In the fifth chapter of The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight recounts the centuries-long transition from the large-scale and robust gospel vision of the New Testament to the anthropologically-oriented formulaic gospel of contemporary evangelicalism. The turning point is the Reformation.
In the previous chapter, Scot discusses Paul’s gospel from 1 Corinthians 15. The gospel according to the apostles was the story of Jesus as the completion of the story of Israel. The gospel reached back to Israel and its identity and mission and had everything to do with Jesus’ teaching, actions, death, resurrection, ascension, and installation as cosmic Lord and returning King. This gospel shaped the culture of the early church and the creeds of the first four Christian centuries.
For the early church, “the gospel” did not involve a formula for “getting saved,” a description of the mechanics of how people get saved, or how Jesus becomes personal savior.
“The gospel” was a larger narrative, had a wider scope, and involved a more robust reality.
How, then, did “the gospel” become “the plan of salvation,” a formula by which I get saved? How did its focus shift from the story of God’s redeeming the world through Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, the Messiah of Israel, to a focus on me and the genuineness of my salvation experience?
Scot emphasizes the salutary effects of the Reformation—it was good and necessary. But in contrast to the historic creeds of the church, the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran) and the Genevan Confession (Calvinist/Reformed) focused on “human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility” (p. 71).
The Reformation initiated the anthropological shift away from Scripture’s narration of God and his intentions for the world, the fall into sin, and God’s mission to reclaim creation for the glory of his name. While these are mentioned in the Reformation creeds, the focus shifts to the individual, how all of this affects the individual, and in what order.
Scot is careful to acknowledge the necessity of this attention, given the historical contingencies. Over time, however, the balance between the biblical gospel and the salvation of individuals eroded. Subsequent centuries have witnessed “plenty of subtraction and reframing” so that the Reformation insights have become four simple, thinned-out points: “God loves you, you are messed up, Jesus died for you, accept him and (no matter what you do) you can go to heaven” (p. 73).
Scot sets the early church’s “gospel culture” over against our contemporary “salvation culture,” by which he means a “culture of personal salvation and personal testimony” (p. 74). We’re at the place where what matters is that individuals have their own story of the experience of forgiveness and inner transformation.
Again, it’s important to note that Scot isn’t completely dismissing the Reformation nor is he downplaying the need for personal ownership of the faith.
I don’t want to call into question the God-led significance of the Reformation. So, I do not dispute the need for clarifying salvation and making its personal application clear and necessary. Rather, what happened is the apostolic gospel culture was reframed in such a way and so successfully, largely as a result of the powerful evangelistic culture of evangelicalism in American revivalism and then later in America’s culture war between fundamentalists and modernists, that today we are losing contact with the gospel culture (p. 76).
I hope Scot’s book initiates vigorous conversations among evangelicals that help us recover the biblical gospel. We claim to be people oriented by the gospel, but we’ve largely lost touch with the Scripture’s robust and life-giving narrative of God, creation, Israel, Jesus, church, coming new creation. The fallout has been devastating for God’s people and God’s name.