The shape of the Gospel, as I argued in the prior essay, is real and rooted in the Person of Christ Jesus. The Christians did not invent the Gospel but sought to understand the depths and dimensions of the divine mystery of God’s Presence in Jesus and the power of the Spirit working in him forever as the risen Lord. The literary and linguistic differences between the documents in the New Testament are not contradictory unless we impose certain assumptions on the texts rather than seeking to understanding what the authors intended to convey. What holds them together is the thematic center of the Christian faith: The Lord himself and his teaching. The Lord himself is the foundation for Christians’ hope and thought and he is the source for the shape of the Gospel.
This is the reason that Paul writes to the believers in Colossae,
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler authority.” (Colossians 2:6-10, NRSV)
The utter uniqueness of the Person of Christ has been at the center of historic orthodox Christian faith and doctrine as well as evangelical thought. This notion that the Gospel is distinct has been persistently challenged in many ways. For example, in our time, the impulse of modernity is to flatten out every idea or at least to relegate it so as not to interfere with one’s actual goal of living autonomously in society. Thus the impulse among us moderns in the Western world has been to suppress or denigrate mysticism and belief in supernatural powers. Christians have more often than not adopted this core tenant of modernity and modified their religious practices accordingly. This tendency is diametrically opposed to the Gospel message.
As Christians have encountered people committed to Asian religions and philosophies (Hinduism and Buddhism) and in those conversational and written dialogues a remarkably phenomena has occurred: Hindu’s wish to assimilate Jesus and his miraculous power into their pantheon of millions of gods and goddesses while Buddhist’s tend to want to relegate the obviously Jewish characteristics (strict monotheism) of the Lord’s teachings and life into their conception of the dispassionate enlightened existence. They will seek to modify the New Testament portrait of Jesus to fit their own presuppositions.
In more popular writings on self-help and practical ethics in Western countries people tend to want to glean ideas to help them live better quality lives and be successful. This process effectively separates the wisdom of Jesus’s sayings from his Person, the source of life and wisdom through whom one can consistently practice truth. This cannot be done without twisting the truth of the Lord’s assertions about himself and such persons cannot be his disciples.
Much of popular writing among evangelical Christians in America also employs a similar method—usually justified as part of efforts to “reach out” to non-believers. I am all for being missional towards people but I think that often that is not really the motive; rather it is rooted in our unwillingness to obey the plain meaning of the Lord’s words. We fear others more than God but we still want some kind of spiritual life and connection to Jesus, and so we take what we want from his words without bending the knee to him as Lord. This is effectively pasting over our rebellion with a veneer of (technically) correct theological statements.
The mood of our time is overwhelmingly characterized by an imperative to integrate and speak of how differing ideas complement each other (or could be understood to do so) and thus not fundamentally contradict each other. People do not want to see the difference between truth and falsehood even if it is evident. This impelling notion is rooted in Eastern philosophy—not Scripture or the Christian tradition.
The shape of the Gospel demands that we become willing to discern and differentiate ideas and concepts. To do that will necessitate our asserting that some ideas are true and some are false. The Lord himself leaves us no alternative.
The critique of G.K. Chesterton is an illuminating example of discerning and naming the uniqueness of the Gospel as we encounter other world-views.
“But Reincarnation is not really a mystical idea. It is not really a transcendental idea, or in that sense a religious idea. Mysticism conceives something transcending experience; religion seeks glimpses of a better good or a worse evil than experience can give. Reincarnation need only extend experiences in the sense of repeating them. It is no more transcendental for a man to remember what he did in Babylon before he was born than to remember what he did in Brixton before he had a knock on the head. His successive lives need not be any more than human lives, under whatever limitations burden human life. It has nothing to do with seeing God or even conjuring up the devil. In other words, reincarnation as such does not necessarily escape from the wheel of destiny; in some sense it is the wheel of destiny.”[i]
The main point Chesterton was driving at was that it was nonsense to say that the Eastern notion of reincarnation was somehow just a variant version of the supernatural (“mystical”) character of reality. No, not at all! The Christian faith presents a distinctly supernatural understanding of reality centered upon the Person of Christ—the basic elements of which are explained by his teachings. With this assumption in mind, Chesterton continues with this comparison.
“The great Asiatic symbol of a serpent with its tail in its mouth is really a very perfect image of a certain idea of unity and recurrence that does indeed belong to the Eastern philosophies and religions. It really is a curve that in one sense includes everything, and in another sense comes to nothing. . . . [In contrast the] cross is a thing at right angles pointing boldly in opposite directions; but the Swastika [Wheel of Buddha] is the same thing in the very act of returning to the recurrent curve. That crooked cross is in fact a cross turning into wheel. . . In other words the cross, in fact as well as figure, does really stand for the idea of breaking out of the circle that is everything and nothing. It does escape from the circular argument by which everything begins and ends in the mind.”[ii]
This is but one example of how the shape of the Gospel stands in contrast to the revered concepts which large segments of humanity have embraced and sought to order their lives in accordance with. Many more could be given but I think this example is clear enough. The grave concern I have is that Christians today—especially in the Western countries—are so accustomed to interpreting Scripture through the lens of modernity that they do not even realize that the Lord’s words contradict their own cherished religious ideas. (And further, to qualify my comment, if my ethnic and national background were different, I could probably assert that same thing about the Christian communities in that cultural context.)
The power and beauty of the Gospel is rooted in the very Person of the Lord Christ. The shape of the Gospel is formed from the Person of Christ, as he reveals the Father’s love to the world, and leads his disciples to embrace the physicality, the brokenness, the spiritual longings of humans and the moral nature of life in light of the hope the Father offers through him. The Word of God, the Lord himself, communicates to people from every ethnic group and language and culture but he will never give approval to our evil inclination to remake him into our own image. God may, as an act of judgment, release us into grave error but only so that we might learn we are in error and turn back to embrace the truth as it is in Jesus, the risen Son of God.
The Apostles warned us against false teaching and of those who would gladly lead us astray. This is why evangelicals have historically emphasized correct doctrine, based upon careful study of Scripture. In this we may have overemphasized doctrine but given the spirit of the age now I think it is probably even more important than ever to return to careful and methodical study of Scripture so we can conform our minds to the truth and so practice the truth (see 1 John 3:18-24).
Can we say that we understand the Gospel? If we were pressed to present to someone what the Gospel message is, could we do it? And can we say that we are seeking to practice faith wholeheartedly? The shape of the Gospel demands a response of the will and the mind to the Holy One. We will all have to give an account before the Lord based upon the truth of the good news that he has graciously granted us (2 Corinthians 5:10). Let us head the solemn warning of the Apostle John,
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21, NRSV)
[i] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, from chapter entitled “The Demons and the Philosophers”; cited from G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, Volume 2 (Ignatius:1986), p.264; italics in original.
[ii] The Everlasting Man; cited from G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, p.265.