Best to Listen to Paul

One hundred years ago Roland Allen wrote a book that shaped the last century of missionary thinking and missionary praxis. Former missionary, Roland Allen, laid much of it out in a book called Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Missions today is not what missions was then, and the confidence in Western Christians in their missionary work is not what it was then. Many today, in fact, question whether Westerners even ought to be doing missions — some call it colonialism and others see it as triumphalism and others accuse the missionary impulse of failing to see the grace of God in all religions.

So Robert Plummer and John Mark Terry gathered some thinkers to write up some papers and IVP published them as Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours, and this book marks a celebration of the work of Roland Allen.

Fourteen studies, including pieces by Mike Bird (Paul’s religious and historical milieu), Eckhard Schnabel (missionary work), Robert Plummer (gospel), Craig Keener (spiritual warfare), David Hesselgrave (missions strategy), …. you get the picture. Many well-known names on important topics. The focus here is missionary work, not simply theory, so the articles are aimed at missionary praxis.

What do you think of Robert Plummer’s eight points below? Where would you adjust them?

No surprise at this blog but I want to dive into the piece by Robert Plummer on the gospel, which he rightly says is the “indispensible [sic] defining element of Paul’s apostolic ministry” (45). He knows there’s a gospel debate today, and so he wants to see what the NT teaches and he rightly takes us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 for eight points. Here’s the text and then the points he makes:

1Cor. 15:1    Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
1Cor. 15:3    For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

I give his points as statements, without fuller explanation:

1. Christian leaders must constantly remind themselves and others of the gospel (15:1).
2. The gospel must be both proclaimed and received for its saving benefits to be applied (15:1-2), including taking dead aim at the inclusivists, postmortem or not.
3. The gospel is a new dynamic realm in which we stand (15:1). Plummer develops this point at length, including comments about the value of experience but more importantly he focuses on being swept up into the flood of the gospel at work in our world.
4. The gospel announces the only way to be saved from God’s righteous judgment (15:2, from “saved”).
5. Perseverance in the gospel is necessary for salvation (15:2).
6. The gospel is confirmed by authorized eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection (15:3).
7. The gospel is what God did in history to save lost humanity through his Son, Messiah Jesus (15:1-4).
8. The gospel is a fulfillment of God’s prior saving promises (15:3-4). [Why “a”?]

Plummer chooses a good place to start though I would make two observations: (1) I’m not sure that one can simply reduce the gospel to 15:1-8, and there are good reasons many want to explore this all the way to v. 28; (2) Paul’s gospel is also found in Book of Acts in his gospeling sermons and something could have been said about that. Furthermore, there are other “gospel” statements by Paul (e.g., 2 Tim 2:8, where the gospel is stated in three lines: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel…”).

I would contend this list is good but not good enough since it does not have enough framing through christology, particularly the person of Christ; the outline is soterian through and through so that soteriology drives the gospel not the Story of Jesus. Jesus is the means of redemption here, not the focal center of the Story itself. Now let’s be clear: he’s not denying christology but the grid, the central category shaping the whole is soteriology, not the Story of Israel being fulfilled in the Story of Jesus. We need both, but the order matters: first christology, then soteriology. Tell me about Jesus and the salvation story flows out of Jesus. Tell me about Jesus as the means and the salvation story becomes the main thing. The difference is visible in his list of eight points.

I agree with much of what Plummer says, but a comprehensive (not exhaustive) sketch of what Paul means by gospel would entail more emphasis on Jesus Christ and his Story. For instance, notice the quotation above from 2 Tim 2:8 and 1 Cor 15 as Plummer sketches it: King Jesus, David, resurrection. His 6th point focuses not much on the resurrection of Messiah Jesus to rule but on authorized eyewitnesses.

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  • Perhaps the best we can do, and the heart of mission, is to make Jesus known. And we can do it in so many ways, all of them relevant.

    We can teach about his life, his words, and his actions. We can explain why he came and what he achieved. But the best way by far, I think, is to reveal his presence in us through the way we live our lives. We need to be salt and light.

    Above all we need to be like him. He was attractive to some, a stumbling block to others, and a mystery to many. He was a healer, a teacher, and a friend. We need to be all those things too, how else will we reach people?

  • Greg D

    While I too think Plummer makes some valid points regarding this passage, I also see a very soterian gospel he is teaching. Sadly, this is the most common gospel preached in missions. I myself am a missionary living and serving in a Muslim country where many of my teammates and other western missionaries are all about a gospel of salvation. It’s about getting a decision and being saved from sin and/or hell. Another dynamic of the gospel that I think many miss the mark on is the “get-out-of-hell-for-free-card” gospel. That the gospel is ONLY about the afterlife, namely getting out of hell and into heaven. No mention of the kingdom of heaven, no mention of the joy in Christ, or the abundant life, and becoming the whole person that we can have… now… while on earth… before our bodies perish. While I understand the King Jesus Gospel that McKnight teaches, and I do agree it is the premise of the gospel, I also believe it is important that we teach what it means that Christ is indeed Lord over all the earth. What does it mean for us now and what does it mean for us after we die.

  • Adam

    My first observation is that this is not 1 Cor 15:1-8 but rather 1 Cor 15:1-4. Nothing in that list goes beyond verse 4.

    My second observation is that I see some really loose interpretations going on. Items 1-5 are centered on 1 Cor 15:1-2. In these five items I see a lot of MUST and ONLY and NECESSARY that just don’t exist in the two verses cited.

    Item 5 especially sets the stage for we humans to be the judge of who is saved and who is not. Who judges who has persevered and who hasn’t? If I fail at perseverance one time have I lost salvation?

    Finally, this list ignores the only MUST there should be in the gospel, verses 14-15, that the Resurrection is real.

  • Josh

    Ever noticed the soterian gospel make Jesus out to be the judge? (Acts 17.31; Rom 2.16)

  • @ Josh – Isn’t He the judge?

  • Of course he’s the Judge. He will separate the sheep from the goats (not on the basis of what we believe but on the basis of what we have done or failed to do). Of course there’s more to it than that, in one sense faith is everything, but if it’s worth anything at all it will affect what we do and don’t do.

    I’m with Greg D (2) on this. We reach people by offering them new life here and now, new life in the kingdom THIS side of the grave. We show them there is grace and love and peace, a chance to live life better and fuller and to live it free and abundantly. HalleluYah!

  • Andrew

    I think a grave mistake of Christianity throughout history has been taking Paul out of his historical context. His emphasis on Christ crucified and risen was in response to various groups preaching different strains of Christianity, and he was writing to ‘set them right.’ He didn’t write his letters thinking “here a new religion is forming, I shall write a sermon meant to encapsulate this new religion to all followers for thousands of years.” Especially concerning the latter, the subject matter of his letters reflect his belief that the parousia was imminent. Which we know via some Monday morning quarterbacking, he was wrong about.
    So I don’t think his letters should be discarded or don’t have words of worth, but Paul’s “Gospel” was intended for specific audiences during a very specific time.