Augustine and The Scandal of Embodied Humanity

augustineI’ve been pondering a couple conversations I had with neo-Reformed friends this past week about the incarnation that brought to mind numerous similar conversations I’ve had with others as well. Things typically go well concerning the humanity as well as the divinity of Jesus until at some point I say, “And Jesus not only came as a human in the past tense, Jesus is still an embodied human even now.”

A statement like this always seems to disturb quite a few folks. One of my friends this past week replied, “But Jesus was resurrected … he ascended … he was re-instated as the second person of the Trinity, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Resurrected as the Human One, ascended as the Human One, and included in the eternal divine fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit … as the Human One. Is not the incarnation, and thus the humanity as well as divinity of Jesus; an ongoing, permanent reality? And necessary for historic orthodoxy no less?”

He only answered with a weak, “Well … I suppose it is.”

Now, let’s put the ‘re-instated as the second person of the Trinity’ comment aside (I’m not sure he realized just how problematic his statement here really was). And please keep in mind I’m not simply picking on my friend with this; but my grave concern here is something of a theological undercurrent I have seen from a great deal of conservative Evangelicals, neo-Reformed and otherwise.

That is – there is a (rather well documented) tendency to not only over-emphasize the divinity of Jesus in relation to his humanity but to actually wince when it comes his (continued and ongoing) humanity. The incarnation it seems to them is a scandal … a theological box to be checked off to fulfill all ‘righteousness’ so to speak … but in the end a scandal to be muted.

For those neo-Reformed, or others, who like to appeal to Augustine as their authority (or appeal to those who appeal to Augustine even though you’ve never really read Augustine yourself) consider these two quotes:

The first, on the incarnation…

God has “established and founded this faith, that man might find a way to man’s God through God made man. For this is ‘the Mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus’. For it is as man that He is the Mediator and the Way. If there is a way between one who strives and that towards which he strives, there is hope of his reaching his goal; but if there is no way, or if he is ignorant of it, how does it help him to know what the goal is? The only way that is wholly defended against all error is when one and the same person is at once God and man: God our goal, man our way.” (City of God, 11.2)

And the second, where we see that Augustine is not against the flesh…

The incarnation “showed that it is sin which is evil, and not the substance or nature of flesh … He showed also that death itself, though it is the penalty of sin – a penalty which He paid for us without sin – is not something that we are to avoid by sinful means. Rather, if need be, we should suffer death in the name of righteousness. For He was able to redeem us from sin by His own death, because He died, but He died for no sin of His own.” (City of God 10.24)

There is no muting of the incarnated and embodied humanity of Jesus or humanity in general for Augustine here. Let us then not mute the implications of the incarnation and humanity of Jesus, our liberating King. Our faith is unintelligible apart from incarnation (and Trinity).

Tell me: Why do so many run from embodied humanity – Jesus’ or ours?

The King Jesus Gospel [1] – Chapters 1 & 2

Thanks for joining me as we discuss Scot McKnight’s new book The King Jesus Gospel (KJG). If you haven’t seen it already, please go here to see my preview post I did yesterday which will introduce you to the basic ideas. I hope to offer at least two things through this series – first, a substantial, yet condensed summary of the material of KJG and second, not only a review but an interaction with and discussion with what McKnight has to say to us.


Before he gets to chapter one McKnight shares an experience from 1971 in which he was a seventeen year old participating in the evangelism program at his church. This experience read like it could have been from my own life as a newly ‘surrendered’ preacher to the ministry. McKnight was teamed with a seasoned deacon from his church and they made ‘call’ to a guy’s house because he had filled out a visitor’s card. They found the man and his family in the middle of dinner, which didn’t deter the deacon any and they spent the hour or so witnessing to this man. It was apparent that this man had no interest in getting ‘saved’ but the deacon applied ever ounce of persuasion he had and the man ‘made a decision for Christ’…McKnight’s church rejoiced at the report of a salvation…and no one ever saw this guy at their church (or presumably any other church) ever again. McKnight says that most of evangelism today is obsessed about the decision but that the disciples were obsessed with making disciples. “Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and – yes, the word is appropriate – aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.” (18)

McKnight is a professor and he reports that his students report to him 1) that the gospel they heard had to do with their sin, Jesus’ death, and going to heaven. But 2) these same students also report that they know that something is wrong with this picture. McKnight presents some statistics that I won’t repeat all of them here (check them out on pages 18-19) but that approximately 60% of Americans make a commitment to Jesus (ie, a decision) but if we measure discipleship that 60% dwindles down to something more like 6%. McKnight concludes that “at the most conservative estimates, we lose at least 50 percent if those who make decisions” and “our focus on getting young people to make decisions – that is, ‘accepting Jesus into our hearts’ – appears to distort spiritual formation.” These conclusions have convinced McKnight that we need to revisit “the connection of gospel and evangelism and salvation and our methods of persuasion.” (20-21) But all of this requires an answer to one big question, which is the subject of chapter one.

Chapter One – The Big Question

This chapter introduces us to what is, in his contention (and I buy his contention here), the most important question the church can ask today – this is an issue in which there is a ‘fog of confusion’ about it. That question is: what is the gospel? This will come as a surprise to quite a few who thought they had gospel nailed down, especially evangel-icals, who seemingly have the gospel or good news built right into their name. Sure, poverty and politics and eschatology and a host of other things can be debated till we are blue in the face, but the Christian message is something we should have down already. There are other things that need discussion but McKnight suggests that we can’t really discuss them well until we answer the gospel question. In order to answer this gospel question he says that “we need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel” (24) and for those thinking they have the gospel down pat already McKnight offers a ‘well, sorry, but not so fast…’ McKnight then offers three exhibits that illustrate why he thinks we are off track.

Exhibit 1 is from a reader who wrote to question what the ‘good news’ was about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David. McKnight had a reaction of disbelief and I understand where he is coming from. At a church I was a youth pastor at during my undergrad I will never forget a very seasoned (and old) deacon, who had grown up in this little Baptist church, confessing to me that ever since he was a teenager he never could figure out why it mattered to us that Jesus was the Messiah. That was a Jewish message and we as Gentiles just need to focus on ‘Jesus in our heart.’ What’s more is the pastor, who had an MDiv from a large Southern Baptist seminary somewhere in general area of Texas, agreed with him! McKnight is correct, these instances reveal that what folks mean by gospel is far too often entirely about personal salvation and not Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The sad thing is that there are very likely many other Christians out there who also wonder what the gospel has to do Jesus being Messiah (thus demonstrating the gospel has flown right by them!).

Exhibit 2 concerns the ever influential (and very often controversial) John Piper. At a big conference in 2010 he asked a question: Did Jesus Preach Paul’s gospel? Piper examined Luke 18 and thankfully found that, yes, Jesus did preach Paul’s gospel of justification by faith. However, it seems that Piper may have gotten things a bit backwards. McKnight concedes that there are the makings of justification by faith in Luke 18 and that it is fair to ask “if Jesus preached a gospel like Paul’s.” But this isn’t the same thing as asking whether Jesus preached Paul’s gospel. Indeed, the more appropriate question is whether Paul preached Jesus’ gospel. And the other problem here is that “Piper’s assumption is that justification is the gospel.” McKnight contends (and I again agree with his contention here even though I am moderately Calvinist) that the Calvinist crowd in America (or more appropriately the neo-Reformed) has defined the gospel with the ‘justification by faith’ shorthand. But did the apostles define the gospel this way? And we must admit that there are hardly any instances of this favorite theological category in what are called the four Gospels.

Exhibit 3 concern a pastor McKnight ran into at an airport. When questioned about what he was reading McKnight told the pastor it was a book about the gospel. The pastor confidently stated the ease of defining the gospel and said confidently the gospel was ‘justification by faith.’ So McKnight asked him: Did Jesus preach the gospel? The pastor’s response was that Jesus could not have preached the gospel because no one could understand the gospel until Paul. Ummm, really? This is another equation of the gospel with ‘justification by faith’ and a rather stark admission by this pastor that because Jesus did not speak in these terms then he didn’t preach the gospel.

The result of this is McKnight’s claim that “the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’ The result is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles. The text or gospel story has disappeared and been buried under layers of ‘personal salvation’ interpretation. This has created a whole system or church culture that is doing precisely what it is programmed to do (ie, decisions that don’t seem to stick) because it is energized by a badly shaped gospel. McKnight concludes this chapter, “Our biggest problem is that we have an entire culture shaped by a misunderstanding of the gospel. That so-called gospel is deconstructing the church.” (27)

Chapter Two – Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture

McKnight opens this chapter by saying that evangelicalism is a gift to the church and world. And one of the gifts that McKnight says that evangelicalism offers is the conviction that personal faith is both necessary and nonnegotiable. The gospel is not for spectators. McKnight also mentions an Eastern Orthodox friend of his who admits that there are too many who have been ‘sacramentalized’ but not ‘evangelized.’ McKnight concludes that the sacramental process isn’t enough and that there must be a call for personal faith. As an aside here: I think we can also reverse this and contend that evangelicalism’s avoidance of the sacraments has contributed to what McKnight is calling a salvation culture – relegating them to mere symbol or mere ordinance. The sacraments (yes, I am Baptist!) of baptism and the eucharist are key for being incorporated into the biblical story, the story of Jesus, and the wider mission of God. We’ll talk more about this as we go along, specifically in the last chapter.

But while evangelicalism may be a gift it is far from perfect. “We evangelicals (as a whole) are not really ‘evangelical’ in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians.” (29) Drawing from the greek words euangelion and evangel (from which we get gospel) and soteria (from which we get salvation) McKnight makes the contention that the term at the heart of evangel-ical description does not really define evangelical identity. Instead, evangelicals ought to be called soterians (the saved ones) due to their over emphasis on personal salvation (and even here I think it can be contended that the evangelical ‘personal salvation’ is a reduction of a more robust biblical salvation). What has happened is that evangelicals have created a ‘salvation culture’ and have mistakenly assumed it is a ‘gospel culture.’ What’s more is that McKnight sees this salvation culture at work in more liturgical traditions as well as evangelicalism. The difference is that the former have trouble getting The Members to move on to the The Discipled and the latter has trouble getting The Decided to move to the Discipled. But if McKnight is correct then it seems that an overwhelming portion of Christianity (at least in northern America) has a discipleship problem. McKnight contends three things: 1) a salvation culture and gospel culture are not the same thing, 2) in equating a salvation culture and gospel culture we betray a profound lack of understanding of the gospel itself, and 3) we must create a gospel culture to move The Members and The Decided to The Discipled…ie, we need to (re)create a gospel culture and we need to go back to the Bible in order to do this.

Concluding Observations

Well, here are the first two chapters. I want to end with two brief notes. First an observation about McKnight identifying a problem in the emphasis on persons ‘deciding’ for Christ – or the salvation culture. McKnight shares about Pastor Eric in chapter 2 who does his best to ‘balance’ justification and discipleship, fearful that emphasizing discipleship too much will compromise salvation by faith. So, he goes back and forth because he has a salvation culture and not a gospel culture. I want to suggest here that there is a deformed ecclesiology that has been adversely affected by modern American individualism. In identifying a salvation culture versus a gospel culture McKnight is echoing the longstanding critiques of many concerning evangelicalism’s ecclesiology (or lack thereof!).

Second, I think we need to pay close attention to the evangelical propensity of leaving the biblical and gospel story behind and importing a systematic theology in its place which speaks to evangelical theological method. We have already seen this at work in these two chapters and the salvation culture McKnight identifies (based as it is on a de-storified or decontextualized ‘justification by faith’ theology) is a prime example of this. Evangelicals claim to be a ‘people of the Book’ (my own Baptist tradition uses this as a mark of pride) or a ‘people of the Story’. How ironic then that they have lost the biblical narrative/story to a systematic theology (and I say this as one trained as a theologian) combined with a lopsided emphasis on the individual experience of salvation and have as a result confused a salvation culture for a gospel culture.

A note before we go. Tomorrow will be fourteen years since my wife and I said I do and tied the knot. Seeing as it is our anniversary, and seeing as I want to have another next year, I will be spending the day with her. So, I will be back Wednesday sometime.

Oh, by the way, just to be official, I think I am supposed to let everyone know (in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”) that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of a give away to read and talk about on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review, a bad review, or an in between review. I hereby swear upon pain of death or worse, being forced to watch endless reruns of The Office, that the opinions I have expressed are my own (but I would have bought the book and reviewed it anyways if I had not received it for free) and that I am solely responsible for any typos that appear.