It’s turning into “Gospel in Few Words” month here at DoTheWord blogging central. We’ve been examining the efforts of many to share the gospel in ten words, seven words, and even one word. (Fortunately, no one has yet suggested the gospel in no words, i.e., the quote incorrectly attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel. Use words when necessary.”)
All of the efforts have one thing in common: They are all very clever. And, as the venerable Thomas Oden observed, cleverness is not a theological virtue.
In fact, the Apostle Paul, in his 90 word gospel summary that is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, goes out of his way to ensure that novelty does not creep into our gospel proclamation. He does so by repeating one phrase twice. It is the only phrase he repeats in his gospel proclamation, and yet it is a phrase that does not appear singly in the ten word, seven word, and one word summaries of the gospel, namely: according to the Scriptures:
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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.
Craig Bubeck contends that Christians don’t like “love” as the whole gospel in one word because we are keen to attach a “but” to the end of any statement about God’s love. The Apostle Paul is not keen to attach a “but,” but he is keen to attach an “according to the Scriptures,” since, as Jake Meador notes in his fine post, Politics and the Bible as Narrative, “Scripture is a narrative, not an ancient version of Brainy Quote.” Meador is writing specifically about our tendency to mine through Scripture in order to extract images that suit our political purposes, but what he shares speaks equally well to the dangers inherent in any effort to liberate the presentation of the gospel from Scriptural moorings. He quotes Oliver O’Donovan:
If political theologians are to treat ancient Israel’s political tradition as normative, they must observe the discipline of treating it as history. They may not plunder the Old Testament as though it were so much raw material to be consumed, in any order and in any variety of proportions, in the manufacture of their own theological artefact… To dip into Israel’s experience at one point…and to take out a single disconnected image or theme from it is to treat the history of God’s reign like a commonplace book or a dictionary of quotations.
And this is true even when we dip in and emerge with a single word gospel summary like “love.”
It is not accidental that Paul is shown presenting the gospel by reasoning from the scriptures or that the Ethiopian eunuch receives the gospel from Philip in the course of attempting to make sense of a passage of scripture.
Lesson: If your presentation of the gospel makes sense independently of the Scripture–if it relies on drawing on a napkin more than drawing on the prophet Isaiah, for instance–you may be a candidate for the Galatians 1:8 Gospel Proclamation Award.