‘How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens’ by Michael Williams (Book Review)

This post is part of a blog tour for a new book called How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams, who teaches Old Testament at Calvin College. When I saw the announcement for the book and the blog tour I was very much intrigued due to my interest in both philosophical and theological hermeneutics (specifically Paul Ricoeur) and what is called the ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’ (TIS) movement which seeks to read the Bible as specifically Christian Scripture and even according to a Trinitarian ‘rule of faith.’ The TIS movement has been vigorously opposed by some who favor a more ‘scholarly’ historical-critical approach to biblical studies (with its various criticisms – textual, source, genre, literary and so forth) which ask in true modernist fashion for readers to lay aside their presuppositions, theological or otherwise (as if that were even possible) in the name of modern objectivity. To read the Bible through the ‘Jesus lens’ seems to call for a specifically theologically driven reading of Scripture and so would be opposed by a great many advocates of historical-critical scholarship. I wanted to see if William’s book could add anything to the conversation between the TIS and historical-critical camps.

An Overview of How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

Williams offers brief chapters on all 66 chapters of the Bible with each one being only four or five pages in length. His opening chapter, itself only about 2½ pages, begins with his central (theological) presupposition that all of the Scriptures testify to Christ and that to read the Bible well is to read it as a picture of Jesus. As he says, “Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God’s grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son.” (9) With his cards laid on the table he moves on to the main chapters which are all outlined in similar fashion. Each chapter begins with what Williams takes as the main focus or theme of the book in question, the second part provides a memory passage that demonstrates the main theme, the third part (which forms the center of each chapter) takes up the Jesus lens for which the book is titled, the fourth part deals with contemporary implications, and the fifth section provides hook questions that can be used for group discussions.

I signed up for Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians as the chapters that I was to take a look at for my review. Here is how he lays out his chapters for these three books.

Ephesians: Williams gives his one word summation of the theme of Ephesians as shalomshalom that undoes the brokenness of sin. His sentence summary is “God establishes the church as the firstfruits of his shalom.” “Through Jesus Christ, the brokenness of sin is undone. It is God’s will ‘to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’ (1:10).” (198) He gives the memory passage as 2:17 and links the Jesus lens to Christ himself being our peace (2:14). “Christ is our peace. He alone is able to mend the greater-than-Grand-Canyon-size rift between us and God and between us and other human beings.” (200) His section on contemporary implications center around the responsibility of those who have been restored in Christ to demonstrate the shalom of Christ to a world full of broken people.

Philippians: For Philippians Williams gives the standard one word theme: joy. His sentence summary is “God gives resurrection power and joy in the face of persecution and heresy.” (203) Here I might say that instead of joy the theme of Philippians revolves more around the faithfulness of Christ or Christlike cruciformity – those things that give our joy grounding. The memory passage is 3:10-11. The Jesus lens section pulls again from the word ‘joy’ drawing a connection between Philippians and Luke 2:10 and Hebrews 12:2. The contemporary implication section can be summed up thusly, “We can be sure that God will give strength, and even joy, in the midst of challenges to come.” (205)

Colossians: The phrase that Williams sets as the theme for Colossians is ‘exalted Christ.’ His sentence summary is “God has exalted his Christ above all human wisdom and tradition.” (206) The memory passage is 1:18 and Williams summarizes “if the teaching presented to the Colossians was not based on Christ and did not ultimately lead to a deeper relationship with Christ, that teaching was worthless and harmful. Christ provides the lens through which both the truth and its cheap imitations come into focus.” (207) The Jesus lens section explores the reality that the ‘extras’ offered by the Colossian false teachers have all been accomplished in Christ. Spiritual mysteries, spiritual wisdom, and spiritual life are all to be found in their fullness in the exalted Christ. The contemporary implication section emphasizes that the exalted nature of Christ will manifest itself in practical ways in relationship to others.

Overall Williams has given us a great resource for Sunday School teachers, Bible Study leaders, and those that host small groups that can help anchor their discussions in the larger picture of Scripture. As with any book, I found much to appreciate and also some disappointment but before I get to those I’d like to comment on some issues Williams’ book may raise in regards to typical evangelical hermeneutical methods.

An Interlude on Hermeneutical Methods (or going down the interpretive rabbit trail)…

Williams’ book actually stands in a series with two other books that I have read. The first of these is How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart. I remember having to read this book for my undergrad biblical interpretation course. Fee and Stewart cover many of the same ‘criticisms’ of historical-critical methodology but of course do so from within the tradition of contemporary evangelicalism. I remember being dramatically affected by the discussion of genre in the Bible and how genre affected the task of interpretation. As an undergrad it was the first time I had ever encountered a serious discussion that poetry may be different from prose may be different from narrative and so on. The second book is How the Read the Bible Book by Book with proposes a basic four line narrative structure for reading Scripture of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation with an emphasis on the story of God becoming the story for our lives. I would quibble a bit here or there since the four line narrative seems to have some gaps but overall I applaud a narrative approach to the Bible. Surely, this type of a narrative approach and reading the Bible through the Jesus lens fit hand in glove!

However, going back to How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, there is an aspect to Fee and Stuart’s initial proposal that disturbs me (despite the fact that Fee remains to this day one of my favorite New Testament scholars). There is a common feature of evangelical hermeneutics in Fee’s proposal that I feel is troublesome and that ultimately doesn’t jive well with the Jesus lens of Williams’ book. I am pulling from memory here since my copy of How to Read the Bible for all its Worth is packed in a box in storage (my family and I just moved) and I can’t give exact quotes (there was no preview available on Google Books) but here goes. Fee and Stuart have a good discussion on the need to interpret and that the answer to bad interpretation is not no interpretation at all (which is impossible) but good interpretation. But then they say that proper interpretation of Scripture involves the ‘plain meaning’ of the text uncovered by an ‘enlightened common sense’ reading of the text. The call for the plain meaning and an enlightened common sense reading indicate Fee and Stuart are squarely within the realm of typical evangelical hermeneutics.

Now they recognize that the ‘plain meaning’ and ‘common sense’ approach can too easily simply be reduced to MY meaning and MY common sense reading so they seek to protect and guard against this sort of abuse by grounding the hermeneutical task in three interrelated aspects of the text – the original context, the original authorial intent, and original meaning. This is the basics to the grammatical-historical approach that developed in evangelical camps as an alternative to the historical-critical approach. The motto of this approach as Fee and Stuart state it is – a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or original hearers. Or the shorter version that I learned in my early days in seminary – a text can never mean what it has never meant. So, as we are told, the scriptural text has only one meaning but multiple applications. The net result here is that meaning gets split from application in much the same way that theory and practice were split apart in theology under modernity (modernity had a way of doing this with just about everything it touched). But does this mean that with this methodology in regards to a great many Old Testament texts in which the original readers would not/could not have seen Jesus in them that Jesus is merely the ‘application’ of the text and not its full meaning? Something about this doesn’t sound right to me. Of course to resolve this and other such tensions there is always the tactic of simply overruling human authorial intent whenever needed with divine authorial intent. However this only seems to succeed in bifurcating the human and divine authors and points us towards a sort of scriptural docetism.

Perhaps it is time that we recognize that the biblical authors as specifically ancient writers would not be able to pass our seminary courses in either historical-critical or grammatical-historical methods. Additionally, we ought to recognize that the church Fathers (often slammed by evangelicals for their many hermeneutical faux pas) employed hermeneutical methods much closer to those used by the biblical authors themselves than those typically taught in our seminary courses these days (whether liberal or conservative). As it turns out both the historical-critical and grammatical-historical approaches were forged in the Enlightenment, modernist worldview and as a result both fail to adequately deal with the ‘surplus of meaning’ (to use a Ricoeurian term) in the biblical story! Ironically I have seen both advocates of the historical-critical method and the grammatical-historical method feel uneasy about Christological readings of Scripture. Sometimes it seems to me that some evangelical approaches operate with an economy of scarcity in regards to ‘meaning’ as if there won’t be enough meaning in the Bible to go around, or perhaps even an economy of fear in which we won’t be able to control where all this ‘meaning’ will go.

But when it comes to the activity and revelation of the triune God in the person of Christ its not a scarcity we are dealing with. A surplus should not be a surprise to us! And yes, the surplus of the biblical narrative is not something that we can control. But good news, hermeneutics is not about control after all, but about wisely discerning where the biblical story is pointing us. Additionally, to posit a surplus of meaning is not to discard historical-critical or grammatical-historical approaches in wholesale fashion. Nor is it to ignore the original context, original authorial intent, or original meaning of a text … the hard work of exegesis must still be done. Neither is the positing of a surplus of meaning the removal of all interpretive controls such that we grant ourselves unlimited interpretive license and end up with a hermeneutical free for all. To posit a surplus of meaning is not to say that the biblical text can meaning any and everything at all, but simply that the text can mean all that it can mean. With regards to Williams’ book it seems to me that without something like a surplus of meaning that Christological and Jesus lens readings of much of the Old Testament simply won’t work. Because of this Williams’ book seems to stand in some tension with How to Read the Bible for all its Worth and those who would privilege historical-critical or grammatical-historical approaches. I think however that the surplus of meaning inherent in the biblical text itself is precisely what 1) a narrative approach to Scripture 2) coupled with the Jesus lens can help us to uncover. (For an introduction to the surplus of meaning see Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church by Merold Westphal which covers the hermeneutics of Gadamer along with a discussion of Ricoeur).

Final thoughts on Reading the Bible through the Jesus Lens

With my compulsion to chase rabbits appeased here are briefly some things I appreciated about the book as well as some disappointments.

Appreciations: As I stated above, Williams has give us a great resource for church leaders to anchor their teaching in the bigger Christocentric picture of the Bible. Also, as I flipped through the various chapters I found that most of the themes he assigned fit the biblical books in question (although there were a few I would quibble with, but that is to be expected). The length of the chapters is not so long as to overwhelm readers and the lay of the book enables readers to find what they need quickly. This book makes a good reference tool for lay readers. And of course, I appreciate the fact that Williams leads readers through the Bible by means of a specifically theological interpretation of Scripture (though he doesn’t call it that) by using the Christologically focused Jesus lens. Basically what we have with How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens is introductory Christological hermeneutics for lay readers instead of the grammatical-historical method for lay readers.

Disappointments: There are two main disappointments I have with the book. First, the length of the chapters (which above formed a strength) also becomes a liability in many places where more depth is really needed. Also the uniform four to five pages for every book of the Bible doesn’t seem to correspond to the greatly varying lengths of the biblical books themselves. Second, the contemporary implication sections (which seem to function as Williams’ practical application section) seem too broad and seem to suffer from their shortness. For instance in both Ephesians and Colossians Williams is only able to say that the shalom of Christ and the exalted nature of Christ have practical import into our lives. But then, for instance, there is no comment whatsoever on how the shalom of Christ and exalted nature of Christ affects the particular issues of submission and marriage relationships in everyday life. Realizing that this may be due to the length of the chapters this becomes another indication that while a strength in some ways the length of the chapters form a deficit in other important ways as well.

Overall, I give my recommendation for this book. While including no in depth discussion on the hermeneutical questions I raised earlier I am encouraged that Williams is bringing a specifically theological hermeneutic to the table.  While those hoping for deeper discussions will need to use this book as a springboard to other resources, I think this book will be a great reference for readers who are willing to take what the book actually gives them and accept it for what it is – an introduction and beginning guide to a Christological reading of Scripture.

In order to fulfill all legal righteousness you should 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 blog tour. I was not required to write a positive review. I hereby swear that the opinions I have expressed are my own, that I am solely responsible for any typos that appear, and that no animals (rabbits or otherwise) were harmed in writing of this review.

The King Jesus Gospel [2] – Overview

This is the second post in a series on Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.

“…the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” John Steinbeck

This really describes me right now. I had originally planned to blog through the whole of KJG this week. I even got off to a good start with Monday’s post covering the first two chapters. So, what happened you may ask? Tuesday was the 14th anniversary of when my wife and I were married. No…I didn’t forget about it…but we decided to go out of town. I figured I could pick back up Wednesday with two chapters at a time and just finish on Saturday. But the stuff of life, as it often does, has conspired such that only now am I getting back McKnight’s book. For the one or two folks who were waiting eagerly I offer my apologies. My new plan is to 1) offer a basic overview in this post and 2) to take additional time to discuss the book one chapter at a time more substantially.

Chapters 1 and 2 (redux)

In my first post I already covered chapters one and two. In chapter one McKnight gave us three exhibits. In one of these someone wrote to ask McKnight what was ‘good news’ about Jesus being the Messiah of Israel. The other two provided evidence that evangelicals in particular had come to define gospel as ‘justification by faith’ and personal salvation (particularly in Paul). McKnight contends this represents a confusion of the gospel and that we need to revisit afresh the question ‘What is the gospel?’ (hence the reason he wrote this book). In the second chapter McKnight claims that evangelicals are actually misnamed. Instead of evangel-ical (which comes from the Greek for gospel) they are better called soterians (which comes from the Greek word for salvation). In other words, evangelicals ought to be called ‘salvationists’ instead of ‘evangelical’ because of their emphasis on personal salvation. Salvation and the gospel are not the same thing, and though salvation is a part of the gospel it ought not to be confused for the whole of the gospel (nor should it be merely reduced down to individual salvation). The result of the evangelical confusion of personal salvation for the gospel has resulted in what McKnight calls a ‘salvation culture’ vs a ‘gospel culture.’ Evangelicals have created a salvation culture in which they focus on decisions or getting people to be among the ‘The Decided.’ The problem here is that because they have not emphasized the gospel they then fail to move ‘The Decided’ to the ‘The Discipled.’

Chapter 3

In chapter three McKnight takes us ‘From Story to Salvation.’ Before we answer the question: ‘What is the gospel?’ McKnight first lays out four categories. These four are 1) the story of Israel/the Bible, 2) The story of Jesus, 3) the plan of salvation, and 4) the method of persuasion. McKnight presents a condensed summary of the story of Israel /the Bible which takes us all the way from creation to God’s covenant with Israel, to Christ as climax, the church and commission, and the consummation. The gospel is the story of Jesus that fits within this narrative and only makes sense within this narrative. McKnight goes on to say that the story of the Bible and the story of Jesus belong together and the plan of salvation and method of persuasion go together. The problem it seems that for too long these two pairings have been inverted. The method of persuasion and plan of salvation has been placed on top of the story of Jesus and the story of the Bible. The result of this inversion has been a de-storified personal salvation and a salvation culture. As McKnight says, the gospel has been “crushed” under the plan of salvation.

Chapter 4

Chapter four moves to the New Testament and considers the ‘The Apostolic Gospel of Paul.’ To begin to answer to the question: ‘What is the gospel?’ and whether or not Paul and Jesus preached the same gospel, McKnight starts with I Cor 15. Here we find that Paul ‘gospeled’ (or preached) the gospel to the Corinthians – a gospel in which Christ died for our sins, that Christ was buried, that Christ was raised, and that Christ appeared to witnesses according to the gospel. McKnight says that “the apostolic gospel is an ‘according-to-Scriptures telling of the story of Jesus.’” The gospel for Paul is the salvation unleashing story of Jesus, who is Messiah, Lord of all, and Son of God. This story of Jesus brings to completion the story of Israel according to the Scriptures. And though the plan of salvation is included in the story of the Bible and the story of Jesus, one can not simply limit or reduce the gospel to the plan of salvation (thus it seems to me that evangelicals may not only need to recover the gospel but to rediscover Paul afresh as well). “When the ‘plan’ gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical.”

Chapter 5

So, if Paul emphasized the gospel, that is the story of Jesus, then how did the salvation culture overtake a gospel culture? Without going into detail here, McKnight narrates how the early creeds were formed complete with quotes from them that mirror this apostolic gospel preached by Paul which narrates the story of Jesus within the creeds themselves. McKnight (and I have some questions here I will need to talk about later) says that our equation of gospel with the plan of salvation came about “because of developments from and after the Reformation.” McKnight does some comparison of the ancient creeds with Reformation era and after confessions and what one finds (my words here) is that the later confessions come to resemble modern systematic theologies in their organization. In other words they become less narrative and story centered and more proposition driven as the shift was made from the story of the Bible and Jesus and to a system of soteriology. To recover the gospel we will need to recapture the narrative…the story.

Chapter 6

On this note, McKnight turns his attention to what we call today ‘the four Gospels.’ McKnight here asks if one has ever wondered why these first four books of the NT are called ‘the Gospel.” McKnight answers this question by saying that the Apostle Paul and the Gospel writers both told the same story: that being the story of Israel coming to completion in the story of Jesus. The four Gospels and the gospel are one. There is only one gospel that was preached by Paul and the Gospel writers. This one gospel was written down in four unique versions (what I like to think of as portraits) – the one gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as witnesses to the story of Jesus. McKnight rightfully concludes that “the Gospels are about Jesus, they tell us the story of Jesus, and everything in them is about Jesus.” “To ‘gospel’ is to tell the story if Jesus!” Again, this story that both the apostles and the Gospels told was the story of Jesus completing the story of Israel as Messiah and Lord. In this story Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was resurrected, appeared (and is coming) again according to the Scriptures.

Chapter 7

In chapter seven McKnight moves on to discuss ‘Jesus and the Gospel.’ His big question in this chapter is: ‘Did Jesus preach the gospel?’ McKnight reminds us here that we are not asking: ‘Did Jesus preach the plan of salvation?’ or ‘Did Jesus preach justification by faith?’ No, what McKnight wants to determine is: did Jesus see himself and preach himself as the completion of the story of Israel. The importance of framing the question this way is that it shifts the focus away from the benefits that we experience (ie, personal salvation) to the Person himself who is the good news. In the process this way of asking the question reveals that the gospel is not primarily about us. Instead the gospel is about Jesus – his story and (we’ll have to cover this more in the subsequent post on ch 7) the coming of his kingdom and reign. McKnight concludes, “Jesus was totally into preaching himself as the center of God’s plan for Israel.” Therefore, Jesus did preach the gospel because he preached himself, and he preached himself completing Israel’s story – and all this is (you guessed it) according to the Scriptures.

Chapter 8

McKnight thus far has fashioned three legs in what he calls his ‘gospel chair’: that Jesus preached the gospel, that the Gospels tell us the gospel, and that Paul passed on the apostolic gospel tradition. And these three proclaim the same gospel we have already discussed. The fourth leg McKnight says to this ‘gospel chair’ is the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, in particular Peter’s gospel preaching. In this we find that Peter and Paul preached and were contending for the same gospel. I Cor 15 outlines the gospel for us. However, McKnight discusses seven (or eight) gospel sermons in Acts – 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 10:34-43, with 11:4-18; 13: 16-41; 14: 15-17; 17:22-31 (and possibly 7:2-53) – that present for us ‘gospeling’ in public. These are summaries of the actual gospeling of Peter and Paul. McKnight contends about the apostolic preaching in Acts, “The apostles were not like our modern soterians because they did not empty the gospel of its Story, not did they reduce the gospel to the plan of salvation. In fact, the apostles were the original robust evangelicals.” The framing for the gospeling in Acts was the story of Israel and ‘according to the Scriptures’ which they began to read according to the story of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Each of the four legs in McKnight’s gospel chair tell us the same thing about the gospel: “it is the story of Israel that comes to completion in the saving story of Jesus, who is Messiah of Israel, Lord over all, and the Davidic Savior.”

Chapter 9 and 10

In the final two chapters McKnight discusses ‘Gospeling today’ and ‘Creating a Gospel Culture.’ The big ideas that I want to mention at this point are that 1) the apostles did not frame their gospeling with an individualistic plan of salvation or a method of persuasion centered on hell and judgment. If McKnight is right (and I think he is) if we are going to gospel the way the apostles did we shouldn’t either. 2) Only by telling the apostolic gospel can we reclaim a gospel culture. In telling this apostolic gospel as the story of Jesus we are not doing away with salvation but instead placing “salvation in the context of a story that has a beginning (in creation and covenant with Israel), a middle (David), and a resolution (Jesus and final redemption).” Evangelicals tend to individualize and reduce the gospel by de-storifying salvation. Only within its proper narrative context (the story of Israel/the Bible and the story of Jesus) will salvation be robust and gospel shaped. We ought to tell the (whole) story of Jesus as the gospel, and let the gospel do its work. And the only way to create a gospel culture is to tell the story – that we may become people of the Story, immersed in the story of Jesus that continues in the church’s story. Only by embracing this story can we form gospel shaped counter stories to the false stories of the world. But all this starts not with individual salvation, but instead with the story of Jesus – the gospel.

There is much more to say that this overview could not cover. McKnight’s KJG raises so many good questions and things to discuss. As we journey in more depth through each of the chapters individually we will cover questions related to (just to name a few off the top of my head):

the nature of the gospel as anti-empire (which I was disappointed that McKnight de-emphasized), hermeneutics (what does it mean to have a gospel shaped reading of the Bible), anthropology (what are we created to be), ecclesiology (what kind of people are we called out to be), ecclesial practices (what kinds of things form us into the people we are called out to be), as well as theological method (specifically the role of narrative theology). Through it all I think that we will find that far better than evidence the demands a verdict, or four spiritual laws, or an awkwardly constructed roman road is the story itself of a Jewish Messiah who is also Lord of the whole cosmos.

Again, just to be official, everyone should 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 anything involving William Shatner, 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.

The King Jesus Gospel – Preview

Tomorrow, as part of a Zondervan blog tour which runs this Monday through Friday (9/19 – 9/23), I will begin blogging my way through Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (KJG). The book has ten chapters so I will cover two chapters per day. In my estimation, McKnight’s KJG is an important book and is paradigm changing. Additionally, I think McKnight shows that the majority of evangelicals are not really talking about the gospel when they think they are.

Ok, that was big, so let’s pause for a second and let that last sentence sink in.

Here it is again: when evangelicals think they are talking about the gospel they are really talking about something else, something perhaps important…but not the gospel. McKnight’s message here (in the words of Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride) is “you keep using that word (ie, gospel). I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

N.T. Wright says much the same thing: “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when the say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things the people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 41)

Ok, now that I have your attention…

You are probably asking, ‘Well, then what are evangelicals talking about that they have confused with the gospel?’ and even ‘Ok, then precisely what IS the gospel?’ And you may be asking this with a bit of sarcasm and even anger. This would be understandable…evangel in Greek is ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’…and no one likes being told that something so foundational to Christian faith and evangel-ical identity has been wrongly conceived. That what they thought was gospel really wasn’t. Before we start working our way through the KJG tomorrow let me offer to you some videos McKnight did for the Q conference called ‘Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?’ In these videos McKnight presents in condensed form the basic material that we will find in KJG.

In these videos McKnight argues that “the text has disappeared (or has been buried) under the interpretation?” What does he means by this? He means that the biblical narrative and story of Jesus has been eclipsed by doctrinal formulations that aim at personal salvation instead of a FULL gospel.

In the first video McKnight says, “We have developed a personal salvation culture at the expense of a gospel culture…we have lost contact with the meaning of the gospel” and “When all words in the Bible mean personal salvation, no words mean anything.”

What McKnight is contending here is that to think of gospel as merely personal salvation is to abstract the gospel from the story of Israel and the biblical narrative and to instead present a reductionist ‘plan of salvation’ that functions as a poser gospel. What does this plan of salvation look like? Most of us should recognize this right away:

McKnight summarizes for us, “The plan of salvation is not quite the gospel but it is what we as evangelical Christians feast on – the plan of salvation. And here are our favorite elements: God’s love and grace and holiness, our creation as eikons (image bearers) and our sinfulness, and therefore our standing under the judgment and wrath of God, but that Jesus Christ stepped in as a substitutionary, atoning death to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us to God, and all we have to do is respond to this plan of salvation in faith and we too can be saved.”

And this plan of salvation has been wedded to a method of persuasion or what is thought of as evangelism in which the plan of salvation is framed with the themes of judgment, wrath, and hell. But while we will find that McKnight says we shouldn’t do away with judgment, he nevertheless makes the claim that no one in the New Testament called the plan of salvation the gospel or framed the gospel in this manner.

“That is the plan of salvation and I want to suggest to you that no one in the New Testament calls that the gospel” McKnight says. Instead McKnight claims that “The word gospel belongs to the (biblical) narrative and it makes sense only in the (biblical) narrative…” It can’t be abstracted out of the biblical narrative/story and still be gospel! We need to ask, in losing the biblical story and Jesus story have evangel-icals lost the evangel?

I, for one, think McKnight is correct. The text of the biblical story and the story of Jesus has disappeared under the interpretation – particularly evangelical interpretation of Paul which has become our plan of salvation and method of persuasion. In the process we have missed what the gospel really is. The ironic thing is this: if we recapture the authentic gospel we can save the plan of salvation, but if we insist on the plan of salvation as our so called ‘gospel’ we distort and lose the authentic gospel and story of Jesus. As it stands evangelicals have really put their doctrinal/plan of salvation cart before the gospel story/narrative horse. The plan of salvation tail is wagging the gospel dog – so to speak.

I, personally, think this plan of salvation culture is culpable (just for one example) for the dramatic dropout rates of teens as soon as they leave high school. They have gotten their soul taken care of eternally but they have not been given a gospel shaped story by which to live their lives. I have personally seen this in many baptisms. The fact that someone has received individual salvation in the form of a transaction is emphasized…the fact that baptism is our initiation into the story of Jesus has been barely present. Is it any wonder that so many of the folks we baptize also drop out only to come back years later for rebaptism or a ‘rededication’? Some attempt to solve this dropout problem and commitment problem by preaching the plan of salvation louder, or by making it more ‘relevant’, or by tweaking the plan of salvation itself to make it more holistic. But my friends, listen please, if we tweak a weak gospel we still have a weak gospel – which as it turns out, is not really the gospel after all. And also, as it turns out, the plan of salvation makes for a weak gospel but salvation attains its full holistic flavor when situated within the gospel story itself – so we need to get the gospel story right to get salvation right.

So what does McKnight propose we do – go back to the Gospels and go back to the New Testament to see what this word gospel means.

This is what McKnight comes up with: “The gospel is the announcement, the declaration, the heralding, that Jesus is Messiah and he is the point and goal and telos of the narrative. He is the Messiah and he is the redeemer and he is the Lord. He lived, and he died, and he was buried, and he rose again, and he’s coming again. As the raised and ascended one he is Lord of both Jews and Gentiles…and THAT is the gospel according the New Testament.” “The plan of salvation unfolds from the story of Jesus.”


“For the apostle Paul the gospel is to tell and declare the story of Jesus as the climax of the scriptures of Israel’s story. It is according the scriptures, there is a story that comes to a climax in Jesus. Paul when he says the gospel in I Cor 15 doesn’t mention justification, he does not mention double imputation, yes this is a saving story, but the saving story – the plan of salvation – is not identical to the gospel which is the climax to Israel’s story.”

and as for what ‘gospeling’ is…

“According to Paul and according to the apostolic gospelers of the New Testament to gospel is to herald the story of Israel as coming to climax in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The most important thing I will say to you is that to gospel or to evangelize in the New Testament means to the herald the story of Jesus as the Messiah.”

N.T. Wright sums up what McKnight is getting after well for us in his forward for the book. He says, “…the movement that has long called itself ‘evangelical’ is in fact better labeled ‘soterian.’ That is, we have thought we were talking about ‘the gospel’ when in fact we were concentrating on ‘salvation.’

Very true I think. While the gospel certainly has to do with salvation we need to entertain that we have missed the gospel story and in the process gotten the salvation story not quite right as well. Wright continues, “…’the gospel’ is the story of Jesus of Nazareth told as the climax of the long story of Israel, which in turn is the story of how the one true God is rescuing the world.”

And Wright is very much…well, right! “A microcosmic theory of atonement and faith don’t, by themselves, make up ‘the gospel.’ When Wright heard from John Stott speak about some who were trying to determine what the ‘irreducible minimum gospel’ was, Stott dismissed the idea. “Who wants an irreducible minimum gospel? I want the full, biblical gospel” he stated. (all Wright quotes, KJG, 12-13)

Well, I do too and I hope that you will join me this week, because I really think that McKnight does a good job of leading us back to this full, biblical gospel. In the meantime, here is a bonus video from Wright on ‘What is the gospel, and why is it good news?’