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