Preparing for the second of five weeks of homilies on the Gospel of John, chapter 6, it occurred to me that there are a number of different developments from the gospel of Christ that one can find in the New Testament. To put the matter more simply: the basic story of Christ could have given rise to various movements and interpretations, and indeed, it has. Some of these have been more or less legitimate developments from the Gospel, because they embody an unfolding of original intentions into concrete reality. Other developments seems illegitimate, because they involve a betrayal of what one can discover of the evangelists’ intentions.
Jesus and the early gospel movements could and did give rise to:
- Relatively independent, discrete communities of disciples of Jesus gathered around his remembered words, and sharing their lives together. This pattern has been seen in the “low church” movements from the earliest centuries to the present.
- Relatively connected communities of faith, governed by a hierarchy, and developing various forms of liturgical life. This pattern shows up in Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist traditions, and so on.
- A more individual, philosophical or non-intellectual approach to living the faith of Christ, such as found among anchorites, hermits, solitaries, and some philosophers.
- Fervent communities of “believers” highly influenced by early Christian apocalyptic, and more or less waiting for “Jesus to return” and “establish the Kingdom.”
- Communities or wandering individuals assuming a Gnostic interpretation of Christ, meaning that adherents understand themselves as essentially Christ, who “know” that they are saved because they “know who they are,” which is God.
- Kinds of “progressive” Christian movements that eschew the thrust of living towards God unto eternal life, but who seek to use “gospel values” to “transform the world.” This approach has been highly powerful and entrenched in recent Catholicism and in various Protestant churches since the Enlightenment, which spawned this interpretation.
Comment: According to my understanding of the story of Christ contained in documents of our “New Testament,” the first three approaches appear to be more or less legitimate readings; each unfolds some potentialities displayed in the canonical Gospels, the letters of the Apostle Paul, and so on. The apocalyptic variety has been found within Christianity from the beginning, so it, too, could be called “legitimate” to an extent, even though it embodies a split from present reality. On the other hand, the ancient Gnostic interpretation of salvation through knowledge essentially betrays the characteristic humility of Christ, and utterly disturbs the distinction between God and human being. As for the Progressivist interpretation of Christ and the Gospel: by relegating a concern for the truth of God and eternal life to an at-best second-class status, the “Progressivists” also betray the essential core of the gospel; like Demus of old, they are “in love with the world,” and fail to recognize in the story of Christ a radical movement from this world into the divine Presence, both here and beyond.