Directions in Evangelicalism, Part 3

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The Gospel According to Scot

Among the recent developments within evangelical theology is a re-envisioning of the gospel itself. This re-envisioning does not typically entail the overt denial of elements that have traditionally been considered as essential to the gospel. With some exceptions, penal substitution and forensic justification are left formally intact. Rather than denying these elements of the gospel, advocates of the new vision of the gospel work in two ways. First, they suggest that certain elements have been neglected or ignored in traditional articulations of the gospel. Second, they move these neglected elements into the place of importance, de-emphasizing those aspects of the gospel that have to do with the forgiveness of personal transgressions or with “going to heaven when you die.”

This re-envisioning is taking place more-or-less across the evangelical spectrum. It is being done in places that have historically been associated with the evangelical Left, but it is also being done in places that have been viewed as conservative or even fundamentalist. To illustrate this new vision of the gospel, I wish to examine an example from both poles of the evangelical spectrum.

The first example is Scot McKnight. Since 1994, McKnight has taught at North Park Seminary near Chicago. An Evangelical Covenant school, for thirty years North Park represented the evangelical Left. McKnight has set forth his vision of the gospel in an article entitled “The 8 Marks of a Robust Gospel.” The article has been widely disseminated on the internet.

According to McKnight, we need a gospel that is big enough to tackle problems such as “senseless violence, family failures, ecological threats, and church skirmishes.” These powerful problems, he says, resist easy solutions because they are systemic. The gospel for which we have settled, however, is too small, a “little gospel, a miniaturized version that cannot address the robust problems of our world.” So what is the gospel according to Scot? McKnight offers the following definition:

The gospel is the story of the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.

This definition revolves around several vague terms. In what way were the image-bearers broken? How “completely” will they be restored (will anybody go to hell)? What is the relationship of Israel, Kingdom, and Church within the community of faith? What did Jesus do in His life, death, and resurrection that made it possible to fix what was broken in the image-bearers? What sort of union with God did these image-bearers enjoy before they were broken? Why was that union disrupted? To what kind of union are they to be restored? And what about communion with others? Of what sort was it, why was it broken, and what does restoration entail? Is restoration really for the “good of the world,” or is it for something else—and if it is for more than one thing, then telos is ultimate?

It is difficult either to agree with or to object to McKnight’s definition until we know the answers to these and similar questions. McKnight does answer some of them in an extended description of his “robust gospel” in eight “marks.” He believes that these marks must characterize any gospel big enough to deal with the powerful, systemic problems of our world. Such a gospel is very different from the “little gospel” that we have believed and proclaimed.

First, McKnight asserts that the gospel is a story. Its focus is on the “climax of Israel’s story and the yearning for the eternal messianic reign,” the Kingdom. To believe the gospel means to enter into this story.

Second, the gospel places transactions in the context of persons. McKnight specifies that he believes in “double imputation,” the shifting of our guilt to Christ and of Christ’s righteousness to us. He warns, however, that a gospel that focuses too narrowly on this aspect becomes too “impersonal.” The gospel is about “encountering” the personal God.

Third, the gospel deals with robust problems. As the result of the fall, the image of God has become “cracked,” and people are no longer “in utter union with God, at home with themselves, in communion with one another, and in harmony with the world around them.” Sin brings “God-alienation, self-shame, other-blame, and Eden-expulsion.” A robust gospel deals with all these issues. McKnight states, “Any gospel that does not expand the ‘problem’ of Genesis 3 to these cosmic dimensions is not robust enough.”

Fourth, the gospel has a grand vision. Unlike the little gospel, which only promises personal salvation and eternal life, McKnight’s robust gospel promises a new society and a new creation. More than personal redemption is at work. God’s kingdom is a new society that is at work in the world, overturning injustices and exclusions, and building an inclusive and just alternative. A robust gospel must announce that a new society is at work in the world.

Fifth, a robust gospel includes the life of Jesus as well as His resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit alongside Good Friday. By this McKnight is not thinking (as traditional evangelicals would) of the active obedience of Christ. Rather, his focus upon the life of Christ includes “Christmas as Incarnation, Good Friday as Substitution and Paradigm for the stripping of systemic powers from their illegitimate thrones, Easter as New Creation, and Pentecost as Empowerment.” What this appears to mean is that the human problem is not merely personal guilt, but systemic evil, and that in order to confront this systemic evil, we must have the ongoing pattern and power that comes from Christ and is mediated through the Spirit.

Sixth, the gospel demands not only faith but everything. In other words, the gospel calls for a total response of “repentance, trust, surrender, commitment, and obedience.” Ultimately, it requires us to love God and others completely. Though McKnight does not say so explicitly, it appears that the quality of this love must be defined by the social and ecological vision that he has already set forth in the preceding points.

Seventh, the gospel includes the robust Spirit of God. The advocates of the “little gospel” have underplayed the role of the Spirit of God in their gospel preaching. For McKnight, however, the gospel is “animated by God’s powerful Spirit, and its result is Spirit-empowerment for new living.”

Eighth, the gospel emerges from and leads others to the church. By this, McKnight does not mean that saved people join churches in order to find the worship, friendships, sermons, and programs that they want. What he does mean is that the gospel creates a new society with Jesus on the throne. The gospel emerges out of this society and calls others into it. Only such a redeemed community is “robust enough to do justice to the problems we confront.”

Scot McKnight does see deliverance from personal guilt and condemnation as an aspect of the gospel. For him, however, it is only a part of the whole—and probably not the most important part. It is the “little gospel.” What he wants is a robust gospel that tackles systemic evil and brings solutions (apparently in the “already” rather than the “not yet” of the Kingdom) to psychological, social, and ecological problems.

Of The Epiphany

Sir John Beaumont (1583-1627)

Fair eastern star, that art ordained to run
Before the sages, to the rising sun,
Here cease thy course, and wonder that the cloud
Of this poor stable can thy Maker shroud:
Ye, heavenly bodies, glory to be bright,
And are esteemed as ye are rich in light;
But here on earth is taught a different way,
Since under this low roof the highest lay.
Jerusalem erects her stately towers,
Displays her windows, and adorns her bowers:
Yet there thou must not cast a trembling spark:
Let Herod’s palace still continue dark;
Each school and synagogue thy force repels,
There Pride, enthroned in misty errors, dwells;
The temple, where the priests maintain their choir,
Shall taste no beam of thy celestial fire,
While this weak cottage all thy splendour takes:
A joyful gate of every chink it makes.
Here shines no golden roof, no ivory stair,
No king exalted in a stately chair,
Girt with attendants, or by heralds styled,
But straw and hay enwrap a speechless child;
Yet Sabae’s lords before this babe unfold
Their treasures, offering incense, myrrh, and gold.
The crib becomes an altar: therefore dies
No ox nor sheep; for in their fodder lies
The Prince of Peace, who, thankful for his bed,
Destroys those rites in which their blood was shed:
The quintessence of earth he takes and fees,
And precious gums distilled from weeping trees;
Rich metals and sweet odours now declare
The glorious blessings which his laws prepare,
To clear us from the base and loathsome flood
Of sense, and make us fit for angelsʹ food,
Who life to God for us the holy smoke
Of fervent prayers with which we him invoke,
And try our actions in that searching fire,
By which the seraphims our lips inspire:
No muddy dross pure minerals shall infect,
We shall exhale our vapours up direct:
No storms shall cross, nor glittering lights deface
Perpetual sighs which seek a happy place.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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