The Emerging Relational Theology #3

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I'd like to make a detour in our series here to talk about why narrative theology is important to the Emergent movement, or rather why it should be. I just finished listening to a podcast interview national Emergent Village coordinator Tony Jones did with author Phyllis Tickle about her latest book "The Words of Jesus" which takes the words of Jesus from the canonical Gospels and lays them out with some introductory commentary by Tickle, but with all the narrative removed. Now in itself I have no problem with this, after all many Evangelicals have done the same thing with our red letter editions of the New Testament where you read just the words of Jesus. We call it "reading the red". The problem I have is in a comment Tony Jones makes where he mentions a book he is writing on the Didache, and claims that

"in the Didache the gospel is not 'Jesus died on the cross for your sins', the Gospel is the teachings of Jesus"

First of all this is a highly debatable claim for the Didache. The Greek word translated as "Gospel" Tony is referring to is ευαγγελιω which is the word our "evangel" comes from. It simply means "message" or "teaching". The Didache says things like

"all your deeds so do, as you have it in the ευαγγελιω of our Lord"

and in a section before quoting from the Lord's Prayer they write,

"as the Lord commanded in His ευαγγελιω"
The word ευαγγελιω here which is translated as "Gospel" is simply a Greek word for "teaching" or "message" commonly used in other extra-biblical writings. For example in Homer's Odyssey where it means "good tidings"
"Odysseus shall return, so let me have a reward for bearing good tidings (ευαγγελιου), and as soon as he shall come and reach his home, clothe me in a cloak and tunic" (bk 14:152)
Our English term Gospel as it has come to be understood today as the Christian plan of salvation did not exist as a word at the time. So Tony's claim amounts to "in the Didache teaching refers to teaching" which kind of goes without saying. What the Didache does not say is that salvation comes through obeying teachings as opposed to by grace and the cross, which is what Tony implies here.

Now perhaps Tony did not think much before saying this, I realize it was just an ad lib in a podcast so I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but taken as it stands, his statement is one of classical liberal theology that strips away the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection and reduces the Gospel to the teachings of Jesus. With statements like these it is no wonder that people often see Emergent as Evangelicals turned liberal. On the flipside the classic conservative take on the Gospel has too often been to detach the cross from the teaching and life of Christ. People the Gospel is both the words and deeds of Christ. You can't separate them. His teachings on the kingdom are commentaries on his actions, both in his ministry of healing, forgiving, casting out demons, and of his way to the cross. In fact Christ's central teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (which is the focus of the Didache) is how we are to understand his death. As Paul says "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Ro 5:8). The cross is God loving us His enemies, overcoming our evil through unmerited grace.

A Gospel that does not take into account all of what Jesus did and said, the whole narrative of the story of God coming among us, is at best only half a Gospel. The Gospels of Matthew Mark, Luke, and John deliberately present to us this story in narrative form, and all of it - not just the acts, not just the teaching - is how it is presented. When we try to extract from that a collection of propositional truths ( as conservatives like to do) or compendium of teachings (as liberals have a penchant for) we do violence to the intent of the Apostles. Now let me stress again that as long as it is just an exercise, reading the red as Phyllis Tickle is having us do can be a deeply rewarding expereince, but when we start to think that this "red" is the whole Gospel, and we remove the story, the actions of God in history, then we are most certainly taking a detour off the "strait and narrow" road.

We as Emergents need to be post-conservative and post-liberal. That means that we need a constructive theology that allows us to go beyond these old ruts in the road, and I do see a tendency for Emergents to lean away from the right over into the left as evidenced in Tony's statements here which I do not think are atypical. That constructive theology is greatly helped by a narrative theology that unites the words and deeds of God incarnate into one Gospel that transforms our thinking (orthodoxy) our actions (orthopraxy).

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At 1:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. Makes nice food for thought.

At 3:18 AM, Blogger tony said...

Yeah, I totally agree with you. I misspoke on the podcast. I meant that when Didache talks about "gospel," it is about the Jesus narrative, not about the Romans Road.

Thanks for calling me out!

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification Tony!


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