I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the nature of the Gospel for some time; it’s been one of those intra-Christianity debates I’ve followed with interest because I’m convinced that the Gospel, and how we understand and articulate it, is pretty central to being God’s faithful people in the world. I’m convinced our world needs good news that is both actually good, and that represents, or heralds God’s plans for the world.
The word ‘Gospel’ comes from the Greek word ‘euangelion’ — ‘good news’ — but in the ancient world a ‘euangelion’ had a particular function, especially when brought by a ‘keryx’ (a preacher). A keryx was a herald who spoke on behalf of a king (or empire), and where the keryx proclaimed ‘good news’ it was often the announcement of a victory or the beginning of a reign of a king in the world. The subject of the good news, and the attention of the keryx (or their function as a representative), was about the king, the empire, or the victory — the benefits to the people receiving the proclamation were self evident fruits of that victory.
So there’s this debate about what the ‘heart’ of the Gospel is; and whether it has truly been proclaimed if you haven’t articulated certain shibboleths particularly around penal substitution or propitiation; and so also whether you have made the heart of the Gospel the forgiveness of sins dished out to you as an individual as God’s wrath is turned aside from you and laid on Jesus. The thing is, there’s a certain vision of the Gospel where it is reduced to these truths (penal substitution and propitiation and the individual implications of the Gospel) that becomes not just individualistic but anthropocentric — that is, centered on the Gospel being ‘good news’ not just for us, but in a way that becomes ‘good news about us being saved from sin, and its penalty (judgment).’
An anthropocentric Gospel is good news; but it isn’t all the good news caught up in the victory of Jesus, or even the fruit of that victory. An anthropocentric gospel met with an individualism and a commitment to identity construction through personal choice and authenticity produces a particular kind of Christianity (and a particular approach to Christian mission and discipleship). It can lead us to limit the goodness of the Gospel to the salvation of the self (and selves), and when that’s coupled with a sort of neo-platonism, where we have this sense of salvation being ‘escaping from this world’ into some spiritual nirvana-like heaven, we can end up focusing on ‘saving souls’ rather than ‘making disciples who live as God’s kingdom in his world.’ These arguments are well rehearsed by the likes of Scot McKnight and N.T Wright, and make of those scholars what you will, but there’s one warning buried in their critique that all Reformed evangelicals should hear; that is those of us who are a product of a movement in church history that sees how human traditions and institutions can distort the Gospel and abuse power (that’s the very nature of the Reformation), who with the Reformers (and Augustine) see human nature as ‘curved in on the self,’ and who want to be on about the good news (that’s what evangelical should mean). If we were seeking to be true to these labels (if indeed these labels are useful and good, and if these descriptions are essential to owning these labels), then we should constantly be assessing where worldly ideas and institutions have infected our thinking about the church, and the nature of the Gospel. We should constantly be questioning whether our hearts are pulling humanity to the centre of the story of the world, for our own glory — at the expense of God’s (ala, say, the Fall, and the tower of Babel). We should be sympathetic to critiques that the Gospel we proclaim has become more anthropocentric (about us) than Christocentric (about Jesus).
One way to test the truth of an idea is to look to our source material (the Scriptures), another is to assess the fruits of what is being proclaimed (particularly against the sort of fruit the Scriptures describe), or, to compare what is produced from a Gospel we proclaim versus what is produced if a less reductive Gospel is proclaimed. One can draw a fairly straight line between a Gospel that is reduced to the salvation of souls through substitution and propitiation and an approach to church that emphasises conversion over discipleship, while also buying in to the culture’s expressive individualism and its attendant identity politics and power games. One can then draw a line between this and the sort of politics that sees ‘evangelicals’ aligned with Donald Trump — selling our birthright for a bowl of putrid stew that doesn’t even satisfy our hunger — or with a church culture that promotes narcissism and feeds consumerism and the uncritical adoption of worldly forms and methods in the church. Anthropocentricism is not the way of the Gospel, it is the model of humanity flat out rejected from the opening pages of the Bible, and when our Gospel is anthropocentric it prevents the church embracing the way of Jesus, and it is not good news for the ‘anthropocene.’ It offers no alternative kingdom to the kingdoms that have brought us into this present moment both culturally, politically, and environmentally.
The ‘anthropocene’ is a name that gets bandied about for the particular epoch we’re living through in a ‘big history’ view of the world. It’s the idea, in short, that sees “recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” You can read more about the problems associated with the anthropocene at Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Welcome to the Anthropocene is an exercise in secular prophecy — with a degree of judgment, truth telling, and expressions of hope. It’s promises of hope aren’t ‘good news’ yet, because they are unrealised, and if human hearts are ‘curved in on themselves,’ its chances of success rest on convincing humans as individuals and societies, that environmental action has to be an expression of self interest; which is ultimately self defeating and we’ll just end up with a modified anthropocene, an approach to nature still centered on human flourishing at the pinnacle, or, it will rest in convincing humanity to embrace ‘re-wilding,’ where we submit ourselves to nature and let it shape our paths. Now, this isn’t to say where we’ve over-reached in our subduing of creation, that some ‘rewilding’ won’t be necessary to restore a healthier dynamic of relating, in fact, I’m a fan of the concept as described here, but rewilding, like many environmental programs in a secular world (that is one where the physical world is the only reality and does not, in any way, reflect transcendent or supernatural realities — like a heavenly realm), runs the risk of enshrining nature as the ultimate concern or reality (or a god), and that will shape our humanity, and order our loves and concerns, like any worship or religion does.
The Christian answer to these problems — where we submit ourselves to the God who orchestrated nature, and seek to bring him glory — but where he must first change our hearts by his Spirit, and where we must live in the world first in right relationship with him (which is achieved through the forgiveness of sins and new start brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus) — is genuinely a more hopeful story, for us and for the world, especially coupled with the promise of the Bible that our king, Jesus, will return to make all things new, in a beautiful picture of a ‘garden city’ where built architecture and nature work together in harmony to bring life and to bring glory to God. Welcome to the Anthropocene shares stories of hope, but none is more hopeful as a picture of ecological renewal and harmonious life than the church forests of Ethiopia and humanity’s rediscovery of our task as ‘gardeners’ working in partnership with our gardener king.
Now, in case the idea of human contribution to climate change is something you have theological issues with — let’s just rehearse, again, the argument that the Bible actually lays responsibility for the state of the world — post Eden (and outside Eden) with human sinfulness and God’s curse. The idea that humans are responsible for the state of the world, within God’s sovereignty, is not foreign to the Biblical account of the world. And, anticipating another argument — that creation, Biblically, is anthropocentric — ie, ‘given to man’ where we are the pinnacle or centre of creation — consider that our role was not to dominate or destroy the world, but act as God’s representatives in a world that is his (Genesis 1), that was made to reflect his divine nature and character (Romans 1:20), that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,’ that ‘heaven is his throne, and the earth is his footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1-2) — the earth itself has a theocentric purpose — to glorify God, and a Christocentric telos, it is being reconciled, redeemed, renewed, and re-created through the death, resurrection, heavenly rule, and return of Jesus. The Gospel — the message of Jesus’ victory, includes good news for the world — when we reduce it just to ‘good news for ourselves’ — making it anthropocentric, we offer no path out of the anthropocene — no alternative kingdom that might offer an alternative paradigm for stewarding God’s world towards goodness, truth, and his glory.
A Gospel that offers hope to the world is a Gospel that is not primarily about us, and the mechanism of our individual salvation (though it won’t deny those truths), a Gospel that offers hope to the world curves our hearts away from ourselves, and away from God’s world and its goodness (these are idolatry) towards the rule of Jesus in the heavenly realm, and the reconciling work he is doing in the world as the children of God are revealed (both now, and when he returns).
Any Gospel that is about escaping the world — rather than its renewal and reconciliation in and through Jesus — is not good news in the anthropocene. It just entrenches a pattern of domination and subjugation of the physical world because it doesn’t matter to God, or ultimately to us.
Any Gospel that is about human individual salvation (or the mechanics of such) is not good news in the anthropocene because the victory it celebrates is not total, without a victory that involves the renewal of all things.
Any Gospel that is not about Jesus — at the centre — is not the Gospel of the Bible, and doesn’t have us escape the anthropocene and its anthropocentric view that everything is about us. We are not the pinnacle of God’s creation. Jesus, in his perfect humanity, and also his divine sonship, is.
The Gospel is the story of God’s glorification of Jesus, the story of God exalting Jesus to the highest place, and giving him the name above all names, so that at his name ‘every knee shall bow’ (Philippians 2) — it’s the opposite of Babel, where people lived for the glory of their own names and tried to exalt themselves. The opposite of the anthropocene. The good news for us is that we’re invited in to the glory of Jesus through our union with him, and invited to participate in God’s renewal project for the world as ambassadors of reconciliation, but this comes as a fruit of Jesus’ glorious victory through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.
We can run all sorts of shibboleth tests around Gospel proclamation, or evangelistic textbooks, but if our Gospel is not Christocentric, and aimed towards the glory of God through the eschatological renewal of all things — not just us — secured through the victory of Jesus over Satan, sin, and death — not just on an individual scale, but a cosmic one, then we’re not really preaching a true Gospel, we’re preaching a true aspect of the Gospel, and we’re not really offering hope to the world, or to the individuals living in it.