The Gospel of Thomas and Gritty Theology

It is significant that the canonical Gospels are not the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. Traditional scholarship has for generations been defensively reestablishing (over against, for instance, the claims of the Jesus Seminar) that the story of Jesus in New Testament is a faithful preservation of the earliest apostolic testimony. In recent years the debate has descended into the consuming masses via Discovery Channel specials and TIME articles – adding to pop-culture’s love affair with the idea that Jesus really wasn’t who their Sunday school teacher said he was. This debacle has been sufficiently rehearsed in other places, and I do not wish to reiterate it here.

I do suggest, however, that the greatest threat to the distinctiveness of the canonical Gospels today is not that they will be displaced by apocryphal accounts leading to widespread cognitive disaffection among those in the pews. Rather, the greatest threat is the tendency to read and practice the Gospels as if they are the Gospel of Thomas – a tendency cultivated, I think, unintentionally. More than getting right answers and facts for apologetics, I fear that in our attempted-obedience to Jesus we do not acknowledge (and live) this important distinction. The result is discipleship that hinges on the distribution of information and a church evacuated of mission.

The Gospel of Thomas (GOT) is, among other things, a collection of pithy sayings of Jesus to his disciples (around 115) strung together without narratival or historical logic. Although there is some thematic grouping, the work reads more like a random collage of Jesus fortune cookies than a story about a person. (Take some time and read it for yourself here). The GOT is easily memorized, distributed, and used for pedagogical purposes. It could easily be appropriated for one of those “daily inspiration” calendars or into 38 different 3-point sermons. I fear that much attempted disciple-making and preaching follows as if we read the Gospel of Thomas as Scripture.

In the Gospels, however, we do not have abstracted sayings but embodied proclamations and manifestations of God’s truth on the ground. The story of Jesus in the NT shows us that Truth is embedded in place to real people. Theological systemization and ethical application are not two separate moves Jesus makes (and, for what it’s worth, I think the indicative/imperative distinction in Paul is misused to this end). No, the Gospel is what happens when the Father reveals himself particularly in the Son by the Spirit. This is not to say that truth is situational or contingent, but that we don’t really get Truth apart from how it is being revealed in our midst. In other words, we cannot get behind the spacey-ness of God’s revelation to us in history to a free-floating set of theological principles or abstracted sayings.

The drama of Scripture is necessarily concerned with emplacement and embodiment – every bit of it bears the communal marks that shaped it and for which it was shaped (read Vanhoozer here, not Ricoeur, for the record). Again, it is important for us to recognize that we have not received an outlined, ordered collection of Jesus’ theology and instructions for our life. What we have is Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, who grew up and started a ministry among his people in Galilee, who taught those who followed him by calling them out of vicious cycles in 1st century Palestinian culture and religiosity and into a full participation in what God began with their ancestors. Jesus healed, walked, ate, suffered, died, and rose in a place. The truth of Jesus is how it unfolded before Mary and Joseph, Peter and John, Lazarus and the bleeding woman, the demoniac and Pontius Pilate – on the Mount of Olives, on the Sea of Galilee, in the Jordan, in the wilderness, in Samaria, at the Temple, and at a party. The lack of this type of embodied-ness is what first signals that the GOT is “less true” than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even before Jesus’ sayings are tested for orthodoxy or “authenticity,” before we see gnosticizing tendencies, its disconnectedness betrays the lack of connection to God’s revealed character.

I’m convinced that recognizing and participating in the embodied, space-y, implaced Gospel makes a difference (my friend Matt Tebbe explores over at his blog – you should read it). The difference is that obedience looks less like wrapping our minds and hands around the principles Jesus teaches and more like surrendering to a person who made possible and illustrated a way of life. “Understanding” is thus a dynamic event that follows from the mutually enforcing poles of reflecting and doing that results in practices of obedience. In other words, discipleship is what happens as we live into – participate in – the reality of God’s kingdom come to earth. We come to know as we do.

For me this means that reconciliation is what happens in my apartment, the image of God is what I search for in the people at Wal-Mart, sanctification is what happens as I choose small acts of obedience, the sufficiency of the cross is what confronts me as I try to earn acceptance, and resurrection is what I practice as I admit death in the midst of ways of control and receive life there. All these things are grounded, initiated, and energized by God’s prior and continued action in this place.

We see that (at least part of) the significance that the Gospels are not the GOT is that theology is meant to be performed. It is gritty. I can taste it and stare it in the face. To recognize the lived quality of theology is to see it for what it is, and the story of Jesus in the NT is prime real estate for how this life unfolds.