Spring 2000
Volume 4 Number 4

The Gospel and today’s church

Hendrix: I do not think today’s church is ashamed of the Gospel. I understand by the Gospel the message of salvation through Jesus Christ that brings freedom and the presence of the Spirit. Challenging as it may be in our culture, the churches are seeking effective ways of proclaiming that message, and they are proclaiming it publicly and faithfully.

Johnson: We misread Romans 1:16 if we psychologize it. The emphasis is not on Paul’s state of mind but on the fact that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, a salvation Paul conceives as an imminent, future deliverance from the destruction of sin. The verbal form that we translate "ashamed" comes from an active verbal form that means "to be put to shame." What Paul is affirming here is his conviction that the Gospel will not put him to shame. The Gospel is something upon which he has staked his life, knowing that, in the end, it will vindicate him. So to capture these nuances, we might translate the phrase something like, "for I am not shamed with respect to the Gospel."

Black: I think one of the perennial tasks for the church, and for theological seminaries that operate with a sense of accountability to the church and to the Gospel, is to remind themselves of how much shame was attached to the Gospel in Paul’s day. The Gospel is focused on a crucified Lord, and the crucifixion was a most shameful way to die. In I Corinthians, Paul reminds the Corinthians, and also us, that the Gospel we know through the cross of Jesus Christ actually upends reality and how the world conventionally looks at reality. It undermines our deployment of power, our appreciation of and use of knowledge, and our idolatry of messiahs other than the crucified Christ. We need to regularly remember how shameful the Gospel was. We should not domesticate the Gospel, not rob it of its scandalous power.

The Gospel — from Paul to the Reformation to the postmodern

Black: For Paul, the Gospel fundamentally shifts reality and the way we think about everything. In the Gospels, a recurring motif is how difficult it is for the disciples to get on board with Jesus, who is handing them a cross and leading them to Golgotha. They don’t follow Jesus out of a sick, masochistic desire to destroy themselves, but precisely because through the cross they know the God who pours himself out, a messiah who is completely self-donating for his disciples and for the world. The promise is that in the word of the cross God is restoring us, drawing us ever incrementally — and sometimes dramatically — into that splendor for which we have been created and of which we are sometimes frightened.

Hendrix: In the Reformation period, this verse was used indirectly by Martin Luther to argue for restoring the Gospel to the center of the church’s life and proclamation. In his Romans commentary, Luther implies that the pre-Reformation church had become ashamed of the Gospel. He meant that the church had displaced the cross of Christ from the center of its life and faith. The goal of the Reformers was to restore the Gospel of Christ to the center of the church. That meant changing the preaching of the church, reforming the sacraments, and also reforming the piety of Christians, the way they lived. To a large extent it meant overhauling the kind of late medieval piety to which most Christians were accustomed, and making faith in Christ and those religious activities that promoted faith in Christ the focus of Christian piety. Luther wanted to bring the Gospel front and center to Christians again.

Johnson: Postmodernity is a vague term that signals the intense questioning of modernity that has picked up steam in the waning decades of the twentieth century. In this questioning, postmodernity redefines rationality, doubts whether there is objective truth, and points out the fallibility of all knowing. There is also an emphasis on how power and social conditions affect the self. The hypocrisies of Enlightenment reason are revealed — especially the violence that this reason has sometimes induced, and its exclusion of the marginalized. There are other characteristics, too. But perhaps the most telling sign of postmodernism is a reticence to make claims of knowing the "totality." Instead, many postmodernists respond with an interest in and concern for the "other." For example, rather than making claims about all of truth and the whole universe, a postmodernist can admit to having a limited perspective, and then seek to learn more about the perspectives of other people, cultures, philosophies, or religions. Some are fearful of these changes. However, to the extent that postmodernity has engendered a mood of radical questioning in our society, it has also provided the occasion for a new hearing of the Gospel —this Gospel that judges us, and, in judging us, saves us and will not leave us shamed.

Black: Recently in class we were looking at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where it says, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus]." Does the church today believe that? Does it act out of the conviction that a living Christ really does hold our future, the church’s future, and the future of the world in hand? When we slip into reductionism, fear, or confusion, the Gospel reminds us that, contrary to what some postmodernists would say, the world and life are not meaningless. At the center — the very center of all life and all creation — is a God who loves us in a crucified way, in an utterly self-giving way.

Copyright 2000 Princeton Theological Seminary
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