Are You a Soterian? Horton Reviews McKnight
Michael Horton has a long review at the White Horse Inn blog of Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2011). Here is a lengthy excerpt to show Horton’s engagement with what he regards as some caricatures and missteps, but also why he thinks this book is an important conversation starter.
The history of exegesis is reduced to the categories of “gospel culture” and “salvation culture.” Also as in Professor Wright’s work, The King Jesus Gospel offers sweeping assertions about the Reformation without serious engagement. I can’t imagine that he has explored the commentaries of the Reformers or the history of Reformed biblical theology in any depth. No harm done for having different interests, but one shouldn’t then pile with one more straw-man portrait.
Even when he “damns with faint praise,” the author misses the goal of at least Lutheran and Reformed branches: “The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions—Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist—was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility” (71). This confuses the Reformation’s interest with [the interest of] pietism, which was a completely different kettle of fish. The former focused on what the Triune God has done to accomplish salvation for sinners, not on “human response” and what I’m supposed to do to “get saved.”
Though largely respectful, McKnight takes aim especially at John Piper and Greg Gilbert as examples of “soterists.” I won’t presume to speak for these brothers, except to say that the author’s critique appears to lift a few statements as “Exhibit A.” For example, when Piper says that the gospel is “justification by faith,” he is speaking short-hand. The Reformers often did the same, yet they didn’t even come close to the author’s description of decision-oriented “soterism.” The justification of the ungodly is as much an event in the history of salvation (Story of Israel/Jesus) as it is the application of Christ’s imputed righteousness to believers. We simply don’t talk about “Plan of Salvation” evangelism in the first place. That is a different way of doing evangelism than the Lutheran and Reformed approach, centering as it does on the gospel as the announcement of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Those who believed this gospel were baptized and joined the church, regularly meeting together for the apostles teaching, the Supper, and common prayer (Ac 2:32).
The great thing about the author’s treatment of Jesus and Paul is that the Story of Jesus indeed encompasses the kingdom emphasis along with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, he doesn’t seem to allow the same space for the benefits (like justification) in the definition of the gospel itself that he opens up for the kingdom. Without justification, Christ’s messianic reign and kingdom are not necessarily good news.
In this light, I worry about forcing a choice between the gospel as the Story of Jesus and the Plan of Salvation (if the latter means justification and new birth, for example). The one is still too broad to specify the saving announcement and the latter is too narrow—indeed, somewhat distorting (understood the way McKnight describes it, as akin to the Four Spiritual Laws). McKnight does a great job with 1 Corinthians 15, but there Paul clearly includes the benefits of Christ’s saving work (forgiveness, justification, resurrection) with Christ’s Story as the gospel. In fact, our story (how he saves us) is bound up with his story in that passage. If 1 Corinthians 15 is a summary of the gospel (and I agree that it is), then wouldn’t it be arbitrary to say that the details about Christ’s death and resurrection are the gospel while the benefits for us, as important as they are, are not the gospel? There are just too many passages, here and elsewhere, that make Christ’s work (living, dying and rising again in history) and its effects for us inseparable aspects of the gospel. “He was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The dramatic story of Christ and the doctrine that interprets its significance for us are inseparable aspects of the same gospel.
Typically, Reformed and Lutheran theologies speak about “the gospel in the narrow sense” (something like 1 Cor 15:2-5 and Rom 4:25) and “…in the broader sense,” encompassing all of the promises that God fulfilled in Christ, including the gift of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and all of the other benefits of our union with Christ.
So we already have the categories that make these points: promise and fulfillment, historia salutis and ordo salutis, and the gospel in the narrower and broader senses. To me, at least, these distinctions are less capable of reductionism. The gospel in the New Testament is neither “Repent and believe” (that’s the call to embrace the gospel) nor “Jesus is the Solution to Israel’s Story.” It’s not even that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah-King. This announcement is as ambiguous without the news of justification as is the news of justification apart from the Story of Israel and Jesus. Jesus’ lordship entails judgment and wrath as well as justification and grace. So there is plenty of reductionism to go around. McKnight is mostly right, I believe, but I’m concerned that his definition of the gospel is too general in one sense (“The Story of Jesus”) and too reductive in another (“Messiah-King-Lord” vs. “Justifying High Priest”). What’s wrong with staying with the integrating rubric of “Prophet, Priest, and King,” interpreted within the horizon of Israel’s story? Penal substitution not as the only aspect of his atoning work but as the sine qua non of his victory of the powers and principalities, vindication of his moral government, and recapitulation of Adam’s failed headship? Why the false choices?
Another danger in reducing the gospel to the Jesus-Story-as-Solution-to-the-Israel-Story is that it fails to account adequately for why the gospel is good news to Gentiles. “Now this might seem simplistic,” the author says, “but any reading of the Prophets, former or latter and major and minor, will show that the problem for the Story of Israel was a resolution to Israel’s and Judah’s problems” (137). Indeed, that’s a big part of it, but don’t the apostles ground the “mystery of the church” in the prophetic promise of Israel’s Messiah as the answer to the whole world’s problems? What about all those wonderful prophecies of a remnant from the nations streaming to Zion?
The Story of Israel sets us up for the Story of Jesus: true enough—and not only true, but just as crucial as McKnight suggests. However, he says, that what is central to the gospel “is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord.” This was “the pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’ day: the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land.” This is a salutary point, frequently made in our circles. However, like N. T. Wright, McKnight seems to give too much credit to what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting, as if it were basically what the prophets and Jesus had in mind. Clearly it wasn’t, since Jesus regularly upbraids not only the religious leaders but his own disciples for missing the point, thinking that he was coming to restore the nation to its former glory, renewing the Sinai covenant.
If Gentiles are in themselves strangers to the covenants of promise, God’s enemies, “unclean,” and already under judgment, of what relevance is the news, “Finally, Israel has a King who will bring things around in the land!”? I agree that we Gentiles have to be immersed in the Story of Israel; we get in the covenant on Jewish shirt-tales, as it were. We’re the workers in the vineyard who came at the end of the day, the Johnny-come-latelies. However, unlike those to Jewish audiences, the gospel sermons to Gentiles in Acts and descriptions of the gospel in the epistles don’t merely rehearse the history of Israel; they proclaim Christ as the Savior of the world, from judgdment, sin and death, by Christ’s own death-judgment and resurrection-justification. The context of their repentance is idolatry. Somewhere N. T. Wright has written that the tragic problem that confronts Israel at Jesus’ advent is that Israel too is found to be “in Adam.” That’s exactly right. Being “in Adam” universalizes the plight. We dare not skip over Israel, but the Pauline contrast is being “in Adam” versus being “in Christ.”
Surely the reign of the Messiah-King is key in the prophets, but the way in which he exercises this reign is inextricably linked to his priesthood. By fulfilling the law, bearing their sins, clothing them in his righteousness, giving them his Spirit, and returning to make all things new, this Messiah will indeed accomplish what Adam and Israel have failed to do. I would want to press the author a bit more on what he means when he adds, “So he sends us east of Eden into the world with the same task” of being priest-kings in his garden” (138). So is our mission the same as Christ’s? Are we recapitulating Adam and Israel, bearing the curse, and by our resurrection securing the restoration of all things? Is Jesus really the “Last Adam,” who does all of this for us, or the model for how we are to complete his redeeming work? I may be reading too much into that statement, but it would be interesting to hear more about that point. In spite of clear echoes of N. T. Wright throughout The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight is less confident in the “gospel and empire” thesis: namely, that the main thing in saying “Jesus is Lord” is to specifically challenge Caesar and his empire. “Let’s keep in mind that no one would ever deny that an implication of the gospel declaration that Jesus is Lord is that Caesar is not. The issue here is how conscious, overt, and intentional this anti-imperial theme is to the gospeling of the first Christians,” especially in light of Paul’s remarks about ordained powers in Romans 13 (142-144).
Finally, I was looking forward to the last chapter: “Creating a Gospel Culture.” After all, I wholeheartedly agree that a gospel that takes its narrative habitat seriously and connects individual believers to Israel and the Triune God’s purposes for history will create a very different kind of community than one that’s based on individual decisions. However, I didn’t find what I was expecting. It wasn’t what was there, but what was missing, that puzzled me. Sure, we need to become People of the Story and all, reading the Bible cover to cover, but all of his concrete suggestions for this were basically about the individual believer. Nothing about the sacraments, church membership and discipline—especially odd in light of the Justin Martyr appendix that focused on these ordinary means by which God “creates a gospel culture.” McKnight says, “As Dallas Willard has argued for decades, God transforms us through a vision, our intention, and the means God provides—the spiritual disciplines” (159). This seems hardly capable of creating a less individualistic and more integrated gospel culture than its “soterian” alternative.
I would encourage likely critics of The King Jesus Gospel to hear out the argument, setting caricatures and false choices to one side. There is a lot in this book that should resonate with Reformed Christians. Whatever inaccuracies in his description of the views of others who deserve better, Scot McKnight is reacting against a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly. To enthusiastic readers of the book, I’d caution against exchanging one set of reductionism for another. Let’s not polarize into even more extreme camps of “story-people” and “doctrine-people”; “kingdom” and “personal salvation”; “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is Savior.” We can all be evangelical soterians, rejoicing in the gospel as the Story of Jesus that proclaims the only one who saves us from our sins. Despite my concerns, this is a great starter for some remarkably important conversations.