The Gospel: In Short-hand and Long-hand

St Paul DamascusIs your gospel big enough? I’ve been told a few times that the whole gospel is seen at the cross. And, I’ve been told that the return of Christ is emphatically not part of the gospel. These views are more common than they ought to be. Just what is the Good News?

Recently I read a paper by Margaret Mitchell (‘Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Functions of “The Gospel” in the Corinthian Correspondence’) in which she argues that when Paul writes about the gospel he uses the term ‘the gospel’ (and synonymous terms and phrases) to represent the whole of what he understands to be the gospel. That might seem a prosaic point, but it’s linked to her second argument: that Paul uses single elements of the gospel narrative to evoke the wider whole; they are a kind of shorthand. So, for example, where Paul uses the phrase ‘the gospel of the cross’, this is not a definition of the gospel, but rather a synecdoche (a smaller part evoking a bigger whole).

The gospel is the gospel of the cross, but also the gospel of the resurrection and the gospel of the parousia. Where Paul singles out individual elements of the gospel as shorthand, he does so for rhetorical purposes. So, the cross might be emphasised where Paul’s readers need most to be reminded of the self-giving humility of Jesus. The resurrection might be emphasised where the new life of the believer or ultimate victory over the battles of this life are in view.

Mitchell makes a really important point as to what, in Paul’s mind, are the elements of the gospel. They include the key narrative events that he rehearses in 1 Cor 15, for example:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Cor 15:3-8

It’s worth noting that within this narrative gospel sweep, Paul includes his own encounter with the risen Lord. However, after writing the above, Paul quickly moves on to the return of the Christ and to the resurrection of God’s people. Mitchell writes about this:

In 15:23-28 Paul provides a fresh narrative of the events of the endtime, an example of the opposite literary tendency from shorthand: an expansion of the gospel narrative to respond to new questions which the gospel has engendered for those who seek to live it out in the present and look forward to the future. 74

For Paul, the elements of his gospel form a broad narrative sweep. Mitchell also concludes that the elements of the gospel cannot be easily separated, especially the cross and the resurrection. Writing abut 2 Corinthians 4, Mitchell concludes:

The synecdochical logic which lies behind 4:10-11 is that the death and resurrection of Christ are inseparable and constitute the indivisible unity of the kerygma. 78 (emphasis added)

I highlight this point (which can also be sustained by analysing the kerygmatic speeches of the apostles recorded in the New Testament) because evangelical understandings of the gospel have a tendency to neglect exactly this.

In 2 Corinthians 1:19 we find one of the most interesting uses of Pauline gospel shorthand. The gospel is here summarised as Jesus Christ himself as the Son of God.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy. 2 Cor 1:19

And that is why the gospel, in Paul’s mind, is not merely circumscribed by the events of the death, resurrection and parousia of the Messiah. Whilst the death and resurrection of Jesus are the indivisible unity at the heart of the gospel, the gospel itself is the consummation of the story of God’s dealings with Israel within which the promise of a Son of God, a Messiah came. This story is in fact the story of God’s dealings with his world – something that has become clear in the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

…the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom 1:1-4

The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah sits within, and embraces, an even broader narrative sweep. The gospel is the Good News of how in Jesus Christ, God the Creator is putting his world to rights, reversing the curse, securing redemption for a new humanity through the forgiveness of sins. The incarnation, the life, atoning death, resurrection and return of Jesus are all part of The Gospel. So are the results of God’s decisive intervention in his world: the resurrection of human beings, the redemption of the creation, and in the here and now the presence and action of the Church in the world. The gospel good news is the message that God’s rule is being, and will be, re-established in all the earth. And that is why the gospel is ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Lk 16:16).

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