The Gospel is Rooted in History

One of the mosJesus-Pilate2t important, but often neglected, phrases in the Apostles’ Creed is the statement, “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  Some have wondered why the early church would include the name of the very Roman Governor who presided over Jesus’ trial and ordered his crucifixion into this very ancient confession of faith.  Upon reflection, however, it is clear that this phrase is a strategic, ongoing reminder that the gospel intersects real human history.  This is the only phrase in the Apostles’ Creed which roots the gospel in a particular time and a particular place.  As Andrew Walls has noted, “the incarnation is not just that God became a man, but that He became a particular man.”[1] There is no generic incarnation. There is only the very specific one in which God in Jesus Christ took on particular flesh and lived in a particular culture and spoke a particular language. He didn’t just walk on the vague sands of time, he walked on the real sands by the Sea of Galilee.  In the same way, there is no such thing as a generic gospel which safely inhabits some a-cultural space.  The gospel is rooted in a particular history and, through cross-cultural transmission, must take form and shape in living cultural contexts.  The church does not have merely an instrumental function of proclaiming the gospel as a static historical event which took place in the distant past, but the church is an ontological reality, established by God himself not only to proclaim and herald the gospel, but to embody the gospel in a potentially infinite number of new historical and cultural contexts.
Central to the theological reflection has always been the realization that the gospel is rooted in real history and the gospel has been received within particular historical cultural contexts through the ages.  The gospel cannot be properly understood in a vacuum or in isolation from the history of those who have “welcomed the message with joy.”

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History:  Studies in the Transmission of Faith. (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Press, 1996), 27.  “The Translation Principle in Christian History”


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