08 January 2013
A faithful gospel: The elephants in the room
Every time I have a conversation about the uniqueness of Christ at a student mission, someone normally brings up the parable of the five blind men of Hindustan and the elephant. You know the one with the elephant and five blind wise men, who all reach out and grab a part of the elephant? One says he has a tree in front of him when he has the elephant's leg, the other claims he has a fan, when he's got the pachyderm's ear and so on. That 'someone' who brings up this parable is normally me. I like to ask the students to deconstruct the parable with me, to interrogate its assumptions and to explore the valid points that it makes.
Of course the critique of this oft-quoted argument for religious relativism is that it only works because we know what an elephant looks like and so we listeners can smile to ourselves about the small-minded bigotry of the wise men, who in this parable stand for the different religions. If only they knew what we all know – that each religion is just a partial grasp of the whole truth about God. What seems to be a very innocent and generous metaphor is actually patronising and arrogant. And of course Christians don't believe that God is a mute being waiting to be prodded by us. God speaks and when God speaks we listen.
Christians believe God has spoken clearly, unmissably and uniquely in the person of Jesus. We believe the story of our universe only makes sense if Jesus is the centre of it. Through the promise, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Christ, the meaning and purpose of our universe and our lives are made known. God is not a silent creature, He is the speaking creator.
But the parable has a valid point to make about the situatedness of our knowledge. There is a sense in which as knowing beings, we only know from here. For me the parable is unpersuasive when it comes to religious pluralism as an ideology, but it is persuasive as an argument for the need for a community of learning. The parable could of course be subverted. Why not let the blind men talk to one another? If they did they might compare notes and revise their theories. It is not good for us to be alone. We need each other to see the bigger picture. Recognising the reality of the contextual nature of our knowledge does not downplay the existence of truth. It simply helps us to realise that we need other people to grasp it. Four gospels one Jesus, creeds and confessions, scholars and global councils are all testimony to the fact that we need different perspectives to help us grasp the truth.
When it comes to talking about the re-evangelisation of the West, the elephant in the room is the question: 'What is the gospel?' There are all sorts of tribes and divisions within the evangelical community and sadly this means we sometimes grab hold of one part of the gospel and assume that is all there is. We end up sometimes with fragmented or reactionary approaches to the gospel and sadly end up with less than the whole biblical picture as a result. The Evangelical Alliance's Confidence in the Gospel initiative includes five gatherings of evangelicals from across the nation to take time to listen to each other, and ask gracious but robust questions of each other in a bid to remain faithful to the gospel as revealed in Jesus, preached by the apostles and used by the Spirit to draw a lost world back to God.
So by gathering some of the tribes together - groups that don't often speak to one another - our aim was to try and generate a way to test and see that we are being faithful to scripture. Because only scripture is infallible, it is possible that we may have misread or misheard the gospel it announces. Rather like the apostle Paul, 14 years after his conversion and call to gospel ministry, he travelled back to Jerusalem to speak to the apostles to make sure "he had not laboured in vain". So our meeting was an attempt to take time and check the faithfulness of our evangel.
It was also important to us to listen to brothers and sisters from across the world. South America and Africa were our main sources with eye-opening challenge for us. Too often we live as if the cure for the Western Church's problems is contained in the West. Our hubris and colonial snobbery continues on – even when the numbers are against us. The Church is experiencing growth everywhere except the Western world and yet still we hold on to the belief that we have all the answers.
So in putting our speaker list together we wanted to cross a number of dividing lines to check our hearing of the gospel. We kicked off with the New Testament scholar and evangelist Michael Green who challenged us to hear again THE APOSTOLIC GOSPEL. We then heard from the Brazilian theologian Dr Rosalee Velloso Ewell who heads up the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission. Rosalee challenged us to give due attention to the universality and particularity of A GLOBAL GOSPEL.
Then a harrowing reminder of what happens when our gospel is reduced to pietism from a Rwandan scholar: Antoine Rutayisire's A PEACEFUL GOSPEL, who highlighted the dangers of minimising the gospel to spiritual renewal that made no difference to ethnic hostilities by reminding us that in Rwanda's genocide it was Christians killing Christians.
Michael Reeves; the head of theology at UCCF (University and Colleges Christian Fellowship) further challenged us, to consider whether we are preaching A TRINITARIAN GOSPEL. Mike provoked us to consider that "When our gospel is not robustly Trinitarian we are not specifically and robustly Christian. Ann Holt is the Director of External relations and Bible Society and made a clear plea that our gospel is A BIBLICAL GOSPEL that tells the whole story of Jesus as part of the whole story of the Bible. We often "start the story too late."
After hearing these lightning talks (10 min each) there was time to discuss the issues together in smaller groups. The recommendations from these groups included:
1.We want to hold on to the particularity of the historical revelation of God by focussing on the story of Jesus when we present the gospel.
2.We need to be clear about calling people to personal repentance but also to turn away from every aspect of our cultures that denies God.
3.We need to tell more of the biblical story – we cannot reduce the gospel to the gospels – but at some stage we must tell the whole big story of scripture.
4.We must make sure our gospel is truly Trinitarian; we are drawing people into personal relationship not just to God but to the Trinity. It is only as we are clear about the Trinity that we will be clear about the atonement. The Trinity also allows us to understand grace and adoption clearly.
5.As we stay faithful to the apostolic gospel we must be clear to tell the whole multifaceted story of Jesus.
6.The outworking of the gospel is not just intellectual assent but a life well lived.
We closed off the day with an emphasis on A MORE EXPANSIVE GOSPEL which Dr Steve Holmes from St Andrews University expounded and AN ATHENIAN GOSPEL based on an exposition of Acts 17 from Dr Daniel Strange who argued for the need to tackle the idolatry of our cultures.
There was a genuine sense of two aspects of Proverbs 26. "Iron was sharpening iron" as Christians from different generations, different theological tribes and different cultures, challenged each other to stay faithful to the teaching of scripture.
There are still lots of questions that need to be addressed and we captured some of them through an Open Spaces exercise that highlighted questions including:
- How can we grow confidence in the gospel in Christians?
- We need to know the gospel – but how much does an individual need to hear and understand to make a genuine decision?
- What part has the Spirit of grace in the gospel?
- How do we relate the story of the 'fall' to modern knowledge and ideas?
- To what extent do we need to define what the gospel is?
- Are there any fresh ways to begin the gospel conversation?
- Is anyone out there interested? Is it good news to this person in this context?
- What does communicating a gospel of unconditional love mean?
- Do we trust one another's understanding of the gospel e.g. penal substation / social implications / kingdom values?
- In a society that is self-satisfied are we asking the right questions?
These questions will feed into our on going conversation – as this was the first of five national consultation days taking place around the country.
I invite you to listen in to the conversation and use this as an opportunity to assess the gospel we have been proclaiming and how we best learn from each other so that side-by-side we might proclaim the gospel afresh for this generation. Together we can better grasp the gospel and not leave it as the unacknowledged elephant in the room.