King Jesus Gospel: Conclusion

In hearing Scot McKnight’s retelling of the gospel we have been encouraged to think of what the term itself signifies in the New Testament. To that end he draws a sharp distinction between a (false) gospel in which personal salvation becomes the content and the of Jesus the means, and the true gospel, which is nothing other than the story of Jesus as the completion of the story of Israel. To put it more simply, he fears that we have moved the center of the gospel from what God does to save the world to our decision. The concluding chapters of The King Jesus Gospel offer a summary of the differences between the soterian and the biblical gospel (Ch. 9) and a sketch of what a gospel culture church looks like (Ch. 10).

In “Gospeling Today” (9), McKnight begins his list of six comparisons with what would at first appear as a subtle distinction if one had not read to this point. The “gospeling” in Acts declares the significance of Jesus who is the Messiah, thereby summoning listeners to repnt and confess Him; the soterian gospel seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior. Personal saving cannot be embraced without reference to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel. Second, following from the first, is that the gospel of the apostles is framed and driven by that story of Israel; the soterian gospel is framed and driven by an atonement story. Here he notes that neither Paul not Peter sought to explain the workings of atonement in Jesus but both declared it as fact. But the most significant of the six, at least in my reading, is the comparison drawn between descriptions of the problem the gospel resolves. This section (fourth in McKnight’s listing) lays out the goal of God’s creating of humanity, which he takes to be serving in the temple of God’s earth as His eikon (following Walton and others); this is the “fundamental human assignment.” This leads to a presentation of the story of Israel and how it is completed in Jesus. It is, indeed, a “grand story” showing the rightful position of Jesus as Lord–all of which is set in contrast to a badly impoverished gospel of personal salvation for which the Bible is hardly even needed. It is out of this story that McKnight’s other comparisons grow; this one is central.

“Creating a Gospel Culture” (Ch.10) concludes the book. Here McKnight addresses on of my earlier concerns, namely the work of the Holy Spirit in the announcing of the gospel. Just as He guided the preaching and adapting of the apostles, He does so with today’s faithful church, moving in unanticipated ways to prepare both speaker and hearer, and therefore prayer becomes one of the keys to creating a gospel culture. Others include the necessity of knowing our story–both in terms of a church knowing the fully why the gospel is good news and in terms of interpreting our personal stories in its light. We become people of the story. We do this through a renewed attention to the church’s calendar (my students have heard that one before) and to its sacraments. It is only through being fully immersed in this story that we will be able to recognize, expose, and deconstruct the alternative stories of the world around us.

Most of what McKnight offers in the book resonates in me; I have had many thoughts, some of which have been expressed in classes over the years, which are given some useful handles in this book. I could quibble with some points here and there (for instance, I found the last chapter somewhat short on new suugestions; but this is not his primary field). But instead my closing observations are given for generating some discussion, especially among those who have read the book with me. Those thoughts center on what we are offering to the world under the title of “gospel.” It occurs to me that it is the one thing we have not looked into. Churches have tried for more than a generation to “be relevant” in their real enough concern for “lost” individuals and even entire cultures. The problem is not lack of concern, nor is it an unwillingness to change certain things. Over my lifetime we have changed the style of the building, the order of worship, the kinds of music we will and will not use, the social and cultural activities we will and will not engage in as Christians, the way we dress when we attend church functions, the expectations of members, and a host of other peripheral matters.

But do any of these matter if we are unwilling to look at what we offer? At the end of the day, we must tell the truth. And to tell it we must know it in all its fullness. The story of Jesus as Messiah and Lord is the gospel. Nothing short of that will confront people with a reason to bow down and then rise up in His power. Maybe there are other things taht need to change; but I have this great suspicion that none of it will matter if we do not truly have good news.

King Jesus Gospel, Part 4

Thus far in our review of Scot McKnight’s new book we have noted his interest in identifying the true, intended meaning of “the gospel.” He has argued that the term has mistakenly become identified with a (personal) Plan of Salvation, rather than being the story which makes salvation possible. That story is the story of Jesus, who himself is the culmination of the the story of Israel. Rather than being about how one is saved, it is the saving story itself. When these are confused, as occurred in the aftermath of the Reformation, the focus of Protestant (especially evangelical) preaching moves from Jesus to our response to Jesus. This in turn keeps us from seeing what was at the heart of the message Jesus himself declared, and turns us toward a course of “sin management” (a term borrowed from Dallas Willard) rather than the fostering of a true gospel culture.

Today I want to consider Chapters 6-8, in which McKnight lays out the case that both Jesus and his disciples preached the same gospel that Paul and the early church after him preached, the same being captured in the creeds and confessions of the early church. To many faithful believers this may appear to be a “no-brainer” of sorts; the idea that Paul invented Christianity by distorting the supposedly simple meaasge of Jesus, or some such notion, is far more prevalent in the academy than in the pew. But what is at stake here is also a reconsideration of the subtle ways in which ideas just as foreign to the overall tenor of scripture find their way into the common understanding of what our faith is really about. That is, if the words, the miracles, the parables of Jesus are cut off from their larger gospel context they will be put into service of other agendas, such as creating a salvation culture.

Chapter 6 begins by asking whether Jesus preached the gospel; but it must be reiterated that asking this question is not the same as asking whether Jesus preached justification. That question, or the counterpart that asks whether Paul preached the kingdom of God, assumes a difference that is swallowed up by the bigger concept of the real gospel–the story of Jesus, and Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel. After encouraging us to see the four New Testament gospel accounts as just that–four accounts of the one gospel–McKnight points to the shape of this gospel in all four canonical tellings. They are heavily weighted toward the final week in the life of Jesus, with opening narrative which, especially in the case of Mark, orient us quickly toward that decisive week. We should not miss the many direct and indirect ways in which the movement takes place in a way which unmistakably ties Jesus and his mission to the hopes and aspirations of Israel, seen especially in the songs in Luke’s narration of the birth of Jesus (and John). Pointing again to the coherence with 1 Cor. 15, McKnight summarizes the gospel story by saying that:
1. The gospels are about Jesus.
2. They are about Jesus completing the story of Israel.
3. They are about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, and future coming.
4. They reveal that this Jesus saves his people from their sin.

Chapter 7 seeks to answer the question of whether this gospel was the evangelists’ own construction or whether it is the message Jesus himself spoke. Included in the discussion is the question of Jesus’ own self-awareness of his messaianic identity, answered by comparison with what John knew about both his own and Jesus’ identity. His overall aim is to convince us that Jesus indeed preached himself as the “completion of Israel’s story in such a way that he was the saving story himself.” This being so, “the entire focus (shifts) from the benefits of salvation to the Person who himself is the good news.” And the saving he does is unavoidably in the context of a kingdom, a poiont the author establishes in a variety of intertwining sets of evidence. This evidence includes the aforementioned songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon linked with Psalm 72, the prominence of the feasts of Israel as the backdrop for Jesus’ words and actions, and the number of the apostles. It is the long-awaited kingdom that is arriving in Jesus, one which overturns oppressive ways of doing human community. McKnight’s conclusion is that Jesus 1) went to the Bible to define who he was and what his mission was; 2) believed he was completing scriptural passages; 3) predicted and embraced his death and resurrection; 4) therefore preached the gospel because he preached himself; and 5) preached the gospel because he saw himself completing Israel’s story.

Chapter 8, upon which I will make little comment, completes the loop by demonstrating that the preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts follows precisely the same pattern as Paul layed out in 1 Cor. 15, and that the pattern itself is nothing other than a summary of the Jesus story. All of the preaching to which we have witness is a declaration of the mighty acts of God in Jesus, to which response is made. Again, the message itself is the good news–not what happens in and to those who do respond, importanat as that is.

I follow McKnight quite easily, and would have a hard time quibbling with the manner in which he lays out the case. It is compelling. This begs the question: if this is the content Paul’s preaching, of Jesus’ own preaching, and of the apostolic witness itself, from which great results ensued, what is being preached in its place? Do we continue to preach this gospel? What have we added or subtracted? One open question as I anticipate the remainder of The King Jesus Gospel is of the place of the Holy Spirit in this proclamation. Another is how a culture of this gospel is created. Perhaps theses are related concerns. We’ll see in what follows.

King Jesus Gospel, Part 3

We’ve been (slowly, at the request of a few and due to a minor eye injury) reviewing Scot McKnight’s recent book, The King Jesus Gospel. Though today’s post will deal only with Chapter 5, the pace will pick up in the days ahead. Look for daily posts, covering longer sections hereafter.

It’s a daunting task to convince people that their understanding of the gospel has been somewhat, if not significantly, distorted. Of course–does not our very salvation rest upon this? And have we not been faithfully repeating and living out what we have received from our faithful and trusted pastors and teachers? If any author is to be taken seriously in making such charges, that author is going to have to establish his case in both history and the Bible itself; we should have no interest at all in new gospels (this, by the way, is a major problem in Rob Bell’s Love Wins). McKnight recognizes and accepts the challenge. Chapter 5 of King Jesus tackles the history problem; subsequent chapters locate his idea of gospel in the four New Testament witnesses to Jesus, life, death, and resurrection.

For some Christians, especially those who have studied seriously in a seminary, the fifth chapter is a review of things already learned regarding the early Christian witness to the gospel, and how the biblical summaries, such as 1 Cor. 15, are reflected in the teachings of the church fathers of the first generations of believers. The creeds of the church were developed in order to be summations of faith’s content; their being parallel to Paul’s gospel is surely not accidental. This is what Christians believe–the story of Jesus incarnate, living, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and ascending, located specifically within a trinitarian framework. McKnight recognizes, however, that this history and its valuation of the creeds is not something many contemporary Christians are familiar with. He speaks for many who have known only those forms of church that speak of the creeds as man-made theological sophistry and obfuscation, rather than as summaries proclaiming the gospel itself–“gospeling” in his word, evangelizing in other words.

So what happened? If the creeds tell the gospel, and reflect the fact that the church was a gospel culture, how did the salvation culture grow up and eventually it, and in the process change the understanding of what the gospel itself is? McKnight, somewhat reluctantly, lays much at the feet of the Reformation and its formulations of the faith. To put it briefly, foundational documents such as the Augsburg, Genevan, Helvetic, and Westminster Confessions move the story of Jesus from its central place in Christian identity, putting other propositions into prominence. What other propositions? Those dealing with the Bible itself, the fallen and futile nature of man, salvation in Jesus, regeneration in Jesus, righteousness in Jesus, and the remission of sins. The point is not that any of these are incorrectly spoken. The point is that the focus has shifted from the story of Jesus to the story of man. And this proves to be decisive in that the test for membership in the church shifts from “I confess”–that is, I “say together with the church” that Jesus is the truth–to demonstrating that “I have had this experience.”

What many of us as leaders and teachers have struggled with is the consequence of this shift. Our churches and congregations are defined by the emphasis on salvation rather than on the story of Jesus itself. That is, we have taught that what one needs to have a certain experience–and we do not know what to do with them after they take us seriously. What’s left after the altar encounter, after the praying of a sinner’s prayer, after a testimony not of Jesus, but of what Jesus has done to guarantee heaven? The best we can do is encourage them to hold on tightly until they collect on the promise when they die. Salvation has usurped the place of the story of Jesus–and a skewed version of salvation at that.

While McKnight does not draw out all of the implications, I think a few stand out. One of them has to do with who is doing the proclaiming. Anyone can preach the salvation gospel and get people “saved” in that sense; and the number of churches (including my own denomination to my great dismay) have succumbed to this view. If the goal is to preach a salvation message and then let people to their best to manage sin (McKnight refers to that phrase used by Dallas Willard to highlight this phenomenon) until they die, no special efforts at training need to be made. But if we are truly interested in restoring a gospel culture, where the making of disciples overshadows the making of decisions, we will need people who know the story of Jesus inside and out, not only that they may declare it, but that they may identify the competing thoughts and ideas so prevalent in the culture of the world we live in. Come to think of it, this one implication is enough for the day. And I’m very interested in your thoughts about it.

King Jesus Gospel, Part 2

We’ve begun a series of posts looking at Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel. Today’s thoughts will summarize and reflect on Chapters 3 and 4 of the book.

After drawing the distinction between a church culture of salvation and a culture of the gospel, McKnight moves into a series of further distinctions and clarifications. Chapter 3 is a plea to understand the difference between the the story of Israel/story of the Bible, the story of Jesus, the plan of salvation, and methods of persuasion. Failure to recognize the distinctions results in calling something the gospel which is not the gospel, thus skewing our evangelism. For McKnight, the gospel proper is the second of these–the story of Jesus. It is an announcement, one which is only comprehensible as the culmination of the story of Israel. The good news is that Jesus is the Messiah long anticipated by that story and those who drew their identity from it. But it also has universal significance, as is also anticipated from that story properly understood. The author is emphatic:”If we ignore that story, the gospel gets distorted, and that is just what has happened in salvation cultures.”

The alleged distortion occurs when the plan of salvation, or how one comes to be “saved,” is considered. Evangelicals typically think of the plan of salvation as the means by which an individual gets saved, in response to what God has done for him/her; rather than this, McKnight wants to refer to “plan of salvation” as the saving message itself: this is what God is up to. It is the announcement that in Jesus He is bringing to completion what He had promised to do through Israel for the larger purpose of saving the world. That’s the plan. To hear the summons to receive Christ outside of this story is to make Israel and the Old Testament itself irrelevant. It also removes us from our originally intended purpose as God’s image-bearers in the world.

Chapter 4 seeks to establish that the storied gospel is in fact the gospel of Paul throughout his correspondence (the coherence of that gospel with Jesus’s own teaching is taken up later in the book). Using 1 Corinthians 15 as a basic text for understanding Paul’s idea of gospel, McKnight begins a series of observations, all of which merit our attention, though not all can be covered in this review. First, the gospel is what connects Paul to the Corinthian believers. Even though Paul refers to “his” gospel in other contexts, it is clear from the definition that there is only one, and he shares in the salvation it brings along with his readers. The gospel is summarized by what is quite likely an early hymn or creed: Christ died, Christ was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.

But Paul also makes it clear that Christ is the resolution of Israel’s story (see especially Galatians), and it is for this reason that salvation flows from him. And the story is a complete story, not just a Good Friday story. The life and the resurrection of Jesus matter, as is often overshadowed in salvation culture understandings of the gospel, according to which the death of Jesus seems sufficient. The gospel also includes the “end of all ends”–the consummation of all things (1 Cor. 15:28). The result of this is the uncompromising testimony that Jesus–and no one else is truly Lord of all.

McKnight is surely right about this: the significance of knowing what the gospel is and what it is not cannot be overstated. McKnight’s next chapter (next post) will spell out how the substitution of a personal plan of salvation for the good news that Jesus is Lord came about. Listening to his ideas about what the announcement really was might also help us to comprehend afresh why the early Christians were thought to be a threat to Roman authorities. If they were simply waiting for another world after death, why bother with them at all? But if Jesus is Lord of all, Caesar is not–in fact, he is a fraud.

I’m curious. Have we been guilty of preaching a “de-storied” gospel, one which actually requires only Good Friday? Does the humanity of Jesus do anything for us other than substitute for us in death? What are your thoughts on what McKnight has written to this point, including ideas not covered in this post?