Saturday, April 09, 2011

Protestants and the Gospels

I lament the fact that Protestants love their epistles (esp. Paul) for all it's doctrine, but struggle with the Gospels. Yes, the Gospels give us Jesus which is great, but it is Jesus as the subject of Paul's atonement theology that really matters for many folks. Yet surely it should be the other way around: for doctrine and discipleship we should start with Jesus and them move to Paul. As I often tell my students, Paul rocks, but Jesus reigns. The good thing about the Book of Common Prayer is that every day you get a reading from the Gospels, every day, words from Jesus, or a story about Jesus. I think that is important. Yes, I know of the debate about "Red Letter Christians," but the fact is that we have more manuscripts of the Gospels than the rest of the New Testament from antiquity and the Fathers seemed to have quoted the Gospels more than Paul. The primordial genesis of Christian doctrine took the form of a concerted dialogue with Jesus and the Gospels. As such the Gospels should be foremost in our theology, preaching, and discipleship. If ye believe not me, consider the words of J.I. Packer:

“Finally, we could then correct the wooliness of view as to what Christian commitment involves, by stressing the need for constant meditation on the four gospels, over and above the rest of our Bible reading; for gospel study enables us both to keep our Lord in clear view and to hold before our minds the relational frame of discipleship to him. The doctrines on which our discipleship rests are clearest in the epistles, but the nature of discipleship itself is most vividly portrayed in the gospels. Some Christians seem to prefer the epistles to the gospels and talk of graduating from the gospels to the epistles as if this were a mark of growing up spiritually; but really this attitude is a very bad sign, suggesting that we are more interested in theological notions than in fellowship with the Lord Jesus in person. We should think, rather, of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the disciple relationship with Christ that is set forth in the gospels, and we should never let ourselves forget that the four gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth.”

J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God(Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1984, reprint: 2005), 61.

7 comments:

John Smuts said...

I'm not so sure this is true anymore.

I think you are about 20 years out of date - as the quote from Packer illustrates. :-)

Benjamin said...

I recently taught an adult class out our church and was struck that the Gospels are written from essentially the same historical vantage point as the Pauline Epistles.

I think we often fail to consider that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were, like Paul, engaging in theological reflection for the life of the church.

Alan said...

I agree with you Mike. Perhaps this lopsided approach comes from the perception (at least at a lay level) that Paul is a little 'easier' to swallow when it comes to discipleship. I mean,in the Gospels you get Jesus going around telling people to give up all they have if they want to be his disciples. Whereas there's a lot of 'grace' in Paul.

If this is the case then it might suggest we are more interested in the pursuit of doctrine (Paul) as we perceive it, that we are in the pursuit of following Jesus (the Gospels). Which may be similar to what Packer is driving at.

Kamal Weerakoon said...

Michael - this might be your experience, but some of the most powerful preaching I've heard, and the most challenging bible studies I've experienced, have been from the gospels. Also, personally, last year I preached through Romans 1-8. It nearly killed me. Right now I've just started John, and I'm having an absolutely wonderful, and I mean wonderful, time.

Richard W. Wilson said...

This last year, in a biggish, neo-reformed, Gospel Coalition (USA) type, Acts 29 centered, "emerged" church (my term), they did a quarter long survey of the New Testament in a sermon series. Guess how many Sundays they devoted to all four of The Gospels? One!! I was astonished, but it is probably not atypical of evangelical over-emphasis on "free grace" doctrines at the expense of closer attention to the costs and obligations of discipleship as lived and preached by Jesus. Paul himself doesn't do this by the way, despite the impression one would get from those who think they most closely adhere to his approach to The Gospel. JMO

Nicholas said...

Interesting, because in the early church, the gospels were the only books considered worthy of being placed on the altar. The epistles were read but not placed on the altar, and there was usually no Old Testament present at all.

Phil G said...

I am constantly annoyed as to how infrequently I will hear a gospel quotation in a typical evangelical church. I have taught high school Sunday school and I am amazed as to how little the typical evangelical teenager knows of the gospel stories. I was raised Catholic, where every sermon is based on a gospel message and I learned all the gospel stories by age 10. If we evangelicals don't preach the words of Jesus, what does that say about us?