Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news [gospel] of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. (Matt. 9:35)
Every gospel implies an ethic, and every positive ethic (unlike nihilism) implies some sort of good news (if only that life can be made bearable). But whose gospel and which ethic should engage us? 'The gospels' once referred more or less uncontroversially to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the canonical New Testament, with 'Christian ethics' being the more ambiguous or problematic phrase. Significant differences between the synoptics and John, and among the synoptics themselves, were admitted, as were tensions between their literal and allegorical readings.Yet the traditional gospels were assumed to be four perspectives on one and the same Christ, such that the gospels could be singularised and capitalised to 'the Gospel'. The central questions for ethics concerned how to interpret and apply scripture to concrete issues (war, sexuality, medicine, political authority, economic justice etc.), and the answers differed across denominational lines. As revealed truth, nonetheless, the canon was the essentially fixed variable. Alternative scriptures were known about, but these existed largely as fragmentary manuscripts or partial quotations from their critics (e.g. Irenaeus and Tertullian).
Some questions are perennial, forever reemerging in textbooks when the debate is highly abstract but occasionally changing history when someone acts dramatically on conviction. Think of Socrates asking “What can we know?” and being willing to drink the hemlock, or of Jesus asking “Who should we love?” and being willing to stretch his body on a cross. A third enduring question - “Are we meaningfully free?” - is the chief focus of this essay. I do not expect to settle the ancient debate about freedom of the will, but I do hope to situate it theologically by critically examining Søren Kierkegaard's views in light of some significant precursors. Kierkegaard worries about how to balance the contingency and fallibility of human deliberation and choice with the indispensability and reliability of divine providence, but he does not treat these matters abstractly or in isolation. He is too Socratic for mere abstraction about human freedom; indeed, his fully Christian understanding is highly dramatic (even paradoxical) at times, in an effort to be true to lived complexity.
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