Friday, February 10, 2012

The King Jesus Gospel, by Scot McKnight

Quite good, actually.  McKnight is distressed at the evangelical "gospel" that is focused, however unintentionally, on whether the individual is saved than focused on Jesus.  He highlights Dallas Willard's phrase, "the gospel of sin management" and his image of salvation as a bar code you get on your heart for saying certain things, which God scans at the time of judgement to see whether you are in or out.  (I like the image of those alarms that go off if you leave the store with improper items better, though.)  We say we don't mean that, but we slip back into it too easily.  Especially when hearing about a death, evangelicals will say "I heard he wasn't saved," or something like.

I do wonder if McKnight overestimates how much of that is out there.  He quotes from his students their impressions of what "the gospel" was in their churches, camps, and families, in course at North Park designed to expand their idea of what the gospel is. I imagine that is informative as far as it goes, but one has to remember these are adolescents looking back from their now-lofty perch of great wisdom, seeing as they have been able to reason on their own for a whole three or four years now, deploring the simple Sunday School gospel they were taught.  I wonder how many classes of a dozen eight-year-olds McKnight has taught, trying to cram something, anything that might be of value, into their inattentive brains in 45 minutes.

That said, I suspect he is still largely right, and however much Bible young evangelicals are taught, many are taught that some variation of the Four Spiritual Laws, or asking Jesus into your heart is the centerpiece, because it is the technical minimum we must accomplish to be saved (see previous post).

I think we have a pretty clear idea how Jesus or Peter or Paul might respond if we asked "Okay, what's the technical minimum I have to do to be saved?"  We may want this version not only for our own comfort of salvation, but in hope for friends and relatives.  Not unkindly, perhaps, but not right, either.

McKnight's not the first to notice this and criticise it, but rather than merely deploring, he very methodically examines what the scriptures say.  He is an honest broker, and I write that as one who feared he would not be.  Lots of people sense that just mumbling some words by a campfire isn't really what Jesus was talking about, but then go on to expand the concept along lines congenial to their own thought - additions that we admit aren't The Gospel, but are "where you really should go next if you're serious." Refraining from sexual sin has been the main gospel companion in many eras; being cheery and nice to everyone appeals to others; some measure your Bible reading, or being generous (even with other people's money), or your gifts of the spirit.  These are indeed the conclusions one would leap to right away on a superficial reading of the Bible.

This is so common that I kept expecting that McKnight was going to pull this stunt as well, using all this "Hey, I'm just looking at the scriptures" as a cover to bring us into the presence of his new little godlet to worship.  He writes on p. 122:
I live and dwell among scholars who examine the Gospels to discern what Jesus was really like, and we've got all kinds of "Jesuses" in our world: the social activist, the prophet, the miracle-worker, the religious genius, the social contrarian, the Republican and Democrat and Marxist Jesus, and the anti-empire Jesus...I could go on.
I wish he had written that earlier.

What then, does McKnight claim the scriptures declare to be the gospel?  He resists oversimplifying and shortening, as he worries that this is what got us into trouble the first time. But his main thrust is that it is the Story of Israel, as completed by Jesus as Messiah and Lord, who died and rose from the dead, which invites response from those who hear, and confers right relationship with God on those who believe.  This is what Jesus preached about himself; Peter, Paul and the other apostles preached about him; the early church declared to be central; and was reflected in the earliest creed (1 Cor 15) and the later creeds (which McKnight was raised to disdain).  They did not leave out the story of Israel nor the life of Jesus when they preached, not even to Gentiles.  These were not background - props that might be used or not depending on the audience - but the gospel itself.

The Four Spiritual Laws or asking Jesus into your heart or committing your life to Christ or being born again - those are all true, nothing wrong in them.  But these are a gospel stripped down beyond what it can bear and still be the gospel.  They aren't enough.

McKnight says it better than I do.  I will have another go at it because there is much else I wish to interact with from the book.  There are some fascinating pieces about the Gospel According to John, Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Jesus preaching about himself, and the lack of atonement explanation that I would like to get to.

Last criticism.  I really dislike his neologism of using "gospel" as a verb, Paul gospeling this and we gospeling that.  Irritating.


Texan99 said...

Like "fellowshipping."

As an Episcopalian, I've never been completely sure what people mean when they say either "saved" or "born again." If it overlaps at all with what I recognize from Scripture, it refers to a change of direction, a turning towards God. But for me that is a constant duty, not something that happened once. (Not that I don't understand the importance of that first decision to turn, which is the difference between night and day.) The only other thing that "saved" means to me is a reality that Jesus achieved: the doctrine of redemption. And "born again" means the renewal that He so often talked about.

I loved what you said about how Jesus would have responded to someone who came to Him asking for the technical minimum he could do to be "saved." He never let his interlocutors get away with taking their eyes off the ball like that. It's a little like a man wooing his bride, asking her to get specific about exactly how far down on his knees he'll have to get, and how many carets in the ring, before he can be sure she'll marry him and prove a faithful wife. Bring the lawyers in and negotiate a prenup.

Texan99 said...

Carats? Carets are the little housetop insertion things. I wish blogger would allow edits to comments.

karrde said...

I'm surprised...

I've attended a church that leaned heavily on salvation, and spoke only moderately with the continuing life of Salvation. Yet even that church couldn't hide from the fact that not all believers were perfect, nor that some needed help along the straight and narrow path.

My current home church is very heavy on the continuing life of Salvation; the life of faith as the believer grows closer to Christ.

(Incidentally, the salvation-as-a-single-event thought pattern is very American, and could be called 'frontier gospel'. It was partly the result of the rapid expansion of American culture westward, and some people taking along the simplest form of Christian teaching that they had at hand.)

I had wondered if Scot's work would be a diatribe against Those People who were too simple in their thoughts, or if it would be a more serious, thoughtful work. I am pleased to hear that it is thoughtful.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have often used that image of the frontier gospel - a high portable Christianity when the nearest trained clergy might be a circuit-rider. (Priests at the river cities didn't count with Protestants then.) But it was also a LCD among Prots, even liturgical ones. You had to change from being one kind of person to another, and a Bible was involved. Most everyone agreed on that part, so when forced cheek by jowl against unknown others, it was easier to stick with what everyone thought they agreed on.

They didn't, of course, and "soulwinning" plus getting Bibles into hands - even if people did not read or understand well - become dominant. The frontier settlers came largely from Appalachia, which had heavy Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist populations. Liturgical settlers tended to stay farther north.

Someone must have studied how hymnals - also highly portable - fit into all this.

Texan99 said...

You may already be aware of the role of shape-note singing in spreading the Gospel to nearly illiterate populations. The idea of the shape-note system was to make intricately harmonized church music accessible to people who couldn't read European notation. The lyrics (which they call "the poetry") are identified by their meter and can be inserted into a variety of tunes, though these days the words and music have settled down firmly into traditional combinations. The tunes often began life as folk songs, readapted for the church. Itinerant music masters would hold singing schools and disseminate copies of the books. The rejection of musical instruments probably started out of necessity.

Dubbahdee said...

Perhaps the most succinct way I have heard this "kingdom gospel" expressed was this:

"The gospel is not about how we can make God a bigger part of our story. The gospel is about how God is making us part of his story."

I have used this often in my recent sermons. I think it drives home the distinction between salvation orientation vs. a kingdom orientation without using the terminology.

Texan99 said...

Because I've always had a tendency to put freedom and independence on a pedestal, I was wedded for much of my adult life to any kind of heroic individualist philosophy I could find. Now that I am a Christian, I find of course that I am very drawn to the part of the Gospel that stresses the importance of each soul's free choice. That always has to be reconciled with the belief that I can never be in charge and always must be looking for ways to use my free choice to submit entirely to God. It's easy to get tangled up between "making God a bigger part of my story" and "God making me a part of His story" -- aren't they both necessary?

All I know is that when I believed there was no authority superior to my own will, I was miserable and made a hash of things. There's a howling, meaningless void in that direction of the road.

Dubbahdee said...


"...aren't they both necessary?"

Certainly, but I think you mistake the greater part of where the distinction lies.

I am not making a free-will vs. determinism argument (*yawn*). Rather I am making the point that our default setting as 20th/21st century AMERICAN Christians seems to be that the way we approach God is first about our efforts and our will and our strength and our goodness. We tend to treat our approach to God as a business relationship - a transaction. I do this, therefore God gives me that. Quid pro quo.

In actuality, Jesus promises us a family relationship. In a business, we must perform to be accepted/approved. In a family, we are accepted/approved -- and therefore it behooves us to perform in ways that bring honor to the family. The actions can be the same, but their orientation is different.

The family relationship is possible because God acts to raise us dead sinners -- who as corpses can do nothing on our own. He adopts us *giving* us instant status as sons and heirs. He brings us thereby into HIS story. Our own efforts to bring him into ours are fruitless until he brings us into his. Then, empowered by his Spirit, they become fruitful indeed.

This sounds very much like where you are. Praise God for his grace.

Enough sermonating. I gotta go.

Texan99 said...

Agreed -- they're both necessary. Most of us probably are strongly driven to emphasize one and ignore the other. Modern Americans (including myself, certainly) probably err in the direction of emphasizing our own choices. I guess the trick is to figure out which aspect of your duty you're mostly inclined to ignore and try to concentrate more on it.

As Screwtape said, the fun is in getting everyone to rush over to just the side of the boat that's already gunnels under in that particular age, so in licentious centuries he tries to get everyone all worked up over the unhealthy obsession with purity, while in Puritanical ages he tries to scare everyone with the dangers of unguarded, passionate hearts. We fall for it every time! A good reason to read old works. Scripture comes to mind.