Oct 14, 2011
Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel, By Scot McKnight
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The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, by Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 184. pp.
In a time when Christian publishing is marked by shallow reflection and trite creativity, it is a deeply refreshing experience to read a popular Christian title that is rooted in substantial scholarship. And this is true whether or not you agree with the premises made, but all the more true when you are persuaded by its content. Such was my experience reading Scot McKnights new book, The King Jesus Gospel. We probably should not expect less since Scot has his Ph.D. from Nottingham and is the Karl A. Olsson Professor of religious studies at North Park University and a widely accomplished New Testament scholar.
The basic problem that McKnight is tackling is that he believes the church at large (read primarily evangelicalism) has a deficient understanding of the Gospel. This certainly comes off a bit overstated at first to be sure, but hold on, because he is fully prepared to defend it. You won’t find here the typical methodological drivel rolling off the evangelical presses that biblically speaking resembles the precision of toddlers finger-painting. What you will find is a staccato of needle sharp arguments from the text of the New Testament and early Church history.
McKnight suggests that the modern church in all its major forms, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, historic Protestant and mainstream Evangelical are not a “gospel culture” but a “salvation” culture. What he is suggesting is that most of Christendom has confused the Gospel itself with the “plan of salvation.” That suggestion that those two things are not the same thing will naturally take most readers by surprise. But the fact that it stuns us immediately suggests to the perceptive reader that it in fact might just be true. What if they are not exactly the same thing? For this reason he refers to the vast majority of Christians (especially evangelicals) as “soterians.” This means we have confused the two and now preach a truncated Gospel that only tells people how to be saved, but fails to communicate to them the glories of the full-orbed gospel.
Some of the argument is connected to the evangelical doctrine of salvation/justification by faith alone and the Reformation emphasis on substitutionary atonement. Scot is very careful to demonstrate that he believe strongly in both salvation/justification by faith alone and substitutionary atonement. He is not taking issue with them. He admits that these are the core of the plan of salvations. But again, he does not see the Gospel and the plan of salvation as the same thing. Rather he sees the plan of salvation as the byproduct of the Gospel itself. So what he is taking issue with is reducing the Gospel down to the ORDO SALUTIS (the plan of salvation). To offer a perspective of my own from my lecture of discipling lapsed Roman Catholics earlier this week at the Plant New England conference, I noted that even Paul in Romans 1:16 first says that “the gospel is the power of God.” It is about God’s triumph over all sin, death, rebellion, and human treason through the victory of the Lord Jesus. And because the Gospel is the power of God it leads directly “unto salvation” for everyone who believes it. So I am sympathetic to his arguments up front. I have for some time been observing a truncated Gospel of personal salvation that dominates modern western Christianity.
For Scot, and he provides ample defense, the Gospel is how Jesus complete the story of Israel. To defend this, he points the reader to the confessional storied framework presented by Paul in 1 Corinthians. 15:3-5:
1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
One of the fascinating observations that Scot pointed out in this book was how the basic framework presented by Paul here is the fundamental framework of all the major catholic creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Chalcedon). He noted how NT scholars generally consider this one of the oldest pieces of the apostolic tradition and thus the core contents of the original apostolic tradition. So in his analysis, this text is probably the most clear statement of the original Gospel in the New Testament. On this text alone, McKnight’s arguments are well defended; The Gospel certainly includes the plan of salvation and atonement, but should not be reduced to it. He then goes on to defend this with the many sermons in Acts where in each case, Jesus is identified as the completion of the story of Israel.
In the concluding chapters of the book, McKnight tells us why it matters. One thing I really appreciate about chapter 9 GOSPELING TODAY is that he challenges the now popular idea promoted by Rob Bell and Tom Wright that the Gospel was a polemic against the imperial empire of Rome. Scot asks the simple question that if this was Paul or Peter’s intent, how come they never come right out and say it. Moreover if it was Paul’s why on earth would he suggest to the Roman Christians that rebellion against the state was rebellion against God (Rom. 13:1-7). This is just whimsical and unfounded exegesis in his opinion. Rather the apostolic Gospel is about challenging all powers with the Kingdom that is yet to come which is rooted in the Lordship of Christ. Thus the role of “gospeling” is in fact proclaiming and narrating the story of Jesus as Lord and fulfiller of the story of Israel.
In his final chapter, Creating a Gospel Culture, McKnight argues the necessity of having a Gospel culture. He suggests this is the hardest part. He paints a picture of a storied people living out of the reality of a coming “alternate kingdom.” For this to happen, we need to first of all be a people who are immersed the the Gospel through the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John). As he says, “we have to become People of the Story.” This story counteracts the various other competing stories (narratives) that dominate our culture such as individualism, consumerism, nationalism naturalism, etc (see. page 157.) But in the spirit of the early catholic Christianity, Scot does not leave this in the realm of just transmitting ideas. He also includes the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, (and I will add, what the Reformation called the “visible word.”) McKnight makes a revolutionary statement for his Evangelical background, but one I have contended for sometime, that baptism is “a public declaration of the saving story of Jesus.” Notice he does not say it is a “public declaration of the individual’s faith.” No rather he observes that Baptism is not individual at all and points rather to the the Gospel story itself. Whether he meant to or not, Scot’s argument leads to an understanding of baptism that shatters the the pervading individualistic views of baptism that are now the rule in Evangelicalism. Baptism points not to the individual’s faith of commitment, but to the promise and story of the Gospel which is outside of the individual. Furthermore he also says of the Eucharist, “ingesting the bread and the wine was itself gospeling.”
One major question I have with Scot’s thesis, which should not be taken really as a disagreement, is if he is maybe separating the plan of salvation too much from the Gospel itself. I think many New Testament text corroborate his basic thesis that the gospel is much bigger than substitution, justification and the plan of salvation. However at the same time, many such texts seem to suggest that these are still central and a major part of the Gospel. His key text, 1 Cor. 15:3 potentially make this point because Paul begins his confessional summary of the received tradition with “that Christ died for our sins.” Is this not a blanket allusion to both justification and substitution? I understand that sometimes we need to make sharp distinctions to make a point. But I think Scot could be running the risk of making the same mistake he accuses the Reformers of. In his estimation the Reformers in trying to clearly define Justification by faith alone in their context planted the seeds for what would become a “salvation culture” rather than a Gospel culture. Could his sharp distinction between the plan of salvation and the Gospel create another polarizing problem? Just like the Reformers, time will only tell. McKnight at least is clear enough to demonstrate that this error did not really occur with Reformers, but in their theological descendants. At any rate, I do not think this diminishes what he has provided to our understanding of the Gospel. I have been enriched by his study.
I would also challenge the historical basis of McKnights suggestion that the seeds of this salvation culture began with the Reformers. I just think it is historically inaccurate, though it does not hurt the thesis of the book at all. A quick read of Nathan O Hatch’s, The Democaratization of American Christianity surveying the political populism and individualism that swept the US in the wake of the War of Independence offers a much more persuasive reason for the modern method-driven culture of salvation. It is widely held that the Reformation was in fact a catholic reform movement and thus held dearly to the historically narrated faith of the catholic creeds. Even Calvin’s book IV of the Institutes makes clear that nobody but God knows who is actually a member of the invisible church (saved/regenerate). So Calvin’s distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” church served as a mechanism against the shallow and overconfident salvation culture Scot is critiquing. It is Calvin and the Church fathers who have lead me to the similar critique of this salvation culture. So I do not find it a fair criticism that because later evangelicals became anti-creedal (See Hatch) that it is somehow the Reformer’s fault, other wise you can blame every previous generation for the sins of the next.
I have to say that Scot’s book was one of the most enjoyable and challenging reads among more popular Christian literature I have read recently. His critique of a “salvation” culture and what he calls a decisional theology is spot on. He has laid his finger on the pulse of a very sickly theology and provided one of the sharpest diagnosis’ that I have seen. With that then I should let you know he will be here in Providence to speak at a combined worship event Called “ONE” on November 4th at 7:00 PM. It will be hosted at Gloria Dei Lutheran church and attenders can park in the Providence Place Mall Garage. For those of you who are pastors of a local church, you are welcome to join us with any of your key leaders at 4:00 PM that same day to hear myself and Rev. Lyle Mook of Christ Church sit down with Dr. McKnight for a 90 minute Q & A about his provocative book. We would love to see you there. See the link Below for more info!
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