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Why Foreign Missions? 20a1. The Gospel According to Paul: Sermons and Confessions

Why Foreign Missions?  20a1. The Gospel According to Paul: Sermons and Confessions

What Gospel did the early Church take to the Jews and Gentiles of the Roman world outside Israel?  This study, focussed mostly on Paul, begins a section that seeks to identify the content of the early Church’s ‘Gospel.’  Here, I will present how several scholars, such as C. H. Dodd and James D. G. Dunn, have approached and answered the question, ‘What is the Gospel According to Paul?’ by exploring sermons and confessional formulae in Acts and Paul. [1]  The next studies will expand this discussion.

Challenges in the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century saw several challenges to coming up with a content to the Gospel.  Michael Green discussed these in Evangelism in the Early Church.[2]  First, there is the question of whether different scholars can arrive at the same results when reviewing the evidence from the New Testament.  Is there a unity to the content of the Gospel?  Second, existentialists (such as Rudolf Bultmann) predictably argued against the very possibility of a content to the Gospel.  Their emphasis was on the faith that was elicited—on ‘believing,’ not on ‘beliefs.’  A third challenge was the claim that, while there was content to the Gospel, it varied according to context.  Thus the Gospel was not monolithic but dynamic.  A fourth challenge was whether the speeches in Acts that present the Gospel were not considered by some scholars to reflect actual speeches of the early Church so much as Luke’s own theology.

Green concluded his consideration of these challenges by saying that scholars (such as C. H. Dodd, Ralph Martin, W. Hollenweger, and T. W. Manson) looking at the early creeds in the New Testament found a unified content to the Gospel.  This creedal approach confirms the content of the Gospel, as follows:

Jesus Christ was God's last word  to man, the one who brought as much of God to us as we could appreciate in the only terms we could take it in, the terms of a human life; the one who in dying and rising again was manifestly vindicated in his claims and achievement.[3]

C. H. Dodd

C. H. Dodd believed that he identified an early kerygma of the early Church by comparing the speeches of Acts with passages from Paul's letters and noting recurrent themes.[4]  Of particular importance in the letters are the following passages: 1 Cor. 15.1ff; Rom. 1.1ff; and 1 Cor. 1.23; 2.2‑6; 3.10ff; 2 Cor. 4.4; Rom. 10.8f; 14.9f.  Dodd himself arranged the themes slightly differently in several places, so the following presentation of Dodd’s work is taken from M. Green, Evangelism in the Early Church:[5]

“*The Age of Fulfillment had dawned.
*This has taken place through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
*By virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God, as Messianic head of the new Israel.
*The Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ's present power and glory.
*The Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ....
*The Kerygma always closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, and the promise of salvation, that is, the life of the Age to Come to those who enter the community."

Not only are such points to be found in creedal statements in Paul’s letters but also in the speeches in the book of Acts.  One might, e.g., work through these features of the kerygma in Peter’s speech in Acts 2.  What we see in Dodd’s proposal is that the early Church’s Gospel (not only Paul’s) focussed on Jesus Christ.  This entailed who Jesus is, what he had accomplished, and that he fulfills what had been promised by the prophets of Israel. 

Dodd wrote in the days before we began to speak of narrative theology in Scripture, but the narrative dimensions of the Gospel can be appreciated in our day.  The prophets told a story about a messianic age that is fulfilled in the story of Jesus and is now experienced in the story of the Church.  Sixty-one years later, for example, Ben Witherington could phrase the ‘tapestry of Paul’s theology’ in terms of a story that was comprised of four stories:[6]

1. The story of a world gone wrong
2. The story of Israel in that world
3. The story of Christ, which arises out of the story of Israel and humankind on the human side of things, but in a larger sense arises out of the very story of God as creator and redeemer
4. The story of Christians, including Paul himself, which arises out of all three of these previous stories and is the first full installment of the story of a world set right again.

In my own dissertation, I argued that the Gospel was the story of Jesus that was lived out in the life of Paul and the Church.[7]

James D. G. Dunn

James D. G. Dunn presents the work of others on the early Christian kerygmatic and confessional formulae that appears in the literature, with much of the evidence coming from Paul.[8]

Resurrection Formulae: ‘God raised him from the dead’
Rom. 4.24-25; 7.4; 8.11; 10.9; 1 Cor. 6.14; 15.4, 12, 20; 2 Cor. 4.14; Gal. 1.1; Col. 2.12; 1 Th. 1.10; Eph. 1.20; 2 Tim. 2.8; 1 Pt. 1.21; Acts 3.15; 4.10; 5.30; 10.40; 13.30, 37
‘Died for’ Formulae: ‘Christ died for us’
Rom. 5.6, 8; 14.15; 1 Cor. 8.11; 15.3; 2 Cor. 5.14-15; 1 Th. 5.10; Ign. Trallians 2.1
‘Handed over (paradidomi)’ Formulae: ‘he was handed (or handed himself) over (for our sins)’
Rom. 4.25; 8.32; 1 Cor. 11.23; Gal. 1.4; 2.20; Eph. 5.2, 25; 1 Tim. 2.6; Tit. 2.14; 1 Clement 16.7
Combined Formulae: ‘Christ died and was raised’
Rom. 4.25; 8.34 (14.9); 1 Cor. 15.3-4; 2 Cor. 5.15; 13.4; 1 Th. 4.14
Confessional Formulae: ‘Jesus is Lord’
Rom. 10.9; 1 Cor. 8.6; 12.3; 2 Cor. 4.5; Phl. 2.11; Col. 2.6; Eph. 4.5; Acts 2.36; 10.36; Jn. 20.28

In addition to the texts noted in the above table, Dunn adds Rom. 1.3-4 and 3.21-26.  Yet even these are not exhaustive.  For example, certain formulaic statements (which some have claimed were early Christian hymns) may have formed the basis of certain texts in the New Testament literature that pre-dated even Paul: Phl. 2.6-11; Col. 1.15-20; 1 Tim. 3.16; and Heb. 1.1-4.  Yet Dunn is not here trying to present the definitive argument on early Christian confessional formulae.  He is defending the existence of such formulae in the literature prior to and apart from Paul.  He does so with the following arguments: (1) there are many possible formulae in a variety of authors, as the chart above suggests; (2) these formulae are found in various contexts in which they were used in the early Church (baptismal, liturgical, evangelistic, and paraenetic [ethical exhortation] contexts); and (3) the brevity of the passages in Paul suggests that the readers were familiar with them (note especially Rom. 3.21-26, after the lengthy argument in Rom. 1.18-3.20).[9]



[1] All letters attributed to Paul will be taken as written by Paul.  While many scholars dispute the authenticity of Paul’s letters to the Ephesian and Colossian churches, his second letter to Thessalonica, and the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, I do not find these arguments compelling.  Even so, the main concern in a Biblical theology of mission is to render the theology of Scripture, and internal divisions of any sort (whether authentic or pseudonymous letters) eventually give way to how the texts fit together theologically.
[2] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, pp. 60ff.
[3] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 63.
[4] C. H. Dodd, Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (HarperCollins, 1936).
[5] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 60.
[6] Ben Witherington, III, Paul’s Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
[7] Rollin G. Grams, Gospel and Mission in Paul’s Ethics, unpublished dissertation, Duke University, 1989.
[8] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 175.
[9] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 175f.