Mondays with MacDonald (on what the gospel is — and isn’t)

Who would not rejoice to hear from Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, what, in a few words, he meant by the word gospel—or rather, what in the story of Jesus made him call it good news! Each would probably give a different answer to the question, all the answers consistent, and each a germ from which the others might be reasoned; but in the case of John, we have his answer to the question: he gives us in one sentence of two members, not indeed the gospel according to John, but the gospel according to Jesus Christ himself….

‘This then is the message,’ he says, ‘which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ Ah, my heart, this is indeed the good news for thee! This is a gospel! If God be light, what more, what else can I seek than God, than God himself! Away with your doctrines! Away with your salvation from the ‘justice’ of a God whom it is a horror to imagine! Away with your iron cages of false metaphysics! I am saved—for God is light! My God, I come to thee. That thou shouldst be thyself is enough for time and eternity, for my soul and all its endless need. Whatever seems to me darkness, that I will not believe of my God. If I should mistake, and call that darkness which is light, will he not reveal the matter to me, setting it in the light that lighteth every man, showing me that I saw but the husk of the thing, not the kernel? Will he not break open the shell for me, and let the truth of it, his thought, stream out upon me? He will not let it hurt me to mistake the light for darkness, while I take not the darkness for light. The one comes from blindness of the intellect, the other from blindness of heart and will. I love the light, and will not believe at the word of any man, or upon the conviction of any man, that that which seems to me darkness is in God.

by George MacDonald
from Unspoken Sermons, vol. 3, “Light”

(paraphrase below the fold)

Who would not rejoice to hear from Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, what, in a few words, he meant by the word gospel—or rather, what in the story of Jesus made him call it “good news”! Each would probably give a different answer to the question, all the answers consistent, and each a seed from which the others might be reasoned. But in the case of John, we have his answer to the question: he gives us in one sentence made up of two parts, not indeed the gospel according to John, but the gospel according to Jesus Christ himself…

‘This then is the message,’ he says, ‘which we have heard from him, and declare to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ Ah, my heart, this is indeed the good news for you! This is a gospel! If God is light, what more, what else can I seek than God, than God himself! Away with your doctrines! Away with your salvation from the ‘justice’ of a God whom it is a horror to imagine! Away with your iron cages of false metaphysics! I am saved—for God is light! My God, I come to you. That you should be yourself is enough for time and eternity, for my soul and all its endless need. I will not believe that anything which seems darkness to me has anything to do with my God. If I should be mistaken, and call something darkness that is actually light, will he not reveal the matter to me, setting it in the light that shines for every man? Will he not show me that I saw but the husk of the thing, not the kernel? Will he not break open the shell for me, and let the truth of it, his thought, stream out upon me? He will not let it hurt me to mistake the light for darkness, as long as I do not accept darkness as light. The first comes from blindness of the intellect, the second from blindness of heart and will. I love the light, and will not believe the word of any man, or upon the conviction of any man, that that which seems darkness to me is in God.

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  • Anonymous

    That is magnificent!

  • do you think Jesus (or at least the earliest traditions about Jesus) ever used the term “gospel”? or was it a term inserted by the writers.. given it’s roman connotations?

    • Good question. I have no doubt that the earliest traditions used the term,
      since Paul and Mark (our earliest sources) already have the idea firmly integrated. Jesus? Jesus almost undoubtedly proclaimed the Kingdom of God as something good, whether or not he used the term explicitly.

    • Some would say Jesus used the word as an insurrectionist would, challenging Caesar’s authority. I’m not sold either way on the question. As far as I know, the word wasn’t proclaimed before the events heralded as good news, but after, so his proclamation of it would seem to be stretching the “proleptic” message of the Kingdom to the extreme. It’s certainly possible, though.

      • Steve, wasn’t it a favorite spin of Caiaphas on the incarnation that Jesus was trouble for Caesar? Making believers pick between the interpretation of the Jewish high priest and that of the evangelists on what to call the Jesus-event seems like one of those ‘throw-away’ questions on a multiple choice test.

        And the word ‘herald’ I believe is extremely suited to referencing things beforehand and not after an event.

        But thanks for the MacDonald.

        • John A.

          I was going too fast, there, I meant a throw-away answer on a multiple choice question. It is a simple principle of mine that any view which gives to Caiaphas the final word on the incarnation must be suspect.

          • Of course “herald” refers especially to proclaiming something yet future — how silly of me. Maybe I should have asked, was a euangelion typically heralded or proclaimed ex post facto?

            Bear in mind, of course, that we know little of what Caiaphas said about Jesus…apart from what the evangelists said. 🙂

  • thanks Steve… given the apparetly/immpossibly dense mileu of “critical” opinion regarding matters biblical these days, and that fact that I’m an environmental scientist (and not a biblical scholar) I sometimes wonder if I can even understand any of the biblical texts, just in case my untrained eye is completely misreading them 😉

  • I’ve been looking over your blog and find it interesting already, but then to stumble across this gem…MacDonald…rarely do I see him referred to by other people. I love it!