I’m going to be honest here. If I hear one more person talk about the ABCs of the Gospel, the Four Points of the Gospel, the One Minute Gospel, or the Twitter Gospel, I think I’ll have to go home and vent my frustration on one of the two cats who seem to think they live at my house. (Unfortunately, my wife and daughters agree with them.) And, why do I find this so frustrating? Because there is simply too much in the Gospel to unpack in such short Gospel summaries.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with summarizing the Gospel, the NT authors do it all the time (of course, they assume we know the story they’re summarizing). And, a good summary of the Gospel can be very helpful at times. The problem comes when that’s all we do.
This is where I find the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” narratives helpful. (Does anyone know who first developed this language? I know Brueggemann used it quite a bit, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the first.) Our typical Gospel presentations are thin narratives. Such thin narratives provide just enough detail to make it a coherent story, but they leave out most of the detail that makes it a really compelling story. That would be somewhat akin to summarizing Les Miserables as a story about a guy who fell, experienced grace, and sought personal redemption through serving others. That’s technically correct, but you’ve lost all the power that’s in the story. A “thick” narrative, on the other hand, tries to unpack the story in all its rich detail. That way, when you get to the climax of the story, you really know what’s going on. Why it’s good news.
We need to spend much more time telling “thick” Gospel narratives. I don’t know about your church, but we hear about the Gospel quite often in mine. Unfortunately, it’s usually summarized in 5-10 minutes. Occasionally we’ll get a whole sermon on it (especially on Easter). But, I don’t think anyone at my church has ever tried to present a truly “thick” Gospel narrative that helps people understand how it all fits together.
I’ve been doing this recently with the high school group at my church. I’m working through the story of the Gospel in eight weeks. By the time we’re done, I’ll have spent around five hours telling them the story of the Gospel. And, we really don’t have anywhere near enough time to get it all in. But, when we’re done, they’ll have a much thicker narrative for the Gospel. They certainly won’t have the whole story. So, I hope they’re coming to appreciate that they could spend a lifetime filling in more details. But, they’ll have more of the narrative than they did before.
In case your curious, I’m presenting it around the standard Creation/Fall/Redemption narrative (after, that is how the Bible tells the story). But, I think we need to be careful here as well. A Creation/Fall/Redemption approach could easily be a “thin” narrative as well. It’s easy to assume people understand all three parts of this story and how they fit together. I actually find that that is generally not the case. Many Christians know the creation story, but don’t really know what it has to do with the Gospel. And, the same is true with other parts of the story (especially the history of Israel). So, I’m trying to provide a thicker narrative all the way through. (You’re probably getting a sense now for why 5 hours is not enough time.)
Here’s the outline:
- Week 1: Introduction and explanation of why everyone (non-Christians, new Christians, and old Christians) need to understand the Gospel more than they do.
- Week 2: Genesis 1:1-25 and God’s plan to manifest his glory throughout creation as an expression of grace.
- Week 3: Genesis 1:26-2:25 and God’s plan to create human persons through whom in particular he would manifest his glorious presence in creation.
- Week 4: Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam and Eve as well as the horrible consequences that resulted for all of creation.
- Week 5: The rest of the Old Testament (seriously, I only have eight weeks) and God’s faithfulness to his people, plans, and promises in the Garden and throughout the history of Israel.
- Week 6: The Messiah as the fulfillment of God’s plans and promises for his people and for all of creation.
- Week 7: How we should respond as individuals and as the people of God.
- Week 8: How this Gospel transforms the way that we see everything.
So, that’s what I’m doing to try and give the students a thicker narrative for the Gospel. What are you seeing in your churches and ministries? Has your church/ministry done a better job providing thick narratives for the Gospel? If so, what have you been doing?
Yesterday’s post, “The biblical languages in life and ministry,” sparked quite a bit of discussion. So, I thought it might be worth following up on that with a few more thoughts on the subject. Why bother with learning Greek and Hebrew? By the time you are done, you will have spent countless hours and probably a fair amount of money learning these languages. Was it worth it?
Martin Luther wrote a wonderful little tract titled “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” In it, he addresses the issue of why he thinks it is important to spend time learning the biblical languages (see relevant excerpts here). I thought we could use his ideas as a starting point for our own discussion.
First, Luther is very clear that there is a pragmatic need for learning the languages; it makes us more effective students, teachers, and preachers.
A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.
And, he continues with a fabulous statement about the importance of the languages for powerful preaching:
Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations.
For Luther, then, we need to know the original languages because they add power to our messages, confidence to our ministries, depth to our arguments. And, those are no small matters. We should be able to handle the Word with confidence and proclaim with power. The time we have spent on the languages is a gift to our ministries and students.
But, as several of our commenters pointed out yesterday, there must be more. If understanding the languages is a purely pragmatic issue, then my best bet would be to find Greek and Hebrew scholars that I really trust and simply rely on their conclusions. It’s unlikely that I will ever spend more time on Greek and Hebrew than Bill Mounce or Miles van Pelt (since they actually wrote books on learning Greek and Hebrew). And, if I can’t really do better than they can, wouldn’t it be more efficient to use my time doing something else? Why not trust a good commentary and spend my time working on powerful illustrations and applications? This is precisely what a pragmatic approach to the languages would suggest.
So, I find it interesting that Luther’s main argument is not a pragmatic one. His starting point is the Gospel.
we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments.
Luther’s fundamental concern is that if we do not pay particular and close attention to the text, we will lose the Gospel itself. Left to ourselves, we will inevitably fashion the Gospel in our own image, after our own preferences, according to our own desires. Although Luther regularly ascribes value to studying translations of the Bible, he argues that this is not ultimately sufficient. Unless we dig deeply into the text, we will eventually lose our moorings and drift into the stream of contemporary (ir)relevance.
Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.
So, we have now two reasons for studying the original languages: effective ministry and protection of the Gospel. To these, I think we must add a third: spiritual formation. I would agree with a comment that Ben made yesterday: “this is part of a spiritual journey not necessarily an educational one.” We must constantly remind ourselves that we are not studying the original languages; we are studying the Word of God. The languages are simply a means to that end. As Luther said, they are the “sheath.” So, I think we would do better to think of learning the languages as a spiritual discipline. It is an intentional practice designed to draw one toward a more intimate knowledge of God so that he/she can be continually re-shaped in his image. Only by constantly reminding ourselves that this is what we are doing, can we resist the alluring pull of pragmatism and the inevitable conclusion that we should just let someone else do it for us.
Many thanks to Dane Ortlund at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology for posting this excerpt from G. K. Beale on the adamic flow of the biblical narratives:
The first Adam should have obeyed and subdued the entire earth, but he did not.
After the flood, Noah was commissioned to subdue the earth, but he had his own ‘fall’ in a garden-like environment, also in connection with the image of nakedness.
Subsequently, God creates a corporate Adam, Israel, who was to be obedient to God in the promised land, which the OT refers to repeatedly as ‘like the garden of Eden.’ They were to go out from the promised land and subdue the rest of the earth. Appropriately, Israel was called by Adamic names, like ‘Son of Adam (Man)’ and ‘Son of God.’ Israel had her ‘fall’ at the golden calf episode, the effects of which were devastating for the nation’s destiny. Instead of subduing the earth, she was subdued by it.
Lastly, God raises up another individual Adamic figure, Jesus Christ, who finally does what Adam should have done, and so he inaugurates a new creation which will not be corrupted but find its culmination in a new heavens and earth. And his names ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ also allude to him, not only as the Last Adam, but also as true Israel.
G. K. Beale, ‘The Eschatological Conception of New Testament Theology,’ in The Reader Must Understand: Eschatology in Bible and Theology (IVP 1997)
Thanks to the NT Resources blog I ran across an interesting post on Original Languages and the Priesthood of All Believers. Since most of us have spent a fair amount of time with the original languages in our academic development, I thought his would be worth reflecting on.
The article begins with the following statement:
The original languages of scripture can be a blessing and they can be a curse. They can help or they can harm the priesthood of believers. I have seen both happen.
He goes on to express high appreciation for the value of studying the original languages, but also a significant concern that we be careful how we use our understanding of the languages – especially from the pulpit.
The problem for the priesthood of believers comes when someone uses the Hebrew and Greek to set himself up as “the one with knowledge.” This may happen inadvertently, but it harms the church nonetheless. For example, when a pastor (who does almost all the preaching in the modern Western church) repeatedly says, “Well, in the Greek this means…” he is telling the folks of that church that he has special knowledge that they don’t have. While he may not mean it this way, this is the message that they receive. He is the expert and they are not.What does this do to the priesthood? It can devastate it. It causes a passive church when it comes to reading and interpreting the bible. If the people think that the pastor is the one “who brings the word of God,” they won’t be motivated to study and think for themselves. Instead, they will wait for the expert to bring them “the message” on Sundays.
You’ve probably heard by now that John Piper is taking a leave of absence from his church and all speaking/writing engagements. Unfortunately, this means that he will no longer be one of the plenary speakers at this year’s national ETS conference, the theme of which is “Justification by Faith.” That is unfortunate since N.T. Wright will be one of the other plenary speakers and it would have been fun to have both of them involved.
But, ETS has announced that Tom Schreiner will be stepping in to take Piper’s place. What do you think? Tom has written extensively on the subject, but I’m not personally familiar with most of his books. Do you think he’s a good replacement for Piper? If you were on the nominating committee, is there anyone that you would have suggested instead?
According to James D.G. Dunn, “Rom. 8.1-27 is unquestionably the highest point of Paul’s theology of the Spirit.”  To support this statement he highlights the following parts of this passage:
(1) In 8.1-2 it is “clearly the Spirit which has made the decisive difference (note the aorist tense) in countering the law abused by sin to bring about death.
(2) In 8.4-6 the readers are “encouraged to think of themselves (and to realize themselves) as those who ‘walk in accordance with the Spirit,’ who have their being in terms of the Spirit, who think in the Spirit’s way.”
(3) In 8.9, “It is ‘having the Spirit’ which defines and determines someone as being ‘of Christ.’ A Spirtless Christian would have been a contradiction of terms for Paul.’
(4) In 8.10, “the Spirit is the life of the Christian, that is, the life of God in the Christian”.
(5) In 8.11, “the resurrection of the body” is “the climactic saving act of the life-giving Spirit”.
(6) In 8.14, “membership in God’s family is defined in terms of the Spirit”.
(7) In 8.16, “The adoption is given its existential reality bu the presence and witness of the Spirit”.
(8) Finally, in 8.23, “…the gift of the Spirit is but the firstfruits of that complete salvation, the beginning of the process and the assurance of its completion.” 
For Pentecostal/Charismatic types I think Dunn does a fine job of showing us that Romans 8.1-27 is essential reading for a more well-rounded understanding of the Holy Spirit. For others it is essential reading, especially if we have not taken into consideration the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.  
 James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 423.
 Ibid. 423-424.
 For those ThM students who are taking James De Young’s class on Romans I would greatly appreciate any thoughts that you might gather as you work through this passage.
I decided to summarize my review of Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas: The Other Gospel due to time constraints here.
Now I have entered the part of Perrin’s book where he begins to interact with otherThomas scholars. As I noted last time the three scholars toward which Perrin gives the most attention are Stephen J. Patterson, Elaine Pagels, and April DeConick. The chapter I will be posting on here (“The Thomas community on the move”) is the chapter on Patterson.
Stephen J. Patterson is the professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. It is his suggestion that the author of Thomas was not dependent upon the canonical gospels. Therefore, the Thomas community has its own, independent origins. 1
Patterson argues that the order of the sayings in Thomas do not parallel the Synoptics, therefore it is odd to see Thomas as the production of someone who was copying from the Synoptics. 2 Where it appears that the author of Thomas has adopted Lukan or Marcan language it is suggested this crept in at a later stage of the document’s development. 3 Therefore, it may be best to call the Thomas tradition “autonomous” rather than “independent” since at some point it was rubbed on by the Synoptics. 4
For reasons given in the book Patterson dates the original Thomas as early as AD 70. 5 It was the product of a Christian community that was itinerant, cut its family ties, and lived a life of poverty and begging. It “prioritized” the “presence of the living Jesus” over “Jewish rituals and disciplines”. “Finally, it was a community open to women–well, sort of. The bad news, as the last logion in the collection tells us, is that women had to ‘become like men’ first (Gos. Thom. 114).” 6
Perrin responds with the following points of agreement:
(1) He agrees that the Thomas community was an ascetic group.
(2) Thomas’ eschatology is actualized.
(3) Thomasine Christianity and Syrian Christianity are rightly compared by Patterson. 7
Perrin brings forth the following critiques:
(1) He doesn’t agree with Patterson’s reasoning for his argument that there is no dependence on the Synoptics since there are Mattheanisms and Lucanisms. 8
(2) Patterson makes the same mistake at James Robinson by “playing fast and loose with the categories of form and genre”. Therefore, Perrin disagrees that this document is a mere “sayings” document that was compiled without much of an agenda therefore leading us back closer to the real, historical Jesus. 9
(3) Although ascetic, it does not look like other models of asceticism in early Christianity. It goes further than the Synoptic tradition in its emphasis on poverty. It ignores that the Jesus Movement came forth from the movement of John the Baptist which had rites and rituals early on. 10
The conclusions reached by Perrin are fourfold:
(1) The order of the sayings does need some explanation if one is going to argue that Thomas depends on the Synoptics.
(2) Thomas Christianity was ascetic.
(3) Thomasine eschatology was realized eschatology (more like The Gospel of John than the Synoptics).
(4) There “are certain semblances between Thomas Christianity and early Syriac Christianity. 11
 Nicholas Perrin. Thomas: The Other Gospel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 20-21.
 Ibid. 23.
 Ibid. 24.
 Ibid. 25.
 Ibid. 26.
 Ibid. 28-29.
 Ibid. 29.
 Ibid. 31.
 Ibid. 34-35.
 Ibid. 36.
I want to say a few brief words about the end of the ‘Introduction’ chapter in Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas: The Other Gospel (see my a-tad-too-lengthy post on the rest of the chapter here). First, according to Perrin, “the most pressing question” is how the CopticGospel of Thomas relates to the canonical gospels. 1 It was assumed early on thatThomas was simply a dependent distortion of the synoptics. This was until James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester.
Robinson noted that Thomas was a “sayings source” like the hypothetical Q (logoi sophon= sayings of the wise). Koester argued that this “sayings source” was free of all the extra narrative baggage of the synoptics and therefore was likely an earlier, purer, more original set of sayings from the historical Jesus. 2
This is part of what Perrin sets out to address in his book. To challenge these presuppositions about Thomas Perrin must wrestle with the writings of three prominent, contemporary Thomas scholars: (1) Stephen Patterson who carries along the “Koester-Robinson thesis”, (2) Elaine Pagels, and (3) April DeConick.
In my next post I will summarize Perrin’s interaction with Patterson.
 Nicholas Perrin. Thomas: The Other Gospel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 13.