February 18, 2020

The Kerygma

N.T. Wright raised some dust recently when he charged that the way we say and view the Creeds has led us to miss a central focus of the Gospels — the life and ministry of Jesus. The Creeds seem to go from cradle to Cross, as if what happened in between is of little import. Wright and others, however, are trying to get the church’s focus back on all that teaching and all those works of Jesus by which he proclaimed that, through him, God was taking his throne, inaugurating his Messianic Kingdom in Jesus the King. The Cross, resurrection, and ascension take on their full, rich significance only when understood in the light of Jesus’ life and ministry. When we divorce the two, we are left with what Scot McKnight calls the “soterian” Gospel — the Gospel of (merely) personal salvation.

The revivalist tradition of evangelicalism has honed the soterian Gospel down to simple presentations — whether the “Romans Road,” the “Four Spiritual Laws,” “Steps to Peace with God,” “The Bridge,” or any number of step-by-step summaries of what has come to be called, “The Gospel message.”

However, as McKnight reminds us in his book The King Jesus Gospel, the Gospel is the Story of the Gospels. The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John includes the entire narrative of Jesus’ life, from incarnation to ascension. Furthermore, this narrative can only be understood as the culmination of an entire tradition of narratives — the first testament which is Israel’s Story — canonized in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.

There are summaries of the full storied Gospel message available to us, but they are often ignored. Why we don’t go to them to make our definitions of the Gospel, I don’t know. Nor do I know why we don’t present the Gospel in the way they exemplify. When I was in seminary, we studied these texts as representative of the KERYGMA (proclamation) of the apostolic church. I’m speaking of the apostolic sermons in the Book of Acts.

Since we read one of these texts as our epistle reading for Easter Sunday today, I will give as an example Peter’s sermon at Cornelius’s house in Acts 10:34-43. Here it is in the NIV translation:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

We might note the following elements of the apostolic kerygma:

  • This message is for everyone.
  • It came first to the people of Israel.
  • It can be summarized as: “Good news of peace through Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord of all.”
  • It includes the God-anointed, Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus after his baptism, when “he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
  • It includes his death on the cross.
  • It emphasizes his resurrection, as attested by reliable witnesses who were commissioned to proclaim the message.
  • It focuses on Jesus, exalted Lord and Judge who offers forgiveness to all.
  • This story of Jesus was testified to by the prophets.

This is a full and complete example of the Gospel message. The Story of Jesus fulfills the Story of Israel. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again fulfill God’s promises and provide forgiveness for everyone. He is Lord of all.

The Gospel message is severely truncated when we represent it as, “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven when I die.” Nor is it captured adequately when we make “justification by faith” or some other doctrinal formulation that brings out certain implications of the message the whole Gospel. Our presentations of the Gospel are likewise flawed and lacking when we separate them from their narrative context. They become transactions rather than storied traditions.

Our understanding of what “church” means suffers too, when our Gospel message is inadequate. Soterian Gospels make church optional. The storied Gospel creates a community that is called to live in the Story of Jesus the King.

Comments

  1. Tokah Fang says

    In my orthodox christian context, the creed we repeat at every liturgy comes after we’ve heard a gospel reading and usually a homily on the gospel reading. The meat of the gospels and the creeds aren’t in competition, they’re complementary.

    • I just started reading Wright’s book last night and what he’s said so far echoes your last sentence: the Creeds and the Gospels are complementary. Well said!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In my orthodox christian context, the creed we repeat at every liturgy comes after we’ve heard a gospel reading and usually a homily on the gospel reading.

      That goes for most liturgical churches, Western or Eastern Rite. I’m Western Rite, and the default order of the Liturgy of the Word is:

      Old Testament reading.
      Responsorial Psalm.
      New Testament reading (usually one of the Epistles).
      Gospel Acclamation (all stand and “Allieluia” as the Gospel is carried to the ambo by priest or deacon).
      Gospel Reading (by deacon if present, priest if not).
      Homily.
      Nicene Creed, in unison.

  2. How can we share this on Facebook? It is so good, and I want others to see it. Thanks.

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  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The Gospel message is severely truncated when we represent it as, “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven when I die.” Nor is it captured adequately when we make “justification by faith” or some other doctrinal formulation that brings out certain implications of the message the whole Gospel.

    St Thomas Aquinas, the most brilliant thinker of the entire Middle Ages, wrote a series of works on theology and the nature of God called Summa Theologica; in modern-day book form, it’d take up most of a typical bookshelf by itself. It is said that after writing it and shortly before his death, he had a vision of God and later said “all I wrote was straw”, i.e. that he’d barely scratched the surface.

    You don’t condense something that the most brilliant mind of his time could only scratch the surface of with an entire bookshelf of hard theology down to a couple one-liners without losing a lot of the original.

  4. I’ve said that I wish I could go back 1500 years and argue for a couple of insertions into the Apostles Creed:

    In the first article:
    … who made covenant with Abraham and his descendants,
    gave instruction through Moses,
    established the throne of David,
    and spoke through the prophets and sages of Israel.

    And in the second article:
    He proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom,
    cast out demons, healed the sick,
    fed the hungry and ate with sinners.

    I wrote that here: http://wp.me/p1TyRp-1U3

    • All true, but I am not sure they belong in the Creed, which is really just the “Cliff Notes” of Christianity!

  5. Jack Heron says

    I do think that a lot of modern Christianity thinks in terms of ‘or’ rather than ‘and’. Is Christ your personal saviour – OR are you liturgical and ritualistic? Have you a theology of the Cross – OR do you focus on what He did in His ministry? Are you saved by faith – OR are you saved by works? The keryma put the lie to all this.

    • Jack Heron says

      *’kerygma puts’. Edit button, where art thou?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And what results is a Gospel without Personal Salvation OR a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation; two funhouse mirrors trading anathemas.

      KERYGMA: MORE THAN JUST FIRE INSURANCE.

  6. I dunno. I don’t see the life and teachings of Jesus as being divorced from the Creeds. Of course, that could be due to my liturgical (Lutheran) upbringing, but who knows. *Shrug*

    The Creeds are important because they set the boundaries. They firmly confess the Triune nature of God, that Jesus if fully God and fully Man, that He was really here, that He actually died and rose from the grave, that He ascended, and He will return again. All this is necessary in order to understand the Gospels. You can’t divorce Jesus’ life and teachings from the context of Him being the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, and that everything He did had far-reaching consequences as such.

    On the other hand, all this cannot be understood without the Gospels. It is only after the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus that these deep truths are revealed. It is only after Jesus that the Triune nature is fully made explicit- and even then, it took the Church hundreds of years to work that out into writing. You don’t understand the significance of Christ the Savior without Christ the Teacher. You cannot fully grasp Christ as Healer without Christ as Judge.

    So, in my view, they complement and support each other. The truths of the Creeds were not revealed without Jesus, but you cannot look back on Jesus’ life and teachings without keeping in mind the truths expressed in the Creeds. Circular logic? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

  7. I think where Wright is getting into trouble is that, rightly or wrongly, he is being seen as saying: “I know better than the creeds/early church”. He may not be saying that, but some are apparently hearing him that way.

    However, as many are pointing out, the gospel and creeds compliment each other. McKnight points out a strong overlap of the two in 1 Cor. 15, which he points out is a summary of the sermons in Acts, which in turn are a summary of the gospels.

    Also, we should keep in mind that the early formulations of the later creeds were likely an early church development, possibly even pre-1 Cor 15 (in which Paul may be inserting an already existing creed). We need to keep that in mind, and not try to downplay it to fit our own systematic theology.

    • I agree with you, Rick. I don’t think Wright is really criticizing the creeds per se, but pointing out what we’ve made of them. The one thing I’ve thought funny, however, is that his Anglican tradition is really set up to answer his own critiques. Its emphasis on the church year and liturgy gives context to the creeds that brings out the full story of Jesus.

      • To whit: at our Easter service, the anglican church I’ve recently joined had long readings from the creation account (or one of them) of genesis, exodus account, the flood of Noah, the prophet Ezekiel (the dry bones chapter), and others; it took some time, but the redemption story was recounted from all the way back to its earliest roots, as part of the Easter celebration. I thought it kind of odd till I concluded that it was just a more complete treatment of “salvation”.

        You are dead on, IMO, about what this kind of treatment does to our approach to community.

        GregR

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          …at our Easter service, the anglican church I’ve recently joined had long readings from the creation account (or one of them) of genesis, exodus account, the flood of Noah, the prophet Ezekiel (the dry bones chapter), and others; it took some time, but the redemption story was recounted from all the way back to its earliest roots, as part of the Easter celebration.

          Different readings, but the same progression and theme as our Easter Vigil Mass.

          Giving the backstory.

        • J Edward Ladenburger says

          Our Anglican parish calls this “context setting” celebration the Easter Vigil — starts at 0530 🙂
          Also wanted to support the tread in these comments that the Creeds set foundational beliefs — accept these and you can consider yourself a Christian – but that is only the beginning of becoming a disciple and Christ follower.

  8. Matthew presents the Gospel as the coming of the Kingdom. The other three gospels do focus on what Jesus said and did. There is surprisingly (I’m speaking as a member of the evangelical “revivalist” tradition) little attention given to the details of soteriology . It was up to Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, to define the relationship between faith and works, and since this became a major concern of the Protestant Reformers, it is no wonder that Luther and Calvin focused on Romans and Galatians, virtually defining salvation as justification by faith alone.
    Seen in its proper context salvation is much more than that. In order to “inherit the kingdom” we must be free from both the guilt and power of sin. Salvation is both justification and sanctification, and it is achieved through union with Christ. But justification is a necessary element — without it reconciliation with God is impossible — and the Reformers were quite right to focus attention on it.
    As for N.T. Wright’s suggestion (and I have not read his book) – the point of the gospel narratives seems to be that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, which is also obviously part of the story, but not the whole story either.

    • I still think we in the western tradition, Catholic and Protestant alike, have de-Judaized the Gospel and failed to see the significance of God’s Kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus the Messiah, which in my mind is Wright’s main contribution. And I don’t think Matthew is alone in emphasizing the Kingdom. All the Gospels do that in their own way.

  9. While there is truth and much that is recovered in the above summary of the gospel, it is hardly “complete”. There is no mention of repentance, faith in Christ or discussion of the fact that like the early creeds, the gospel narratives in all four gospels put extraordinary emphasis on the last 18 hours of Christ’s life. John devotes chapters 13-19 of those 18 hours and the other gospels are nearly equal in emphasis.

    N.T. Wright is to be respected for much of his scholarship and the beauty and facility of his expression and defense of the gospel but like many “reformers” and “re-imaginers” of the gospel he end of with a pendulum swing to an equal but opposite extreme in his “gospel.”

    • Repentance and faith in Christ are responses to the Gospel, not the Gospel itself. In context of Acts 10, the Holy Spirit falls upon proclamation of the apostolic kerygma, producing repentance and faith. At other times in Acts the call for response is explicit.

      I don’t deny that Wright’s writings are skewed in emphasis, but in my opinion that is because he is attempting to restore balance and show how the very meaning of the passion (which as you say is given much emphasis in the Gospels) must be understood in conjunction with his kingdom message and ministry. And it is not just the “missing” kingdom ministry of Jesus that Wright emphasizes — another big contribution is his accentuation of the resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit, which are often mere afterthoughts in evangelical discussions and presentations of the gospel.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And it is not just the “missing” kingdom ministry of Jesus that Wright emphasizes — another big contribution is his accentuation of the resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit, which are often mere afterthoughts in evangelical discussions and presentations of the gospel.

        All too often, “evangelical discussions and presentations of the gospel” tunnel-vision down into closing the sale on that Fire Insurance with special bonus Rapture Boarding Pass.

  10. http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/p6credo.htm

    From time to time the Creeds are “updated” but the updated creed is not used in the Liturgy. Here is a link to the Creed of the People of God, written by a theologian and philosopher and approved by Paul VI in the late 1960s. Benedict XVI has declared that next year will be celebrated as The Year of Faith. Some people speculate that part of the year’s celebration will be a rearticulation of the creed.

    Here is a section from the Creed of the People of God that describes the ministry of Jesus Christ:
    . . . He dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. He proclaimed and established the Kingdom of God and made us know in Himself the Father. He gave us His new commandment to love one another as He loved us. He taught us the way of the beatitudes of the Gospel: poverty in spirit, meekness, suffering borne with patience, thirst after justice, mercy, purity of heart, will for peace, persecution suffered for justice sake. Under Pontius Pilate He suffered—the Lamb of God bearing on Himself the sins of the world, and He died for us on the cross, saving us by His redeeming blood. He was buried, and, of His own power, rose on the third day, raising us by His resurrection to that sharing in the divine life which is the life of grace. He ascended to heaven, and He will come again, this time in glory, to judge the living and the dead: each according to his merits—those who have responded to the love and piety of God going to eternal life, those who have refused them to the end going to the fire that is not extinguished.

  11. Interesting how righteousness gets interpreted in this particular creed as justice.

  12. sowarrior says

    One thing that has always amazed me from the evangelistic sermons in Acts is the lack of explanation of atonement. No explanation of why Jesus died is given. In the revivalistic background in which I grew up, Jesus dying for my sins was the central point of a lot of gospel presentation, yet it is missing from the sermons of the early church. Paul does mention something along the lines of atonement in Acts 20:28, but that is a message he preaches to the church at Ephesus not to unbelievers.

    Just a thought I had on this subject.