February 11, 2012
Scott McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel
Yesterday I headed up to Regent College with some friends to hear Scott McKnight expound on the meaning of the gospel in a provocatively sub-titled conference, “How the Plan of Salvation Obscures the Gospel.” I was generally familiar with his ideas, but this was a good way to get it from the source. Here’s the quick summary:
There are two understandings of “the gospel” floating around Christian circles today. One is the gospel as justice. Here the focus is on social transformation. Typically we see this gospel in more liberally inclined churches. The other is the gospel as justification. Here the message is about personal forgiveness for sins through faith. Scott also mentioned that many integrate these two gospels, and I agree. So the distinctions are really more “heuristic” (for discussion purposes) than descriptive across the board. In any case, Scott’s bold claim is that Jesus, Paul and Peter would not have recognized either contemporary option as “the gospel.” To the first Christians, says Scott, the gospel was the story about Jesus. He does not set this up against justice or justification. Those things are in the mix, of course. But speaking in the categories of the New Testament, the gospel is the story about Jesus and even more particularly the story of how in Jesus the story of Israel comes to a fitting climax. As evidence he provided 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul describes the gospel that he preached:
…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. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Many other passages of the NT provide similar summaries, and the appeal to scripture places the events squarely in the story of Israel and God’s work in them.
The real target of Scott’s critique, however, is what he calls the “soterian gospel.” This is the basic content that evangelicals tend to associate with “the gospel.” It is best illustrated in the famous “four spiritual laws”: We are made in God’s image, we have all fallen and have offended a holy God and so deserve hell. However, Jesus died in our place to save us and if we believe in him we will go to heaven. For Scott the problem here is not so much the basic content of the laws as the fact that there is no story here. It is just a set of abstracted principles. But also the “soterian gospel” is very much crafted to the existential drama of the individual. There is nothing here about God’s purposes and actions in history in Jesus. Finally, the soterian gospel is a slickly packaged presentation which is often used in manipulative scenarios (lights low, music in the background, invitation to come forward, etc.). The reason Scott uses the label “soterian” (from soter, savation) is that he thinks our gospel has gotten sidetracked from its original focus. Originally the gospel was about Christology (about Jesus), not so much about salvation. When asked how, then, we ought to evangelize his answer was that “gospeling” is telling the story of Jesus. Just tell people about Jesus and let Jesus do his own work. Nothing more is needed.
Resonances and critiques
Who can deny that there are problems with the four spiritual laws (or “flaws” as some have jested)? People have been pointing this out for years. So I do appreciate an attempt to overcome that sort of overly packaged, overly simplified version of “the gospel.” But also, it is good to recognize that what we call “the gospel” does not really match up at all points with the Bible’s version. For example, the Bible never speaks of “asking Jesus into your heart.” The opposite image is arguably more prominent. Not that he is us, but that we are in him.
Still, I was not quite convinced by Scott’s thesis. One thing struck me in particular: in his scheme the most important thing about Jesus is that he is the Jewish Messiah who sums up the story of Israel. But in my view the biggest deal in the NT is the deity of Jesus (he is God among us). His messiahship pales a bit in the light of his divinity. I asked about this in the Q&A and Scott said the thought the NT did teach that Jesus was God, but that was not really a key theme of the gospel itself (I’m not sure I got that exactly right, by his own admission it was a bit of a wandering answer). It struck me after that that Scott’s idea of telling the story of Jesus must be controlled primarily by the synoptic gospels. John, of course, opens right up with Jesus as God among us. I also happen to think that Mark does, but that is not as widely recognized.
I’m also a bit troubled by the negative use of the label “soterian gospel” - as if it were incorrect to see the gospel primarily as news about salvation. I think this is going too far. Even going back to Scott’s foundational text, 1 Cor. 15, observe Paul’s introduction: “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved.” (1 Cor. 15:1-2) Or Paul’s description in Romans where he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation (1:16). The “good news” about Jesus is rightly “soterian”. But observe the irony! Scott would begin the gospel with Christology (the identity of Jesus) rather than salvation, and yet the Christological content of the gospel goes no further than Jesus as Messiah.
I also wonder if his criticism of the “soterian gospel” is not overdone a bit. Yes, it is true that there are many superficial packagings of the gospel and that they have had a negative impact. But discipleship does happen, people do learn more, and they are exposed to the story of Israel and Jesus the climax of that story. I guess wasn’t convinced that the “soterian gospel” was so deeply flawed. It is a somewhat inadequate introduction to the faith, yes. But it is only the introduction and its insuficiencies have been widely recognized. I even want to wonder if very many people use the the four spiritual laws or related approaches these days. Is this all a bit of a straw man? I’m not really sure, but it’s worth asking.
Isn’t there a bit of an adjustment in all of this to the more postmodern storied sensibility? It’s hip to tell stories these days; it’s not so hip to preach. I only say that because I have a hard time seeing such a great emphasis on “telling the story” in the NT. That’s not to say that the story is NOT told. Of course it is! But I don’t get the feeling that it is central to the gospel that it must be the telling of a story. Look a the ways in which Paul describes his own communication of the gospel, again in 1 Cor 15: he preaches it (also throughout the NT). The gospel is not merely or primarily for Paul “the story that we told you about who Jesus is,” but rather more specifically the proclamation about salvation in Jesus.
A final thought here is that the “soterian gospel” does tell a story. It is the story of creation, fall and redemption and how we fit into that story. Granted there are times when this story does not get flushed out. But there is nothing inherent in this approach that would preclude that “flushing” from happening. And though the story of Israel is arguably neglected in “soterian gospel” presentations, the best discipling communities do introduce belivers to the richness of this story. Is Scott guilty of criticizing the weakest statement of the “soterian approach”? Perhaps. But we all argue against personal encounters and perceptions, so it may the that in his experience the “soterian gospel” had been much more problematic that it seems in my experience. There is a certain subjectivity inherent in this kinds of assessments.
I was glad to have attended and heard Scott’s view. I agree wholeheartedly that telling the story of Jesus as a form of evangelism is an excellent practice and should be done more. But I’m not so sure that it’s all that bad to use a well balanced “soterian” approach.