History and the Gospel

SakhalinskI remember a grumpy student once saying: “I hate history! It’s just one darned thing after another!” And so it is. For although we study history, we think of it as a simple collection of events, a way of telling the story of the world. Like a well-written newspaper account, we expect history to state the facts as accurately as possible and leave for the reader the task of interpretation. Is it too much to ask?

We often bring this same set of expectations to the Scriptures. There we frequently find texts that sound like history, like the recording of events (“one thing after another”). And we bring the newspaper consumer’s mind to bear. We want to know whether the text is accurate. We see interpretation as something that is removed from the text itself. But is this the wrong expectation?

St. Paul does not treat “the gospel” as an interpretation of a given set of facts. The gospel is something, he says, he received. And he is even more emphatic, that he did not receive it from any human source, but “from the Lord” (cf. Galatians 1).  This is a weakness even in studies by notables like Tom Wright. There is a failure to stop and think about “gospel” in a manner that breaks free of the long, Protestant assumption that the gospel is a message or idea. I believe this failure is driven by the myopia of a non-sacramental perception of the Christian faith – that is – by a Christian faith that is thoroughly contemporary and governed by the assumptions of a two-storey universe.

The four gospels are not, properly speaking, historical documents. They contain a great deal of history, but that is not their primary nature. They are witnesses to the resurrection. But what kind of witnesses?

Here is where the word gospel needs to be rightly understood. Like the kingdom of God, the gospel is an event, a reality, a something that has come into the world. It is called a mystery, a power. It is not the story of the event (though the story is within it). It is an event whose revelation changes things (whether the revelation is believed or not). Something has happened and now nothing will ever be the same. That something is the gospel.

The four gospels that the Church reads are clearly not just four separate historical narratives of the Jesus story. They are gospels and are called such rather than “the story of what Jesus said and did.” St. Mark specifically says, “The beginning of the gospel…” 

The Church treats the gospels in a different fashion liturgically. They are bound as a separate book. The gospels are placed on the altar (not the Bible, not the New Testament, just the gospels). They are even used sacramentally as the hand of God in liturgical situations (the sacrament of Holy Unction, the consecration of a bishop). 

I do not lay my sinful hand upon the head of [him] who is come to Thee in iniquities, and asks of Thee, through us, the pardon of [his] sins, but rather Thy strong and mighty hand, which is in this, Thy Holy Gospels, that is now held by my fellow-ministers, upon the head of Thy servant, N.

This is not a superstitious use of the book, but a revealing of the nature of the gospel. 

The gospels are not a text about the gospel – they are the gospel. But, of course, they are indeed texts. This, I am suggesting, is like saying that the Body and Blood of Christ is bread and wine. Of course it is. And it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. That reality must be spiritually discerned, but it is a reality whether it is discerned or not.

The gospels are the gospel presented as text (and as book).

The gospel can be and is presented as word, as icon, as human being, as a series of events, as pretty much anything God chooses to use in order to present the gospel. For St. Paul it was a blinding light and falling off a horse.

What I am trying to do here is free the word “gospel” from the chains of simply being an idea or words about an event. The death of Christ on the Cross, His descent into Hades, His resurrection from the dead is the gospel. And I may encounter that gospel in many ways and forms (Baptism, Eucharist, icon, story, book, etc.). The gospel is the saving action of Christ. But we are saved by the saving action of Christ, not by words about the saving action of Christ. There is not an intellectual mediation of the gospel. The gospel is immediate. We encounter the gospel itself, or we are yet to encounter the gospel.

This tendency to create abstractions within the text of the New Testament is a hallmark of the modern period (throughout the past 500 years). It is not intentional nor sinister – but it is a misreading. The deeply concrete character of the New Testament and its terms are simply overlooked when viewed with a non-sacramental mindset.

Modern readers of the New Testament do not see a deeply sacramental text (or text as sacrament). We see our own world read into and projected onto the text. We too easily fail to see the scandal of its classical worldview.  

But the New Testament is deeply and profoundly sacramental. Its feel for nouns is not so much for words as ideas (that is a very modern concept), but words as things, persons, realities. The classical does not think about the gospel – it encounters the gospel. 

And so I bring us back to history. Within the New Testament, history is better understood as the stage upon which things that are hidden are revealed. The gospel texts do not labor to present the details of a historical narrative (“one thing after another”). The texts intend to reveal the gospel itself. That gospel already lies hidden within the text of the Old Testament. The New Testament makes it known. 

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (Joh 20:30-31)

I do not suggest that it is inappropriate to ask historical questions of the gospel text or of anything in Scripture. But I do suggest that the gospel will not be particularly found in the answers to those questions (such as they may be). The distance created in the historical search removes the reader and hearer from the immediacy of the gospel itself.  

I have served for 15 years as an Orthodox priest. In my earliest years, my most common experience within the liturgy was, “And what do I do next?” The time required to acquire the liturgy on a level that did not make such questioning necessary was much longer than I had expected. They were my most difficult months and years. The same is true of the gospels. The unfamiliarity introduced by historical suspicion or simple historical imagining creates a distance that shields us from the immediate impact of the gospel itself. 

The historical mind views the world (and texts) as objects to be considered. We think too much! The fathers generally thought of true knowledge as something that comes through participation (communion/koinonia). We know because something/someone becomes truly a part of our experience and life. We encounter and know. 

There are levels of such participation and knowledge. It is the deepest level of this that is described as union in our life with God. We will never be united with Christ by thinking about Him or considering Him. Something more is required. This reality has been lost both from the vocabulary and largely from the experience of the modern world. 

But it is to this reality we are invited: “Repent and believe the gospel.”

All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman – Priest of St. Anne Orthodox Church, Oak Ridge, TN

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


18 responses to “History and the Gospel”

  1. Gene Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! This has been an issue of mine for a long time. I continually think too much and have little interest in life outside of my own mind. Some say that this is something that “smart” people do. But after living in it for so long and reading your blog I’m starting to realize how “unsmart” it really is.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    True knowing involves entering into someone or something. Any competent historian will tell you that history is not about facts or chronology–it is an attempt to know ourselves by entering into other times and situations and experiences.

    The last half of the 19th century with the advent of machines, virulent materialism and dehumanized philosophies such as positivism changed the direction, the content, the pedagogy and practice of history. It is a sad loss that had done much to further the myopeia you speak of Father.

  3. David Avatar

    Even as someone who really loves Wright, I can appreciate your critique–biblical scholarship has yet to take seriously the idea that the Evangelists wrote the Gospels in a liturgical community, for a liturgical community, and with the mindset of a liturgical community, and there’s good evidence that that liturgical community contributed to their work as time went on. Trying to get to “the Jesus behind the text” is an understandable and, when done rightly, noble and even somewhat fruitful pursuit, but to ask of the Gospels a straightforward history of the life of Jesus is to ask of them what they are not given for.

    Fr. Stephen, given that the Four Gospels are the Gospel, when evangelizing, how would you tell someone the Gospel? How would you tell Jesus’ story as the saving message (Romans 1.16)?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Speaking to the heart is the key to evangelism. So, finding the way to the heart is the real question.

  5. Dean Avatar

    Father Freeman….I recall a friend who spent two years in a coffee house ministry in Germany in the early 70’s. He had many conversations with students, many with a Marxist bent. He said he often felt like he was making no headway. But he would many times ask if he could pray with them before leaving. And often at the end of the prayer he would see tears in their eyes. The heart had been touched. I have found that if I establish a relationship with neighbors and they face some kind of crisis, that they will also often allow me to pray with them…Christian or not. One particularly profane neighbor was awaiting a test to determine if he had cancer. I offered to pray with him. He assented and at prayer’s end tears had welled up in his eyes. His heart had been softened. Is he still profane? Yes. But I know that God is working in his heart. And I continue to pray.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I find (when I’m at my utmost best – which is very rare) that there is a kind of listening that can take place that can find a “word” to speak to the heart. And it is much deeper, or at least different, than emotion. Though tears sometimes come.

    There are conversations Christ has (St. John seems to like these especially) that go straight to the heart. Nicodemus is one, though we aren’t told of his conversion, though it clearly has occurred by the end of the gospel. The woman at the well is another. And the woman taken in adultery. There are no real presentations of ideas or reasonings in those conversations, only a word or two that reveals something and takes the conversation to the heart.

  7. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    An excellent article, Fr. Stephen.

    I have a question of a different nature. In the prayers and actions of my life, I feel that my heart is engaged with the Gospel (for the most part – obviously allowing for the lapses brought on by my sinful nature, etc.)

    What I find a bit troubling is how to connect with the text of the Gospels after having heard its stories so many times. If I hear a good homily it may help me, of course. However, in private reading of the Scripture, it is hard for me make a fresh connection at times. (55+ years of exposure…)

    I have learned here that Orthodoxy disapproves of use of imagination in this context – which I am not inclined toward anyway. But then what does one do? Even though I may encounter the Gospel in other ways, I am not about to stop reading it…

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton, following Father Stephen’s description of the Gospel as sacramental in nature as long as you are reading, it is working on you heart even if that work is unseen and unfelt at the time. It does not have to be ‘new’. There is not necessarily anything that can be identified as ‘progress’ but you are gradually being changed to the extent that you are open to that change.

    Certainly, one could read the Scripture over and over in a manner of vain repetition and allow nothing to penetrate but if you engage it as if for the first time each time you read it or hear it, that will help. Reading out loud as if to someone else when you can will help that process.

    Even without that however, the sacramental reality will impact you in some way or another. It is filling you mind with truth and forming a guard around your heart so that you more easily recognize untruth when it a appears.

    As Dino said earlier, joy is the key. Joy is a gift of God that is always there if we open to it.

    “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Ps 118:24

    This is a Psalm of the Resurrection.

  9. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, a couple things:

    1. Evangelism
    I like your comment to David that speaking to the heart is the key. It reminds me of a quote from “A Second Touch” by Keith Miller which I’ve always liked:

    Evangelism is feeling around the rim of a person’s soul until you find the crack – and then putting God/love in it.

    2. The end of your post: “There are levels of such participation and knowledge. It is the deepest level of this that is described as union in our life with God…. This reality has been lost both from the vocabulary and largely from the experience of the modern world.”

    Comments about things being lost in our modern world always resonate with me. My soul often cries out, “Even so Lord, come quickly!” But many times He seems to gently rebuke me and ask me to continue to serve Him still. It is at these times that I have learned to turn and look for the good things that give Him hope and cause Him to delay.

    In this situation the hope comes from the fact that human beings are still very much the same as they’ve always been. Though it has deteriorated, we still find some of this deeper knowledge in good relationships. We still understand subconsciously what it is to truly know someone.

    And I will add that those who have a passion (for lack of a better word) like skydiving or stamp collecting still go all in, knowing it through full participation and not at a distance. In our hearts we all realize that this is true knowledge. We recognize that the commentators of the football game are 2nd rank when compared to the players themselves.

    There is still hope. The game is still on and we are still in it for real. We must not despair (speaking to my own heart primarily).

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    “The reality has been lost” largely from the experience of the modern world. This is a world away from it being simply lost. If it were lost, I wouldn’t even be able to write about it.

    What we need in our times, are more and more people who are willing to follow Christ and learn to path to the heart, and even deeper (Elder Sophrony called it the “deep heart”). The more you know of your own heart, the more you can recognize this in others, and we slowly become more like Christ (“deep calls unto deep”).

    I think of Christ through whom all things were created. I think His words to Adam in the Garden, “Adam, where are you?” When God calls you by your name, it is directly to the heart. And so He will give us each “a new name.” Saul becomes Paul. Simon become Cephas. etc.

    I think of Christ speaking to Mary Magdalen in the Garden – where she seems lost in confusion – “where have you laid him?” And all of that is clarified when he says, “Mary.”

    Years ago (as an Anglican), a young woman came to communion in a mission I was serving. Her parents told me she would come to the services that day, and were greatly concerned for her. She had “wandered far in a land that was waste.” When she came to the cup, I gave her communion by name. She received with tears.

    That afternoon she asked me to come visit. I did and heard her story. But what struck me then (and now) was that at the hearing of her name she came to her senses and repentance was born in her heart. Just her name.

    That was not some gift on my part – it was a sovereign act of God in which I was accidentally involved. But I witnessed it!

    No despair would be appropriate – for the Logos continues to call us by name and is gathering his scattered sheep. It is a cause for rejoicing!

  11. Christopher Avatar

    “This tendency to create abstractions within the text of the New Testament is a hallmark of the modern period (throughout the past 500 years). It is not intentional nor sinister – but it is a misreading. The deeply concrete character of the New Testament and its terms are simply overlooked when viewed with a non-sacramental mindset.”

    This brings to mind various things such as courses at your local university (at least mine) titled “New Testament as Literature”. On the one hand they seem just the place to “create abstractions” and the like. On the other, it was through a history course at university that I even learned of the existence of the Orthodox Church. Thoughts?

  12. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your contemplation on names. There is something mysteriously powerful about them. I agree, there is something that happens when God calls us by name.

  13. Nathan Avatar


    “The gospel is the saving action of Christ. But we are saved by the saving action of Christ, not by words about the saving action of Christ.”

    Do we live from God or by every word that proceeds from His mouth? Do we live from Christ or by His words that are Spirit and life? This does not only include the history about “what happened”, but it is no less than this.

    So why the dichotomy? Why not both/and? Gospel means “good news”…


  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Because when we say “words” in the modern context, we mean words on a page about which we think. When the Scripture says, “word that proceeds from His mouth” it means “Davar” (in Hebrew) which not only means “word” but means “action” or “event”. The dichotomy is the one created by modern understanding. I am working here to restore a proper meaning to “gospel.” I could write as well to restore a proper meaning to “word of God.” But it’s another article. We have reduced the meaning and become people who think about words, not people who hear them.

  15. David Avatar

    Greetings Father,

    I take this occasion to say that I read all your articles as a catholic. They help me understand better everything regarding Christ and the Church without concern for the denomination. I thank you for that.

    This subject you just wrote about is very interesting. I recall from my New Testament class that the word in greek for Gospel means , and was generally written about the good news of a triumphant victory for commanders of armies. It is quite fitting since for ancient greeks (and all Indo-Europeans might I add), fighting an enemy that is a threat to the City is like fighting against forces of chaos. Therefore we attribute to Christ the good news (and it is a good news!) of a triumphant victory over chaos, of death trampled by death.

    And was it not Tolkien that said that the good news of Christ is the fundamental myth at the heart of all history, at the root of all reality ?

    Thank you again for all your articles over the last years, blessings to you.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    That explanation of “good news” is one of two competing theories for its meaning. I hold to a third (and therefore am in an extreme minority). But since these theories are largely products of German Protestants, I’m not too worried! What I am saying is that “gospel” has been given a New Testament meaning, that, although a borrowed word, now comes to have a new import. “Sacramentum” originally meant an “oath,” for example. That NT meaning is something more like “the mystery of the gospel” or “sacrament of the gospel.” Something like that. For the cosmic nature of what Christ has done is transcendent and actually has effects on everything even on an ontological level (the very level of being) and not just political (as in the public use of “evangelium”). If the universe is a living room, then the gospel is a 500 pound gorilla that has just appeared. Nothing is going to be the same!

  17. Panayiota Avatar

    Thank you Father. This article helps me to experience the joy of the Ressurection right now, in and out of my mind. To experience it fully, today–in the two story universe we think we live in.

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