History and the Gospel

SakhalinskI remember a grumpy student once saying: “I hate history! It’s just one darned thing after another!” And so it is. For although we study history, we think of it as a simple collection of events, a way of telling the story of the world. Like a well-written newspaper account, we expect history to state the facts as accurately as possible and leave for the reader the task of interpretation. Is it too much to ask?

We often bring this same set of expectations to the Scriptures. There we frequently find texts that sound like history, like the recording of events (“one thing after another”). And we bring the newspaper consumer’s mind to bear. We want to know whether the text is accurate. We see interpretation as something that is removed from the text itself. But is this the wrong expectation?

St. Paul does not treat “the gospel” as an interpretation of a given set of facts. The gospel is something, he says, he received. And he is even more emphatic, that he did not receive it from any human source, but “from the Lord” (cf. Galatians 1).  This is a weakness even in studies by notables like Tom Wright. There is a failure to stop and think about “gospel” in a manner that breaks free of the long, Protestant assumption that the gospel is a message or idea. I believe this failure is driven by the myopia of a non-sacramental perception of the Christian faith – that is – by a Christian faith that is thoroughly contemporary and governed by the assumptions of a two-storey universe.

The four gospels are not, properly speaking, historical documents. They contain a great deal of history, but that is not their primary nature. They are witnesses to the resurrection. But what kind of witnesses?

Here is where the word gospel needs to be rightly understood. Like the kingdom of God, the gospel is an event, a reality, a something that has come into the world. It is called a mystery, a power. It is not the story of the event (though the story is within it). It is an event whose revelation changes things (whether the revelation is believed or not). Something has happened and now nothing will ever be the same. That something is the gospel.

The four gospels that the Church reads are clearly not just four separate historical narratives of the Jesus story. They are gospels and are called such rather than “the story of what Jesus said and did.” St. Mark specifically says, “The beginning of the gospel…” 

The Church treats the gospels in a different fashion liturgically. They are bound as a separate book. The gospels are placed on the altar (not the Bible, not the New Testament, just the gospels). They are even used sacramentally as the hand of God in liturgical situations (the sacrament of Holy Unction, the consecration of a bishop). 

I do not lay my sinful hand upon the head of [him] who is come to Thee in iniquities, and asks of Thee, through us, the pardon of [his] sins, but rather Thy strong and mighty hand, which is in this, Thy Holy Gospels, that is now held by my fellow-ministers, upon the head of Thy servant, N.

This is not a superstitious use of the book, but a revealing of the nature of the gospel. 

The gospels are not a text about the gospel – they are the gospel. But, of course, they are indeed texts. This, I am suggesting, is like saying that the Body and Blood of Christ is bread and wine. Of course it is. And it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. That reality must be spiritually discerned, but it is a reality whether it is discerned or not.

The gospels are the gospel presented as text (and as book).

The gospel can be and is presented as word, as icon, as human being, as a series of events, as pretty much anything God chooses to use in order to present the gospel. For St. Paul it was a blinding light and falling off a horse.

What I am trying to do here is free the word “gospel” from the chains of simply being an idea or words about an event. The death of Christ on the Cross, His descent into Hades, His resurrection from the dead is the gospel. And I may encounter that gospel in many ways and forms (Baptism, Eucharist, icon, story, book, etc.). The gospel is the saving action of Christ. But we are saved by the saving action of Christ, not by words about the saving action of Christ. There is not an intellectual mediation of the gospel. The gospel is immediate. We encounter the gospel itself, or we are yet to encounter the gospel.

This tendency to create abstractions within the text of the New Testament is a hallmark of the modern period (throughout the past 500 years). It is not intentional nor sinister – but it is a misreading. The deeply concrete character of the New Testament and its terms are simply overlooked when viewed with a non-sacramental mindset.

Modern readers of the New Testament do not see a deeply sacramental text (or text as sacrament). We see our own world read into and projected onto the text. We too easily fail to see the scandal of its classical worldview.  

But the New Testament is deeply and profoundly sacramental. Its feel for nouns is not so much for words as ideas (that is a very modern concept), but words as things, persons, realities. The classical does not think about the gospel – it encounters the gospel. 

And so I bring us back to history. Within the New Testament, history is better understood as the stage upon which things that are hidden are revealed. The gospel texts do not labor to present the details of a historical narrative (“one thing after another”). The texts intend to reveal the gospel itself. That gospel already lies hidden within the text of the Old Testament. The New Testament makes it known. 

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (Joh 20:30-31)

I do not suggest that it is inappropriate to ask historical questions of the gospel text or of anything in Scripture. But I do suggest that the gospel will not be particularly found in the answers to those questions (such as they may be). The distance created in the historical search removes the reader and hearer from the immediacy of the gospel itself.  

I have served for 15 years as an Orthodox priest. In my earliest years, my most common experience within the liturgy was, “And what do I do next?” The time required to acquire the liturgy on a level that did not make such questioning necessary was much longer than I had expected. They were my most difficult months and years. The same is true of the gospels. The unfamiliarity introduced by historical suspicion or simple historical imagining creates a distance that shields us from the immediate impact of the gospel itself. 

The historical mind views the world (and texts) as objects to be considered. We think too much! The fathers generally thought of true knowledge as something that comes through participation (communion/koinonia). We know because something/someone becomes truly a part of our experience and life. We encounter and know. 

There are levels of such participation and knowledge. It is the deepest level of this that is described as union in our life with God. We will never be united with Christ by thinking about Him or considering Him. Something more is required. This reality has been lost both from the vocabulary and largely from the experience of the modern world. 

But it is to this reality we are invited: “Repent and believe the gospel.”

All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman – Priest of St. Anne Orthodox Church, Oak Ridge, TN