small gospel

Your Gospel proclamation will only be as rich and magical as your Biblical Theology

Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is a kids TV show. My almost six year old loves it. The other day she was watching an episode where Nanny Plum, the resident fairy godmother, was undergoing a test for her magic license. She was confronted with a series of scenarios where she would have to solve a problem with magic — and her answer to every question was “turn them into a frog”.

 It’s a surprisingly effective tool, that adequately solves many of the problems, but it’s a very blunt instrument, and the tester is maybe looking for a little more.

It reminded me of that old ‘little Johnny’ joke where Johnny is asked a Sunday School question about animals who live in trees and eat Eucalyptus leaves, and he says “Miss, I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a koala.”

And it reminded me of a little thing I’ve noticed about the relationship between models of Biblical Theology (understanding how the Old and New Testament fit together), and models of the Gospel message (understanding the essence of the good news about Jesus).

Here’s what should be a totally non-controversial thesis: your Biblical theology will only be as rich as your understanding of the Gospel, and your understanding of the Gospel will only be as rich as your Biblical theology.

And the real magic is not in a ‘turn them into a frog’ Biblical theology where the answer to every Old Testament passage is “Jesus” with a particularly narrow understanding of the essence of the Gospel, but one where we embrace the sort of circularity of how the reality of Jesus is given depth and dimension by the Old Testament ‘shadow.’ One of the criticisms of a ‘Christ Centred Biblical Theology’ — often the sort picked up in Reformed Evangelical circles here in Australia is that it ends up with a ‘Jesus bit’ tacked on to a sermon, and, experientially, that Jesus bit feels like a ‘penal substitution’ bit tacked on and that can be legitimate, but it can also be a frog where we could have a prince. There are so many rich categories created by rich and deep reading of the Old Testament narrative — around God’s promise to reign as king, about a re-creating day of the Lord that would return people from exile and give us new hearts, about the defeat of Satan and the powers and principalities so that all nations might belong rightfully to Yahweh, the most high, as a fulfilment of our ‘image bearing’ vocation… and the Gospel is that all those threads, and promises, and more are fulfilled in Jesus. That is a Gospel that is not simply “my personal sins can be forgiven if I repent” but that the cosmos is renewed from the throne room of heaven down and repentance is a recognition not only of my sin, but the goodness of this new reality. One way to challenge this is to move beyond a ‘Christ Centred’ Biblical theology that often is reduced to a ‘penal substitution centred’ theology (and again, I’m not saying this isn’t an aspect of the Gospel built for us by a Biblical theology that incorporates, say, the sacrificial system in the Old Testament), to a broader ‘Christotelic’ reading that doesn’t simply impose a Gospel summary/reduction back into the text, but that allows the text to provide categories (and a story) that Jesus then fulfils.

If your Gospel is simply an aspect of the Gospel — a ‘small Gospel’ — whether that’s Lordship, or cosmic victory, or penal substitution and you flatly impose that meaning when digging back into the Old Testament, a proclamation of the Gospel drawing on the Old Testament will end up sounding like Nanny Plum turning everything into a frog. Sometimes I think that’s what’s happening as people get to a passage in the Old Testament that only leads to penal substitution via the crucifixion, rather than a better category (like kingship, or victory, or new creation) and shoehorn that ‘Jesus bit’ onto the end; it’s the “turn them into a frog”… “I know the answer is Jesus” mentality, and maybe we should be allowing the text to give us richer categories, so that when we’re invited just to proclaim the Gospel we have a richer toolkit at our disposal than just “God saves sinners from Hell”…

You can, if you want to apply a blunt instrument, try to make every Old Testament passage about Jesus and reduce Jesus to the substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and it’s probably better than not making the Old Testament about Jesus at all — a surprisingly effective better (in that, I’m surprised, still, by how many modern Christians still have a pretty flat grid that they apply to the Old Testament, seeing it as “Scripture” without recognising our standing as Gentiles, and its standing as Israel’s Scriptures fulfilled in Jesus) — but imagine if you had more tricks in your magic tool kit. Here’s where, as a sidebar, I want to give an obligatory shoutout to The Bible Project, who I think do a great job of expanding our horizon to see more narrative categories and ‘story patterns’ in the Old Testament so that we end up with a richer Gospel.

Imagine if your bigger Gospel — whether that’s in the classically expansive ‘The Gospel is the material contained in the Gospels’ or an integration of atonement models (like kingship, representation, and cosmic victory) — was something you could pull out when digging into Old Testament texts; but also something shaped by the Old Testament texts that give us the categories and messianic/cosmic expectations that Jesus fulfils.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road on a critique like this. I think at times we celebrate frogs — as magic — when there’s a more rich and robust, more enchanting and ‘good’ version of the good news that we should be encouraging one another to pursue. Better a frog magically produced on Q&A than no enchantment at all, and yet, what if we had a real magician?

When the Gospel is proclaimed as penal substitution — that God saves sinners — it can often end up being anthropocentric (that is, it puts us humans at the centre of the Gospel). When, in that context, we talk about repentance it can sound a lot like we’re saying ‘turn from sin because sin is bad and you will face God’s judgment unless you repent’ — and that’s certainly true. But it’s a frog. The deep magic of the Gospel is much bigger than toads being turned into frogs.

The deep magic of the Gospel is not really about ‘me’ at all; it’s about Jesus. The good news about the one who fulfils the Old Testament; the true Israel, the true son of God — the divine and human “son of Man” who through his incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, the pouring out of God’s Spirit, and future return, has begun God’s recreating act by launching his new kingdom; who invites us to ‘repent’ by turning from the old, to the new, which involves receiving God’s Spirit as an act of re-creation and being united with God. There’s so much more magic than just ‘forgiveness of sins’ — though forgiveness of sins is part of our restoration and resurrection; our move from death to life, darkness to light and the kingdom of the now defeated Satan, into the kingdom of heaven… and even that the resurrection is not just a ‘pie in the sky’ heavenly future for our souls, but physical life in God’s kingdom in a renewed heavens and earth, so that our lives now are an expression of the kingdom because we are ambassadors of this future reality and citizens of the kingdom of God now.

There is, of course, some C.S Lewis in the background of this reference to “deeper magic” — and in The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe (and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia), the ‘deeper magic’ includes penal substitution — but it stretches out to new creation; it includes the effects of being faithfully caught up in that magic on mice like Reepicheep. Here’s Aslan, from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

The deep magic is more than simply one dying in the place of another, it’s the new life that flows from that act. In Prince Caspian the mouse Reepicheep loses his tail in battle, and Aslan restores it, moved by his commitment to Aslan’s kingdom, and as an act of love. The deep magic of the Gospel involves death working backwards as new creation works in — not just sins being forgiven, but restoration to new life found in the kingdom and its king.

“Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”

So magic tricks — Gospel proclamation — that looks like ‘here’s a frog’ are all well and good; better than no magic. But what if we do the work of digging deeper into the book of tricks — expanding our understanding of the whole counsel of God, and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the victorious saviour and king as its culmination — then maybe our ‘Gospel proclamation’ would do more than just see Jesus as the one who calls us to repent and dies to take our punishment; it might see Jesus as the one who brings a new pattern for life in this world by restoring us to the life and presence of God.

I, for one, am committed to serving up more than frogs in my attempts to do the magical and enchanting work of telling God’s good news story.

Good news for the anthropocene has to be a non-anthropocentric Gospel

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.

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