Let me start with a confession: I am weary of sociologists and pollsters assuming the role(s) of vision-caster(s) for the church in North America. I appreciate the (objective?) data they unearth and the descriptions of current realities they provide. I’m not, however, a fan of the prescriptions they, along with marketing experts, offer for all that ails the church (or more accurately and specifically, the declining number of people who claim to believe in God, attend church, etc.). My frustration is not just related to the fact their prescriptions often focus on symptoms instead of systemic issues, but also that their prescriptions rarely flow from theological reflection or even take into account primary theological considerations.
Fortunately Scot McKnight has provided a prescription to address at least one systemic issue he has identified beneath the superficial data of the sociologists and pollsters, a prescription which flows from his rigorous theological reflection. Recognizing in the declining numbers and in his interactions with college students a fatal flaw in the understanding many have of the gospel, McKnight sets out in The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited to redefine the contemporary evangelical understanding of the gospel. His thoroughgoing conviction seems to be that rediscovering the original good news will address the declining numbers (which are worrisome not because they’ve declined but because they testify to the impact of the common fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel) in a far deeper way than any methodological or programmatic change.
McKnight’s project addresses a reality he explicates in the opening two chapters of the book: contemporary Christian culture is a “salvation culture” rather than a “gospel culture.” That our culture is a “salvation culture” is evidenced by the many different ideas about what precisely constitutes the gospel, while there is generally one dominant idea about what constitutes salvation: making a decision for Christ. While the methods of persuasion and the specific components of the “plan of salvation” may vary slightly from person to person or denomination to denomination, the general aim of most evangelism is to provoke a decision. Unfortunately the “salvation culture” fails to create the disciples a “gospel culture” creates.
The “gospel culture,” in contrast to the “salvation culture,” seeks to draw people into a story, the story of Israel, to which the story of Jesus brings resolution. It is as the Jesus story brings resolution to the Israel story that the Jesus story can be identified and understood as gospel, good news. McKnight establishes his case by dwelling extensively in 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul provides a summary of the gospel which had been passed down by the apostles. He then describes his theory of how this original message, which was preserved and interpreted by the ancient creeds, became muddled through the developments and effects of the Reformation. Returning to the New Testament, McKnight traces the presence of the elements of the gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15 throughout the four canonical gospels, the preaching of Jesus himself, and the sermons recorded in Acts. Moving toward concrete application, McKnight compares the “gospeling” (announcing the good news) found in Scripture with the “gospeling” (or lack thereof) common today. Finally, in five compelling pages, he sketches the gospel as the story of Jesus that serves as the resolution to the story of Israel, followed by practical suggestions for how to foster the emergence of a “gospel culture” in place of the predominant “salvation culture.”
Challenging the church’s dearly and deeply held understanding of the gospel is likely to unsettle many and cause great discomfort for at least a few. McKnight wisely goes to great lengths to balance boldness with discernment, choosing not to engage in tangential battles that would not help his cause. Moreover, he seems to write with pastoral concern, as evidenced in his bringing Paul’s gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15 to bear on the current heated debates over atonement theory (52). He judiciously draws together the work of a variety of theologians and ministers, from N.T. Wright to John Piper, Dallas Willard to Fleming Rutledge, while not shrinking back from humbly pointing out his own differences of opinion, even when they might be rather significant. Finally, McKnight very carefully and intentionally repeats crucial components of his argument to ensure that readers can track what he is and is not suggesting.
Having spent all of my life as a part of the Stone-Campbell/Restoration tradition, my ears perked up in response to two particular discussions. The first was McKnight’s discussion of the ancient creeds. Though originally strongly anti-creedal, like most in the Stone-Campbell/Restoration tradition, McKnight has come to believe that “denial of the creeds is tantamount to denying the gospel itself because what the creeds seek to do is bring out what is already in the Bible’s gospel” (65). One moment I found myself wishing I could figure out a way to assemble Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and McKnight for a friendly conversation about the creeds. Another moment I found myself wondering whether the “salvation culture” so prevalent among my tradition might not have such a strong hold had our early leaders not objected so strongly to the ancient creeds. The second discussion that perked my ears was McKnight’s suggestion that emphasizing baptism and Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) as alternatives to the cultural stories of our day will help us build a “gospel culture.” Here we find theological reflection leading to a conclusion far different than that the sociologists and the pollsters and the marketers might recommend. While McKnight might well want us to revision our practice of and language about baptism and Eucharist, we would do well to recognize these as strengths to build upon, not idiosyncrasies of which we ought to be embarrassed or which we ought to minimize.
My only wish is that McKnight had fleshed out a bit more his practical suggestions for creating a “gospel culture.” Examples of the practice of each of his suggestions, for instance, might have provided a jumping off point for ministers, lay leaders, and congregations, especially those for whom these ideas are unfamiliar or for whom interaction with those ministers, leaders, or congregations who are embodying these practices may be limited. That being said, The King Jesus Gospel is a fine work of theological reflection and biblical scholarship in service to the church, for whom I am hopefully optimistic the book might open up a new way forward in these changing times.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher, though I was not required to write a positive review.