Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Four Extremist Gospels (Gospels 2)

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also . . . to write to you an orderly account . . . that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

(Luke 1:1-4 NKJV)



Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for President, was labeled by his opponent, Democrat President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), an “extremist.”  Goldwater famously retorted: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  This retort by Goldwater seems to have foreshadowed the current divide, often along extremist lines, between the Republican and Democrat parties.  Will Wilkinson points out in his blog: “As Karl Hess
 noted in his memoirs, shortly after Goldwater delivered his famous speech, Malcolm X . . . connected ‘extremism in defense of liberty’ to the idea of black Americans defending their rights by ‘any means necessary.’”

When I refer to the Gospels as being extremist, I do not interpret the term “extremist” in the same way Malcolm X or Will Wilkinson did.  The Gospels do not incite anyone to use violence.  Quite to the contrary, Jesus and his followers (the deacon Stephen, the Apostle James, Jesus’ brother James, the Apostle Paul, et. al.) willingly became the victims of violence, often as martyrs. defines an “extremist” as “a person who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm.”  Indeed, willing acceptance of martyrdom is much more extreme (beyond the norm) than is murder or mayhem.  Those activities (murder and mayhem) have increasingly become the “norm” in many American cities, such as Chicago.


Mark’s Gospel of Extreme Self-Denial


Indeed, extreme self-denial (martyrdom) is the ideal value to which the Gospel of Mark points its readers. While I certainly do not accept the premises of the redaction critics—especially, the premise that the Gospel writers felt free to “compose” sections of their gospels in order to support their individual theologies—I do think that there is merit in the observation by various redactionists, including Norman Perrin, citing H. E. Tödt, that in Mark (beginning with his account of the Caesarea Philippi incident of “the confession of Peter and the subsequent teachings of Jesus on

discipleship (Mark 8:27-9:1 with its parallels, Matt. 16:13-28 and Luke 9:18-27),” Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of man must suffer, be killed, and rise again.  Prior to this point in Mark, there is no hint of a suffering Savior—only a remarkably gifted man who performs a myriad of progressively more impressive healings and miracles.  This culminates, in Mark 8:29, as Peter concludes/confesses that Jesus is the Christ, but nothing further.  Peter seems to be unaware of what his confession had entailed.  Jesus, then, for the first time in Mark, speaks in third person of the “Son of man” who will die and rise again.  What is extreme in Mark is that Jesus, after revealing his own coming suffering and death on the cross, asks his disciples to willingly follow him in that self-denial: “
Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35 NKJV).  This message in Mark is one of EXTREME SELF-DENIAL.  Perrin writes: “[I]t reflects the Marcan conviction that, as went the master, so must go the disciple, with all that this implies.”  If an otherwise strong Christian, today, experiences stress concerning the prospect of becoming a martyr for Christ, he is experiencing the stress of following Mark’s EXTREME SELF-DENIAL value.  Of course, other New Testament books testify to this value, but for Mark, it is essential to his Gospel.  Read through Mark again, looking for the extreme self-denial value.  You will not find it before Mark 8:27, but after that, it is the whole point of the Gospel.


Luke’s Gospel of Extreme Impoverishment


In my article in the 2016 KB Journal, available online, I introduce Epideictic criticism of the Gospels.  That article was my first criticism and response to what I see as the incorrect premises of redaction criticism.  Genre studies in the Gospels have long considered literary genres, but Kenneth Burke pointed to the “rhetorical” element in literature. Which rhetorical element, then, could he have had in mind? Aristotle offered three rhetorical genres: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. Of these, the gospels relate primarily to epideictic rhetoric.  Epideictic rhetoric views its audience as composed of “theorists” who decipher the “values” that are implicit in the narratives of epideictic rhetoric.  Just as Mark’s audience could decipher the value of EXTREME SELF-DENIAL pointing toward martyrdom in Mark’s Gospel, I demonstrated that the extreme value in Luke is the value of EXTREME (voluntary) IMPOVERISHMENT.  Twentieth Century rhetorician Chaim Perelman observes that “Epideictic oratory . . . strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds.”  Thus, Mark lauds the value of EXTREME SELF-DENIAL and Luke lauds is the value of EXTREME IMPOVERISHMENT.  By comparing the Beatitudes as Luke presents them with the Beatitudes as Matthew presents them, we see that Luke lauds poverty more than does Matthew.  Luke 6:20 quotes Jesus as saying “Blessed are you who are poor.”  Matthew quotes the words as “poor in spirit.”  Luke quotes Jesus as saying “Blessed are you who are hungry now.”  Matthew adds the words “after righteousness.”  That Luke is emphasizing the “literally” poor is demonstrated by the fact that he follows-up his Beatitude with the statements, “Woe to you who are rich . . . woe to you who are full now.”  Luke is the only gospel to provide the Good Samaritan parable.  Acts (also written by Luke) tells of Christians like Barnabas who sold their possessions and brought the money to the apostles. 
If an otherwise strong Christian, today, experiences stress concerning the prospect of actively becoming impoverished for Christ, he is experiencing the stress of following Luke’s EXTREME IMPOVERISHMENT value.  Read through Luke-Acts again, looking for the extreme poverty value. It is the major “values” point of the Gospel and Acts.


Matthew’s Gospel of Extreme Righteousness


When Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6 NKJV) rather than Luke’s version, “Blessed are you who are hungry now,” he signals his extreme value:  EXTREME RIGHTEOUSNESS.  Since it is aimed at males, how many male Christians have experienced stress when reading “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:28 NKJV)?  And, Jesus’ solution?  Pluck out your eye and cast it from you in order to avoid hell!  Or, what Christian of either sex doesn’t experience stress at the thought of going to hell (not for committing murder) but for calling someone a fool or a moron (5:22).  Who doesn’t chafe when commanded by Jesus to love, not just your friends, but also your enemies (5:44)?  Matthew’s (and Jesus’) point is that you are the light of the world (5:14).  If you don’t allow your light (extreme righteousness) to shine, the world will not see your “good works” and glorify God (5:16).  The scribes and the pharisees, with whom Jesus and Matthew’s audience interacted, were extremely concerned with righteousness, so Jesus (and Matthew) says “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (5:28 NKJV).  If an otherwise strong Christian, today, experiences stress concerning the difficulty of living an extremely moral life, he is experiencing the stress of following Matthew’s

RIGHTEOUSNESS value.  Read through Matthew again, looking for the extreme righteousness value.  “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (6:33 NKJV) is the major “values” point of the Gospel.


John’s Gospel of Extreme Faith


It is, perhaps, the best-known verse in the New Testament, if not the Bible, altogether:  John 3:16 (KJV): “For God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Faith is the key value in John’s Gospel.  John 20:31 (NKJV) spells out John’s entire purpose in writing his Gospel: “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.”  As I wrote in my blogpost Apocalyptic?  #19:  Does Absolute Truth Exist? (Rev. 3:14), I owe my brother Dennis for producing the groundwork for seeing the connection between “faith” and “truth” or “knowledge” in Johannine literature.  What seems to count as “faith,” however, for many, today, is NOT John’s EXTREME FAITH.  There have even been “evangelists” who walk the streets and ask people (in a fashion similar to a political poll), “Do you believe in God and Jesus?”  If the answer is yes, they say: “Praise God!  You are saved!”  Without rehashing all of my commentary from Apocalyptic? #19 (Google it, if you want to rehash!), I will point out: “Dennis indicates (p. 188) “the line of

distinction . . .  between the biblical . . . faith and the secular . . . faith” is that the New Testament CANNOT adopt a stance that “Christic Faith” could be only “probable” truth.  Instead, if faith/PISTIS “denot[es] an attitude and manner of steadfastness, confidence and trust in the midst of a life-threatening situation,” one’s faith must be an absolute faith.  One must believe that Jesus and God are “absolutely true.”  If, therefore, both God and Jesus know absolute truth, concerning everything, there is no point of disagreement between them concerning anything.  People do not disagree about things that are considered “facts.”  If people have trouble understanding how God and Jesus can BOTH rule the universe, without any conflict, it is because they never argue; they never disagree, they don’t have differing opinions, because they both know “absolute truth” for certain.

While God and Jesus know everything absolutely, we humans do not.  How can we have EXTREME FAITH in something/someone we do not know absolutely?  So, John’s Gospel takes on the task of explaining who God and Jesus TRULY are, so that we may believe in them.  This brings us back to the topic of the previous blogpost and the Gospel According to Entelechy.  In order to have EXTREME FAITH in Jesus, one must KNOW who he is.  And, beginning with the first verse of the first chapter of his Gospel, John starts to unpack the identity of Jesus and his relationship to God.  There are some EXTREME FAITH assertions in John:

·         The Logos is God “en archē” (ἐν ἀρχῇ) and the Logos took on flesh,

·         He is the Light of the World who made all things,

·         He was before John the Baptist and, even, Abraham,

·         The angels of God ascend and descend upon him,

·         Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you,

·         He is the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father,

·         The Father is in Jesus and Jesus in Him; The Spirit of Truth will be in you; I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you,

·         Jesus had glory with God before the world was.

Even so, John’s Jesus asserts: 

·         “My father is greater than I” (14:28),

·         “I ascend to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God” (20:17),

If an otherwise strong Christian, today, experiences stress concerning the difficulty of believing in Jesus and what exactly that means, he is experiencing the stress of following John’s EXTREME FAITH value.  Read through John again, looking for the extreme faith value.


Why Are There Four Gospels?


As we have seen, there is always room for growth in one’s Christian life.  If one is EXTREMELY RIGHTEOUS, one might still need to grow in the Lukan value of EXTREME IMPOVERISHMENT (as did the Rich Young Ruler).  If one has become voluntarily EXTREMELY IMPOVERISHED, one might still need to grow in Mark’s value of EXTREME SELF-DENIAL.  If one is facing the prospect of martyrdom, one might still need to grow in John’s value of EXTREME FAITH in who Jesus is.  If one has EXTREME FAITH, one might still need to grow in Matthew’s EXTREME RIGHTEOUSNESS.  While plucking out one’s eye may well be hyperbole, the goal is to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect.  None of us are there yet. 

We will resume the entelechial study of who Jesus is and his relationship to God in the next blogpost.

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