Anyone who has read Peter and Paul’s gospel sermons as recorded in Acts has noticed a sizeable discrepancy between the gospel as preached by the early believers and the gospel as preached by the modern Church. It is a discrepancy that begs a question: How, if we have drifted far from our original moorings, are we to rediscover this gospel of the early Church? It is to address just this question that C.H. Dodd delivered a series of lectures at King’s College, London in 1935, which were later converted into his short but insightful book, “The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments” (Hodder & Stoughton, 1951).
Preaching, Dodd observes, is in the minds of the New Testament authors a different thing from Teaching. While the first is concerned with communicating the central message of the gospel, the second concerns itself with instruction on how to live in light of that gospel, or, put a different way, instruction that takes the preached gospel for its foundation. With this distinction in place, Dodd begins to move through the biblical text, driving back to the gospel-ground that lies as the foundation of the teaching we see in the New Testament, what Dodd calls the “Apostolic Preaching.” Dodd proceeds to argue that, despite the variety of New Testament source materials, the central message of the Church is widely and consistently attested to, and is supported not only literarily (in the harmony of the various witnesses), but also in historical development (in that it displays synchronic consistency). Dodd’s conclusion is this, that “With all the diversity of the New Testament writings, they form a unity in their proclamation of the one Gospel” (74).
Drawing, then, from Paul, the synoptic gospels, and John, Dodd identifies several key components to this Apostolic gospel: that prophecy has been fulfilled, that Christ (David’s seed) has come, that this Christ ministered, died, was buried, and rose from the grave, and has now ascended as the supreme judge of all. To put this gospel in other words, the eschaton (that is, the last days) has arrived in Christ Jesus, and everything must change in response. This is the gospel preached by the early Church.
This eschatological gospel reveals itself in the thinking and praxis of the early Church, particularly when it comes to their understanding of the Second Coming of Christ. Regarding this, Dodd observes the following:
The more we try to penetrate in imagination to the state of mind of the first Christians in the earliest days, the more we are driven to think of resurrection, exaltation, and second advent as being, in their belief, inseparable parts of a single divine event. It was not an early advent that they proclaimed, but an immediate advent. They proclaimed it not so much as a future event for which men should prepare by repentance, but rather as the impending corroboration of a present fact: the new age is already here, and because it is here men should repent. The proof that it was here was found in the actual presence of the Spirit, that is, of the supernatural in the experience of men (33, emphasis his).
Much inky scholastic angst has been spilt over the beliefs of the early Christians regarding Christ’s return, but here Dodd offers a compelling path through the mire: that the early believers were less concerned with Christ’s return, and more compelled by his present reign. This, the evidence suggests, is precisely the witness of the early Christians: that the Spirit has arrived, and therefore the end of the ages is upon us. Therefore repent. The early message of Christ was, “The Kingdom is near.” The matured, post-resurrection message of the Church is, “The Kingdom is here.” And the visible sign of the presence of the eschatological, history-fulfilling kingdom is the presence of the Spirit among the people of God.
This, notably, is a rather different proclamation from “Jesus saves you from your sins,” which dominates our preaching of the gospel today. Dodd, commenting on the discrepancy, even goes so far as to say this:
A well-known New Testament scholar has expressed the opinion that ‘the modern man does not believe in any form of salvation known to ancient Christianity.’ It is indeed clear that the primitive formulation of the Gospel in eschatological terms is as strange as it could well be to our minds (76).
But perhaps at this point Dodd has overstated his case, and it is worth asking: are the modern Church’s formulations of the gospel really so divergent from those of the early Church? Is this particular expression of the gospel as atonement (“Jesus saves”) fundamentally inadequate, or is it merely incomplete? The answer should be self-evident: the problem with the gospel as formulated today is that it is incomplete, not that it isn’t the gospel. Jesus surely does save, and save us from our sins. But to focus only on the cross is to miss the broader picture of God’s work in history which culminates in Christ.
The modern preaching of the gospel often narrows the story of Jesus to a single moment, and in narrowing it telescopes out the critical frame of Christ’s life as the fulfillment of God’s history. In other words, the ‘discrepancy’ a reader of Acts feels between the early gospel message and that of the modern Church is not a true discrepancy; it is a shift in focus. Here, the modern Church has become so accustomed to looking at one piece of Christ’s story that it has overlooked the rest of the picture. To correct this oversight, the preaching of the Church must return to the frame of the cross in order to see that event in light of the life of Christ, in light of the fulfillment of prophecy, and through these to re-saturate the Gospel story in the eschatological brew from which it was birthed (and in which it has retained its life despite our missteps). Through this, the Church can—indeed must—continue to stress the crisis of faith—not a particular conviction leading to a filling of the Spirit, but a recognition that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are of decisive, critical importance for the life of every individual on earth. Here, because this crisis remains the heart of the gospel message, the Church can continue to rightly, truly, and with confidence proclaim that “Jesus saves.”