Is Mark's Gospel 'Theological'? These 7 Themes Affirm It Is!
Some have dismissed Mark’s gospel as nothing more than the work of an unsophisticated storyteller, lacking in theological profundity. In fact, Augustine discounted the gospel as nothing more than “an abridgment of Matthew.”
But are they right?
In his new book A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, David Garland argues Mark is a theological work, yet it unfolds in a distinctive way.
“The gospel was not intended by its author to be a vessel of theological truths waiting to be quarried but a story in which Jesus is the central figure. Mark’s theology is unfurled through narrative development.” (42)
Garland’s work is the fourth volume in the celebrated BTNT series. This landmark resource covers major Markan themes and its distinctive contribution of Mark to Scripture, providing readers with an in-depth and holistic grasp of Markan theology in the larger context of the Bible.
Below, we’ve briefly sketched 7 major themes that Garland addresses in his volume, showing that Mark’s gospel is indeed theological.
1) Enacted Christology
One of the distinctive aspects of Markan theology is his so-called “enacted” Christology. “Mark developed his Christology through narrative. That is, the audience learns Jesus’ identity and significance for their lives through story.” (262)
For instance, Jesus’ power to call as God calls is evident in his “follow me” (1:16–20) directive. As is his power over sin and sickness. (e.g. 2:1–12) In Mark, we discover Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Lord, and a host of other Christological titles through his actions and deeds.
2) The Presentation of God
What we discover about God we discover through Jesus: “Most of the references to God in Mark’s gospel occur on the lips of Jesus, and one can only know God fully through Jesus.” (317)
Thus, through Jesus we discover God is King (1:14–15), Father (1:11), and all powerful (10:37). He is the God who breaks down barriers, as manifest in Jesus’ healing of the sick and forgiveness of sins. Ultimately it reveals “God’s goodness in sending his Son to fulfill God’s purpose to ransom the many through his death…” (334)
3) The Kingdom of God
We often think of a kingdom as fixed and immobile. Yet in Mark, “Kingdom is a metonymical designation of God’s reigning presence in which God intervenes in history and human experience, wielding his sovereignty to accomplish his purpose.” (336)
Garland outlines 4 key aspects of Mark’s kingdom theology: it has a temporal dimension; it has a spacial dimension; it has a communal dimension; and it has a supernatural spiritual dimension.
4) Theology of Discipleship
“The gospel of Mark tells us not only who Jesus is and what God has done through him but also what it means to respond to the good news in becoming his disciple.” (389)
For Mark, the kingdom and discipleship are interwoven. God’s in-breaking reign is an invitation to obedience, a call for people to follow Jesus as king of this reign. As the narrative unfolds, the reader understands the requirements, costs, and rewards of following Jesus.
5) Mission in Mark
Though there is no direct commissioning scene to world mission in Mark, Garland argues, “his narrative not only foreshadows this mission, but also lays the theological foundation for the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of disciples.” (458)
For instance, it’s not his “(Jewish) brother and sister and mother” who are Jesus' family but those who do the will of God (3:31–35), including Gentiles. He also implied God’s ultimate purpose for the temple was that it should be “a house of prayer for all nations.” (11:17) Ultimately, Jesus’ death brings these nations to faith and confession.
6) Atonement and Salvation
Atonement and salvation in Mark’s gospel are framed as a divine “must,” a conforming to—rather than a confounding of—the divine plans of God. “Mark calls into question the religious categories of the age by narrating how God’s salvation comes to the world through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.” (473)
Mark’s theology of atonement and salvation is best encapsulated in the testimony of an unlikely character just after Jesus’ death, the centurion: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39) This declaration sees God and humanity reconciled at the cross.
7) Mark’s Eschatology
Finally, Mark’s eschatology unfolds in two ways: the time has come; the time will come. “Jesus’ declaration in Mark 1:15 proclaims that the time of fulfillment is here and God’s kingdom is present within history;” “The Son of Man will ‘send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens’ (13:27).” (509, 511)
Garland’s work pivots around the conviction that history and theology cannot be divorced: “Mark’s theological presuppositions emerge in the way he developed the story.” (44)
Engage his work to help you do what Mark himself does: present Jesus “as the Messiah and the Son of God and to show that his shameful death on a cross was part of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity.” (25)
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