The King Jesus Gospel – Book Review

Scot McKnight’s latest book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, is a worthwhile read and I commend it to all who believe that the message of Jesus is, can be, or ought to be genuinely “good news.”  McKnight has done an excellent job of analyzing what Jesus and the first-century Apostles meant when they spoke of the “gospel” (gospel being derived from the old English godspel or “good news,” is equivalent to the Greek εὐαγγέλιον “euangelion” from which we also get our English words “evangelize” and “evangelism”).  Before I complete this review I’ll examine a significant issue where I think Scot missed the boat, but this is a place for extension of the dialog, and does not in any way temper my recommendation of the book.

The King Jesus Gospel sets out to answer what in my view may be the most breathtakingly misguided question ever asked in modern Christendom.  As McKnight tells it, “John Piper…at a big conference in April of 2010 asked this question: ‘Did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel?'”  Scot’s more charitable than I would be.  He states that he “would defend the legitimacy of Piper’s question,” based as it is on the notion that Paul’s gospel is essentially the doctrine of justification by faith, and that’s not a topic upon which Jesus seems to have spent much (if any) time. Obviously (and I’m sure Piper would agree) any biblical “gospel” must rest entirely on Jesus, and that most certainly includes the “gospel” of justification by faith.  The mere suggestion that Jesus, who himself IS the gospel, might not have preached the gospel, blows my mind.

But I digress.  While McKnight is kinder to Piper’s question than I would be, he quite properly points out that such a question suggests that our very definition of “gospel” may need reexamination.  I absolutely agree with his statement:  “When we can find hardly any instances of our favorite theological category in the whole of the four Gospels, we need to be wary of how important our own interpretations and theological favorites are.

So what is “the Gospel?”  McKnight goes into a detailed–and, I think, entirely correct–study of the church’s use of the term “gospel.”  His approach is best defined, I think, in his own words:

I want now to make a stinging accusation.  In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really “evangelical” in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians.  Here’s why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation.  Hence, we are really “salvationists.”  When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) “salvation.”  We are wired this way.  But these two words don’t mean the same thing…(p. 29)

(note for those who don’t play with Greek…”soterian” comes from the Greek σωτῆρ “soter” which means “savior”.  That is, a “soterian” is one who preaches–or emphasizes–salvation)

In this point, Scot is solidly on track.  I have before suggested that salvation gets too much focus within the Christian message…not because salvation is irrelevant or incorrect, but because it’s not the main event in God’s story.  He then spends a significant and important portion of the book refocusing the “good news” preached by both Jesus and the Apostles (as related in Acts), within the story of God’s redemptive work through Israel, and eventually, beyond Israel to the world.  Jesus, according to his own preaching and later that of Peter and Paul, is the culmination of all that God was doing through the nation of Israel up to that point in history.  When Jesus declared the Kingdom of God, he was declaring “good news” on a myriad of levels, of which salvation from sins was definitely one, but only one and not necessarily the greatest.  There was (is) a new king on the throne…the one God promised for ages past.  If that’s not good news, what on earth could be?  (for more on this, see my advent meditation on Jesus’ announcement of Jubilee).  One more quote of note:

My summary point of comparison: gospeling declares that Jesus is that rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus.  When we reduce the gospel to only personal salvation, as soterians are tempted to do, we tear the fabric out of the Story of the Bible and we cease even needing the Bible.  I don’t know of any other way to put it. (p. 142)

There is much more to glean in the pages of Scot’s book, not least as he discusses the methods by which Christians over time, have attempted to persuade others to consider and accept the claims of Jesus (hint, it hasn’t always been about hell).  Without getting into all of it here, let me commend his perspective to you as well worthy of consideration.  In short, it’s worth looking at how the Apostles evangelized, and contrasting it to the sales pitches we adopt today.

But I want to turn to one area in particular where I part ways fairly substantially with McKnight’s arguments, and that is the credence he gives to the church fathers.  Fairly early in his book (chapter 5), Scot makes the argument that the early church creeds, in particular the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, are a direct outgrowth of, and a faithful characterization of, the gospel Jesus and the Apostles preached.  He states directly that the creeds are “an articulation” of Paul’s gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15, and even 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.” (emphasis in original)

McKnight returns to this notion in Chapter 10 “Creating a Gospel Culture” when he suggests that following a traditional church calendar can focus the church on a fuller view of the gospel than that embodied by soterians.  He may be onto something when he says that “focusing on these events in their theological and biblical contexts… [will expose the church] …every year to the whole gospel, to the whole Story of Israel coming to its saving completion in the Story of Jesus.”  He continues later to advocate knowing “our creeds,” because “the wisdom of the church is on the side of the value of creeds and confessions of the faith.”

I’ve disagreed with Scot on this before.  In fact, though I doubt he’d remember me, I engaged him a bit on his own Jesus Creed blog a couple years back when he did a series on the historical heresies of the early church.  My point then, which remains a concern today, is that he seems to have given the 3rd- and 4th-century “church fathers” a complete pass from critical examination.  This is unfortunate, as I believe it is precisely in those periods, and in the creation of the creeds themselves, that the seeds of this entire misapprehension of the gospel has its ultimate roots.  Go back and take a look at the actual text of either of the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds (Google is your friend…there are lots of sources).  What’s the operative declaration in every phrase? I believe.  It’s a propositional issue.  Discipleship is at best implicit, though even to say that is being generous.

Look again at what is being stated that one must believe.  God’s nature, Jesus’ origin, his suffering, death, burial, resurrection.  All important stuff, and to deny it is certainly to be talking something other than Jesus’ gospel.  But the whole “Story” that Scot does such a good job of describing in the rest of his book is completely absent from either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene Creed even says that Jesus’ incarnation was “for us men and for our salvation,” a soterian statement if I have ever encountered one.  If he’s right (and I think he is) that the soterian message overtook the gospel in error, then the creeds were (and are) part of the problem, not the solution!  It is precisely the reduction of discipleship to a set of propositions to be believed, that is the very essence of the creeds.  It may have taken a while to get from the Nicene Creed to the Four Spiritual Laws, but the arc was inevitable.

So while McKnight has done an outstanding job of characterizing certain of the symptoms of a deep malady within today’s Evangelical church, I think he’s stopped short of the roots of that malady.  Those roots, I would submit, are firmly embedded in the power struggles of the third and fourth centuries (possibly earlier), and in the whole process that took the Way of following God’s anointed King and reduced it to a “religion” filled with propositions to be “believed.”  Here, at last, the Gospel must be rescued from the religion that has for so long held it captive.  Scot gets us on the road, and for that, his book is worth the purchase and the reading.  I hope we all go further.

5 thoughts on “The King Jesus Gospel – Book Review”

  1. Kurt Willems

    Dan… you always make me think… thats for sure. I don’t know much about the creedal Christianity stuff, but what you say interests me quite a bit. Much to ponder. I know that isn’t a deep reflection but rather that you have given me yet another tangent that I will have to explore after I grad in may…

  2. Ted M. Gossard

    Dan, Good review! An excellent book, I agree. I do wonder if your criticism loses some force when we consider 1 Corinthians 15 itself where the gospel is spelled out. It isn’t just that Christ died, but that he died for our sins. As to the creeds, isn’t one of the hinge questions, or at least most important we find in “the gospels”, Jesus’ question, “Who do people say I am?” To be a follower of Jesus has doctrinal content, indeed dogma to it. Even though those who begin to do so may not yet know that content. Not that those who profess it, really understand it sufficiently, or hopefully as today as tomorrow, or by and by.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Fair question, Ted. I would suggest that while one might consider 1 Cor. 15 to be dogma (a point to answer in detail when I have much more time), to so consider it to the exclusion of the broader kingdom and discipleship agenda of both Jesus and Paul is precisely the reductionism against which I am arguing.

  3. Scot McKnight

    Dan, thanks for this.

    I would argue, in brief, that:

    1 Cor 15 is no less propositional than the Nicene Creed. (More in NC, of course, but still very propositional.)
    Soterian deserves a place in all gospeling, and is found in 1 Cor 15 in “forgiveness.”
    There is a clear trace from 1 Cor 15 to Nicea, and I detailed that — I would think you would agree.
    1 Cor 15 isn’t everything to me; it is abundantly clear that I use also sermons in Acts, esp Acts 10:34-43, where Peter tells the Story of Jesus.
    I argue hard for The Gospels being the gospel.

    So, for me those are the gospel legs … and I see Nicea expressing that gospel, and I’m not sure I’d say Nicea’ s “I believe” is anything other than the personalization of faith as “the faith” and as the need for the person to believe. So, I’m not bothered by “I believe” as too limiting.

    Yes, I would agree that Nicea could have had more “life of Jesus,” more “kingdom,” but the fact is that Paul thought gospel was clear enough in 1 Cor 15 and the church agreed with him — and I trace that history to Nicea. I don’t think Nicea can be understood without its NT scriptures… they were at work everywhere at Nicea. So Scripture is the atmosphere for Nicea; it’s not just Nicea alone…

    Sorry for going on so long… I do think I stuck my neck out about Nicea and I do think there were critical remarks to make, but my point was limited to showing how 1 Cor 15’s lines show up in those baptismal creeds/confessions all the way to Nicea. I think that is something we have to grapple with.

    Again, sorry for the length.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I really appreciate your coming by, Scot. I hope you detected in my review, not only my disagreement but also my great appreciation for your work. And please don’t apologize for the length of your comment…good dialog doesn’t happen in soundbytes.

      To your argument. 1 Cor. 15:1-11 could indeed be seen as propositional, as could many other snippets of Paul, Jesus, and how many others. I see nothing in the passage that suggests that Paul saw the content of that particular passage as in any way summative of the whole gospel…a gospel Paul states elsewhere is a thing to be “obeyed” in Romans 10:16, something which can include “priestly service” (Rom. 15:16), and which even includes “remembering the poor” as the culmination of Paul’s appeal to the Jerusalem leaders in Galatians 2:10. Paul goes on in Galatians to state that the “truth of the gospel” does not permit Jew-Gentile discrimination in Gal. 2:14. I don’t need to go on…you know full well and argued quite convincingly in your book that the Gospel of King Jesus is a many-splendored thing.

      This is why I can’t square your excellent exposition of the gospel with the narrowing of it to the propositional creeds…not because the propositions aren’t true or even necessary, but because the creeds by implication suggest they are sufficient. Your defense that Nicea is traceable to 1. Cor. 15 only stands, it seems to me, if we first accept that Paul or anybody else considered 1 Cor. 15 to be a sufficient summation of the gospel, such that it would stand on its own weight. I don’t see that claim holding up under the scrutiny you rightly applied to the soterian-only “gospel” of the modern church. At best, to use your metaphor, Nicea might represent but one “leg” of the gospel stool, and we all know how stable a one-legged stool would be.

      Of course, I would go on by suggesting that Nicea addressed additional issues–such as Christology–that aren’t to be found in the 1. Cor. 15 passage at all. In so doing, they began the long and storied process of majoring in minors while neglecting substantial majors. And it is that historical trend away from discipleship and into propositional theology, that I suggest leads directly and inevitably to the hyper-soterianism you so rightly critiqued throughout your book.

      Peace, and welcome back any time!

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