The New Gospel: McKnight’s Transformation

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that there’s a fairly massive movement happening in Christianity these days.  At its core, it is the major shift in our understanding of the gospel.

I want to pick this up again by taking another look at Scot McKnight‘s King Jesus Gospel, on which I gave a series of summaries in the spring.  (It’s in ten parts, starting here.)

I start with McKnight because he begins his own book indicating that he has been living this movement his entire Christian life.  He recounts an event early in his life of faith in which, as a teen, he accompanied an elder of his church on an evangelistic outreach in the community.  McKnight watched as this elder horned his way into a stranger’s home, badger him into signing the dotted line of salvation, and return to the church basement to celebrate the success with the evangelism team.

But what happened to the stranger?  Probably nothing.

The discomfort young McKnight felt that day has driven him to explore the roots of the gospel.  Never mind what we think we mean when we refer to the gospel, what Mark, for example, mean when he wrote, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mk 1:1)?  And what might his buddies Matthew, Luke and John have meant?

McKnight’s discoveries through years of research are exceptional and eye-opening, particularly for those of us that grew up in Western Evangelicalism, as he did.  I don’t know that McKnight goes far enough with his analysis.  (In some places it feels like he’s still got one foot in the old camp.)  But his work is a terrific place to start, and his summary of the gospel at the end is pure gold.

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Greg Boyd Responds to the Responses to the Colorado Shootings

I’m knee deep in a conference this week, so if the posts come, they’ll likely be brief.  (Sorry about that.  I really am.  I was just getting excited about this gospel of the kingdom business.  Next week.)

via reknew.org

So today I just want to drop a couple links from Greg Boyd’s new blog, in which he reacts to the reactions to the Colorado movie theater shootings.

Listen, if you haven’t read or listened to Boyd, you need to start.  Although I’ve never met him (yet), he has meant the world to my theological well-being, especially post-seminary.  Moreover, the real world impact of his thinking is, well, real.

I will warn you, however, Boyd is saying things you’ve never heard in church before.  But he’s also saying things that make more sense than anything you’ve ever heard before.  If you’re not ready for that, skip it.

Atonement vs. the Kingdom

Can we take a minute to look at the gospel of atonement that the Western evangelical church has been proclaiming for so long?

In its most basic form, this message goes something like this: “Christ died to save us from our sins, so that we would have everlasting life in heaven after we die.”  Or some iteration of this.

The troubles with this are multiple.

To begin, “Christ died.”  Well, yes.  But there are two main problems with this as the foundation of our gospel.  First, this tends to trivialize Jesus’ life.  What was it that Jesus was actually doing for the three years or so prior to his crucifixion?  What was all that teaching about?  Why do any of the miracles?  In other words, why would Mark write chapters 1-14, if all he really wanted to do was tell us that Christ died in chapter 15?

Second, Jesus’ death, it seems to me, isn’t even the remarkable part about the gospel.  It was the resurrection that changed everything!  Jesus’ death, really, was only interesting, from one perspective, in that he died an innocent man.  Rising from the grave, though.  Now there’s something worth talking about!

“To save us from our sins.”  This, too, is true.  In fact, it’s lifted straight from Matthew 1:21, where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary’s son “will save his people from their sins.”

Really, I have no issue with this statement.  Jesus did actually come to save his people from their sins and, by extension, all those who would later place their hope and trust in him.  But I do often wonder if we have a different understanding from Jesus’ context of what this idea means.  What, exactly, did the first century Jews and early church believe it meant to be “saved?”  More on this in a moment.

“Everlasting life.”  This, too, is a phrase that comes straight from the Bible, yet probably carried different meaning for the original audience than it does for most of us.  John’s Gospel is littered with the phrase, the most memorable coming from John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).

More literally John’s beloved phrase is “life of the age” (zoen aionion).  The interpretations on this are varied, but I think it more likely that John is tapping into a common Jewish Messianic understanding that God would one day usher into their reality a new age.  This new age would be dominated by the rule and reign of God and His Messiah over the people of God, as opposed to Israel being ruled by some foreign pagan power like Rome or the Greeks or the Persians.

(Dallas Willard also has an interesting interpretation here, that dovetails nicely with the one above.  His thought is that Jesus offers those around him the opportunity to join in the eternal life of God here and now.)

That leads us to this last bit, the going-to-heaven-when-we-die piece.  While I do believe that the people of God will find themselves in heaven upon their death (this seems to be Paul’s expectation in Philippians 1:23), I do not believe that getting people into heaven was the primary goal of Christ.

Realistically, this is where the chasm stretches between an atonement gospel and a kingdom gospel.  While the atonement gospel views the flow of God’s work as God coming to earth in Christ in order to bring humanity back to heaven, a kingdom gospel sees a person’s journey to heaven as a minor interruption in the majority flow, which is consistently heaven to earth.

Let me put it another way.  For the gospel of the kingdom, God’s goal has always been (and continues to be) modeled in the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s will be done here on earth.  The goal is not to get the people of earth into heaven, but to get heaven into the earth in fullness.

The implications of this shift in mindset are myriad, and I hope to sketch some out the next couple of days.

The New Old Gospel

Lord of the Rings: Top 10 among travel movies.

If you weren’t already aware, there’s a movement afoot in contemporary Christianity. I personally cannot attest to its reach, whether it extends beyond the West, but you can be sure that it is making serious headway here among us. Further, the impact of this movement is and will continue to dramatically alter the face of Western Christianity. I doubt the change will be as “violent” as the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, but its impact will be as deep.

I am speaking of a new way of understanding the gospel, which, like all good things, is nothing new at all.

Luther’s understanding of the gospel as a message of atonement – that Christ died to save me from my sins so that I might enter heaven upon my death – is being overcome.  Christians everywhere are beginning to understand that as important as this doctrine is, it is the tiniest piece of what Jesus was doing, what the apostles understood him to be doing, and what the early church believed had happened.

Instead, we are beginning to realize that the Gospels – and really the entire New Testament – are about the Kingdom of God (that is, God’s jurisdiction, His rule, where what He wants is done) becoming reality in and through the person of Jesus.  The gospel is God regaining His throne over creation.

It is like summarizing The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a series of travel movies.  Well, sure, Frodo and the gang do a lot of traveling, but the purpose is much, much greater.  It’s all about the destruction of that ring and the rescue of Middle Earth from falling under a great shadow.

Anyway, we’re rediscovering the gospel, and it’s going to change everything.

The Bible: Magical Edict or Faithful Collaboration?

OK, one last thing about the Bible, its nature and our treatment of it.

A couple days ago, Greg Boyd posted a thought provoking piece on his new blog about the difference between magic and faith.  His challenging perspective is worth the read.

Magic is essentially a system of belief in which the participants have control over the deity or spirit or force or whatever.  Magic is best likened to math.  If x + y = z, then every time I do x and y, I’ll get z.  And z is what I want.

Faith, on the other hand, is relational.  It may be that I want z, but to get it, I’ll enter a relational dialog with God.  It may then be that God will ask x and y of me, but it may be that He’ll ask of me just a or b.  Either way, there is no formula.  I would say that with faith God is in control, but that’s only half the truth.  With faith, both parties exhibit some level of influence on the relationship.  It’s a collaboration.

What does this say about the nature of Scripture?

It means that we cannot presume a situation in which the Lord downloaded words to the various biblical writers.  Such a scenario degrades the human writers and violates their respective wills.  This is akin to any number of ancient gods who essentially had total disregard for human affairs.  It is not the character of Yahweh.

Neither can we posit a scenario in which the biblical writers somehow coerced their works from God’s mouth.  That is divination and the essence of ancient idolatry.

(The two sides of this coin are a major theme of The Satanic Verses, which is a fascinating novel.  It should not be confused with the Satanic Bible, which is not.)

So when we conjure in our minds the process in which the Lord worked with human writers to communicate His message with His people in various times and various places, we ought to imagine something more like a chat between friends, in which both parties have say in the message and the medium.  We should not, I do not believe, imagine a dictator dictating to a lowly scribe.

Ancient Scripture and Our Experience of God

I suppose where I’m going with all this nature-of-Scripture talk is twofold. On the one hand, we should not expect a “perfect” set of documents, even though these texts are divine. On the other hand, the Bible’s human aspect neither makes it “corrupted.”

Let’s approach this today from a contemporary perspective. In our church community we regularly train believers in prophetic ministry. Whatever your own thoughts on modern day prophecy, we believe that God loves to speak to His children and we don’t mind sharing what we’ve “heard” or “seen” with others. We do, however, preach caution.

We find that there are plenty of times in which well meaning believers “hear” something that is not from the Lord. And that’s OK. Every word ought to be tested anyway.

Other times we “hear” something that is genuinely from God and yet we interpret its meaning incorrectly. I don’t know a Christian alive who hasn’t gotten something straight from the Lord, so to speak, and mis-applied it. They heard right, but they thought it meant something other than it did. And that’s OK. God can handle our mistakes.

Is there something inherently different about the way God had communicated with the writers of Scripture in their own days?

Perhaps. But perhaps what we regard as different about Scripture is in the meaning we’ve invested in the word “inspired” or the expression “God breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). And perhaps (perhaps) we’ve put too much weight on those expressions.

What do you think? Can we retain the value of Scripture even with its very human qualities?

The Bible: Where It’s Not Such A Bad Thing To Be Human

I made the statement yesterday that the Bible is a human document, and that probably upset a few more conservative readers.

If that was you, I can understand being disturbed.  Many of us who grew up in evangelical or fundamentalist camps know the mantra when referring to Scripture, “God said it … that settles it.”  The notion is that we could point to the black words on the white page as if they came from God’s own pen in plain American English (or perhaps pure Elizabethan English, depending).

Peter Enns, Old Testament scholar at Eastern University, makes a terrific point about the nature of Scripture in the introduction to his new book.  He too discusses the “human dimension” of the Bible, which he writes,

is not an unfortunate state of affairs that must be tolerated, an unhappy condescension on God’s part.  Instead, the “incarnational” reality of Scripture is – as is the actual incarnation of Christ – a mark of God’s great love for his people, evidence of how low he is willing to stoop in order to commune with his creation. … We should expect of Scripture the same sort of embrace of the human that Jesus himself willingly took on, even to the point of emptying himself of his divine prerogative and becoming our brother (Phil. 2:6-8). (xii)

Theologians like to discuss the condescension inherent in the incarnation, and rightly so.  We are not on the same level as the Creator.  No question.  But to discuss God’s dealings with humanity as though it were some great inconvenience for the Lord to even speak in human terms is to discuss a deity foreign to the Bible.  No, such is a Greek or Roman god, not the Yahweh of Scripture.

Remember, it is Yahweh who set the man and woman on the earth to govern it on his behalf.  People have a pretty high value in God’s estimation.

So perhaps, as we suggest that the Bible is a thoroughly human set of documents, this is not such a slam on the Bible itself, or on God.  Perhaps this is precisely within the very character of the God who has, from the very start, chosen to work through people to accomplish his purposes at every stage.  There is no plan B, as they say.