Monday, August 14, 2006

The Word of God as Message (Part 2)

At its inception, the Christian faith consisted only of a message—the gospel—believed to have originated with the historical Jesus, who was believed, after his resurrection from the dead, to have sent his apostles (Greek, apostoloi, literally, sent ones) to proclaim the message to all nations. Not until years later, in the latter half of the first century, did the NT writers use oral traditions, into which the spoken message had been embedded, to compose narratives about Jesus’ proclamation, crucifixion and resurrection (in the NT Gospels), and about the apostolic proclamation of his message to the nations (in Acts of the Apostles). And only in the latter half of the first century did they send letters to infant Christian communities of the first century in order to explain the implications and applications of the message for both the present and the future (in the NT epistles and Revelation).

The earliest Christian community possessed no scriptures of its own to study as individuals (most first-century Gentile Christians being illiterate anyway) or to order its collective activities (even the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint, being unavailable to most). Jewish Christians, who were already conversant with the Hebrew scriptures, had come to believe that Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus) had come to fulfill "the Law and the Prophets" and, therefore, they were gradually (and to varying degrees, some more reluctantly than others) learning to reinterpret the Hebrew scriptures with reference to the gospel (as Paul’s letters demonstrate that he had). As years passed, when a local Christian community received an apostolic document (to hear publicly read from house to house), members understood that these documents had been written about the message that they had already heard and believed. The purpose of the reading of these apostolic documents (which did not become an official canon until the fourth century) was, then, to broaden their understanding of the message so that they might be more and more deeply persuaded to believe the promise of Jesus’ God and Father and to behave accordingly.

Granted, as contemporary NT scholars and historians have amply demonstrated, the international Christian community of the first and, especially, second and third centuries was far more diverse in its beliefs regarding the Christian message than was previously recognized. The twentieth-century discovery of "Gnostic Gospels" in the Nag Hamadi library in Egypt has led to the conclusion that no broad Christian consensus existed in the second and third centuries on the meaning of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Even the first-century letters of Paul show the extent to which he was engaged in debate with alternative interpretations of Jesus' message, and give evidence of some degree of conflict between Paul and his fellow apostles about the implications of the gospel, especially for relations between Jews, both Christian and otherwise, and Gentile Christians.

Nevertheless, regarding "the gospel I preached to you," Paul claimed to have "delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" from those who had preceded him as apostles: "Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed" (1 Cor. 15:1, 3, 11). Which is to say that, Gnostic and other rhetorical departures notwithstanding, Paul believed that an apostolic consensus regarding the Christian message existed in the first century, a consensus that has been preserved by the NT writers for subsequent generations.

The most (or, perhaps, the least) obvious difference between the earliest Christian community and the Christian community of today, as far as the biblical message is concerned, is that while the first Christians started with the message (i.e., the apostolic gospel) as their reference point for understanding both the Hebrew scriptures (i.e., "the Old Testament") and the apostolic writings (i.e., "The New Testament"), the contemporary Christian must start with the Bible—and whatever ecclesiastical tradition has shaped her or his preconceived ideas about it—and work back to the message. That is, if she or he is to have any prospect of hearing the message anew. And ecclesiastical Christianity offers no consensus regarding a message that unifies the testimony of its Bible.

The closest ecclesiastical Christianity has come to formulating a central message is probably the so-called "gospel" of evangelical Christianity. The evangelical message in short: God the Son died on the cross to pay God the Father to forgive sinners so that God the Holy Spirit can enter their lives and they can go to heaven when they die. As such, the evangelical gospel is a synthesis of three doctrinal traditions, each of which is distinct from the apostolic tradition preserved by the NT writers: First, the fourth-and-fifth-century Nicean-Chalcedonian doctrine of the Trinity; second, the medieval Anselmian doctrine of the atonement; and, third, the pre-Christian, Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

What the evangelical gospel both subtracts from and adds to the biblical testimony make that message amount to, in the words of the apostle Paul, "another Jesus" and "a different spirit" and "a different gospel" (2 Cor. 11:4) from the message Paul himself proclaimed to his hearers and explained to his readers, and which his letters have preserved for future generations.

The challenge that faces contemporary Christian truth-seekers, then, is to discover the biblical message anew in their own Bibles. A couple of significant obstacles stand in the way.

First, the ecclesiastical equation of the word of God with the Bible has resulted (not coincidentally) in an abject dependence of churchgoers on clergy for access to "the word of God." The Bible is a voluminous text, translated from ancient languages, reflecting alien customs and cultures, composed of varying kinds of literature. As such, the Bible seems virtually incomprehensible to most "laypersons." Thus the presumed need for ecclesiastical experts.

The ministerial function of the clergy of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity is—largely via the preaching of Sunday sermons—to tell the laity what the Bible means. That is, to tell church-goers what to believe and how to behave. When a "minister" ascends the pulpit, he doesn’t typically acknowledge that his sermon represents the interpretation of the ecclesiastical tradition in which he was trained. Instead, he (especially in fundamentalist and evangelical denominations, which typically exclude women from their pulpits; hence my use of "he") "preaches the word of God" (as if he were a God-breathed messenger of the word). And for most churchgoers, this once-a-week hearing of "the word of God" is the extent of their exposure to the Bible. And for those churchgoers who are willing to allow clergy to take responsibility for their faith, this seems sufficient.

For Christians wishing, in virtually any ecclesiastical context, to assume responsibility for their own faith, however, understanding the biblical message so as to believe and behave accordingly often proves to be a steeply uphill climb.

Second, even for Christian truth-seekers, the Bible itself presents formidable obstacles to understanding, perhaps foremost of which are the available English translations. English-language versions of the Bible are virtually all the products of translation committees comprised of churchmen-and-women. Which is to say that these versions are produced by and for "the Church," the manifold ecclesiastical institution which, centuries ago, commandeered the worship of God—now called "going to church"—by constructing temples, each housing a religious system administered by officials who conduct rituals that presume to mediate the knowledge of God’s word and the experience of God’s Spirit. (None of which is to necessarily impugn the sincerity or integrity of ecclesiastical scholars and clergy; it is the effect of rather than their motivation for their work that I address.)

In that translation of one language into another necessitates a self-evident element of interpretation, ecclesiastical versions of the Bible reflect ecclesiastical presuppositions about the meanings of biblical words and ideas. In other words, the original languages of the Bible are rendered in English in such a way as to reinforce rather than to call into question ecclesiastical doctrines and practices. While this is not at all to suggest that to understand the Bible one must be a Hebrew and/or Greek scholar (neither of which am I), it is nevertheless often helpful to draw on scholarly resources (Greek-English interlinear versions of the New Testament and theological dictionaries, for examples) for aid in interpreting biblical texts. The good news is that biblical scholarship, elements of which exhibit an increasing independence from the ecclesiastical tradition, can now bring students of the Bible closer to the historical roots of the Christian faith than at any time since the post-apostolic period.

The bottom line is that acquiring an understanding of the biblical message is the whole point of reading the Bible. And that an understanding of the biblical message about God's Abrahamic promise and its Messianic fulfillment is itself persuasive to the extent of motivating one (with persuasive power) to believe the promise of God and to behave accordingly.


At 8/31/2006 10:00 AM, Blogger jonesy said...


I like the simplicity of the article as well as its brevity. As I read it it struck me how a simple graphical timeline can help you make one of your more important points: that there were saved disciples called "Christians" for decades before even the first letter of Paul was composed. That many years passed before copies of the gospel of Luke were distributed. And even then, many thousands of Christians probably did not get to have it read to them. Your point, I think, is that the earliest Christians (first and second century) placed their faith in a necessarily simple oral message they heard from another believer who had heard it from another believer who may or may not have heard it from Paul. They thus interpreted the Old Testament Scripture in light of this simple message and any subsequent letters (epistles) from Paul or Peter or John. Of course, they were rightly implored by the letters to adjust their interpretation of the message in light of any correction the apostle might address. But the point is that they interpreted their faith and the scripture from the starting point of a simple message. We, however, have to mine the canon and the ecclesiastical framework of Christendom to ferret out what that message was. Few, I am afraid, really ever do.

I think one of the biggest mistakes in fundamentalist Christianity is the teaching that the "word of God" as phrased by the apostles in the New Testament is the New Testament itself, or the New and Old Testament together. The "word of God" and "Scripture" are used interchangeably in fundamentalist Christianity and most all Protestantism (I have not visited any Catholic Churches much, so I cannot comment on catholicism). This sets up the natural legalistic tendencies we all have to complicate and obfuscate what exactly the "good news" is. The "word of God" to the earliest Christians was the simple gospel message, given to them orally about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thanks for writing a very thought provoking article. Look forward to the next one.

At 1/15/2007 8:49 PM, Blogger Hopeful Spirit said...

Very interesting.

At 2/04/2007 1:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am just new at reading your messages, and I find the "Word of God as Message" intriguing. Having been brought up a "kingdom unitarian" my whole life, I have often struggled with using the various translations of the Bible in efforts to convert others. Their "Bible" contains notes and cross references that support the traditional Christian viewpoint - not the viewpoint that Jesus had.

I have constantly fought the battle with a "new" Christian who had a traditional trinitarian up-bringing. It seems that I would begin talking with them, and they would carry my thoughts back to their traditional teachers, who would point out notes and references in their "Bibles" that would cross reference their points....blahblahblah.....I found it very difficult to "fight the fight." Sometimes it seemed that all I had on my side was "reason" that theology just shouldn't be so complicated.
God meant for it all to be easy. Keep up the good work - there is no mystery in the gospel; the Bible spells it out very clearly. I LOVE that young people such as yourself are learning the truth and are bold enough to speak about it!
Let me encourage you to KEEP WRITING -- your message is being heard. There is a BUZZ about it! I hope you know Anthony Buzzard; if you don't, search out Restoration Fellowship!

At 4/15/2007 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert, I had the privilege of listening to you at the Theological Conference in Atlanta a few weeks back and was disappointed that I didn't get the opportunity to speak with you personally. Please keep up the good work! Sue Ellen Wilding

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