Gospels as Foundation Documents for Church

Three approaches to the Gospels blunt their force, and it is hard to escape all three: skeptics think the Gospels are unreliable and reflect only (or at least mostly) the faith of the early church; Bultmannians believe the historical record doesn’t matter since faith is about encounter with power of God; and moralist preachers find the Gospels to be little more than a quarry for morals.

What do you see in the Gospels: A life of Jesus? (a kind of historical account) The concerns of the early church? (a kind of mirror reading of what mattered when the Gospels were written) or both? (and how does a text do both?)

N.T. Wright (How God Became King) contends there are four speakers in the room and each needs to be adjusted to the right level: the first speaker meant learning to hear the Story of Israel as the back story; the second speaker meant adjusting the volume down so we could hear about Jesus as God in terms of what Jesus meant as God returning to Zion; and the third speaker, the one for today, means learning to hear the Gospels as foundational documents that are simultaneously about Jesus and for the early churches. [I don’t know, perhaps its British, but throughout this book the lower case gospel is used both for the gospel itself and for the Gospels.]

Wright skirts on dangerous ice, but intelligent readers know whereof he speaks, but he sees the Gospels as “foundational documents,” and then says they are properly classified as “myths” and this is what he means: “stories communities tell to explain and give direction to their own lives” (111). He offers an important clarification: the issue is whether they correspond to reality. So, he’s not speaking here about make-believe myths or fictional myths, but grounded myths. That is, the Gospels tell “the story of the launching of God’s renewed people” by rooting that launch in the life of Jesus himself.

Wright clarifies something many discuss about his writings: he’s attempting here to show, in less than a page, that “renew” means he’s not supersessionist. The church does not “replace” Israel but “renews” Israel. 

The Gospels, then, are signposts for the church: the commissionings of the disciples show this: they are sent out in Matthew 10 but that text transcends the time of the disciples’ mission (hailed before governors, “before the son of man comes,” etc) and that mission is then shown for more in Matthew 28:18-20, where Isaiah 11, Pss 2, 72, 89 are brought into view too. The mission began with Jesus but continues into the church. [This is Tom’s 5th Act theme, though he doesn’t use that expression here.]

Other “missional” themes or continuance themes: reversal of power and prestige in a cross-shaped life; Sermon on the Mount; forgiveness, family life and discipline (Matt 18). John’s Gospel, new temple, and receiving the Spirit.

Jesus has ushered in a new world order the Gospels are the foundation documents of that order.

Wright, ironically, reverses Bultmann: “unless the church’s life and mission is rooted in the historical accomplishment of Jesus, all Christian life would be either arrogance or folly, or both” (120). The Gospels were never just reminiscences about Jesus but a both-and: both about Jesus and a charter document for the church.

John’s Gospel ends where the Gospels begin: the call to discipleship (cf. Jn 21:22 with Mark 1:16-20 and John 1’s full chp story).

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  • RJS


    What did you mean to say here: “and then says they properly “myths” and this …”? I could fill in the blank – but I am not quite sure I am doing it correctly.

  • Scot, since I subscribe to Bauckham’s eyewitness view of the gospels’ formation (which you may disagree with to some degree) I think the dual context of the gospel stories makes perfect sense. They are reminiscences by those who encountered Jesus but they are reminiscences especially that address the needs of the congregations of the late first century (and a number of things have changed socially and politically since the days when Yeshua spoke on the hills of Galilee). Both-and and not either-or, both true to what happened and true to what mattered in the early Jesus-movement.

  • Renew vs replace. What’s the diff? Are all the promises of the scriptures yes and amen in Jesus and those who follow him or not?

  • Kenton

    FWIW, Peter Kreeft in chpt 9 of his “Handbook of Christian Apologetics”, talks about 6 senses of the word “myth” and what it means. It might be helpful to this discussion. (I’ve been in conversations before where that word tripped things up a bit.)

    That chapter is available on Google books if you Google search [Peter Kreeft handbook of christian apologetics chapter 9] and scroll down to the books.google.com link. It’s only a page and half or so.

  • Mason

    i do not understand the fear everyone seems to have about the idea that the Church has replaced Israel. It seems fairly obvious to my weak mind that that is exactly what has happened on Pentecost. the Church was born or given life on the same day that Israel was given birth when she recieved the Law. i believe that is one of the points for why the Spirit was given on that day. the Law was given and it gave identity to Israel and now the SPirit is given and it give both identity and life. if it makes people more comfortable to say that the Church fulfills the promises of God to Israel and it helps us to fight off the claim of Anti-semitism then find, but say that. i believe as Christians that we are sometimes afraid to state the obsvious. there is no salvation outside of Jesus, therefore there is only 1 covenant and not 2. God does not have one plan for Jews and another for Gentiles. there is no distinction. or at least that is what somebody said…so why the fear replacement, fulfillment, renew…it all means the same. it is the Church and those who are members of her where God’s spirit, God’s mission and God’s people are found..why are we embarrassed to just say that??

  • Dana

    RJS said on April 19, 2012 at 7:34 am:

    What did you mean to say here: “and then says they properly “myths” and this …”? I could fill in the blank – but I am not quite sure I am doing it correctly.

    To put it as simply as possible (and hopefully accurately too), NTW uses the term “myth” as a reference to the foundational, controlling story[ies] that peoples/cultures tell “as a way of articulating their worldview and maintaining it in good repair” (see his NTPG, 424-27, for a fuller discussion). He makes the crucial distinction between myths that serve (as in Christian theology) as just such a controlling story, and which do in fact relate in some way to “real” historical events (in Scot’s words: “they correspond to reality”), over against the more popular understanding/use of myth as in, e.g., Greek mythology, which everyone acknowledges is purely fictional, but which still are in some way “controlling stories.” Is that what you’re getting at?

    P.S. How does one get formatting here (e.g., italics)? Do I have to compose my comments in another app (word processor?) and then paste? Thanks.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Wright says the church does not replace Israel but renews Israel. On the one hand, I remember reading Douglas Harink’s excellent book, “Paul Among the Postliberals.” As one who has read Wright extensively in the past, I was surprised that every one of his chapters were very well done except the chapter on Wright where Harink accuses Wright of supressionism (replacement theology that the church replaces Israel). Even though I believe this is a misreading or a poor reading of Wright, I still can’t but help wonder if it would not have been beter for Wright to more focus in detail the relationship of Israel to the church or speak about the church as grafted into Israel rather than what seems the opposite? I for one do not view Wright as a supersessionist but there are times when he sounds like one. Wright holds a lot of things in tension and balance and walks a very thin tightwire at times.