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).