|Love's Core Gospel
Bill Love, The Core Gospel: On Restoring the Crux of the Matter. Abilene: ACU Press, 1992. Reviewed by John Mark Hicks, Associate Professor of Christian Doctrine, Harding University Graduate School of Religion.
Reading Bill Love's Core Gospel is a rewarding experience because he calls us to preach the story of Jesus. Nevertheless, there are some methodological problems which render his historical judgments uncertain.
Many positive features commend the book. After engaging the reader in the narrative of Jesus' story, chapters five and six reflect theologically on the meaning of the Christ event. He effectively summarizes the various metaphors found in the NT which portray the essence of the kerygma. This theological interpretation of the atonement is welcome and needed.
In addition, The Core Gospel offers several correctives to our heritage of restoration preaching. Love points out that our use of the cross has generally been polemical and ethical rather than kerygmatic. Preaching was conceived as a means of "doing battle" rather than proclaiming Jesus. He also notes that too often the term "gospel" came to mean "what we must do" rather than what God has done. The gospel, however, is God's act, not ours. Further, Love demonstrates our reluctance to think theologically about the atonement. Too often we proclaimed the apologetic fact without reflecting on the theological meaning. The result was that a subtle legalism crept into the Restoration Movement. Finally, because of this deficiency, we have missed some of the key metaphors for the atonement in the NT. Rarely, for instance, have we emphasized the motifs of Christus Victor, propitiation and the suffering God. Love calls us to proclaim the whole of the cross rather than narrow its meaning to a few metaphors or a couple of polemical and ethical arguments.
Despite these positive aspects, I find the main thesis of the book unsubstantiated because of a flawed methodology. While I believe that his general conclusions have real merit, I do not think it can be demonstrated through the methodology he utilizes. Three areas are particularly problematic.
First, is it really possible to compare the first 30 minutes of the audible reading of Matthew with a homiletic form? The NT ought to judge our preaching, but we need a valid method for making those judgments. This means that we pay attention to literary forms and genre in the NT. Love insists that he is only doing a content analysis of the NT. But he has done more. He explicitly compares a modern homiletic form with an audible 30-minute section of the NT. He ignores the setting, context, genre and form of both the NT text and the modern sermon in order to make his comparison. My point is this: one cannot abstract content from the NT without proper exegesis. Comparative content analysis requires some common denominator, especially in purpose and content. Love has proof-texted the NT in a most explicit way. His 100% value (all sermons in the NT mention the core gospel) is an arbitrary standard artificially erected for the evaluation of restoration preaching. The literature of the NT in its own forms and contexts cannot stand the test of Love's 100% standard. James, for example, fails by Love's standard (as do Philemon, 2 & 3 John, and 2 Thess.).
Second, while sermon books have been both influential and representative of restoration preaching, a content analysis of these sermon books must be rooted in a proper historical analysis of the texts themselves. They must be analyzed in terms of their audience, original setting, editing process, the exclusion of redundant material, the broadness of theme, and the purpose of publication. All of these factors impinge on the nature of the product and must be taken into account if any content analysis is to have validity. In effect, Love proof-texts the sermons books in just the same way that he proof-texts the NT. Indeed, I find some of his specifics misleading. For example, in his assessment of Campbell's Christian System, Love mentions that only 13 of 313 pages are devoted to the atonement (or 4% of the book; p. 115). This is quite unfair given the fact that the Christian System is a collection of essays that appeared in the Millennial Harbinger. The book was not intended to be a systematic theology. Rather, the "Christian System" was the initial 84-page essay (13 of which dealt with the atonement). The atonement was central and foundational for Campbell and this is apparent in his essay. To represent him as only giving 4% of his book to the topic leaves the false impression that the doctrine of atonement was peripheral to his theology. On the contrary, it was so important that he took up his pen against Stone on the issue. This illustrates the need to provide a contextual historical interpretation.
Third, Love does not engage the historical material at a theological depth that is necessary for the sweeping conclusions which he draws. Every restoration preacher had a theology of atonement whether it was refined or not; whether it was explicit or not. It is the task of the historical theologian to surface and evaluate that theology. While understanding that his work is a survey and is not intended to give detailed attention to the theology of individuals, it is the weight he attributes to statistics that is disturbing. For example, it would be more fruitful to investigate the theology which lies behind G.C. Brewer's endorsement of K.C. Moser's The Way of Salvation and Foy E. Wallace's rejection of it. This would give a better vantage point to assess their word of the cross than a simple statistical compilation based on an abstract content analysis. Indeed, one indication of this is that while Wallace is assessed as one of the least theological and substantive in his doctrine of atonement (p. 238), he still comes up with a 46% rating. In contrast, while J.S. Sweeney had a significant theology of atonement, his rating was below that of Wallace's at 41% (p. 174). More is involved than simply counting.
The sort of theological reflection which I wish had dominated the book is seen in Love's treatment of Larimore. Love notes that underneath Larimore's references to the core gospel is a theology of the cross that informs his preaching (p. 165) even though his rating was only 52% (hardly much better than Wallace). What is more critical than how many times one mentions the core gospel (that is, statistics) is the theology which interprets the facts. What is needed is a theological analysis of each individual so that we can invest meaning in the statistics. The statistics do not yield meaning in the abstract. It seems that Love draws theological conclusions from the statistics rather than permitting the theology of the individual and the historical context of the document to interpret the statistics. James, for example, had a theology of the cross even though he never mentioned the core gospel. If statistics alone decided the point, then we would have to conclude that James the preacher had no theology of the cross. That would be a bit daring; but this is the danger of giving such weight to statistics.
Love has called us to tell the story of Jesus and to reflect theologically on the meaning of that story for our lives. He has pushed us away from polemics to kerygma. This is fundamentally valuable. I am grateful for Love's work because it calls us back to kerygmatic preaching. While I believe his historical assessment of restoration preaching is methodologically flawed, I also believe that the message of the cross is much more important than the history of restoration preaching. It is good that Love has reminded us of that message.
First published in Restoration Quarterly 35.2 (1993), 111-13.