Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Gospel?

Toward the end of last week, I started reading a book by N.T. Wright called What St. Paul Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Now, I've heard a lot about N.T. Wright and I've read some excerpts before, but I've never actually sat down with one of his books myself. I have to say, I'm pretty impressed thus far. Aside from what seems an absurdity of giving a book with this title a slim 183 pages, it's packed with dense reading (plus, Wright's way smarter than I am, so I suppose I should give him the benefit of the doubt here). And it's not a scholarly work, nor is it entirely pop literature, so you sort of have the choice between making it more or less scholarly depending on what level of focus, thought, and intensity you want to give his writing.

As I'm only about 60 pages in, I can't comment on the entire work just yet, but at this stage, I'd suggest it to any of my friends, no questions. The thing that struck me most, though, was a discussion of what the word "gospel" might have meant to Paul. Wright does an incredible job of flushing out, in each of his subjects so far, the relevant sides of the relevant debates, their merits and shortcomings, and, finally, why he disagrees with both sides and chooses a third side (usually, anyway). He has an incredible grasp on the historical situation in which Paul lived, both secularly and religiously, which anyone must agree is fundamentally important in any discussion of a historical person, place, or event.

The conclusion that shocked me started by raising this question: what does it mean to say "the gospel of Christ?" The question itself shocked me because I realized that I don't have an answer to that myself. I could ramble about it for a while, but I don't think I would get anywhere substantial. He then traced a number of reasons to conclude that for Paul, the "gospel" is not any set of issues relevant in the Church today, it's not singularly about wealth or sexual orientation or giving or saving or teaching or speaking or sharing - it's about being a herald for the King. The word (in Greek) references the style of heralding the Emperor of Rome, of announcing his presence or his ascendency. This is what Paul lays out in Romans, according to Wright, as the definition of the gospel of Christ.

The most poignant part of the explanation, to me, is how Wright points out that by the very annunciation of the presence of the Lord of all the World, of the victory of Christ over death and His subsequent ascent to the Throne of Dominion over sin in the world, people are saved - salvation is the subsequence of this announcement, not the reverse! People aren't saved only to later discover Jesus' victory! If there is no victory, if there is no fulfillment of the prophecies naming Christ as Lord of all the world (as opposed to just ruler of Israel), then there would be no salvation. Bearing this in mind, Wright paraphrases Paul's mimicry of the Roman emperor's herald as saying: "When the herald makes a royal proclamation he says 'Nero (or whomever) has become emperor.' He does not say 'If you'd like to have an experience of living under an emperor, you might care to try Nero.' The proclamation is an authoritative summons to obedience - in Paul's case, to what he calls 'the obedience of faith.'"

This just floored me. The reality is that we are not living under a King who's content to let us choose whether or not He exists and is King. He has become King through the ultimate act of obedience and sacrifice - this is not a passive ascendency! He has violently laid claim to the throne of utter world domination and whether or not we decide to accept his legitimacy and his presence, it exists, and it exersizes judgement over the world. It's a pretty big deal.

Needless to say, it was a pretty intense ride to work this morning, reading this and having a series of little epiphanies. Hopefully, in my attempt to paraphrase the discussion in the book, I didn't commit too many heresies. If you spot one, let me know, I would like to not blaspheme - at least not on accident - if at all possible!

1 comment:

Clayton said...

N. T. Wright rocks!