The King Jesus Gospel: How Did Salvation Take over the Gospel?

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Since in chapter 4, McKnight examined Paul’s concept of the gospel, he presents a question here in chapter 5. How did we get to a Christian culture that now promotes salvation over the fuller biblical expression of the gospel?

This chapter is altogether too brief, as McKnight uses just 15 pages to explore two millennia of credal developments in the West. Nevertheless, it is helpful to see what he’s done in touching down on the historical places he does.

Firstly, McKnight contends that the early councils of the first few centuries basically got it right. Both Nicea and Chalcedon were on target as they sought to articulate the gospel. He writes, “careful attention … has now convinced me that ‘creed’ and ‘gospel’ are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel” (63, emphasis mine).

Doctor McKnight goes on to trace the early progression from the 1 Corinthians 15 gospel statement to the early Rule of Faith (very early, very brief credal statements) to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Using a transitive property of sorts, he concludes that “the Nicene Creed is preeminently a gospel statement” (64). This is flawed thinking, unfortunately. It is the same logic, applied in reverse, that McKnight had used to bemoan our own “salvation culture,” that just because a salvation message flowed from the gospel does not mean that they are equivalent.

At any rate, McKnight proceeds to move from these well-framed early creeds to the Reformation statements that, he believes, began to shift the focus towards salvation and away from the holistic gospel story. Both the Lutheran and Calvinist approaches to the gospel, as laid out in the Augsburg and Genevan Confessions, moved towards statements about the salvific power of Christ at the diminution of Christ’s role as the culmination of Israel’s story.

Leap, then, 500 years to today’s evangelical approach, which is essentially existentialist, and you’ve got a culture that values the individual experience of salvation above all else. The quintessential characterization of this culture comes from none other than John Wesley, whose strangely warmed heart is the measuring stick. The result, according to McKnight, is that “for this culture, it is the ability to witness personally to the experience of conversion that matters most. Once one has had this experience, it’s all over … until the final party arrives” (74).

There are, to be blunt, huge leaps made in McKnight’s historical analysis here, and it is intriguing the way in which he highlights the creeds positively, where Wright had identified their current usage as part of the problem (more on that another day). But it is important to focus on the larger point that McKnight is making, that today’s Western Christianity largely discards the actual historical element in the gospel in favor of a de-historicized propositional salvation message and somewhat mystical experience. Of course, we must not discount an individual’s or community’s experience of the living Christ, nor can we say there are no propositions present in the basic gospel message. Nevertheless, McKnight wants us to be focusing elsewhere, on an element that has been buried for some time – the robust story of which the gospel is the culmination.

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