Gospel, A Matter of Definition

Gospel, A Matter of Definition

Reasonable God-talk presupposes that we agree on the meanings of the terms we use. A foundational term for Christian theology is 'gospel'. This term, however, has had multiple referents. This paper explores referents for 'gospel' and their implications.

Theological authors are often inconsistent in their definition of 'gospel'. Donovan uses at least four different referents for this term. He most clearly defines gospel in historical terms:

The gospel is, after all, not a philosophy or a set of doctrines or laws. That is what a culture is. The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.

The gospel, then, is a story of actions surrounding Yeshua Bar Yosef of Nazareth during the Second Temple Period in the Judea and the Galilee, and is thus culture-bound. Donovan has two summaries of the content of that history. It is either about "the salvific act that had been accomplished once and for all for the human race", or that

Jesus pulled aside the dark, heavy clouds that hide God from us, and for one, brief, shining moment showed us a glimpse of God, showed us what God is, what he is like, how he feels.

In other words, the crucial content is either the death of Jesus or Jesus' personhood (the sum of his actions and words) as an image or revelation of God.

Donovan locates the gospel outside of culture, "unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted":

It is probably at this point we begin to realize that revelation, as it comes to us--the gospel, the secret hidden from the beginning of the world--is outside every culture, is supracultural. It comes from outside our cultures and yet is destined for all of them--a supracultural, unchanging message of good news.

It would seem that this can be true only if he no longer means 'gospel' to refer to the history of Jesus, but rather to the effect of the reception of the meaning of that history.

Donovan also speaks of a "gospel message":

As I walked, I remembered the shortest summation of the gospel message St. Paul ever made, in his letter to Titus (3:4): "The goodness and kindness of God our Savior has appeared to all men."

and thus makes place for an interpretation of the historical facts which he has earlier defined as gospel.

Donovan, then, considers gospel under these headings:

1 The account of the facts about Jesus.

2 The meaning of Jesus' death.

3 The attributes of God as shown by Jesus' history.

4 The effect of the reception of the facts about Jesus. In some sense, this gospel can be viewed as an active agent, even as an efficient cause.

Peters seems much more aware of potentially confusing usages. Peters defines Gospel separately as a verb and as a noun:

My thesis then, is that the gospel, formally understood, is the act of telling the story of Jesus with its significance. This is what Mark and the rest of the Bible do. Materially understood, the gospel is the content of the story of Jesus and its significance; and this constitutes the material norm for systematic theology.

The noun-form is congruent with Donovan's primary (historical) definition. To the historic referent Peters adds meaning (which Donovan only sometimes implies). For Peters, the gospel can have no existence apart from its interpretation. Indeed, his formal definition suggests that the gospel has no being apart from its transmission. For Peters, Donovan's contention that the gospel can exist apart from culture and interpretation is an illusion.

Peters explicitly defines the essential content of the gospel:

Four quite consistent elements appear whenever the story of Jesus is told: (1) the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations; (2) the unwarranted death of the righteous one; (3) the resurrection from the dead; and (4) the forgiveness of sins.

This is quite different from Donovan's emphasis on revelation of God's attributes or on Jesus' sacrifice.

Peters devotes considerable attention to discussing the meaning of the gospel under the headings of new creation, justification, and proclamation. In this, he speaks like Donovan of a "gospel message":

The gospel message then is that we have grounds for hoping in the transformation of a world gone astray.

The Gospel is the report of divine grace that establishes justification and opens the door to new creation.

He also does not include the idea of gospel as efficient cause. Instead he speaks of the preaching of the gospel:

The gospel when preached is not merely information or even revelation about justice; rather, the very preaching itself makes that divine justice a possibility for the hearer. The proclamation of the news itself bears the power of salvation. (italics mine)

For Peters, then, 'gospel' has the following meanings:

1 The history of Jesus and its meaning (prophesy fulfilled, death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins).

2 The act of telling the history of Jesus and its meaning.

3 The bearer of messages about justification and new creation (resurrection) which when proclaimed bears the power of salvation.

Synthesis and Evaluation

I evaluate the referents for 'gospel' according to consistency with the New Testament witness, with its logical structure, and with the theological system, and according to its helpfulness in generating insights.

I assert that Donovan's concept of a 'gospel' existing independent of context is neither helpful nor logically consistent. Rather, I suggest that it is more useful to assert that the gospel is intrinsically capable of being appropriated for (or applied within) all contexts. I agree with Peters that the interpretation of the events of Jesus' life is intrinsic to the gospel.

Peters' and Donovan's definitions of the content of the gospel seem less persuasive. Donovan sees the gospel in terms of God's self-revelation. Peters defines the content in terms of four kerygmatic elements without explicating the essential connection between the four elements of the kerygma. Rather, he relies on apostolic authority for this definition of content. He bases this definition on relatively late materials.

The New Testament does not have a single monolithic theology. It is not surprising, then, that different definitions of the gospel can be drawn from it or that different theological opinions may be constructed consistent with Biblical materials. Both Peters' and Donovan's explications of the content of the gospel have Biblical support, but other definitions may also be Biblically consistent.

Examination of the use of euaggelion in the New Testament shows several different usages. The usage in John and in the synoptics is strikingly different from the usage elsewhere. The Gospel writers present 'gospel' as an integral part of Jesus' own preaching. In addition, they show Jesus using the term in a way that is not consistent with a definition based on the facts of Jesus' life. An alternate view of the content of the 'gospel' may be drawn from this usage.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

This suggests that the content of the gospel is primarily a summons to enter the kingdom of God through repentance. Proleptic participation in the kingdom then is equivalent to justification as well as to participation in the new creation. Proclaiming this summons then does not act as an efficient cause of salvation but rather bears an invitation to salvation. In addition, this definition suggests that life transformation (repent and believe) is organic to the message itself; that is to say that the gospel makes demands on the hearer. Moreover, like any summons or invitation, it must (by its very nature) be either accepted or rejected.

For Further Reflection

It is not entirely clear to me who the gospel is about when it is considered under Peters' or Donovan's definitions. Is the gospel primarily about Jesus or is the gospel primarily about God who is revealed in Jesus? If the gospel is primarily a summons to enter the kingdom, then this question disappears.

The only source we have for the history of Jesus' life is a set of documents that are primarily theological; they do not attempt to set forth history but rather to lay out assertions about the meaning of Jesus' life. Is it formally proper, then, to say that the Gospel is 'history'? Doesn't that claim more than can be objectively supported?


Donovan, Vincent J., Christianity Rediscovered, New York: Maryknoll, 1978

Metzger, Bruce M, and Roland E. Murphy, editors, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, New Revised Standard Version, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Peters, Ted, God, the World's Future, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992

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