Gospel Unity

There is no genuine institutional unity in the Church today; there is no genuine doctrinal unity in the Church today. But there is one place where there could definitely be more unity: around the gospel. Ted Campbell, in his splendid book The Gospel in Christian Traditions, makes the case that the gospel could be a unifying force in the Church. And in my King Jesus Gospel I seek to outline an understanding of the gospel that was the heart and provided the unity for the early church and shaped the New Testament itself.

A recommendation for pastors: Why not organize some pastors across the spectrum to discuss gospel as a source of unity? And I would urge you to use my book as well as Ted Campbell’s. What do you think: Can the apostolic gospel of 1 Corinthians 15 (etc) provide unity for churches?

A friend sent me Eastern Orthodoxy’s Father Patrick Reardon’s Pastoral Ponderings on Advent [the last I looked they haven’t archived this newest pondering], and his pondering was on the gospel and the significance of the Old Testament for that gospel.

November 27, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

Father Pat’s Pastoral Ponderings

Since the theology of Redemption takes its rise from the Gospel itself, it is reasonable to start with the Gospel in order to discern its direction, method, structure, and content.

The Apostle Paul indicated this approach when he described his initial message to the Corinthians: “I delivered to you—as of primary importance—that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

The apostolic preaching did not simply declare the soteriological significance of Jesus’ death and Resurrection; it specifically did so “according to the Scriptures.” That is to say, an explicit reference to the Old Testament was contained in the content of the Gospel. It was an integral part of the proclamation. Paul would have regarded the omission of the Hebrew Scriptures as a defect in the apostolic message.

If this is true of the Gospel, it must also be true of a soteriology based on the Gospel. An authentic theology of Redemption will be—“as of primary importance”—exegetical. It will investigate the death and Resurrection of Christ in a specific way; namely, “according to the Scriptures.”

In making this point in 1 Corinthians, Paul gave prescriptive form to the soteriological approach we already find all through the literary evidence left us by the apostles and the apostolic churches. For now, I limit our consideration to just two texts:

First, when the Apostle Peter set himself to convey the meaning of Jesus’ death and Resurrection to the assembled crowds on the morning of Pentecost, he appealed to the testimony of the Scriptures; specifically, to Psalms 16 [15]:8-11 and 110 [109]:1 (Acts 2:23-35). Instinctively, as it were, Peter interpreted the redemptive work of Christ “according to the Scriptures.”

Second, when the Church incorporated the theme of Redemption into her worship, this incorporation included images and expressions drawn from the ancient Scriptures. A very early example is in the hymn fragment quoted by the Apostle Paul, when he wrote of “Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be seized, but he emptied himself, assuming the form of a bondservant, coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7). In the primitive soteriology of this hymn, we discern references both to Genesis, where disobedient Adam sought equality with God, and to the Book of Isaiah, where God’s obedient Servant emptied himself.

In both these New Testament texts—which I take to be typical of the soteriology in the apostolic period—the Old Testament serves as the interpretive lens. It provides direction, method, structure, and content to the theology of Redemption.

In the Church’s impulse to search the Hebrew Scriptures for the understanding of Redemption, we should see, not only the quest to identify objective prophetic references, but also the effort to discern the subjective “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Authentic theology is an extension of the mind of Christ; it begins with understanding the revealed Scriptures as Jesus understood them. There is one and only one reason Christian theology investigates the Hebrew Scriptures to grasp the meaning of Redemption: it is what Jesus did.

In other words, the Old Testament and the redemptive work of Christ are not related simply by way of objective semantic reference, but through the living subjective experience of the Redeemer. The conjunction of the Sacred Text and the redemptive event was originally discerned in the active, reflecting conscience of Jesus of Nazareth, who found in the words of the Hebrew Bible the Father’s personal summons to obedience.

In the very act of commissioning the Gospel, Jesus elaborated this personal understanding of the Holy Scriptures for the benefit of the Church (cf. Luke 24:45-47).

Even before his Passion, however, he intimated certain aspects of this understanding. Perhaps the clearest example of this intimation is found in the words of the Eucharistic Institution: “This is my body which is given for you. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you.” In these words, Jesus had recourse to thematic imagery from Exodus and the Book of Isaiah, in order to interpret his celebration of “this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15-20).

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  • Interesting question, Scot, as usual! Richard Rubenstein’s account of the formation of the Nicene Creed underscores how Arians and anti-Arians, under strong pressure from the Emperor Constantine, agreed on a creedal statement – which each party then interpreted according to its own strongly held beliefs. This seems to undercut the hope of unity.

    On the other hand, Alfred North Whitehead, in his work on symbols, show that they function in two ways. First, a they unite a group by allegiance to a shared symbol. Second, the inherent ambiguity of the meaning of the symbol allows plenty of room for individual differentiation. (The French word for a creed is “symbole.” The Apostles’ Creed is the “Symbole des apôtres.”)

    Yesterday’s discussion of the Evangelical Theological Society’s very lean statement of faith suggests the impossibility of unity by creed. Part of the glory of humanity is that we think outside the bounds, that we question, that we imagine. If this is an aspect of God’s image in us, then it is to be cherished and nurtured alongside explorations of ways to strengthen the bonds between such unruly creatures.

  • I do absolutely agree the gospel is ‘of first importance’ and properly the objective basis of the unity that exists in the body through the Spirit. My question is is a minor one.

    Are we sure that ‘of first importance’ is a proper interpretation of 1 Cor 15.

    1Cor 15:3
    For I delivered to you, in the first place, what also I had received, that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures…

    I concede that the end result may be the same (since presumably what Paul first taught he believed to be of first importance). Nevertheless, exegetically, the question remains apposite.

  • I like his emphasis on using the OT as a lens for understanding the NT. I feel like there’s so much focus on reading the OT Christocentric/telicly in our churches but not enough emphasis on using the OT to illumine the NT.

  • We are seeing a unity blossom in our small city across strange denominational lines – Bible church, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Church of Christ. The visible expression of this has been in shared service/mission projects. But the hidden core is a Kingdom gospel orientation and resulting common ground in philosophy of ministry. We have read Scripture and studied together several years now. The common thread is a bunch of pastors who realized they didn’t know what Jesus meant by “the gospel of the kingdom”. In spite of our several degrees!

    Thanks for the book Scot, it’s now being passed around. Main reaction is “that’s what we’ve been saying!” and then “but he says it better!”

  • Rick

    I think it is a great idea, and the creedal statement of 1 Cor 15 is a great place to start.

    But then again, the gospel (as you describe it) should be the source, and and continuing resource, for unity.
    It’s proclamation breaks down walls to those accepting its message.

    Isn’t it a sad statement about the times that your question even needs to be asked?

  • T


    I do think you can make a strong case for greater unity based on the KJG thesis. But (and it’s a big but), precisely because your thesis makes it possible for traditionally theologically separated groups to call the same thing “the gospel” I think you are going to see some camps be unwilling to go there.

  • Robin

    My first thought when I read this post was “Unity around the gospel…sounds like a great idea…I think there has even recently been a group of pastors/churches that have, across denominational lines come TOGETHER FOR THE GOSPEL”

    Then I realized that their definition of “Gospel” would leave some people outside of the ecumenism and that 1 Cor. 15 provides a more generic definition around which people can gather, but it brings up a separate issue.

    Wouldn’t uniting around 1 Cor. 15 (solely) encourage “unity” with groups who clearly don’t hold historically orthodox doctrines? Is that your intention? It is fine if that is your intention, it just seems that making 1 Cor. 15 the standard would bring back lots of folks that we haven’t considered Christians for a couple thousand years and I want to make sure that is what you intend. (Honestly no sarcasm in that remark, just wanted to clarify)

  • scotmcknight

    T and Rick, sad indeed.

  • scotmcknight


    This is just too suspicious for me. Why would 1 Cor 15’s gospel, and I’m all for how that has been understood up into the creeds, solely encourage unity with those who don’t hold to orthodoxy?

  • Robin


    I haven’t read your book or see you unpack 1 Corinthians 15 in its entirety, so maybe there is some nuance I am missing. I don’t think it will “solely encourage unity” with the unorthodox, but I wonder if “solely using texts like 1 Cor. 15 as our definition of ‘gospel’ ” would encourage unity with people who aren’t orthodox.

    Reading through the text I didn’t see anything that would keep Mormons, JW, Arians, Pelagians, other non-trinitarians, etc. from affirming it, so I thought using this as a primary text for “the gospel” and then encouraging unity around “the gospel” would broaden unity to the unorthodox.