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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.

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18 thoughts on “Are You a Soterian? Horton Reviews McKnight”

  1. Richard says:

    Dr. Horton is winsome, even as he disagrees. A model for us all, I think.

    1. Timothy says:

      Interestingly, McKnight agrees. Another of Dr Horton’s fans although in frequent disagreement with him is Roger Olson. Both McKnight and Olson are very appreciative of the graciousness of Horton in debate.

  2. Chris Donato says:

    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!”?

    Because the land now equals the earth in early Christian terms?

    1. Justin B. says:

      That’s what I was thinking.

    2. MarkO says:

      could it be because “arets” and “earth” are used interchangeably in Hebrew?

  3. Scott C says:

    Let me say first of all that I have not read McKnight’s book. However, I have interacted at length with a friend of McKnight’s who has embraced the same thesis McKnight presents in this book. I, like Horton, resonate with some of the insightful critiques of the evangelical culture, but have been dismayed that these critiques are directed specifically at what this person calls the neo-Calvinists as best represented by The Gospel Coalition. The critiques concerning ‘conversionism’ seems appropriate for our Arminian brethren, but to Reformed folks? That is a little odd.

    What I also find confusing is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear delineation of how the gospel or salvation is actually appropriated in this perspective. IOW, there seems to be no theology of conversion at all (i.e. faith and repentance) and especially no theology of regeneration. Rather, there is a lot of talk about dispensing with how someone “gets in” so speak and an emphasis on “rehearsing” the Story of Israel as consummated in the Story of Jesus. I have no idea what this means.

    Furthermore, there is a remarkable disdain for ‘justification by faith.’ Thus this perspective seems concerned to construct a gospel that flows out of the Wrightian NPP.

  4. Brad says:

    Scot McKnight hates the doctrine of justification by faith? I’m pretty sure that is not true.

    1. Timothy says:

      It’s not true of Tom Wright either.

  5. Justin B. says:

    I’m going to second Brad’s statement. I didn’t come away from that book thinking McKnight hates justification by faith.

  6. Justin Taylor says:

    I agree that that would be an unfair statement.

  7. Scott C says:

    Again, my comments are based on my interaction with an articulate spokesman who represents the view McKnight espouses, not specifically anything McKnight says in his book. In my interaction, the charge was made repeatedly that TCG and like-minded neo-Calvinists place way too much emphasis upon justification by faith. Justification by faith was not dismissed, but I believe disdain for it was expressed. The charge is that Luther got it wrong and thus the Reformation shifted the focus on a particular doctrinal distinctive that has detracted from the central focus of the gospel as being the Story of Israel/ Jesus.

    I wouldn’t say disdain here equates to hatred, but it does seem like curt dismissal of a rather critical topic in this discussion. It seems to me that the NPP has sought to vigorously redefine our understanding of this issue and what is at stake in our understanding of the gospel. I look forward to reading McKnight’s book and I would be curious to hear what his thoughts are on the importance of justification by faith and the Lutheran interpretation of it, particularly as it corresponds to his thesis in the book.

    1. Brad says:

      Sorry about that Scott. I jumped to conclusions when I saw the context and the word “disdain.”

  8. Timothy says:

    Part of the problem is that Tom Wright at least, and I suspect Scot McKnight as well, are rather better on exegesis than on systematic theology or church history. The same is explicitly and confessedly true of James Dunn, who defended himself against the charge from Carl Trueman of being anti-Luther by saying that he knew little about Luther and had never taken aim at Luther anyway but had taken aim at Lutherans, in particular Bultmann. But of course Bultmann belonged in the world of NT scholarship and was the natural dialogue partner/opponent for one such as Dunn. Thus the attacks on Dunn from evangelicals took on the rather peculiar character of a refutation of an attack on Bultmann, not evangelicalism’s natural ally.
    The same divide between biblical scholars and systematic scholars perhaps blights the debate between McKnight and Horton. The former is stronger in biblical exegesis and biblical theology, the latter stronger in systematics. Each has their own discourse language, which although distinct has huge and potentially confusing overlap and insist on the other being understood within their own discourse.
    I can understand the complaint of Horton, “Why the false choices?” as all too often when I was attempting to assert a both/and contribution I was understood by charitable readers to mean “not this but that”. Here I suspect that McKnight not intending the choices that Horton seems to think.
    I do think that Horton’s comment “Another danger in reducing the gospel to the Jesus-Story-as-Solution-to-the-Israel-Story…” is unfair on McKnight as McKnight is attempting to reverse the reduction of the gospel to a story about the individual sinner. This may not be a reduction particularly true of the Reformed school, the neo-Reformed school or any other Reformed school so much as of nearly all evangelicalism since certainly Finney and perhaps even earlier, Wesley. Indeed, I think it true of Western Christianity since Augustine’s followers.
    But McKnight is not saying that the Plan of Salvation is unimportant or even secondary. What he is concerned to illuminate is how the word gospel functions in the Bible. For him the word gospel does not function as the plan of salvation however important that plan is. It functions in the NT as a story about Jesus Christ, a story that is embedded in the story of Israel and has massive implications for the story of ourselves. Refutation of McKnight has to show the use of the word gospel within the NT as meaning something other than this story of Israel. Showing how the word functions in the church discourse is beside the point. McKnight is concerned with the uese in the NT. How is it used there, that is the only question for McKnight.

  9. Timothy says:

    The other thing concerns the issue of straw men. When we feel attacked but grossly unfairly we often feel that our attacker is attacking straw men. Sometimes this is true. At other times the “straw men” do exist it is just not us. And Horton acknowlegdes this is the case in McKnight’s book in his remark that “Scot McKnight is reacting against a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly.” There are serious weaknesses out there. And we need to think seriously about them and not merely dismiss McKnight on the grounds that he attacks straw men.

  10. Bruce Clark says:

    Justin, thanks for this excerpt from Dr. Horton’s review. Like Richard, I too appreciated Dr. Horton’s winsome tone. I also appreciated his agreement that Dr. McKnight is addressing “a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly.”

    I just want to make two small points in response to Dr. Horton. He concludes by (fairly) cautioning enthusiasts against an alternate reductionism, and he provides various (possibly) reductionistic phrases, including “Jesus is Lord.” I guess I think this phrase is unlike the others he provides, because of its prominence in Paul and (variations of it) in Acts (Rom. 1.4; 10.9; 1Cor. 8.6; 12.3; 2Cor. 4.5; Phil. 2.11; Col. 2.6 (cf. 1.15-20); Acts 2.36; 10.36; cf. Eph. 1.15; Phil. 3.8; 2Thes. 1.8; Acts 11.17, 20; 16.31; 20.21; Ja. 2.1; 2Pet. 1.2, 8; 2.20). In short, all of us would want to be able to provide some account for the prominence and function of this phrase (and the countless references to Jesus as ‘the/our Lord Jesus’) in the earliest church.

    I think it could fairly be asked: in comparison to the above, does justification by faith enjoy the same near-universal prominence? That is, is it given the same ‘air time’ in the NT (or even in Paul)? (This is, of course, not to put the two at odds.)

    Second (but related), does the NT share Dr. Horton’s concern that the announcement of the arrival of a new authority in Jesus Christ is “ambiguous”? Theologically, I can understand that for the “non-elect” this is of course NOT good news. But I wonder if this objection is operating on a different plane (or within a different discourse) than that of Scripture: In Isaiah the runner publishes good news, proclaiming “our God reigns” (Isa. 52.7); Jesus says, “the kingdom is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” Paul quotes Isa. 11: “The root of Jesse will arise, one who will rule over the nations. The Gentiles will hope in him” (Rom. 15.12 = Isa. 11.10 LXX). Isaiah/Paul speak of Gentiles who learn of the rule of “the root of Jesse,” and they find that rule hopeful. In 2Cor. 4.5 Paul says he ‘proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord'; in Col. 2.6 the Colossians ‘received Christ Jesus as Lord.’ No qualifications are given nor are concerns raised in these expressions. Therefore, while I can understand the theological objection, I am not sure that it has sufficiently understood how these “announcements” are functioning within their own discourse.

    Could it be that justification by faith represents one (crucial!) way in which Christ exercises/expresses his lordship (Rom. 5.1: “…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”)?

  11. I think Dr Horton’s review is a perfect example of respectful critique.

    1. Krister S says:

      I agree and yet wonder why we have to even make note of his collegial approach, for brothers who disagree on matters such as these are not enemies. That said, uncharitable polemics are far too common among leaders in various camps. In my view it’s most prevalent among those who have circled their wagons around narrowest views of “orthodoxy,” and deluded to think they are protecting the flock, n in fact they are but protecting their herd’s pet doctrines. Let their be peace among the believers in the big tent.

  12. Timothy says:

    As Horton remarks, McKnight’s book should be of great value as an important conversation starter.
    Over on McKnight’s Jesus Creed there is McKnight’s response to Horton. It clarifies a few places where Horton seems to have misunderstood McKnight and also where the precise points of contention lie.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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