What If the Gospels Are the Gospel?

After the second reading of the Mass, usually from one of St. Paul’s epistles, the Liturgy of the Word reaches its climax when the Priest or Deacon stands, approaches the altar flanked by two altar servers bearing candles, bows, and picks up a large volume before processing to the podium with it. As the congregation stands, the celebrant reads from one of the four canonical Gospels. The bit of ceremony just described is a visual affirmation of paragraph 18 of the Vatican II publication called “Dei Verbum” which reads, “It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior.” Consequently, Catholic hermeneutics (principles of interpretation) begin with the teachings of Jesus and interpret the other New Testament documents in light of them. The Gospels are the Gospel in Catholic theology.

By contrast, classic Reformed Protestant tradition prioritizes the writings of St. Paul, as interpreted by Luther, as the controlling paradigm for understanding the New Testament. It is commonly asserted within Reformed Protestantism that “Paul interprets Jesus.” This hermeneutical move is the reason why “justification by faith alone” is the Protestant gospel, but it has also led more liberal Protestant scholars to conclude that Paul teaches a different form of Christianity than Jesus, who places a great deal of emphasis on righteous living as integral to redemption and never once mentions justification by faith alone. This apparent tension has caused some to question whether Jesus even preached the Gospel, and conservative Reformed Protestants to relegate the Gospels to a secondary status in practice though not in theory.

If the Gospels are interpreted through the Reformed Protestant prism of St. Paul, how are we to understand Jesus’ responses to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In each instance, Jesus answers the question by giving the individual something to do. When a scribe asks the question, Jesus replies with a story of a Samaritan who puts himself at risk to help his historic enemy, and then exhorts the Scribe to, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25 – 39) When the Rich Young Man asks the same question, Jesus famously instructs him to “sell all you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.” (Matthew 19:16 – 22) Later in his ministry Jesus says without qualification, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) That is only a small sampling of Jesus’ demanding message that is more a call to action than a passive acceptance of his sacrificial work on our behalf.

Luther devised the Law/Gospel Hermeneutic to make sense of this apparent disparity. According to this theory of interpretation, the gospel is an offer of forgiveness through faith in Christ whose righteousness (active obedience to the law) is then imputed (credited) to the passive believer. Since the gospel is an offer of free grace, any command, even in the teaching of Jesus is “law”, and consequently, not part of the gospel. When the law/gospel hermeneutic is applied to the Gospels, the commands of Jesus, like “love God and love your neighbor” or “take up your cross,” clearly fall into the category of “law.” Under this hermeneutic, the Protestant exegete concludes that Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan or gave the Sermon on the Mount, not primarily as illustrations of the way of life, but as impossible ideals that are intended to drive the discouraged sinner to abandon all hope of pleasing God and rely solely on the merits of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and resurrection. The problem is that there is nothing in any of Jesus’ teaching that implies that this is his intent. With so much at stake, one might reasonably expect Jesus to pull his disciples aside at some point to explain the nuances of his teaching and to make the gospel explicit for those who might never encounter the Apostle Paul or his letters.

By contrast, the Catholic Church begins with the teaching of Jesus memorialized in the Gospels to define “the gospel.” After all, Jesus said that he was preaching “the gospel of the kingdom,” and Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and message even opens with the declaration, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus the Messiah…” (Mark 1:1) In the Gospels Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come, good news for the poor and marginalized, the elements of society with whom Jesus identifies. He confronts injustice among the religious and civil authorities and offers forgiveness of sins and healing to those who exercise faith in him. Rather than a gospel of passive trust, Jesus calls those who would be his disciples and enjoy eternal life to embrace the ethic of self-sacrificial love which he embodied all the way to the cross. They must take up their own cross, forgive freely and indiscriminately, and love and serve their friends and enemies (even their Roman oppressors), even to their own harm (“sell all you have and give to the poor”). Jesus speaks of faith but never “faith alone.” In fact, in the teaching of Jesus, “faith and works” are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, which explains why in his description of the last judgment he welcomes the sheep into his kingdom, not because they are clothed in his righteousness nor because they have trusted in him alone for salvation, but because they have responded compassionately to the needy among them (Matthew 25:31 – 46). Consequently, when drawn from the Gospels, the gospel is the announcement that God has acted in Jesus to free humanity from bondage to sin and death, and to call men and women to follow Jesus to the cross and participate in the reign of God through the power of the Holy Spirit by rejecting the values of this present age and living a life of self-sacrificial love toward all people. Those who persevere in “the way of the cross” (the cruciform life) will receive forgiveness of sins and everlasting life in this age and in the one to come. This is the gospel that the Catholic Church preaches.

So, how does the Catholic Church make sense of Paul’s assertion that we are justified by faith and not “works?” First, we need to recognize that Paul’s letters were intended to supplement his missionary work by addressing issues within individual churches in his absence. Paul and others preached the gospel when they planted the churches, and the epistles are examples of the application of the gospel to particular problems confronting the communities. Secondly, his references to justification are only found in passages where he is confronting Jewish believers who want to require Gentiles to submit to circumcision and keep the Mosaic Law as a condition for joining the Church. In these passages, Paul makes specific reference to circumcision and other “works of the Law” or marks of Jewish identity which strongly suggests that when the Apostle uses “works,” it is short hand for “works of the Law” not a reference to the “cruciform living” that Jesus expects. Paul is reminding the churches that it is faith in Jesus, and not the keeping of the Mosaic Law, that marks an individual as one of God’s people. This is how scholars like Thomas Aquinas understood St. Paul long before Luther or the New Perspective.

Furthermore, when his epistles are read in light of the Gospels, many of the peculiarities and apparent tensions melt away. For instance, Paul’s declaration that, “The doers of the Law will be justified,” (Romans 2:13) and his use of the phrase, “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) seem out of place in the Lutheran paradigm. Ironically, the Epistle to the Romans, the supposed epicenter of justification by faith alone, includes a number or passages that strain against Classic Reformed soteriology. In chapter 6 the Apostle reminds the Roman Christians that they have died to sin and its power and exhorts them to yield their members as instruments of righteousness which will lead to eternal life. By contrast he warns them that yielding to sin leads to death. He doesn’t sound like one who believes that the Romans are eternally secure because they possess an unalienable alien righteousness imputed to them as a result of faith. The argument of this portion of the letter concludes in chapter 8 where Paul again seems to teach that salvation is the ultimate reward for those who persevere in faithfulness through the power of the Spirit. In his letter to the Galatians Paul speaks of “faith working through love” (5:6) as the essence of Christianity, and then a little later he cautions the church that, “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (6:8) Likewise, in the Letter to the Church at Philippi he exhorts the believers to “work out their salvation” (2:12) and speaks gloriously of his desire for a righteousness from God that depends on faith (faithfulness?) characterized by an intimate knowledge of Christ and his sufferings, and the hope of resurrection, before adding, “Not that I have already attained this,…but I press on to make it my own.” When read in the light of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, the odd angles in Paul’s letters make sense. Jesus’ gospel is Paul’s gospel.

Rather than the Church drifting away from the gospel over the course of a millennium only to have Luther “rediscover” the gospel in his reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the differences between the “Catholic gospel” and the “Protestant gospel” are primarily the result of different canonical starting points. One of them has distorted the gospel due to misplaced emphasis, but how do we know which one is accurate? The Holy Spirit may have left us a clue in the inspired text (Mark 1:1), and the universal and ancient tradition of the Church may have left another in calling certain books “Gospels.” Do these ancient signposts point us in the wrong direction in our search for the way of life?











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