Do Evangelicals Neglect the Gospels?

In his book, How God Became King, N. T. Wright charges the church with neglecting the four canonical Gospels.  He doesn’t relent in his critique when it comes to evangelicals.  Those who claim the rhetorical high ground of “biblical authority” have also treated the Gospels badly.

He criticizes evangelical churches for reading the Gospels through a Reformation lens.  Evangelicals have inherited a certain conception of Paul and have shaped their theological vision accordingly.  Our gospel is oriented by justification by faith, and this has become the foundation upon which we construct our vision for ministry and understanding of Christian discipleship.

Wright charges that evangelicals tend to use the four Gospels merely as illustrative material for our already-developed theology.  They have little value beyond this.

Do you agree with this assessment?  Have evangelicals neglected or mistreated the Gospels in proclamation and as resources for theological development?  Why do you think this is so?

11 thoughts on “Do Evangelicals Neglect the Gospels?

  1. Craig Benno

    I think we tend to overly spiritualise the Gospels to fit into a faith based framework…take the beatitudes as an example. I would also say that the cessationist side of Evangelicalism don’t take the gospels at face value as much as the charo side do, as it just doesn’t fit into that world view.

    1. timgombis

      What do you mean, Craig? Do you mean typical ways of handling the miraculous incidents, demonic activity, etc., in light of our captivity to a scientific worldview?

  2. Linda Mortensen

    I think it depends on the people. The Mennonites’ chief focus is on the Sermon on the Mount, and I heard countless sermons on this as a child. But yes, the churches we were in after that have mostly focused on Paul because of the idea that his epistles are somehow “practical”. This is a bit ironic when you think about how different his intended audiences were from our current-day churches.

    1. timgombis

      That makes sense in a Mennonite context, Linda, but even then, was that section set within the wider narrative trajectory of Matthew? Were the narrative thrusts regarding Jesus’ establishment of the Kingdom of God laid out?

      I was thinking that perhaps a few sections of the Gospels are more commonly referenced (uh, sorry…, couldn’t resist), but are they understood in the terms set by the larger narratives in which they are set? My sense it that they aren’t, but you never know . . .

      1. Linda Mortensen

        Hmm… That was a long time ago. But as I recall, there truly was more emphasis on the gospels than on Paul when I was in grade school – so many sermons on the life of Jesus. Among Mennonites, one of the chief aims of church is to encourage each other to follow the sacrificial example of the life of Jesus, thus, the sermons. The church began to change over time (probably beginning in earnest in my teens) and lost most of its Mennonite distinctiveness, and when it did, the emphasis definitely shifted to Paul. Perhaps coincidentally, it was also the same time that our church began to listen to outside influences such as Hal Lindsay and A Thief in the Night.

  3. jonathan mcgill

    I think Wright’s charge is fairly accurate. I would add two things (and I’ve not read this book, so he may talk about it elsewhere): it seems to me that many evangelicals look at the Gospels, particularly Jesus’ miracles, as an apologetic for his deity in order to set up the logic of penal substitution which then helps us flesh out Paul’s gospel of justification by faith alone. Secondly, many evangelicals still operate from an inherited dispensational hermeneutic which relegates the kingdom of God either to a great thing Israel missed out on, or a great thing we’ll get to enjoy when Jesus comes back. Other than that, the Gospels have some great mystical/parabolic tidbits on sanctification and the life of people who are already justified in the Pauline sense.

    Generally speaking, and ironically enough, I think we view Paul as the one who clearly and concisely explained ‘the gospel’, and the Gospels came along and fleshed out some apologetic/historical/practical things on the side. This is, most likely, rather backwards.

    (that may have been more than two things)

    1. timgombis

      Very well put, Jon. Wright does indeed hit those two points in various places. And that misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God (or the total neglect of it) may be the ultimate target for Wright in this book. The Gospels are all about the Kingdom of God and Jesus as ruler of the new realm God has brought about by his Spirit. How does that realm operate? How do you enter it, live in it, draw on its power, see it spread and flourish? These are the questions the Gospels get at and open up.

  4. David Moser

    One comment that I hear regularly among evangelicals is that Paul is more directly concerned with the matters of individual salvation, thus rendering his corpus more ‘practical’ than the canonical gospels.

    I find that connection between an individualistic soteriology and the concept of ‘practicality’ (or pragmatism) to be a reflection of a much-deeper cultural, late modern assumption that underwrites the common construal of justification by faith in evangelicalism: if any concept is to be understood as A) practical and therefore B) good, it must have direct, experiential effect upon the individual and it must contribute to overall well-being. This assumption is strikingly similar to the logic of capitalism in general. It leads evangelicals not only to misread Paul as the proponent of the core belief of justification by faith but also to ignore the gospels’ message about kingdom of God, except when the gospels supposedly mention justification by faith (i.e., John Piper’s case that Jesus “preaches justification by faith” in Luke 18).

    1. timgombis

      I agree, David. It’s a mis-reading of Paul that stands over all of Paul’s letters, and that mis-reading then dominates evangelical readings of the Gospels.

      And that’s just it–the Gospel of the Kingdom is completely neglected. And I think that’s a big part of it, too, because the Gospel of the Kingdom is exclusive, demanding reconciliation, deference, servanthood, etc., which is why so many either shunt it to the past, punt it to the future, or just ignore it.

  5. Bobby

    I have been in pastoral ministry for 6 years as a Youth Pastor/Young Adults and Teaching Pastor. Most of those years in Pentecostal/Charismatic churches but now I am in the United Methodist Church. Honestly, as a teaching pastor I found that many adults who have been Christians for 20 years were very unfamiliar with the Gospels and how to make sense of them. Therefore, I did a year long study rooting my work in Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (among other various academic articles, dissertations and commentaries). People were amazed at the depth and breadth of work that has been done on the Gospels. The problem is that most pastors that I have encountered just don’t preach the Gospels and when the do it is around the liturgical holidays (Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter). This actually creates validity to Wright’s critique of the church. In fact I was in one church for 3 years while in school doing my undergrad and the pastor accept for the big three never preached from the Gospels and he went to Gordon Conwell. I even asked him about it one point and he said that he liked Paul better and thought it was more applicable.

    So at least for my tradition and where I have been Wright’s critique stands true. It hits home and I have seen it as my task to familiarize myself with historical Jesus research in order to inform my preaching and make the world of the Gospels jump off the page.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for that, Bobby — many blessings as you do so! I have a friend who did much the same with his church, working through large sections of Gospels texts so that the larger movements of the narratives shaped their imaginations of God’s ways with his people.

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