This question may seem too obvious to require an answer. However, it is increasingly relevant in what some describe as a “post-Christian” era. This reality came home to me years ago, during the first year of my ordained ministry. A woman began attending the Church where I served and presented herself for Baptism. Our conversation quickly turned to her background, what she knew and believed and what would need to be done in preparation for her entry into the Church. To my surprise, she had no knowledge of God in particular and only a vague sense of who Jesus was. “I know he was an important religious figure,” she explained.
She had not grown up in the American South (a region known as the “Bible Belt”). She was from Hawaii, part of an American military family. Her experience within American culture (including plenty of television) gave her no general content in answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I felt like St. Paul in his first exposure to Athens (no one knew what he was talking about – his hearers thought “resurrection” was the name of a new deity).
By the same token, many who have been raised within the confines of the Bible belt have an understanding of the gospel – but an understanding that is formed and shaped by modern questions – none of which are the questions that shaped the four gospels of the Bible. Thus the gospel as found in the writings of the early Church and its subsequent centuries of the fathers, often differs in structure and understanding when compared to the gospel believed by many Christians of the modern world.
Where does the Gospel begin?
That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.
Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.
As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.
Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.
Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.
Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”
In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians he states, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col 4:16 KJV). The Scriptures are to the Churches, read within the Churches, and interpreted within the life of the Churches.
St. Irenaeus, as noted above, referred to the primary Church Tradition as the Apostolic Hypothesis. Today we would describe this “Hypothesis” as a Creed (quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed). Such statements can be found within Scripture itself.
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)…
Within this “Apostolic Hypothesis” St. Paul uses the key words “delivered” and “received.” In Greek the words (paradidomi and paralambano) mean “to tradition” or “to hand down” and to “receive” as in to “receive what has been handed down.” They are the technical words for how the Tradition operates in the Church.
In this same manner, we see the four gospels shaped according to the Apostolic Hypothesis. The primary piece within each of the gospels is Christ’s Pascha: His suffering and death, and His resurrection and entrance into glory. The whole of the gospels are shaped by this essential narrative. The story of Christ’s Pascha occupies around 25% of Matthew’s gospel; 40% of Mark’s; 30% of Luke’s and over 50% of John’s. It is not an event within Christ’s story – it is Christ’s story. Other events within the gospels (such as Christ’s Nativity, His Baptism and Transfiguration) often have a Paschal shape in their telling. The Church’s iconography of these feasts reveals this “shape.”
The same “Apostolic Hypothesis” is also the framework used for the interpretation of the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament in the life of the Church (particularly as evidenced in the Church’s liturgical texts) is allegorical. Christ dies for our sins “according to the Scriptures (the Old Testament),” but it is also true that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are according to Christ’s death for our sins. Christ Himself instructs the Church in this manner of reading. In the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Christ rebukes His disciples for their failure to understand “the things which have happened in Jerusalem:”
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27 NKJ)
However, it would not have been possible to have grasped “Moses and all the Prophets” until the events of Christ’s Pascha.
Very clear summaries of the “gospel” can be found by reading the Eucharistic prayers of the Church (such as St. John Chrysostom’s or St. Basil’s). This heart of the Church’s prayer offers both the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, and a theological summary of their meaning.
The gospel of Jesus Christ begins in His suffering, death and resurrection. Even the opening chapter of Genesis is read by the fathers in terms of its Paschal meaning. Theories (such as penal substitution) that tend to shape Christ’s death and resurrection according to themselves, rather than being shaped by the Paschal narrative, fail to be guided by the Apostolic Hypothesis. The Old is interpreted by the New.
Christ is risen (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), and so the gospel begins.