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Just what is the Gospel?

At the heart of Christianity is the "Gospel"--from Old English godspel (good tale, good news), itself derived from Greek euangelion (good tidings, good news), the source in turn of "evangelism," "evangelical," and related words. Since this journal is devoted to the study of Christian mission, it is not surprising that this word and its cognates have been frequently recurring themes. A simple keyword search for "Gospel" in the ATLAS (American Theological Library Association Serials) online version of the IBMR (1981-2004) yielded seventy-three titles. Fifty articles were flagged by the word "evangelism," while "evangelization" produced a list of forty-eight separate articles.

Just what is the Gospel? The Nicene Creed--crafted in A.D. 325 and further refined by the Council of Constantinople in 381--encapsulates the essence of the Gospel for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, and most other Protestants. Most other Christian groups are similarly committed to the doctrines it teaches.

But does such a venerable statement, marking the doctrinal circumference of Christianity, comprise the Gospel? Or do we find the Gospel's quintessential expression in the record of our Lord's life and the Sermon on the Mount--his kingdom charter? While the Gospel is both of these and more, we need to acknowledge a dynamic element that relates it to our life, for each person is the product of a unique culture and life journey, which deeply influence both our understanding and our proclamation of the Good News. The irreducible essence of the Gospel--whatever the time, place, culture, or church communion--is that Jesus the Christ, God's only begotten Son, is the key to unlocking our human potential, both now and in the life to come.

The essays in this issue suggest that family resemblances among divergent ecclesiastical traditions are becoming more, and not less, recognizable with the passage of empires, nations, and centuries. A Roman Catholic pope, an Anabaptist pacifist, and Baptist missionaries active in the Lausanne movement--what can these possibly have in common?

John Paul II's answer to this question is found in William Burrows's lead article. Whatever our several heritages, we share in a transforming and ongoing encounter with the living Christ. Life and ministry within an aggressively secular political system enabled this extraordinary human being to see that beneath the self-congratulating facade of modernity--with its democracy, abundant consumer goods, free speech, and free academic inquiry--lurked more sinister impulses that produced and justified "Nazism, Communism, colonialism, ... theories of race and genetic engineering, indifference to innocent life, and consumer capitalism unanchored in morality or sound anthropology." The pope understood from experience that the most effective antidote to modernity's toxins is the Gospel.

What forms can this Gospel take? What did the Good News sound like on Jesus' lips and look like at his hands? We read, for example, that he was impelled by the Spirit of the Lord "to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). Given our bent for fashioning one-size-fits-all religious templates in witnessing to the Gospel, it is instructive to see our Lord's willingness to bring people the good news that they were actually looking for: restoration of withered limbs, sight for sightless eyes, rejuvenation of dying or already deceased loved ones, exorcism of demons, wine for a party, mercy for an adultress, healing for leprous bodies, food for the hungry, and public rebuke of hypocritical religious bigots.

Take, for example, the story recorded in John 9. Who or where Jesus might be, the man who had been sightless from birth could not tell. "One thing I do know," he told his exasperated interrogators, "though I was blind, now I see" (v. 25). Appalled by any suggestion that Jesus might be anything but a charlatan, the religious leaders had earlier quizzed the man's mother and father. Struck dumb with joy verging on disbelief, they could only confirm their son's identity and affirm his inexplicable transformation: "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that he now sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes" (vv. 20-21).

To conceal such good news was impossible then, and it has been impossible ever since. Sternly ordered not to proclaim the Gospel of the risen Lord, Peter and John responded, "We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). This same evangelical impulse--born out of a personal encounter with the same Lord--took William and Dellanna O'Brien from Texas to Indonesia, then to Virginia and Alabama. With two almost-lifetimes behind them, they find themselves back in Texas, their pilgrimage in mission marked by the same irrepressibility that so baffled first-century religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Dubbed "the dean of statistical information about Christian mission" by the editors when his statistical table on global mission first appeared as an IBMR annual feature in January 1985, David Barrett--this year with Todd Johnson and Peter Crossing--focuses on the goals, resources, and doctrines of the 350 known Christian World Communions and proposes ways in which Gospel-related collaboration might be enhanced.

Joon-Sik Park's essay on Anabaptist John Howard Yoder is a reminder that even "the least of these," ecclesiastically speaking, brings gifts of inestimable value to the larger world church. By the quiet but compelling witness of Radical Reformation believers, Christendom churches, spiritually enfeebled by centuries of corrosive proximity to political and economic power, are shown the way back to the dynamic "more excellent way" of their first love.

As our own times remind us, human potential is easily stifled, misdirected, or perverted. The Good News is that Jesus the Christ, who both engages and transcends human time and culture, freely offers to unlock the potential of persons, families, and communities so that God's kingdom can come and God's will can be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Such a hope is Good News indeed!
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Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Dissertation notices.
Next Article:Mission and missiology in the pontificate of John Paul II.

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