospel in the narrow sense (e.g. Luke 4:18-19, 1 Cor. 15:1-4, Gal. 1:6-7) and other passages that contrast Law and Gospel, even if other terms are used (e.g. John 1:17, Gal. 3:2-5).

  11. Pingback: Nelmezzo » Blog Archive » Three on Theology #3

  12. Thank you so much for this series! Truly words I needed to hear, and hope I have been missing!

  13. Pingback: Mandatory Reading | Michael Awbrey

  14. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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