by: Herold Weiss
Those who see themselves as the rescuers of the primitive gospel most likely proclaim a gospel that is only a century and a half old, and as such is quite irrelevant to those who do not sing in the choir of their churches. Claiming to have rescued the “eternal verities” of the Gospel they are actually proclaiming “truths” that are no different from the ephemeral truths of science. As is well known, all the truths of science are subject to change when new evidence comes to light. It is sobering to recognize that not too long ago eugenics, lobotomies and lie detectors were considered to be based on scientific truths, but fortunately they have been discarded as demonstrations of premature abuses of trust.
The history of theology is also full of debris left by the banks of the river of time. That the incarnate Son of God was considered by some to be the amalgamation of a human body and spirit with a divine mind (Logos) has been forgotten. That the Christian life is to be promoted by fear of Purgatory, in fact that there is such a place as Purgatory, is no longer held by most Catholic theologians. No one these days gets exited discussing the truth of consubstantiation versus transubstantiation. Most Christians don’t even know what the words mean. The same is true of the classic definition of the Trinity, even though Western and Eastern Christianity broke company charging each other of having a wrong doctrine of the Trinity. Sectarian movements have introduced new doctrines like the Rapture, the Investigative Judgment, Baptism on Behalf of the Dead, etc., but these have remained anomalous sectarian truths.
In his struggles with those who insisted that the Jesus Movement should remain a sect within Judaism, Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, three times says that he is defending the “truth of the Gospel.” The key word in the debate is “circumcision.” Is Paul saying that the truth of the Gospel is that Christians need not be circumcised? Of course not. For him, the truth of the Gospel is that the cross and the resurrection of Christ did not give Judaism a new definition, or a new lease on life. These acts of God constituted a new creation. The power of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, now gives new life in the Spirit to all those who participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. In other words, the truth of the Gospel is not a piece of information to be defended, but an experience to be lived.These considerations make evident that the Gospel cannot be locked in some of its past formulations. Even the mantra of “righteousness by faith” is now seen as a truth that needed very much to be proclaimed when it was, but which today is misused for modern agendas. The Gospel is not tied to any time, place or culture. It is capable of being expressed in any and all cultures, and needs to be expressed anew by each new generation of believers in their own culture. As the power that makes it possible to live in Christ guided by the Spirit, the Gospel needs to be proclaimed in terms that fit the conditions of human life at any given time and place. If believers are to live, as Paul says, “in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel,” the Gospel must be relevant to the conditions in which Christians live. This means that the will of God that is to be done on earth must be discerned by each generation. If the Gospel is the power that makes it possible to do the will of God, and each new generation finds itself living in a world that is different from the one in which their parents lived, then the actual performance of the will of God must be informed by a clear vision of what it demands from those living “now.” No generation lives at the time of the previous one. It is, therefore, impossible for the proclamation of the Gospel to be effective if it is bound to the past. Even if the death and the resurrection of Christ is a past event, it is also a present event in the lives of those who have died and been risen with him. The reality of this event is “the truth of the gospel.” The most pernicious temptation is to tie the Gospel to a formula and live as one pleases because what the formula says is not relevant to life today.
The Gospel is not information written on stone. The Gospel is power to live transposing faith and hope into acts of love that make the Risen Christ present in the world of quotidian living. This means that the task of Christian theology is never done. As the discourse that explains the will of God for today, theology is always in need of being done. One of the best known traditional definitions, given by Anselm in the XI century, says that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Faith in God is the positive answer of the whole person to an encounter with God. As such it is a person’s immediate response to the call of God. This experience takes form at the level of the being who is now living in Christ, the whole person responds to God’s call and finds satisfaction and security in the new creation. Once the act of faith has taken place, the person then feels the need to examine what the experience involved by processing the memory of it through the mind. Going over the experience trying to make sense and determining its implications is the work of theology. It establishes the consequences and explores the meaning of living as a response to the call of God. In other words, theology is second level discourse about God. As such, theology is always in need of being done anew because, while God is always the same, each new generation faces God from a different situation, and each member of every generation has a peculiar faith response to God. Thus, every believer does theology in order to understand what life in God’s presence is all about “now.”
Theology is the act of reflecting on the significance, the implications and the consequences of having faith in the promise of God in Christ. This reflection has immediate consequences on the manner in which the one who has faith in God lives. Each believer, however, also talks with other believers and reads what previous believers say about life with God to evaluate his own understanding of God. Besides, theology needs to be done to coordinate the mind of the community of faith with the mind of the fellow human beings who need to know that God loves them. In our own time, when we are experiencing dramatic changes in the way in which we live on account of the rapidity with which scientific and technological advances are changing the way in which all humans around the world live, the need for imaginative and creative theological reflection is paramount. The significance of life in Christ needs to be explained to those who find themselves loaded with the burdens of post-modern life so that they too may experience the dynamic force of the Gospel to bring freedom and joy. Christians must be most seriously engaged in the task of making the life of faith understandable to unbelievers and believers alike. This cannot be accomplished by reliance on the theological formulations of the past centuries. It demands a presentation of the Gospel that is current and relevant to the situations in which women and men find themselves today. It is, therefore, quite evident that the doing of theology is never finished.