I’ve been working with someone who is doing research on the tensions between what I’ll call for convenience a “narrative-historical” understanding of the gospel and the gospel as it is commonly presented in modern evangelism. The Talking Jesus report came up for consideration as an example of how evangelism is understood and practised in the UK today.
The report presents a snapshot of “perceptions of Jesus, Christians and evangelism” in England, backed up with an abundance of statistics. It was produced this year by Barna Group for the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance, and HOPE, an organisation whose goal is to see “individuals and communities in villages, towns and cities throughout the UK transformed by Jesus’ love”.
I’m not so much interested here in the findings of the report as in its theological presuppositions, particularly regarding Jesus and the gospel.
Is there a gospel to contextualise?
The basic evangelistic paradigm is set out in the Introduction. The report says that there is a danger of “institutional blindness”, so we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit as we go about the “hard work of contextualising the gospel”. The hope is that out of this exercise a “people movement” will emerge that will enable Christians in England to have “millions more sensitive, positive, culturally-relevant conversations about Jesus that could be deeply effective in evangelism”.
The first assumption to highlight is that we have a universal gospel that was contextualised in the first-century worlds of the New Testament and now needs to be recontextualised in the modern context through “sensitive, positive, culturally-relevant conversations about Jesus”.
The narrative-historical approach says that there is no transcendent, universal gospel of personal salvation. The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, and to a lesser extent his death, were proclaimed as a matter good news first to Israel, then, as part of an extended political-religious narrative, to the pagan world. The “gospel” was that God had saved his people from historical destruction and had put Jesus in control of history: he would be judge and ruler not only of his own people but also of the nations that currently served Rome. Evangelism was a proclamation to the hierarchy of powers in the ancient world that Jesus had been made Lord.
Good news today arises out of the historical context; it is not a pre-existing message or principle that needs to be recontextualised in the historical context. If there is a message that transcends history, it is that the creator God remains true to his promise to Abraham, or that he will always, eventually, show himself to be in the right. The fundamental missional challenge facing the Western church is to discern and articulate prophetically how the faithfulness of God to his people constitutes “good news” for secular society today. This will include the incorporation of individuals into the covenant community, but that is certainly not the primary focus.
Evangelism and (the love of) Jesus
Why is it assumed that evangelism means talking about Jesus, or that the object of evangelism is to see communities transformed by the love of Jesus?
People in the Gospels met Jesus. He travelled from place to place, they flocked to see him, they had encounters with him. Outside of the Gospels the only person who could be said to have had an “encounter with Jesus” is Paul, on the road to Damascus. What normally happened once Jesus was seated at the right hand of God—too far away for most people to have an encounter with—was that people were told that God had raised Jesus from the dead in order to resolve the crisis that Israel was in, etc., and they believed it. They received the Holy Spirit. They became part of an eschatological movement.
So why does the Talking Jesus report characterise conversion as encountering Jesus and making a decision to follow him? The passage quoted in the report by way of illustration is, in fact, taken from the story of Paul’s dramatic and exceptional encounter in Acts 9. But this happens to no one else: Jesus appeared to Paul as last of the apostles, not as a model for subsequent believers (1 Cor. 15:8; cf. 9:1).
No one in the New Testament makes a decision to follow the crucified and risen Lord. There was no need to follow him, he wasn’t going anywhere. Some were sent by him to proclaim the resurrection to Israel and the nations. But most just gathered in communities to confess his name among the pagans.
I can appreciate the personal, pragmatic and post-institutional appeal of the “following Jesus” language, but it reinforces an individualistic model of being Christian, and more seriously it messes with our sense of engagement in the narrative. It is historically disorienting. We are not living in first-century Palestine. We are living in post-Christendom Europe or the post-Christian West, and we need a narrative identity and orientation that fits that context and is responsive to the critical challenges that it presents.
Transformed by Jesus’ love?
Jesus loved his disciples generally and a handful of individuals especially—the rich young ruler, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the beloved disciple (Mk. 10:21; Jn. 11:5; 13:1; 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7). That makes sense at the human level while Jesus was alive in Palestine, though I’m not sure there’s much evidence that his love transformed communities.
Elsewhere the only reference to the love of Jesus I could find is Revelation 1:5: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood….” Normally it is God who loves, and even then, this love is directed towards the churches, not towards the world (cf. Rom. 1:7; 8:39; 2 Cor. 13:14; 2 Thess. 2:16; 1 John 5:1)—the obvious exception being John 3:16.
That’s a superficial analysis, but it does rather suggest that we have misconstrued the role of Jesus in the whole evangelistic enterprise when we speak of the transformation of communities through the love of Jesus. The ongoing role and status of Jesus in the great scheme of things, throughout the ages, is as King or Lord at the right hand of God. He was seated there not to transform neighbourhoods by his love but to judge and rule over his people and over the nations.
Did the church in the fourth century claim that the Greek-Roman world was transformed by the love of Jesus? I rather doubt it. By the love of persecuted churches for their crucified and risen Lord perhaps, but that’s a different missional narrative altogether.
What do people know about Jesus?
The report asks what people in England actually know about Jesus. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is quoted (Mk. 8:29), and then we have the statement:
That moment at Caesarea Philippi was a defining one for Jesus’s disciples. It’s here that they finally come to the realisation that this Jesus is not just a prophet, but is God incarnate, dwelling among them. For people today who have come to a living faith in Jesus Christ, that revelation is the same. (9)
This is frankly shocking. It’s not entirely clear who wrote the report—presumably someone at Barna. But surely it was vetted before publication by the Evangelical Alliance, the Church of England and HOPE? To think that “Jesus is the Messiah” means that “Jesus is God incarnate living among them” is a classic Sunday-schoolboy error. It means nothing of the sort.
To confess that Jesus is the Christ is to say only that he is the one chosen and anointed by God to deliver his people, defeat their enemies, and rule over them. For example, Lane comments:
The basic meaning of “Messiah” is passive, “the one anointed by God.” It implies divine election and appointment to a particular task and a special endowment of power for its performance. 1
Matthew adds “the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), but it is clear from the exchange between Jesus and the high priest at his trial that “Son of God” is to be understood in terms of kingdom, not incarnation: Jesus thought of himself as the Davidic king who would be seated at the right hand of God, having received the authority to rule as the suffering Son of Man (Matt. 26:63-64). “Son of God” does not equate to “God the Son”.
So it is revealed to the Jew Peter that Jesus would be Israel’s king. It makes little sense, therefore, to say that people receive the same revelation today.
This core apocalyptic narrative is entirely outside the purview of the report. The survey offered three categories for understanding Jesus’ identity, along with “don’t know” and “other”:
- a normal human being;
- God in human form who lived among people in the first century;
- a prophet or spiritual leader, not God.
Here we see the characteristic universalising tendency of post-biblical theologies. We can perhaps allow the first option to stand, but the God-in-human-form one should read: “who lived among his people in the first century”. As John said: “He came to his own…” (Jn. 1:11). He was sent to the vineyard of Israel (Matt. 21:37). There is no excuse these days for erasing first-century Israel from the argument about who Jesus was. Jesus was not just a “prophet or spiritual leader”, to be dressed in the garb of any religious or philosophical tradition we fancy; he was a prophet and spiritual leader for Israel.
But more seriously, people were not offered the most important christological identity presented in the New Testament: the lord, son of man, son of God, Davidic king, who would rule for the sake of his people and for the sake of the Father’s glory throughout the coming ages.
Now obviously, the categories presented were the ones that people were assumed to be familiar with. Fair enough. But it highlights the problem all the same: neither the church nor wider English society is expected to locate Jesus in a historical narrative about Israel and kingdom. We would rather have a non-biblical Jesus who loves us than a biblical Jesus whom we don’t understand.
Finally, people were asked whether they believed in the resurrection but not whether they believed that Jesus had been made Lord, king, judge and ruler of the nations.
My concern is this…
A report about evangelism written in 2016 ought to show some faint signs at least that the church is aware of the debate going on in biblical and New Testament studies. I take a more radical—by which I mean “consistent”—approach than many to the reconstruction of the historical narrative that explains the theological content of the New Testament. But I would claim to be working within a solid scholarly perspective that makes it very difficult to sustain the sort of traditional formulations that are taken for granted in this report.
In brief: prior to any “evangelistic” undertaking the whole story has somehow to be told. The only Jesus anyone ever encountered is the one who became judge and ruler both of Israel and the nations in the decades and centuries after his death. Take him out of that story and we are peddling something much more like the old gnostic redeemer myths—the saviour who descends from heaven to rescue people from a corrupted creation, leaving them with the assurance that they will escape to heaven when they die.
Finally, I insist that this is not about asserting the authority of dry, nit-picking, self-important scholarship over the life and ministry of the church. My contention is that the narrative-historical reading of the New Testament is not only hermeneutically and exegetically compelling. It also has the power to inspire and form and sustain the self-understanding and mission of the people of God in the world today. There could be, and should be, an exciting conversation going on here.
- 1. W.L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (1974), 290-291.