Speaking a Missional Gospel? (part 2)  

Posted by Adam

The Missional Nature of the Gospel

As Christians began to drink deeply from the wells of modernity, they began to place a much higher value on things like objectivity and human reason. Additionally, the Biblical text and even the gospel itself seemed to be presented in a manner that proved unwieldy, cumbersome, and frankly inefficient. With modernity’s lenses firmly in place, thinkers began to mine the text for eternal truths in the form of propositions. These propositions were then systematized in an effort to make them more accessible and understandable. Thus, the tendency was toward a simplified gospel that articulated how individuals can make sure that their souls can go to Heaven (and/or not Hell) after they die because of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

Such an approach is problematic to say the least. While, proponents of such a definition can point to key passages[1] in Scripture that (devoid of context) seem to support their case, the meaning of the death, burial and resurrection (not to mention life, teaching, and ministry) of Jesus is virtually incomprehensible outside the context of the broader scriptural narrative spanning from creation to consummation. Additionally, it is difficult to reconcile such an individualistic focus with the God who is revealed in Jesus. Indeed, as Dallas Willard quips in a discussion of what he calls “the Gospel of Sin Management”,
“Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially bypasses the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? Would he leave us even temporarily marooned with no help in our kind of world, with our kinds of problems: psychological, emotional, social, and global? Can we believe that the essence of Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after?”[2]
Such an unconcerned, escapist gospel seems not to be very good news for a lost and dying world. Indeed, it seems to require one to become convinced of contextualizing “bad news” before it can even be heard as “good”.

The Biblical accounts of the life of Jesus repeatedly tell us that he and his disciples preached “the gospel”. This is quite significant, since none of the disciples really understood what was going to happen with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus yet (as evidenced by their confusion when it actually happened). Additionally, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, “gospel” is routinely associated with the concept of the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of the Heavens). For Jesus, the Good News seems to be that God’s Kingdom is breaking through. It seems to be that God has not given up on us, or his dream for all Creation. It seems to be that through Jesus, things are being set right. Some might object that Paul doesn’t use this “Kingdom language”, but as Brian McLaren rightly points out (after pointing out 13 overt references in Paul’s writing to the Kingdom message),
“…we should consider that Paul may be dealing faithfully with the new situation Jesus has created. In this light, we can read Paul carefully and see if his message actually does deal with new problems and opportunities created by Jesus’ success.”[3]
Additionally, we find all of this language rooted in the OT scriptures, and particularly in the prophets. Language permeates most of the NT documents that points to the “restoration” “reconciliation” of “all things”. The gospel is essentially a true story that begins with God creating all things out of love, including human beings who are charged with bearing his image. It is a story of humanity’s selfish choices that shatter the harmony of God’s creation, and of the God who calls humanity back into relationship with Himself so that they may partner with Him in the restoration of all things. It is the story of a God who becomes a human being in order to free them from sin, death, fear, and their own selfishness so that they might embrace their destiny as the children of God and their mission as partners in God’s dream of restoration. It’s a story that ends with God making “all things new”, the lifting of a curse, and the healing of the nations. It’s a story of hope, peace, and abundant, eternal life. Chris Wright astutely reminds us that:
“…we must not rest content until we have included within our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament—and that of course includes the good news of Christ, the cross and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of eternal life that is offered to men and women through our witness to the gospel and the hope of God’s new creation…Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission.”[4]





[1] for example, 2 Tim. 2:8-9

[2] Willard, The divine conspiracy, 38.

[3] McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, 94.

[4] Wright, The Mission of God, 319.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 3, 2009 at Thursday, September 03, 2009 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

5 comments

Adam,

Thanks for more good thoughts! Can you be more precise about what you mean by "eternal truths in the form of propositions"?

“With modernity’s lenses firmly in place, thinkers began to mine the text for eternal truths in the form of propositions. These propositions were then systematized in an effort to make them more accessible and understandable.”

It seems to me that both camps of modernists (secularists and fundamentalists) actually ignored the "eternal truths", in favor of evaluating the texts based on their sketchy history and ancient metaphysics.

Is it possible that when you say "eternal truths" that you are referring to "metaphysical claims" or can something like "peace through justice" be an eternal truth?

September 3, 2009 at 2:51 PM

Mike,
The point that in modernity theologians from all camps were "mining the text for eternal truths", is not at all original to me. Scholars from N.T. Wright (which doesn't impress you) to Brian McLaren Lesslie Newbigin and even Rob Bell (and many others) have made that case many times before me (and possibly better than I have). For fundamentalists, this took the form of propositions to be agreed with, and for liberals it took the form of de-mythologizing the text (ala Bultmann, etc), removing the "husk" and finding the "kernel of truth"...encoded (moral/ethical) ideas and principles.

For all of the things that you and I agree on..there are differences (as you well know). I differ with you significantly on the definition of postmodernism (yours seems more like hyper-modernism in my view). Additionally, I differ with you in your take on how we move past dualism...it seems to me you deal with it by choosing one of the categories established by dualism and rejecting the other (which doesn't actually transcend dualism). There is no need to rehash our ongoing friendly debate here (though, feel free to clarify any ways that I may have mis-characterized your perspective).
AE
(It occurs to me that I'm somewhat responding to your comments here and the on the previous post. I hope that's not confusing ;) )

September 4, 2009 at 9:35 PM

Adam,

Great points that probably get us closer to understanding each other. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I recognize that Wright and Bell both make the same moves (both are probably substance dualists despite Bell's claim that "everything is spiritual").

I hope I didn't create the impression of "de-mythologizing" the text, which was the mistake that once led to efforts like Thomas Jefferson and his holey bible or Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis. I want to do the opposite. I'd like to run from the modern tendency to downgrade myth. I'd like to actually praise the mythologized portions of the text, which can only happen when we first recognize them as mythology. By making this POSTmodern move, I hope to recognize that Jefferson and Ham made exactly the same modernist mistake, even though they reacted differently to it. My view celebrates the myths rather than taking them out or trying to explain them as "real".

I do think this moves us past dualism because it doesn't divide the world into natural and supernatural. I don't think it in any way is hyper-modernism because it doesn't devalue myth (narrative, stories, parables) the way modern dualists such as Jefferson and Ham have done.

Your reply did peek my curiosity. I'm curious how you see your views in relation to dualism. Do you see yourself as a substance dualist?

I think that answer profoundly changes what speaking a missional gospel might mean.

September 5, 2009 at 12:20 AM

Mike,
Substance-dualism seems to function as a category for you that allows you to generalize the position of another in relation/opposition to your own. Where do you get your definition? It seems to regard anyone who hasn't come to the conclusion you have come to as a substance-dualist. This is problematic in that this is not how the term is used in the bulk of the literature. You seem to assume that there are only two options: 1) that existence is divided into the physical/material and the spiritual/metaphysical OR 2) That everything that exists must fall into the first category while most of what was thought of as spiritual/metaphysical was merely the product of an immature pre-modern worldview OR our misinterpretation of the use of myth/narrative.
This reduces the conversation to an oversimplified choice of binary opposition, which does not explore or consider all available viable options. I continue to contend that you seem to be accepting the categories as presented by Substance-Dualism, choosing one of those categories as valid, and then modifying it by finding a place/function for myth/narrative. In my opinion, this does not transcend Substance-Dualism.

I continue to disagree with your assessment of postmodernism...but I'm about to discuss that on facebook, and I don't want to be redundant ;)
AE

September 9, 2009 at 9:23 AM

I responded on facebook, but there is some major terminology confusion here. I suppose that's at the heart of so much of our attempts crack any of these topics. Substance dualism is so ingrained in Christian theology. It is hard to talk about any theology without first addressing it.

September 9, 2009 at 2:07 PM

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