The Gospel in HOW many words?!

Will Campbell, formerly a hero of mine (I’ve not kept up with him), was taunted by a skeptical friend to summarize his “simple Gospel” in ten words or less. Will got tired of the taunts after a while (or maybe he just had to think a while to boil it down) and shot back “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway!”

I liked that a lot. Almost as good was Will’s retort when asked how he could be embraced both by poor blacks in the south and by Klansmen, both of him knew of his involvement with the other: “By emptying the bedpans of their sick!”

But I recently encountered a school of theology, the leading proponent of which boiled the Gospel down by another 50%: “The Word became flesh.”

The theologian was John Williamson Nevin, a mid-19th century theologian, who together with his better-known colleague, Philip Schaff (whose name is associated with public domain English translations of the Early Church Fathers), considered himself a true Reformed theologian, in opposition to both Puritanism and Revivalism, then respectively the emeritzed and regnant errors pretending to the “Reformed” title.

Before embracing Orthodoxy, I was for 20 years an adherent of Reformed theology, commonly known as Calvinism. It strikes me as telling that Nevin and Schaff lost the battle for the Reformed soul to their nemesis (and Nevin’s teacher), Princeton’s Charles Hodge, who Wikipedia describes as “considered to be one of the greatest exponents and defenders of historical Calvinism in America during the 19th century” (emphasis added) despite Hodge specifically rejecting Calvin‘s view of the eucharist in favor of Zwingli‘s view.

“Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion,” I suppose, but not to his own facts. That Zwingli should be more historically Calvinist than Calvin is, shall we say, paradoxical at best. Like Luther stumbling his way into starting a new Church instead of succeeding in the reform of Catholicism or uniting to Orthodoxy, I consider Hodge/Zwingli’s triumph over Nevin/Schaff/Calvin one of the tragic turning points of Protestant history, whereby Protestants — and particularly self-style “conservative” or “New Testament” or “Bible” Protestants — went further afield when they had a chance to return to their Father’s house, or at least to its close environs.

You may have noticed that Nevin’s version of the Gospel isn’t obviously the same at all as Will Campbell’s version. “The Word became flesh” ≠ “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

Oh, yes, “God so loved the world (i.e., this is how God loved the world) that he gave his only begotten son” comes from the pen of the Apostle who wrote “the Word became flesh.” The two aren’t utterly inconsistent.

But Campbell’s formulation is a relatively revivalist version compared to Nevin’s incarnational version. And the spirit of those two versions is vastly different.

In the revivalist version, The Fall really ticked God off, and the incarnation was merely a set-up; God the Son couldn’t be crucified for our sins, to cure God’s anger problem, until he became human and grew up. The center, the big deal, the only part that matters, is the atonement — viewed as the assuaging of God’s anger — at Calvary.

To Nevin, though, the incarnation is inseparable from the atonement, the “at-one-ment,” of God and humanity, as God the Son even took our glorified human flesh back to heaven with Him at His ascension. We are, in a real sense, united with Christ in His humanity, not just in His divinity — and that union is cemented again and again in the Eucharist, where we partake of His Body and Blood, not merely being reminded, in a heightened sense, of His divinity and His joining us for just long enough to die for us.

This is being brought home to me as I read The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity, by W. Bradford Littlejohn. It helps me triangulate my position to have two outside reference points: the Zwinglian/Revivalist pseudo-Calvinism from which I came and the Calvinist Calvinism which may be present today, but barely, and largely invisibly, but is on full display in Nevin.

There’s little doubt that Nevin was much closer to Catholicism and Orthodoxy than are the Puritan and Revivalist counterfeit Calvinists, and I’ve even heard it suggested (not by a Catholic, by the way) that Calvin was on a trajectory to return to Rome at his life’s end. If you reflexively say “then bully for Puritans, Revivalists and Hodge!” when you read that, then you need your Romophobic ecclesiological head examined, because you simply are not taking seriously that scandal of Protestant schismaticism and fractiousness.

It would be disingenuous as well as speculative to say that “I would still be Reformed if Nevin had prevailed over Hodge.” The way I came to Orthodox Christianity doesn’t allow that kind of speculation readily, quite apart from it being based on an imaginary world. I would be more inclined to speculate that “if Nevin had prevailed, Reformed theology would be part of a ‘big tent’ Catholicism/Orthodoxy today.” If that had happened, I think I’d still prefer “Orthodox Orthodoxy” over “Reformed Catholicity.” But a Reformed Catholicity would be nothing to scoff at.

It seems likely that something more in The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity will excite a posting, so stay tuned.

6 thoughts on “The Gospel in HOW many words?!

  1. Tough exercise because every word necessarily is filled with assumptions. I could say “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway…” is the precursor to “the Word became flesh, but then we could sum it up in three words, “God is love” and let everything beyond that speak for itself or at least let everyone try to figure out what that means, which is the battlefield of theology.

  2. Is this like “Name That Tune”? “I can name that Gospel in ten words!”

    My summary of the Gospel is in two words: “Jesus Christ”. “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ surname, and giving Him that title is not simply a way to distinguish Him from every other “Joshua” in history. Giving Him that title is a confession that “the Messiah” really means what the Bible says it means, and Jesus really is the One who fills that bill. Once you unpack what those two words mean, you’ve got the whole Gospel.

    1. Chris:
      Gosh! I didn’t really mean to throw down the gauntlet to see who could most boil down the Gospel, though I can see now how someone could take it that way.
      I can’t disagree that the Gospel is Jesus Christ, if those words are unpacked as you suggest. S-P’s three words, too, need unpacking as do Nevin’s four words and Will Campbell’s eight.
      But we’re not left only with words. We also have icons and songs. And salutary though summarizing may be, in Orthodoxy the teaching of the Church is, by report and by the tantelizing taste I’ve had, contained in each annual cycle of services with the texts proper to them.
      That will never win a “how few words” contest, but boy, is it “full Gospel”!

      1. Of course, any pithy summary of the Gospel is a formula that has to be unpacked. And THE way that it is actually unpacked and actualized in the authentic life in Christ is through the Church’s liturgy: her kerygma and her covenanted mysteries.

        Lex orandi lex est credendi

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