HISTORY OF THE GOSPEL
Long ago someone coined a word we now pronounce gaw-spull. I detailed
the Biblical meaning of the word gospel in another article to
which some have asked the question, "When
did Christians become confused about the meaning of the word?" The word
for gospel sprang to life in 7th century BC Hebrew. Pagans in
Rome began using it by the first century BC. Next, the ambassadors of
King Jesus wrote
something like the word "gospel" in their 27 books. Two thousand years
later, persuasive speakers still wield the word "gospel" with such
forcefulness as to bring life to the masses. Carelessly too, many
speakers today confuse the word by applying it to essential truths
which are not the "gospel."
ISAIAH OR ROME'S GOSPEL
In idolatrous Babylon, the Jewish prophet Isaiah promised "good news" including the king-like reign of God (quoted above). Centuries later, seventy Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek and wrote "evangelion" as Isaiah's "good news."
In the Roman city of Priene, our Greek word evangelion (gospel) was used to proclaim the "good tidings" of Caesar Augustus before the birth of Jesus: "...the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him."
Perhaps the pagans borrowed evangelion from Isaiah to describe Caesar. Or perhaps the ambassadors of Jesus borrowed a Roman term to clarify the superiority of Jesus. In either case, the "good tidings" (evangelion) which once heralded Caesar would next proclaim the "gospel" of King Jesus, the "gospel of the kingdom," and the "gospel of God" throughout the New Testament.
EARLY CHURCH FOCUS
After the New Testament, the earliest use of "evangelion" still known to us today came from Justin Martyr. Approximately 150AD, Justin quoted the first four books of the New Testament, calling them the gospels (chapter 66 of his "First Apologia"). The biographies of Jesus therefore came to be commonly known as gospels. In agreement with Justin, we today would come close to the truth if we defined the gospel by saying, "the life of Jesus is the gospel" or simply, "Jesus is the gospel."
In the first few hundred years A.D., the people of King Jesus focused on proclaiming Him, dying for Him, and defending Him from gnostic subversion. They focused on Gnostics who denied the humanity of Jesus and presented Him as being part of some divine energy which humans shared. The early Christian leaders did not focus on defining or redefining the gospel; they simply preached the gospel and focused on defending Jesus as historic and human.
From the Council of Nicea into the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the Christian leadership focused not on whether Jesus was divine, but on how His divinity should be understood and communicated. They focused too on how authority should be wielded in the church. Once again, Christian leaders did not define the evangelion/gospel. Leaders focused on declaring Jesus, communicating His divinity, and wrestling over who held the increasing religious authority in Rome and Constantinople.
THE REFORMATION'S FOCUS
With the writings of Wycliffe, Erasmus, and Luther, the focus of religious leaders turned by the 1500's toward abuses of religious power, especially the selling of "indulgences." Martin Luther began like Wycliffe and Erasmus before him showing deep respect for religious authorities while vehemently protesting their corruption. Unlike his predecessors though, Luther transformed into a bitter opponent of the authorities. Rather than focusing solely on issues, Luther attacked the leaders themselves, calling the pope "antichrist" and showing little restraint in his insults toward Christian leaders at every level.
He did not begin his protest with a focus on faith-based salvation, but appears to have stumbled upon it while rejecting Christian authorities of his day. The gem of the Reformation (salvation by faith alone) was neither among Luther's 95 theses, nor among his first contentions, but a later development in his litany against Roman Catholic officials.
Luther attacked every form of Roman authority including penance. To gain forgiveness of sin, Roman Catholic Christians believed they had to confess their sin to a religious leader, then fulfill whatever punishment or "penance" the leader prescribed from prayer to corporal punishment or public humiliation. Since Christians believed church officials held the power of penance for eternal life, believers would not follow Luther's rebellion at the expense of their souls. Therefore Luther necessarily focused on the sacrament of penance. In "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church", he argued believers had no need for penance to obtain eternal life because believers were saved by faith alone.
Like his predecessors, Luther showed little interest in defining the gospel. In the process of attacking Rome however, he (by default) defined gospel when using the word. In section III of the third chapter of "A Treatise on Good Works," Luther said Jesus...
"History of the Gospel" by Matthew Bryan was first published at www.matthewbryan.net on June 4th, 2013. All rights are reserved.