what is the gospel

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.

The perils of small (and large) target Christianity

In the politics/PR world there’s a thing called the ‘small target strategy’; it’s a way to manage your brand and reputation by only putting out there what is absolutely essential for the broader public to know, and so minimise the things about you that might give offense.

Now, there’s a certain sort of wisdom built on this sort of approach, but also a pragmatism that can end up leaving the public knowing less than they should when making a decision, or forming an opinion about you, or your party, or your brand — to the extent that some might question the ethics or integrity of such an approach.

In politics the ‘small target’ strategy gets deployed at election campaign time where the political other is so repugnant that all you have to do to secure victory is stay out of the way; it’s questionable, in a democracy, whether such a strategy earns you a mandate from the public to implement any particular policy beyond ‘not being the other side;’ and it’s a strategy also deployed because big target politics — the sort where you have a massively integrated political platform built on convictions, invites people to pick one area of your platform that they utterly repudiate and so choose the other side (Bill Shorten’s Labor leadership, and Labor’s failure at the last election, in part were a product of a big platform built from hubris and a sense that the other side, the Liberals, were so on the nose — adopting a small target might have been more expedient, politically, especially when elements of the platform were so easy to zero in on to create problems in the electorate). It’s typically, at least in Australia, a strategy adopted by oppositions; but Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign in 2016, and Scott Morrison’s 2019 campaign might have established it as a norm on both sides.

In public relations the small target strategy can be a response to a crisis, but can also be a longer term approach built around ‘staying on message’ — that’s where you just repeat the mantra at the heart of your organisation and your business at every turn; it ends up leaving you in a bit of a niche, where you’ll only be relevant to the public so long as that mantra is relevant. In a crisis the small target strategy means saying or doing as little as you possibly can — sometimes invoking the terrible ‘no comment’ strategy; it’s the equivalent of burying your head in the sand hoping that whatever danger or disaster is approaching will pass by without damaging the nerve centre of your organisation so that you can live to fight another day. This PR blog provides a definition of the strategy:

The ‘Small Target’ strategy is simple, conceptually – it’s selectively choosing to stay silent or minimising the response to an issue or crisis.

Now. I’ve been listening to plenty of chatter about the decline of the church in Australia, especially the reformed evangelical church scene I’m part of; perhaps especially focused on Sydney Anglicanism and the “pastor drought”. I’ve also been following a debate within this subset of the church, both here and abroad, about the definition of the Gospel, and I want to suggest part of the dilemma facing the church here in Australia is that we’ve settled for a small target Gospel, and a small target communication strategy in both a political and public relations sense (where evangelism; the public proclamation of the Gospel overlaps with both categories); and I want to suggest this campaign strategy isn’t working, and we’re reaping the results.

So, contra Philip Jensen, who in a Podcast interview on The Pastor’s Heart suggested the Sydney Diocese is where it is because it has ‘stopped preaching the Gospel’ (and there’s a big implicit critique of drinking too much from the fountain of Tim Keller in just about everything Philip Jensen says these days), I’m going to suggest it’s because the Sydney Anglicans (and others influenced by them) have preached too small a Gospel, and that’s become part of the toolkit for the modern church often coupled with church growth movement strategies that adopt ‘small target/big emphasis on unity around the key message’ as a growth and retention strategy (often growing by grabbing people from other churches). Stephen McAlpine’s engagement with Philip’s interview, and a follow up with others, is also worth reading (part 1, part 2); and I wonder how much a sort of tribal/culture war within the Sydney Anglican Diocese (historically Matthias v Barneys, UTS v UNSW, etc, etc) where people who didn’t fit one’s orthodoxy were discouraged from ministry, where its training institution has become increasingly narrow in its posture towards the world, and where the last Archbishop election involved a public dog fight between these camps, might also be to blame, and my understanding from talking to plenty of people over the years would be that Philip has been at the pointy end of that internecine/inter-nicene war.

But before I dig deeper into this; I want to acknowledge that in the present lay of the land a ‘big target’ approach to church is exceptionally costly to those running with it; in a landscape where people will chop and change churches for a variety of reasons (including personal preference) adopting ‘policy positions’ or articulating a Gospel vision beyond a small Gospel (as I’ll define it) leads (and in my experience ‘has lead’) people to break fellowship and to seek a more comfortable ‘small target’ church that is big on essential nature of the the small target gospel. If we approach churchmanship (awful word), or public Christianity, as though it’s a political or public relations campaign, where results matter, and where our metrics are numbers of bums on seats, and where we’re ultimately just competing for the distribution of the choir amongst various churches, rather than seeking to persuade others of the truth of the Gospel and its implications for their lives, then a big target strategy is a bad idea. It will probably, so long as others are adopting a small target, small Gospel strategy, shrink your church; and there’ll be a danger that you turn non-essentials into essentials and make it feel like there’s no room for disagreement on the implications of a bigger Gospel. So long as people will pick churches like choosing brands to purchase, or political parties to vote for, the small target strategy and the small Gospel will be the path of least resistance for church leaders. But like with politics and public relations, what seems prudent or pragmatic might ultimately lack integrity and normalise a certain sort of head-burying cowardice; it might also be a failure to boldly articulate a bigger vision that might prove unpopular with the public (but could also be truly and properly animating and life giving for those who get on board).

To be clear, though, this cowardice is not the sort embraced by the seeker sensitive movement that sought to eradicate anything offensive in the message of the Gospel — a ‘no Gospel’ strategy embraced this ‘small target strategy’ with great effect; the issue with the small gospel strategy in Reformed Evangelical circles in Australia is not with what it includes — that is, the offense of the Cross, of sin, and of God’s judgment, but what it excludes. Our scene wants to hold out that offense, and sometimes hold on to conservative moral values, without challenging anything tricky that might upset the western economic status quo (except when we tell upper middle class people that their sons and daughters should go to Bible college instead of being doctors or lawyers).

Small Gospel, Small Targets

There’s a tendency in the best parts of reformed evangelicalism to reduce the Gospel to the mechanism of the atonement and its implications for the individual. Penal substitution is, as far as I understand the Bible, part of the good news of God’s activity in the world in Jesus. But our small Gospel (Jesus died to save me, a sinner, from my personal autonomous rebellion against God, by taking my punishment in my place) often doesn’t help us escape from a disenchanted, modernist, individualist vision of life in the world and a disembodied eschatological hope (‘my soul getting into heaven’) (in fact, the Protestant Reformation arguably contributed to all these aspects of modern life). A fuller picture of the Gospel would, I think, make the subject and emphasis of the Gospel Jesus himself, and emphasise not just the fruit of the Gospel for me, and my personal salvation, but the victory of Jesus over Satan, and through his resurrection and ascension, the reconciliation of all things (a cosmic scale, where there’s not just the material world but a spiritual one too), where we get to be part of this victory even now, because God’s Spirit now dwells in us. Forgiveness of sins is part of this picture; but so too is our re-creation and resurrection as God’s children, as, through Jesus the Lord, Saviour, and King, God sets out to liberate all things from decay, and we anticipate the making new of both heavens and earth.

This is the debate playing out particularly in America between Scot McKnight, and those who’ve taken up the diagnosis of his book The King Jesus Gospel (where N.T Wright always looms large), and John Piper and those who’ve bought into his paradigm (let’s put those two figures at ends of a spectrum in this debate and recognise there’s significant nuance not just in their positions but in those of people along that spectrum).

Here are a few links:

This Gospel, where Jesus is not just personal Saviour who punches my ticket into heaven when I die, but also victorious king, and not just victorious king over sin, but vindicated king of heavens and earth and defeater of Satan and his beastly minions in heaven and on earth, has political implications for every inch of the Christian life; and implications not just for me as an individual, but for us as a community of people participating in this kingdom, anticipating and testifying to the renewal of all things as new creations in Christ, transformed into the image of Jesus. To proclaim this Gospel involves living it in our lives — both as individuals and community — as an alternative vision of life in the world; it involves seeing sin as something that doesn’t just corrupt us as individuals, but operates in partnership with curse, and Satan, to corrupt cultures and systems that people create. McKnight, in his book, saw this shifting an emphasis in our proclamation of the Gospel from making converts (small target), to making disciples (big target), and some of the implications of this bigger, cosmic, kingdom, not just individual salvation scope of the Gospel for discipleship are that it is not simply enough to pursue individual piety and a personal relationship with God, but to take up a vocation aligned with the kingdom that goes beyond simply proclaiming penal substitution (and so, it is true, thanks Keller, sorry Jensen, that being a pastor is a great vocation for a Christian, but not the only great, Kingdom oriented, vocation).

The playing field created by this bigger Gospel means a ‘small target’ Christianity that simply proclaims individual salvation from personal sin and a personal relationship with God through Christ as mediator, by the Spirit dwelling in me, doesn’t really cut it in terms of an assessment of the problems with life in the modern world and the antidote offered in Jesus.

When Australian culture largely still operated with a social and cultural architecture that assumed Christian beliefs (including morality) at a political, institutional, and even aesthetic/cultural/artistic level, we, the church, could get away with a small target Gospel (maybe), to connect a bunch of norms with their source. We didn’t need to build all that other kingdom infrastructure because we inherited it from Christendom, and simply assumed it as foundational. But those foundations have shifted and now our small Gospel doesn’t land on soil cultivated by the historic impact of the bigger Gospel, it lands on rockier ground, or, as Alan Noble describes it in Disruptive Witness, we’re planting and trying to harvest on concrete.

People drinking the church growth Kool-Aid, or embedded in ‘toxic churchianity,’ and let’s face it, that’s most of us because it’s the air we breath, will default to this small Gospel, small target version of Christianity because it is pragmatic and maximises success in the metrics we’re given. A huge part of the problem with retaining people in Christian ministry boils down to these metrics and the associated pressure to create a big and growing church with lots of converts (or people grabbed from other ‘less faithful because they’re less numerically fruitful, or less programmatically excellent’) churches, because this leaves the pastor operating both as gospel teacher and CEO, and success resting on navigating both in the most effective way possible.

The “best strategy” to adopt in the current model is the most soul destroying; it’s to be a pastor without conviction beyond the small gospel, out of fear that you’ll offend someone and they’ll head to the better option up the road, or elsewhere. This leaves us not thinking about how we change and challenge the architecture of belief — political and cultural — outside the church, and still throwing the same good seed that once might have worked in a landscape more explicitly cultivated for that seed, and not getting the results we’ve come to believe should follow faithful Gospel preaching ministry (or people questioning whether we’re faithfully preaching the Gospel at all, and undermining attempts to renew or change the cultural architecture by telling people something other than Gospel proclamation might be a Christian vocation, thanks Philip). Keller isn’t blameless on the church growth front either; his ‘Leadership and Church Size Dynamic’ model provides a pathway away from the ‘pastor sized’ church to mega church and despite his own example of political engagement (a dedicated centrism), I’d suggest both in the model, and observing those who follow it, the ‘small target’ becomes more appealing for a pastor the more disconnected the pastor becomes from the lives of his congregation and the more the success of the movement depends on avoiding controversy. The most successful versions of this paradigm (according to these metrics) — both within Sydney Anglicanism, or in Acts 29, or in other networks seem to be the least politically engaged churches with the leaders least likely to articulate a political position on any issue that might cause offense. It has been refreshing to see Hillsong’s political engagement grow as (I’d suggest) its Gospel vision has grown (see, for example, its engagement in the Black Lives Matter conversation).

A small gospel matched with a small target strategy is not the solution we need; but a shift to giving church communities (and pastors) freedom to pursue a bigger Gospel and bigger targets in terms of messaging and engagement with the world outside the church (including seeing Gospel ministry as taking part in the renewal and reshaping of those parts of the world outside the church that form our beliefs and practices), without pulling up stumps and heading elsewhere if that big target offends you, might be.

The trick is to pull off a ‘big target’ where we display unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things. The bigger Gospel broadens the need for unity in Christ beyond unity in the individual mechanism and spiritual implications of the Gospel into some sort of commitment to a shared life and mission (beyond just the making of converts, and into the making of disciples, with ‘political’ and ‘economic’ implications in the true sense of both words — it organises us as people, and guides our collective approach to resources).

In a polarised political climate it would be easy for such a ‘big target’ approach to produce a ‘left leaning church’ and a ‘right leaning church’ who end up at odds with one another in both Gospel communication and politics; and an excluded middle. It is interesting that it doesn’t feel like churches are adopting a ‘bigger target’ strategy when they support politically conservative campaigns (like campaigning against same sex marriage, or abortion), but it does when churches speak out on systemic racism, asylum seekers, and the environment; or that one isn’t risking offending someone in a theologically conservative environment by adopting right leaning politics emphasising individual responsibility and morality, like we are when we speak out about systemic sin that people might be complicit in or benefit from without knowingly, as an individual, choosing to do so. Talking about individual morality, and applying that to the political realm, fits with the small target Gospel.

This, again, is where the small target thing is so much easier; we can avoid anything that feels like ‘worldly politics’ or division and focus just on getting bums on seats and buy in on the smallest possible truths that unite us (in our case, the Gospel of penal substitution). But that won’t work in an increasingly post-Christian context where heaps more scaffolding is required before people are even coming at questions of how the “Good News of Jesus” becomes good news for me, or changes me (or us); a big target approach considers how we challenge alternative scaffolding that supports unbelief, while building our own plausibility structures (communities of believers, following Berger) and social imaginaries (the things in our culture — stories, architecture, practices, politics, etc that support belief, following Taylor).

Grappling with how Paul navigates idol food, idol temples, and missionary dining in idol-food eating cities, with the unity of strong and weak brothers and sisters within the body of Jesus might be helpful here; especially noting that Paul doesn’t choose the ‘small target’ practices of the “weaker brother” in either Romans or 1 Corinthians, but urges their accommodation within a bigger drive to reach and engage the cities and critique, disrupt, and demolish the value of their idols by introducing the big good news of the Gospel of Jesus (an approach he models in, say, Athens in Acts 17 and Ephesus in Acts 19, and describes in 2 Corinthians 10).

The other challenge is for our ‘big target’ strategies to be appropriately shaped by our ‘big Gospel’ — for us not to adopt other forms of political strategies that undermine the message of the Gospel (think political lobbying as power game), or positions that simply pick one form of the post-Christian status quo to conserve because it aligns with the individualism of the small target gospel we’ve imbibed, without pondering how human sin and beastly, Satanic, empires work as the antithesis of the Kingdom of God, and so dismantling structures built on sinful behaviour might also be within the job description of Gospel shaped politics and communication.

The context for our public messaging, and our ‘politics’ has changed — and so the content of the Gospel we proclaim (in word and lives) needs to change too; a small target Gospel if a good thing at all, was an historical anomaly and retreating to it in order to avoid the costs of a big gospel (and even to hand some of that over to ‘the culture’) was maybe a mistake.

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