The Gospel-Epistle Generation Gap

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One thing I heard several times at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures was that young people want to keep getting back to the life of Jesus as reflected in the Gospels while older generations are more drawn to the epistles. I think in some ways, broadly speaking, this is probably true. When I meet a young person who really wants to study the Bible I have to figure out where to send them. Ten years ago I would have probably sent them to Romans. Today I send them to Mark or John. Why? Because you can get the point across quickest and easiest by having them watch the movie itself rather than have to piece together what a movie was about by reading what different reviewers had to say about it. Make sense?

They identify with narrative. One narrative they are seeking is on that offers them approval and acceptance. They find that in Jesus. He brought in the most unlikely people and gave them a place at the table. While the epistles contain truth it is often about elaborating on various concepts that are embodied in the events of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They would rather read the story and gather the relevant lessons rather than read someone else play-by-play of what it all means, even if the play-by-play is being done by Paul (I know that is not true for all…just speaking in generalities here).

Jesus also captures the heart before he captures the head. When people left Jesus was it usually due to his actions or his teachings? When people were drawn to Jesus was it usually because of his actions or his teachings? Jesus’ actions weren’t confusing. Sometimes his teachings were. Even the disciples were confused some times but they never doubted that he loved them and not just because he told them so but because he lived it. I am not emphasizing Gospels over epistles here. I am saying that to young people the life of Jesus speaks more clearly and directly to them than Paul’s trouble shooting problems in the churches of his day. Both have a place. Both need emphasis. Both have to inform our faith and practice.

I am speculating here but I know that the times I found Paul most useful when I was younger was to win a debate. Jesus’ teachings weren’t always so useful because first they would point out he was under the “old covenant” and second because you had to overlook things like loving your enemy to really pound the other guy in a good vigorous debate. But you can proof-text Paul all day and “win” an argument. I am not saying our older people are unloving or that those who are drawn to Paul are unloving but I do wonder if the older generation is drawn to Paul because they matured in their faith at a time when doctrinal differences were more concerning to people and where do you turn to solve matters in the church and find out who is right? Paul.

Do you see a generation gap on this? If so, why do you believe that is the case.

Related Link – Christianity Today – Interview of Scot McKnight on Jesus vs. Paul

0 Responses

  1. Matt,

    i think this difference in emphasis also explains some of the differences between denominations. i think ‘high church’ types (catholic, orthodox, anglican, etc.) tend to emphasize the gospels. Whereas the more staunchly protestant you get, the more you emphasize the epistles. Social justice focused churches also seem to place more emphasis on the gospels.

    From our heritage though, could it be an issue of patternism? Older people were taught to use patternism to find the necessarily-imitable features of early church practice. i’m not sure that our generation has entirely given up on patternism, but rather has decided that it ought to be applied to the life of Christ to find necessarily-imitable features of His ethic and behavior.


    1. Guy,
      I like the comment of a black preacher (who was interested in social justice): “You white preachers want to jump from Christmas to Easter without looking at what is in between.” He meant that we like to talk about God giving His Son to die – but forget that it was His life that made His dying acceptable for our sins. And it is His life that we are to imitate. Dallas Willard calls people who are only interested in Jesus dying for our sins “vampire Christians” – only interested in the blood. Such, he says, are not true disciples of Jesus at all.

  2. I’m not sure about the generational conflict. I just don’t have enough information about it.

    However, I would find it hard to get a full understanding of the gospel without both the Gospels and the Epistles. Without the Gospels, the Epistles don’t seem to present Jesus in a personal way (in that we don’t see his personality or his responses to situations in his life). Without the Epistles, the Gospels don’t seem to fully explain the significance of what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection. It would be hard to divorce one from the other without doing damage to our understanding of who Jesus is and why it’s important.

    1. Terry,

      I am certainly not saying one should only pick one. I am saying that one tends to draw each group more than the other.

  3. Matt,
    At the end of last year, Christianity Today had an article, “Jesus or Paul.” In it, they pointed out that Paul spoke of salvation by faith whereas Jesus had preached the gospel of the kingdom of God. The Reformation emphasis on sola faith was put in tension with Jesus’ teachings about life in the kingdom.

    Of course, there is no real tension, for a person of faith and faithfulness will live as Jesus indicated in His kingdom parables. Paul also spoke of the kingdom – and Jesus spoke of faith. The difference is more in the minds of theologians than between Jesus and Paul.

    However, if you ask the average Church of Christ congregation for a show of hands as to where most of the sermons they have heard come from, you might be surprised.

    It’s definitely not the Old Testament. After all, we are “the New Testament Church.” Nor will it likely be from the gospels, even though we call ourselves The Church of Christ. It would likely be from Acts (older groups) or from the Epistles.

    Why? I’m not sure, but I wonder if it is because we are more enamored with a “system” than we are with our Savior. Our focus has been to get the system right – and we’ve paid little practical attention to the one who is Savior, in spite of His call to us to “come follow me.”


    1. Jerry,

      When you have been brought up to defend doctrine the natural tendency is to turn to the epistles. I think that is where a lot of it comes from. It is how many were trained to evangelize and debate.

  4. Matt,
    I think the reason for the difference is modernity vs. postmodernity. The generation before me was thoroughly modern (enlightenment mentality) that focused on reason. So the letters of Paul in particular are of great interest to the older generations. I think my generation (baby boomers) are sort of a transition to postmodern thinking. The younger generations are postmodern and focused on narrative – which appeals more to the heart than the head.

    I remember reading somewhere that we “Campbellites” were focused first on Acts and then the letters of Paul. The Evangelicals or “Lutherites” were focused mostly on Paul’s letters. I can’t remember where I read that. It wasn’t someone in our fellowship.

    You should read “The Faith of Jesus Christ” by Richard B. Hays. The subtitle is “The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.” Hays has two purposes. One, is to show that Paul’s favorite phrase (used by Reformers against the Catholics) is not “we are justified by faith IN Christ” but rather “we are justified by the faith OF Christ.” Meaning that we are justified by the faithfulness of Jesus to the mission God gave him. Second purpose is to show that Paul’s letters are not just a system of doctrines but rather based on the story of Jesus. Hays attempts to show that in order to read the epistles you must first read the gospels (at least that’s my take on his book). If Hays is right then we cannot understand the epistles (Paul’s and General) unless we understand the Gospels.

    Also Jim Woodroof has a book called “Four Realities” which shows the centrality of the four Gospels as the gospel.

    Jerry Starling and I read an article a couple of months ago about the centrality of the New Testament being gospel or kingdom. I think it was by Scot McKnight. Jerry do you remember where that article was? We both agreed that it was an excellent article.

    1. “If Hays is right then we cannot understand the epistles (Paul’s and General) unless we understand the Gospels.”

      How did he address the fact that most of the epistles were written before the gospels?

    2. Narrative theology is theology. Christ defined ekklesia or synagogue in the prophets and Jesus made these prophecies more perfect and guided the apostles into all truth. The ekklesia or synagogue is defined in great detail in the prophets especially Isaiah. Jesus “narrated” these prophecies and Peter says they are not subject to private interpretation meaning further expounding. All of the epistle writers are commentary on the prophets especially Paul.

      Is this Jim Woodroof of the PCA at Smith’s Springs?

    3. Bob,

      I will have a look at the Hays book. One of the things that brought about post-modernism is the failure of modernity. We had all these advances in thinking and logic. We felt we were able to nail down truth. Did things get better in the world or worse as a result? Some would point to the atomic bomb as one place modernity lead us. Whether or not that is fair I am not sure. But it does bring up an interesting point. Most post-moderns grew up living in the tension of uncertainty and hurt. Their families were ripped apart and they lost much of their identity and are seeking to regain it. They have had to embrace uncertainty. Pair that with the seeming failure of the absolutes in their lives and it opens them up to an entirely different way of thinking/worldview = post-modernism.

      I say all that to say I think that is the background of why they flock to Jesus. Jesus is welcoming. Jesus is loving. Jesus gives them a place to belong. Jesus recognizes the hurt and pain and uncertainty and does something with it all that helps orient the lives of young people today. I think that is why they go there faster than the epistles.

  5. Well, the gospels was written to Christians, and the epistles, for the most part, were written to churches (or at least church leaders). Perhaps it’s not just a generation gap, but also an institutional mindset. I know plenty of older people who don’t care at all for Institutions, and plenty of young folks who do. But for the most part, younger people tend toward individualism, and gradually shed it as they age.

    I like that the gospels tell the story of Jesus, while the epistles give us a few glimpses of the “okay, now what?” factor. I think a fertile discussion could come of pondering what would really happen if you only had one or the other: gospels or epistles. We already see what happens when you dismiss most of church history as irrelevant bunk. But I think an interesting case study would be to examine textually what you have left when you remove certain key passages from Jesus or Paul, as an earlier post suggested. I’m not sure the tension is as easy to dismiss as we assume.

  6. Jesus warned about doctors of the law. THEY want to preach “Just Jesus” when they understand that the Ekklesia–Synagogue of Christ is built upon what Jesus taught in person, and what He taught the apostles in His post-resurrected or Holy Spirit state. History seeks APOSTOLIC authority for the faith and practice of the church.

    The gospel universally is THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM or church. All good news is gospel. Gospel is “come to me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” And to the twos and threes–outside the campus–“Come learn of ME.

    Luke 11:52 Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge:
    ……ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.

    The key is lost when elders do not “teach that which has been taught” with no doubtful disputations or human imagination.

    John 6:44 No man can come to me,
    ……except the Father which hath sent me draw him:
    ……and I will raise him up at the last day.
    John 6:45 It is written in the prophets,
    ……And they shall be all taught of God.
    ……Every man therefore that hath heard,
    ……and hath learned of the Father,
    ……cometh unto me.

    Ephesians 2:20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
    ……Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;
    Ephesians 3:5 Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men,
    ……as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; (named Jesus)

    In 2 Peter 1 Peter left a “memory” of the apostle’s eye– and ear– witness of the signs and wonders validating the teachings of the prophets. He pointed to the prophecies by Christ and prophecies made more perfect to the apostles.

    The prophets are pretty much ignored because Christ repudiates all of the “worship of the starry host.”

  7. Charlie,
    The gospel was preached long before the epistles were written. In fact churches had prophets who proclaimed the new covenant before written texts came about. Paul had the gospel revealed to him before he wrote his letters. The written texts are structured (in my opinion) with a certain order to tell us that the Gospels are first and central to the new covenant. Acts is the bridge where the gospel is preached and churches are planted. Then the letters are the gospel (and gospels – the narrative of Jesus) applied to church life. Although this is the way we should read the New Testament it wasn’t the way the texts were written.

  8. The Scriptures are a constant source of knowledge, Truth, and guidance. But do not stop there. Learn about the early Church, learn about the first, second, and third generation Christians those who were taught by the apostles and those who were taught by them and so on. Understanding the beliefs of the early Church provides the proper lens in which to understand the Sacred Scriptures. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” So the converse of that is: know scripture, know Christ. And if you know Christ, you know about Christianity.
    Thanks for the sharing

  9. Matt,
    Another interesting tidbit for this discussion. I purchased John Stott’s book, 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know, because I’ve been wanting to do a sermon series on Christian vocabulary. Two words that are not included are “gospel” and “kingdom.” I’m not sure (since I haven’t read the entire book) if Stott’s words have a Pauline bent or not but the exclusion of these two words sure leans in that direction. Some other words I would have included are adoption, eternal life, and propitiation.

  10. Hi Matt,

    I remember articulating back in college that I felt like growing up I had gotten “a lot of God and a lot of Paul, but not much Jesus.”

    Obviously the goal is to hold both (gospels and epistles) in tension and keep seeking and studying until there is no tension, or until that tension is better understood. (somebody, McLaren, maybe, says that we have been reading/interpreting Jesus through Paul instead of reading Paul through lenses of Jesus). But I find sometimes that I have a hard time taking off the Pauline lenses I was given while I was growing up, even when I want to!

    McLaren also gave a visual analogy of a book open and laid face down on a table as a suggestion of how we should approach the Bible, taking Jesus in the Gospels (the spine of the book that sits up the highest) as our focal point, clearest revelation of God, and the lens through which we hear and see everything else. The Old Testament and the epistles as the front and back halves of the book that are very important but shouldn’t be the place where we sit and interpret everything else.

    Any thoughts?

    Rachel Howell

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