Contending versus Tending…
So far we’ve come to understand the Gospel as an organic, dynamic garden that has content and dynamism. It is at the same time both transcendent (beyond human reach) and imminent (contextually within human reach). It is addressed differently by different Biblical authors and seems to grow the longer it is addressed in the Biblical Text. If this is all true, how are we to guard the Gospel or contend for it – as Paul did.
Dean Flemming argues that for Paul, the Gospel has coherent and stable aspects to it, yet the term Gospel, as a whole, is imprecise. He argues that it is preached to people of faith and to people with no faith. He argues that Paul discusses specific aspects of the Gospel, but never fully spells it out, assuming his readers will know what he’s talking about. (Flemming, 92-93)
“When Paul does offer foundational theological statements or quotes Christian confessions that are obviously close to the heart of the gospel…he always does so in the course of a contextual argument. In no case does he try to give the gospel a comprehensive or definitive expression.” (Flemming, 93)
Even 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, the quintessential passage used by most to explain the Gospel, is primarily concerned with arguing for a literal resurrection than it is about explaining the Gospel (although the Gospel is entailed). (Flemming, 93-94)
Ultimately, the goal of the Gospel is to lead Christians to experience God’s re-forming work in a full and final sense (Rom. 8:29-30; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21). Thus, the gospel’s redeeming, transforming character is part of what is nonnegotiable in Paul’s thought. (Flemming, 104)
While Flemming argues for the transforming effect of the Gospel as a consistent characteristic of the Gospel, we must also understand that the Gospel itself, transforms as it grows. While Flemming will use the term flexibility,(Flemming 114-116), I have argued for a more adequate paradigm of “growth,” the fact the the Gospel grows.
So how are we to contend for something that grows? The problems associated with this are insurmountable if we assume the Gospel is static, a historic event to be witnessed to and protected from distortion. On the other hand, if it is expansive, eternal and dynamic, the problems dissipate.
Mona Lisa vs. The Grammar of the Gospel
(Con)tending for the Gospel is more like putting guards around one’s garden so that scavengers won’t come and uproot your plants and destroy your garden’s ability to grow. It is also about faithfully tending to your garden. Luckily, the one thing the scavengers can never do is stop a plant’s ability to grow.
This Gospel dynamic can also be understood in the same way that Noam Chomsky discusses grammar. The “Grammar of the Gospel” entails that its content is organically connected to its human contexts and even historical human development – i.e. in order to understand the Gospel’s dynamic requires its intersection with human historical, relational and developmental dynamics. As human societies, historical memories and cross-cultural interaction grows, so does the Gospel. As the world become smaller through our inter-connectivity, the Gospel becomes larger through its correspondent generativity.
The problem with contending for the Gospel now becomes protecting the growth of your garden rather than protecting a prized piece of art encased behind bullet proof glass and enclosed in a temperate zone so as to not allow moisture or UV damage. (The Mona Lisa) That kind of protection only encloses and encases it for people to view the contents, learn from the contents and admire the contents, but by no means view them as living. The Word of God is addressed as living, active and sharp. The Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven is addressed in multiple organic metaphors, yet we treat God’s revelation of himself like a pristine and untouchable prize to be encased and protected rather than a garden to get dirty and earthy in.
So (con)tending for the Gospel may have less to do with just the content and may have more to do with contending for both the content and the nature of the Gospel – the fact that it does grow. So how do we contend for the Gospel? Maybe we need to contend with those who would treat the Gospel as something other than it is – something mechanistic, static, and insecure unless it has our protection, but then that would be pointless. Why not just plant the Gospel in their midst and watch it grow up and around their Mona Lisas.
Plants will grow with or without us, but with a gardener’s care, plants flourish, ripen and fructify. By no means are we able to make them grow, rather we provide the best possible environment for them to grow fruitfully. The growth of the Gospel doesn’t depend upon us, but we are beholden to its ability to flourish through our care of it. I would contend with anyone who would try and distort its nature and its entailing content – content that has shifted and not been the same each time it’s proclaimed in Scripture. There’s no way the Gospel has been the same thing each time it was proclaimed throughout the Bible – thereby auto deconstructing anyone’s desire to contend for a fixed Gospel based in only one era of Scripture. Rather we see a dynamic development, that as it encounters ever new contexts, it unveils new and unexpected comprehensions, content and implications. This doesn’t do away with what came before, (change) but rather suggests an expansion and development of it (growth). The question confronts us again – is that growth finished?
The problem with a static Gospel that doesn’t “grow” is that 1 Corinthians 15 (the quintessential passage used by conservative and progressive definers of the Gospel) explains the nature of the Gospel as moving beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, it also includes the entire message of resurrection for all of creation (Rom. 8:18-25). Because Jesus resurrected from the dead, and has a resurrection body – he is a first fruits of the entire process of redemption for creation, the final resurrection and reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:19) and he still has a part to play in finishing that project.
What Jesus HAS done + What Jesus WILL do
This means the Gospel cannot be just about what Christ has done, but also about what he will do – the final establishment of God’s reign over his creation. Jesus still has some stuff to do – meaning that on the cross, he isn’t finished, just it was finished – the cross was a finalizing step towards the new creation, but by no means the last step. I Corinthians 15:24-28 reveals that the end of this Gospel message is when God is “all in all” after Christ turns the kingdom over to him.
This means that future actions of Christ as well as past actions encompass the full definition and nature of the Gospel, and only then, when God is all in all, will it all be finished.
The growth of this Gospel also involves Christ’s work through the church to bring her to her full measure of growth, thereby completing the goal of God’s redemptive work through Christ and his ability to reign alone over his entire creation. Again, the Gospel isn’t only what God has done through Christ, but also what he will do through Christ, as well as what he gets from Christ’s work through the church – All of that is “Good News.” In the meantime, the church needs to (con)tend for the Gospel as they tend, grow and protect a Gospel garden that flourishes under their care, a garden that ultimately belongs to God.
So when we (con)tend for the Gospel, we need to contend both for what it is (the past and future actions of the Trinity) and for how it works (the church and the Holy Spirit’s role of tending it as it grows through its encounter with more and more historical contexts and cultures).
The church does this by finishing where we started – Philippians 1 & Jude 1 – with a fourth option added from Paul’s example.
Three + One Ways to (Con)tend:
1. Nonviolently endure suffering and persecution because of your faith (nonviolent endurance & resistance).
2. Lead a moderate lifestyle with zealous harmony for each other (simplicity & solidarity).
3. Protect the contents AND the dynamic growth of the Gospel (holding to the Biblical examples and the historic, present and future actions of Jesus) by tending them as one would care for a garden.
4. Apply aspects of the Gospel contextually, never expecting that our formulations can be reified, exhaustive or culturally absolutized. Instead we fully depend upon a Gospel that at the same time cannot contained or comprehensively understood. Even though our formulations will be biblically based, they will also always need to be contextually appropriate.