September 23, 2011

Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy of The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisitedand the spot on their blog tour for this great book.

Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park University, is a widely respected academic, with important books in a number of topics in New Testament studies, and he is also widely known as a popular speaker, author, and blogger. This means he is uniquely positioned to bring academic learning to bear on a wider audience, and this is exactly what he does in The King Jesus Gospel.

There are so many ways one could approach the review of a book like this, with historical arguments, exegesis, theological synthesis, and practical and contemporary application. I have chosen to make this review a summary of the key points, touch on why it resonated so much with me, and conclude with a sustained note of hope for how this book might point in a refreshing direction for gospel thinking and for evangelicalism, and of hope that evangelicalism is poised to heed his call.

McKnight's book is subtitled The Good News Revisited, and that sums up well its topic: it's all about the gospel. And his big contention is that many evangelicals today (and he particularly speaks to evangelicals, though his topic certainly has much wider relevance) focus on and proclaim the plan of salvation without realizing that the gospel is so much more. He asserts very simply (and this is sure to step on some toes) that evangelicals should really be called "soterians" because of the focus on "salvation," often thought of as making a "decision" for Christ, which is the key point of a gospel presentation. Instead, McKnight asserts that the gospel is the good news of God's faithful working in the world by sending his son Jesus to fulfill his promises, redeem his people, and defeat the powers of sin and death. This doesn't entail negating the soterian gospel, but instead affirms its core while recontextualizing it especially around the story of Jesus as King and Messiah. This is still a gospel that is radically "for us" and still deals with sin and calls for response (the need for response is one of the key elements McKnight highlights in the apostolic gospel), but it sets this in the framework of what Jesus accomplishes on the stage of history and in the plan of God. In short, the gospel is the story of Jesus as it completes the story of Israel.

Part of McKnight's expansive argument is a historical one: The Jesus story becomes abstracted into a generic story of God's love, wrath, and grace focused on Jesus' salvific effects. He highlights (without villainizing) the Reformers, both Lutheran and Reformed, showing how their creeds changed from a "gospel" focus that centers around a narration of Jesus' life and significance to a salvation focus that reorders and refocuses Christian faith around issues of personal response and human responsibility. These seeds were cultivated through the revivals and evangelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and also by a focus on experience as a key to the Christian life.

Another key theme in McKnight's book is that the Gospels preach the gospel. It isn't uncommon today for people to wonder if the Gospels, or if Jesus himself, preached the gospel. McKnight asserts, rightly I think, that people are really asking if Jesus or the Gospels teach the "plan of salvation," and that answer isn't always so clear. But, he asserts, the Gospels are the preeminent examples of gospeling, of declaring that the story of Jesus is the culmination of the story of Israel and is good news for its hearers. This reappraisal of the Gospels and their relation to the gospel is, I think, one of the key points of the book, and one of its strongest arguments, especially as it is coupled with his reading of 1 Cor 15 as a key gospel text for Paul and with his investigation of the gospelingsermons in Acts.

Throughout the book, McKnight exhibits a loving and irenic, though earnest tone. He brings in John Piper and Jonathan Edwards for appreciative comment, just as he does N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard. Though this book may in some ways constitute a major challenge to evangelicalism and its understanding of the gospel, it is written as a hopeful critique from the inside, as opposed to an attack from without. And hand in hand with this tone goes the fact that McKnight is quick to appreciate the positive and enduring aspects of evangelical life and faith, even as he seeks to augment and complete them with greater understanding and a larger story-frame. He may make some important and even controversial assertions, but he is very careful with his denials (that is, he repeatedly reaffirms that Christ's death is for us, and that it is all about salvation; we do need to respond in faith; the gospel leads to a transformed life). At its core, the theme of salvation isn't lost at all, it is simply recontextualized within Jesus story as it completes Israel's story.

I loved McKnight's book! It answered the questions that were only partially formed in my mind. It was a book I didn't know I needed, but it put into words various themes and streams of thought that have been swirling around in my mind: everything from how Jesus' life and teaching fit into the gospel to how the Old Testament relates to the new to how discipleship relates to salvation (and how we present that). Jesus is Messiah and King, and that has profound implications for the whole world. We are called to proclaim that good news far and wide. And it is good news for salvation. 

I conclude this review with a note of hope. I have profound hope that evangelicalism is ready for this reawakening to a fuller understanding of the gospel of King Jesus. Anyone who reads in academic biblical studies knows that evangelicals have been in the forefront in investigating the relation between the two testaments, and how a full and careful understanding of the larger story of Israel is essential to reading the New Testament. Though I could name many, a few key books I might highlight are Richard Hays' work Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is a ground-breaking study of OT echoes and allusions in Paul; Beale and Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, systematically undertakes a study of how the OT figures in the NT book by book; N. T. Wright, in many books, has looked at how Israel's story creates a key component of the NT worldview and is essential to understanding Jesus; and last, though certainly not least, Christopher Wright's magisterial The Mission of God outlines the Bible's grand story of God's mission in his world and our part in it. So many more could be named, but these few illustrate how we are coming to grips in new and fresh ways how the story of the Bible is the gospel. I also thing that evangelical culture itself is shaped in such a way that the broader apostolic gospel that McKnight outlines will fit its major contours even better than the more narrowly soterian version, even if it is a bit uncomfortable in places and feels a bit different. Evangelicalism is by nature full of Jesus-devotion, and a renewed focus on his life, death, and resurrection will be a natural fit. Evangelicalism is very intentionally a movement that highly values Scripture, and the apostolic gospel makes the whole Bible, from Gen 1 to Rev 22, come alive as a gospel story, and that is sure to reinvigorate a people who already love God's Word. And evangelicalism loves to share God's love by telling stories. I think of the great hymn, "I Love to Tell the Story," which both demonstrates that the broader story-shaped apostolic gospel has been a formative part of evangelical culture and that this same evangelical culture has many resources already at its disposal to energetically embrace the apostolic gospel that McKnight describes.

In sum, I enthusiastically commend this great little book. There is no doubt, as with any major and sweeping thesis like this one, that details will need fleshing out a bit, and various formulations and points may need honing. But I think his core argument is a very persuasive one, and I look forward to digesting it with others over the coming months in hopes that it will be instrumental in transforming my life, our churches, and our evangelical culture to be truly gospel-centered.

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