Friday, July 13, 2012

Darrell Bock on the Gospel in the Speeches of Acts

Over at Euangelion, Michael Bird has drawn my attention to a fine article by my old friend, former Master's thesis advisor and basketball partner, Darrell Bock, in the recent I. Howard Marshall Festschrift.  This article, entitled "The Gospel before the Gospels: The Preached Core Narrative," examines the early apostolic speeches in Acts in order to shed light, as the title suggests, on the narrative shape of the "good news" as proclaimed in the earliest "Palestinian Christianity." 

Bock is uniquely qualified to write this article as certainly today's preeminent evangelical Lukan scholar, a specialty dating back to his doctoral research on Luke's use of the Old Testament (under the supervision of Marshall), and proceeding through his major commentaries on Luke and Acts to his spanking new treatment of Lukan theology.  He is also one of a growing number of evangelical scholars who are reexamining the New Testament to define more accurately what the "gospel" — the very term from which "evangelicals" derive their self-designation — actually entails, in contrast to what our traditions tell us it entails.  His recent short book, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel, is one of the two readable-yet-responsible books on the matter (the other being Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel) that all interested Christians should read.

One quotation immediately struck me:

In the church today we often present the gospel as if it were about forgiveness of sins alone. Jesus died for our sins, so believe and be saved. However, what this speech [Acts 2] highlights is not so much how Jesus saves us, but where that act of saving takes us. It takes us to God’s Spirit and a restored relationship with God rooted in enablement to respond to God. This parallels what is said about the new covenant in Jeremiah, where forgiveness and the Law of God on the heart are the benefits God promises will come to his people one day. In this way, gospel and covenantal promise come together. God’s having exalted Jesus makes all of this possible. This is the message of Acts 2.
Yes!  I was raised in an ecclesial environment that exclusively valued "clarity" and "simplicity" in gospel presentations.  That meant an exclusive emphasis on the forensic status of the individual before God; hence the almost exclusive focus on the cross as penal substitution (the resurrection wasn't an optional extra, but, though considered essential as a matter of intellectual assent, its significance was largely left uninterpreted) and justification by faith (not to be compromised by mention of such things as baptism and Jesus' Lordship).

In other words, I was taught that the essence of the "gospel," despite such texts as Romans 1:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and the speeches in Acts, not to mention the narrative shape of the books called "Gospels" in the New Testament, lay in St. Paul's theology of the cross as interpreted through Reformational interpretations of two key texts: Romans 1-4 and Galatians 2-3.  Now, I gladly acknowledge that both Luther and Calvin gave us powerful contextualizations of Romans and Galatians for the church of their day.  I likewise believe in penal substitution as a viable aspect of what Christ accomplished on the cross and heartily affirm justification by faith alone.  Nevertheless, even in my days as a young, theologically untrained Christian, I was observant enough to realize that both the Gospels and Acts could (or at least should) not be read in the straightjacket provided by  a truncated reading of the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Bock, along with McKnight and other scholars such as Tom Wright, clearly understand that, while such matters as penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith are essential emphases related to the gospel, they must be understood in light of even more fundamental perspectives provided by salvation-history (the gospel as the fulfillment of the story of Israel and God's covenant [i.e., Abrahamic, Davidic, and New] promises), eschatology (the gospel as the announcement of the irruption of the kingdom of God), and the contours of the biblical story (the gospel not only as the solution to the individualistic problem caused by Genesis 3, but as the means to fulfilling God's creative design for humanity in Genesis 1).  Could it be that writers like Bock and McKnight are evidence that a critical mass of educated Christians are starting to think this way?  I can only hope so.

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