In recent weeks, I purchased and read Scot McKnight’s newest release, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. I was originally hesitant to purchase the book, believing that much of what would be said could already be found in the writings of an N.T. Wright, and possibly a George Ladd as well (and I’ve read both of them somewhat extensively). But, though there were some connections to Wright, McKnight definitely brought some fresh perspective to the table. And, as a side note, I realise there would not had been much connection with Ladd, since Ladd mainly talks about a theology of the kingdom rather than a theology of the gospel, though I personally see the 2 intricately connected.
I must admit that I do appreciate a lot of what McKnight writes. I have not read a lot of his books (though I’ve now read this one and The Blue Parakeet). But I have also followed his blog and even gave some time to listen to a recent audio dialogue with another church leader. What I really respect about McKnight is his desire to interact in the field of the emerging church and emerging theology, but also maintain strong roots in both the historic church and the specific evangelical branch. I believe such is a very good approach for 21st century theology.
Let me say upfront that I am aware of many people being overly tired with the more modern-day proposal that we rethink our theological approaches concerning quite a few issues. McKnight, in his subtitle, utilises the word revisit rather than rethink, but it’s easy to note he is challenging our mindset in regards to the gospel. And I am very aware that the ‘in’ thing for today is that we always look to do participate in something new and different. I would argue there is nothing wrong with rethinking and refocusing our theological and practical foci within the Christian faith. We just need to be a little more a) led by God and b) connected to the body of Christ both past and present. I think McKnight falls in line here. And, so, whether we like it or not, he is still a theological mind to reckon with in the 21st century.
Now on to the book.
I see two major points brought to the forefront the book that challenge our modern-day perspective of the gospel, with the second flowing out of the first:
1) More soterian than evangelical
McKnight drops somewhat of a bomb in the early pages of the book with challenging statements such as these:
I think we’ve got the gospel wrong, or at least our current understanding is only a pale reflection of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles. We need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel. (p24)
I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it original meant to either Jesus or the apostles. (p26)
Hold your horses here. Read on and see more of what he’s saying.
It is interesting to note that the term evangelical comes out of the root word evangel, which means good news (also gospel). Evangelicals, if anything, are those who have always found it essential that we be a people proclaiming the good news. That’s our heritage, who we are. That makes us evangelical!
But what McKnight takes issue with is that we have been more about proclaiming a ‘plan of salvation’ rather than the actual good news-gospel. Hence, we are more soterians (the Greek word soteria means salvation) than we are gospel bearers. We are more salvationists than we are evangelicals.
He has no bone to pick with the whole ‘plan of salvation’. He is quite adamant that, though one might not know a specific date, one must be born again and have a personal faith. But this is essentially a fruit and response to the proclamation of the gospel, not the gospel itself. And so, with this somewhat askew approach, we have created more of a ‘salvation culture’ rather than a ‘gospel culture’.
His challenge is for us to get back to a gospel-proclaiming culture, and from that we will see the fruit and response of salvation amongst humanity. And his challenge is that our gospel proclamation not just be about seeing individuals saved. But that the story goes deeper and wider.
2) The gospel is……
Considering the objections, many people might ask how McKnight would define the gospel. In short, McKnight is convinced that the gospel is ‘the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story’ (p43).
How does he come to this conclusion?
Mainly by looking at 3 texts – 1 Corinthians 15, the Gospel(s) and the preaching in Acts.
Concerning our understanding of the gospel, a very important passage to many is that of 1 Cor 15:1-5:
1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
And this is where McKnight actually begins in defining the gospel, with vs3-4 (as well as the whole text of 1 Cor 15) fleshing out the gospel Paul proclaimed.
McKnight proposes that, when it states, ‘according to the Scriptures’, Paul is not so much thinking of 3 or 4 verses here or there that he could point to in the Old Testament to prove it speaks of Christ’s death and resurrection (not to mention the predicament we find ourselves in trying to specifically ‘prove’ Christ’s resurrection is found in a handful of passages of the Old Testament, because it doesn’t really work like that). Rather what Paul is envisioning is that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we find that he has fulfilled the whole Old Testament story of Israel, what Israel could not be and do.
Christ is the faithful Israel. That’s the story of Jesus. That’s the good news. This is the gospel Paul received and proclaimed. And this gospel is story-based, rather than abstract theological points to outline.
Because the “gospel” is the Story of Jesus that fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s Story, we dare not permit the gospel to collapse into the abstract, de-storified points in the Plan of Salvation. (p51)
After Paul, McKnight moves on to the Gospels. But McKnight would rather recognise the four as the Gospel (singular), for that’s what they were from the beginning – one Gospel, though four evangelists.
Now the problem that arises is that most evangelicals wonder if the gospel is actually proclaimed in the Gospel(s). And I addressed this a few week’s back myself.
I suppose we don’t believe the gospel is actually to be found in the Gospel(s) because we so easily run to Paul, as in passages like 1 Cor 15. But we do so without seeing such statements as embedded in the greater story of what God is doing in Jesus. Or, even worse, we identify specific doctrines, such as justification, as the gospel.
But as I would argue along with McKnight, salvation and justification are not really the gospel. They are rather fruits of proclaiming and believing the gospel. The message of salvation is important no doubt. And we do proclaim salvation. But we proclaim that people can be saved because of the evangel centred in the story of Jesus.
And so Jesus did proclaim the evangel, which the evangelists record in the those first accounts of our New Testament. He proclaimed that God’s kingdom has come. And that was good news to a first century Jew. And Jesus proclaimed that he was here to fulfil the story of Israel. He was the faithful Israelite. And as we read this full story, we see it’s culmination in the all-important death and resurrection of Jesus.
The gospel is to be found in the Gospel(s). Shame on us if we would say otherwise!
Finally, McKnight centres the gospel in the sermons of Acts, concentrating mainly on Peter, since he already spent time looking at Paul. To start off, he notes:
First Corinthians 15 outlines the gospel but doesn’t “gospel” in a public setting. It simply tells us what the gospel is. The Gospels are not evangelistic sermons but they are indeed the gospel. But what we’ve got in the book of Acts are more or less summaries of the gospeling of the apostles Peter and Paul, and perhaps Stephen. (p114)
And, so, when we re-read, take another long look at the sermons in Acts, we see the story of Jesus being told, and that story fulfilling Israel’s long story. You’ll find plenty of times when people are called to faith, repentance and water baptism, even receiving powerful encounters with the Holy Spirit. People are being saved! But that flows as a response to proclaiming the story of Jesus that came in fulfilment of the long and extensive narrative of Israel. This was part and parcel to a Jewish understanding of Messiah.
And lest we think this was simply a Jewish thing for Peter to proclaim, McKnight reminds us that Paul, the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’, also looked to embed his proclamation of the gospel in this whole story as well. That’s what passages like 1 Cor 15:1-4 are all about.
Thinking back over the book, there would be two small remarks I would make as to how the book could have been shaped a little better from my perspective.
a) McKnight brings in the whole message of the kingdom of God, especially as he looks at the gospel in the Gospel(s). But I would have made that central, since I believe Jesus made it central to his proclamation of the gospel. I am of the opinion that all other things that we connect into the gospel flow out of the reality that our God reigns and, in Jesus and his work, that reign has come and is coming on earth as it is in heaven.
b) I would have begun the discussion with the Gospel(s), rather than Paul. Now, I am actually ok with the fact that McKnight did begin with Paul because, well, that’s what we as evangelicals typically do. Thus, knowing that, let’s start where we usually start, but still reel us in to a proper understanding of the gospel in Paul’s writings. And, of course, McKnight heads back to Jesus in the Gospel(s) to continue to establish his thesis. So I’m not too bothered here. But, knowing our tendency as evangelicals to rush on to Paul because, well, there is where we really read about the meat of the gospel, I like to start with Jesus and the Gospel(s) to bring people back to the best and central place. We have a Christ-centred faith and a Christ-centred gospel. It’s always best to develop our Christian faith, beliefs-theology and practice from the Christ himself.
When something has worked so well for so long, why consider and rethink something? The two greatest barriers to moving forward in the purposes of God might just be: 1) We’ve always done it this way and 2) We’ve never done it that way. But McKnight challenges us that it might be time to re-think and re-appropriate our understanding of the gospel, at least as Jesus and the first apostles proclaimed it.
In the end, what I would remind us is that McKnight is not your typical independent Christian with only the motto of ‘me, Jesus and my Bible’. Nor does he long to jump on every new little bandwagon out there, or create such bandwagons himself. I suppose he would be repulsed by such ideas. And in his connection to the emerging church, he does not disdain the historic nor evangelical church of the past. So let’s not dismiss his thoughts around the gospel just yet. He might have something to help us be more Christo- and biblio-centric in our gospel understanding.