Debates on theological Twitter are somewhat Sisyphean affairs. You have 140 characters per tweet to lay out your position, or parts of it, which means that inevitably something’s going to be lacking in precision or comprehensive balance. One such spat flared when Bethany Jenkins, one of TGC’s editors tweeted, “Yes, Jesus is compassionate, kind, & just. But centering our faith on his ethical teachings is dangerous. He came to die. That’s the gospel.”
This set Twitter aflame with much consternation and quote-tweeting. I don’t know how many people I saw, especially on the Progressive/Post-Evangelical Left, referencing the tweet and commenting on what a muddle it was, or how it was perpetuating troubling dichotomies between Christ’s life and death, or ethics and theology, etc. And I get it to a degree.
Bad gospel dichotomies do happen. I have read Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, and plenty of N.T. Wright, so I know all about the dangers of sidelining the gospel of the kingdom, or turning it into a mere transactional accomplishment, neglecting the resurrection, and so forth.
And if that’s what I thought Jenkins was doing, I might be shaking my head alongside everyone else. We must not be reductionists about the person and work of Christ. The good news is truly cosmic in scope.
But was it, really? I don’t think so.
Savior, then Teacher
Allowing for the limitations of Twitter as a medium, I saw this and took it to mean something along the lines of, “Christ must be a Savior before he is our Teacher, otherwise you’ll be set up for failure.” Essentially it was a very short warning against the kind of move that has been made for years–trying to take Jesus as a Teacher, but not as a Savior. And if you scroll down the Twitter thread, Jenkins clarified something along those lines. I suppose others didn’t take the time.
Now, the issue Jenkins is addressing is a perennial problem. J. Gresham Machen warned against it in Christianity and Liberalism. You might see some of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans as a broadside against Liberalism’s reduction of the gospel to FOGBOM ethics (Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man). C.S. Lewis formulated his famous “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument in Mere Christianity against it. More recently, Tim Keller’s always going on about how if you take Jesus as an example without accepting him as a Lord, it will crush you. Mostly because without forgiveness, the power of the Holy Spirit–the gifts of God’s unique, saving work in Christ–you simply can’t live out Jesus’ kingdom-ethics.
Reaching farther back, Martin Luther said something similar in his preface to the Gospels, “What to Look For and Expect In the Gospels.” He says we are to read the Gospels and see two levels in its teaching about Christ. He is our example as well as our gift. But there is an order:
The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself. See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.
As the saying goes, the gospel is good news, not good advice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we forgo taking Christ as an example, or taking up our own cross, or attempting to live the kingdom-life that he modeled. No, he continues:
Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things. Therefore make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian.
In which case, you can see the motive for frontloading Christ’s work as Savior before we get to Christ’s work as Teacher. That would just be to turn Christ “into another Moses” as Luther put it–in his very Lutheran way.
On “The Gospel” and Shorthand
Okay, so maybe you can go along with all of this, but what about reducing the gospel to “Jesus came to die”? Well, a few points.
First, as we already noted, it is Twitter. It’s a limited format. You can’t say everything all at once. I can’t even do that in this blog.
Second, scholars argue about the lexical range of the term “gospel” all the time. In the NT, we have it variously associated with the kingdom, his death, his resurrection, etc. often without mention of the other elements. I think one helpful way of thinking about it is understanding that you can talk about the broader content of the gospel (the kingdom of God, new life, reconciliation, etc) as well as its narrower enactment, or the means by which it is made available (Jesus’ unique, saving life, death, and resurrection). The word has some flex to it.
Third, even within that, older theologians like Calvin note that Paul and others will often invoke one element of the story of Christ as a stand-in for the whole. It’s a metonymy (or synechdoche, which I always confuse). So, Paul will talk about knowing “Christ and him crucified” among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2), when surely he talked to them about Christ and him crucified, risen, and ascended as a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-7). In Pauline usage, at least, the cross implies the resurrection and vice versa.
In which case, it seems perfectly fine in a loose context to speak of Jesus coming to die as a stand-in for the whole of his work as its culminating climax. Paul spoke of justification and eternal life coming through “one act of righteousness” (Romans 5:18). Indeed, it’s particularly fitting if the point you’re trying to make is the unique, punctiliar nature of Christ’s work accomplished on our behalf.
Jesus himself, right before being handed over to be crucified, prayed before the Father and “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).
Surely nobody would accuse Paul or Christ of being reductionists about Christ’s gospel? Well, then in that case, it seems permissible from time to time to speak of it in a focused, metonymic way.
Especially on Twitter.
Interpreting Like Jesus
I don’t usually write posts about Twitter spats, but Jenkins is a friend and I have to say, I found the multiple-person, Twitter-mobbing, pile-on to be unfair (even if some were more reasonable and inquisitive than others). I suppose this is something of an exercise and a plea for interpretive charity. Especially across tribal lines. To paraphrase a textually-questionable saying of Christ’s “Let he who is without Twitter-infelicities cast the first @.”
Or drawing from Jesus’ ethics more positively, “read as you’d like to be read.”
Soli Deo Gloria
I appreciate this a lot: “Centering our faith on [Jesus’] ethical teaching is dangerous.” But I also think centering our faith on the death of Jesus is also dangerous. The relationship of faith in God through Christ one is called to in the Gospels can’t just be simply be centered in his death either. I think your reminders here are well worth while. Nevertheless, a death, even that of Jesus our Savior, is not an adequate metonym for the life he brings in the Gospel. One doesn’t actually find that simple a reduction in scripture. We might built up that particular reduction as a stand in for The Gospel, but to me it seems inadequate because it is too reductionistic–we lose the special relational qualities of life in death–if we lose essential aspects of the relationship of faith we lose a lot. His death is rather more of a synecdoche, a part of the whole relationship of faith.
I would go further. I would say that unless you place the Death and Resurrection at the absolute centre of everything, you have nothing important. Jesus’ moral teachings, pithy and memorable as they are, have nothing original about them. Love your enemies? You can find that not only in the Old Testament, but even – in narrative form – in the awesome twenty-fourth book of the Iliad, in which an old man embraces the killer of his son and both weep over each other’s fate. Unless we refer to the divinity of Jesus and to His supernatural victory first, there is little reason to hold His teachings above those of the old Jews, of Confucius, or of Epictetus.
With all do respect: Jesus’ call for his followers to take up their individual crosses and follow him in denying to themselves is pretty well unique. Jesus made that the _sine qua non_ for his disciples.
Let me get this straight. You make ONE SINGLE INDIVIDUAL TEACHING, itself based on the very fact of Death And Resurrection, ground to make the ethical teaching of Jesus more important than Death And Resurrection and unique with respect to other great teachers of virtue?
Feels a bit like you wanna fight instead of take up your cross. Please take that in the nature of ironic instead of sarcastic. Am I misunderstanding you? I definitely didn’t say his teaching was more important than his death and resurrection. I’m just saying Jesus said taking up one’s cross was essential to discipleship. Jesus said so in each of the synoptic gospels directly following the revelation and confirmation that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Mark 8:34). I probably won’t add another response, soooo….
All right. I take your point. I only insist on the centrality of Death and Resurrection. We don’t go to Jesus to be taught, we go to Him to be saved. The teaching is a wonderful extra, or rather a part of the act of salvation – “What you have to do to be saved”.
The original Twitter-spat and the exchange above reinforce for me that social media ‘outlets’ aren’t always the best places to hold fruitful important discussions. [Yet here I am. Hmmm.] Twitter, with it’s character limit seems to be a particular problem … and even the back-and-forth commenting that follows a blog post. I don’t often (ever?) seem to have enough time to follow the discussions very far as a reader, let alone as a participant. Just thinking out loud.
That’s why I never got on to Twitter at all.
If we accept Jesus as Savior without accepting his teachings (which he himself defined as the Good News), have we accepted Jesus at all? Is HE the One we believe in? Or do we place our faith in a generic, iconic token that is good for one trip to Heaven? Is this “another gospel,” one Paul calls anathema?
All the sins both Jesus and Paul say will block our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven are matters of not having a mindset like Jesus’ and our relationships with our fellowman. The reality these attitudes create make up the Kingdom. It is within us and among us. So, can one be “saved” ando not enter the Kingdom? The very presence of selfishness, prejudice, arrogance, pride and self righteousness would render the Kingdom nonexistent. The “Jesus died for us,” message cannot be the total. There are many “Lords,” and many people named “Jesus.” But the one who can save us came to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom and if we don’t much care what that means, we have accepted a different Jesus.
People who only call me to invite me to Tupperware parties or to ask me to buy magazines and have no interest whatsoever in ME personally are actually demeaning me. I have been hurt at times by fellow church members who called
It’s much like our current political situation…. people have a strong idea of what it means to be “American,” yet most have ideas that exclude others from qualifying for the freedoms we demand for ourselves. That creates a paradox that makes the American Ideal impossible. So it is with the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not as much a “place” as it is a community based on having the mind of Christ.