Michael Horton Reviews Scot McKnight’s “King Jesus Gospel”

Over at the White Horse Inn, Mike Horton offers a review and engagement with Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel under the heading, Are You a Soterian? Typical of Horton, it is a learned and even generous review, though clearly concerned and critical and certain points.

I’m partly sympathetic to Horton because in the Reformed tradition many have tried to tie in the story of Israel and the story Jesus to the gospel  more than others have (Hendrickus Berkhof being the best example that comes to mind). However, McKnight is quite correct that many Reformed folks have made the ordo salutis the context and content of the gospel (what McKnight calls “The Plan of Salvation”) and simply do not have the theological framework to be able to preach the gospel from the Gospels  or even from the speeches in Acts (other than Luke 18.9-14 and Acts 13.39 and only because they use the word “justified,” but even there the word “justified” does not mean what they think it means). This is a real problem! I see it in students and preachers, both local and international. For such folks, the OT is a mash of proof-texts and Jesus is the opening act to Paul.

Horton is in basic agreement with McKnight when he writes:

When the Bible talks about “getting saved” (which it never does in precisely those terms), the focus is on the Triune God saving sinners through the twists and turns of redemptive history, from one end of the book to the other. Typically, where the Bible sweeps me into its grand story of redemption in Christ, many evangelistic presentations reduce that grand story to “me and my personal relationship with Jesus.” We talk about the gospel as an announcement—a promise—that is revealed as a grand drama that unfolds from Genesis 3:15 to the close of Revelation. The gospel isn’t an offer to appropriate, decide, or contract for with Jesus. It’s an announcement—a declaration—of God’s saving accomplishment in Jesus Christ. Promised in the Old Testament, the gospel is fulfilled in the New. The call to repent and believe is not the gospel, but the proper response to the gospel. In fact, the gospel is not a call to do anything—even to believe. The gospel itself is simply an announcement that we are therefore called to believe.

Horton also rightly identifies the key issue as being the relationship between the ordo salutis (order of salvation) and the historia salutis (history of savlation). Horton calls this the gospel in the “narrow” (Rom 4.25; 1 Cor 15.1-2) and “broader” (promise-fulfillment theme) senses – and he rightly affirms both as integral to the gospel. I would add to that by pointing out how Rom. 1.3-4 announces the gospel, while Rom 3.21-27 unpacks how the gospel applies to the believer.  So you do have two senses in which the gospel is first announced in the coordinates of redemptive-history and Jesus’ role in it, and then second how the salvation announced in the gospel is appropriated and applied to the believer.

But just when I think I’m on the same page as Horton, he says this: “This announcement is as ambiguous without the news of justification as is the news of justification apart from the Story of Israel and Jesus.” This statement has two problems: (1) It privileges ONE image from Paul’s letters, namely, justification as THE key image for gospel, when other images like reconciliation, rescue, or redemption could be said to be more prevalent and comprehensive for both Paul and the New Testament’s soteriology. Justification is Paul’s contingent metaphor drawn from his little bag of soteriological gems that explains in covenantal and forensic terms how it is that God accepts the ungodly and brings Gentiles into the family of Abraham. But it is not the canon with the canon. It’s not the only image, not even the most significant one!  (2) If Horton’s statement is correct, then we are back to McKnight’s original objection, how do you preach the gospel from the Gospels or from the Speeches in Acts if they don’t explicate the gospel in terms of justification? Do the Petrine and Johannine letters contain the gospel, well, in the absence of “justification” terminology, it would seem not. Here’s my beef (and McKnight’s as well): the soterians still need to expand their soteriology, without diminishing the value and richness of Paul’s remarks on justification, but without making it the single model of explicating the gospel.

So I thought Horton’s review was hit and miss, but he’s on the right track in rejecting a simplistic decision-based gospel for a more comprehensive one. And he’s right again that in the Reformed tradition there are authors and resources to help us bring the ordo salutis and historia salutis together. But Horton rehearses some of the key problems that McKnight warns us about. In the end, we need the Reformed soterians to not necessarily give up their justification blanky, but to sew onto it some other pieces of fabric drawn from the material of scripture that will enhance rather than hinder their gospel ethos and proclamation.

Anyway, here is Horton’s closing quote:

I would encourage likely critics of The King Jesus Gospel to hear out the argument, setting caricatures and false choices to one side. There is a lot in this book that should resonate with Reformed Christians. Whatever inaccuracies in his description of the views of others who deserve better, Scot McKnight is reacting against a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly. To enthusiastic readers of the book, I’d caution against exchanging one set of reductionism for another. Let’s not polarize into even more extreme camps of “story-people” and “doctrine-people”; “kingdom” and “personal salvation”; “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is Savior.” We can all be evangelical soterians, rejoicing in the gospel as the Story of Jesus that proclaims the only one who saves us from our sins. Despite my concerns, this is a great starter for some remarkably important conversations

  • Peter G.

    Mike, the theology of justification isn’t limited to a single word-group is it? Don’t the Gospels deal with self-righteousness on a number of occasions besides just Luke 18? If so they might have more to say about justification than first meets the eye. What say you?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Bird/1814624096 Michael Bird

      Hi Peter. I think you can say that “justification” is conceptually present beyond the dikai word group. The Rich Young Ruler comes to mind. Yeah, the Gospels (and most of the Bible) deal with the problem of presumption of one’s status, but I’m not sure that self-righteousness was the only target justification is trying to hit.

      • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.larson Wayne Larson

        Genesis 1:1 deals with the problem of self-righteousness. :-)

      • Peter G.

        But perhaps self-righteousness (defined so as to include idolatry) is the cause of all the targets justification hits?

  • Peter G.

    Mike, the theology of justification isn’t limited to a single word-group is it? Don’t the Gospels deal with self-righteousness on a number of occasions besides just Luke 18? If so they might have more to say about justification than first meets the eye. What say you?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Bird/1814624096 Michael Bird

      Hi Peter. I think you can say that “justification” is conceptually present beyond the dikai word group. The Rich Young Ruler comes to mind. Yeah, the Gospels (and most of the Bible) deal with the problem of presumption of one’s status, but I’m not sure that self-righteousness was the only target justification is trying to hit.

      • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.larson Wayne Larson

        Genesis 1:1 deals with the problem of self-righteousness. :-)

      • Peter G.

        But perhaps self-righteousness (defined so as to include idolatry) is the cause of all the targets justification hits?

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  • http://mgpcpastor.com Gary Ware

    I can’t find my copy of KJG, and I’m trying to recall Tom Wright’s cute illustration in the foreword about the Gospel being a helicopter and justification being the rotor blades.
    Now you can’t fly too far with just a set of blades, but ‘soterians’ keep getting pasted for simply pointing out that some very shiny helicopters don’t have anything to get them off the ground.
    The notion that ‘the Gospel’ takes four hours and a set of charts to explain is not going to fly too well. But consider the Sydney Anglican/evangelical tract ‘Two Ways To Live’, which unfolds a narrative theology and a personal appropriation of redemption in concise form. And that from a group of lousy soterians.
    I felt that Scot was arriving at a place where some theologies have been for a long time, and didn’t engage too deeply with the historical antecedents of the problem he identifies (‘soterianism’) because their origins are too close to home.

    • Robrob

      Hi Gary,

      Two Ways to Live? Really? Any narrative theology that has no place for Israel, the Church, the New heavens and New Earth, the life of Jesus and the Kingdom of God and filters everything through a penal substitution metaphor seems seriously deformed. Isn’t TWTL a classic example of the very thing McKnight is warning against?
      I thought you read KJG ;-)

      • David

        Robrob – I’d say that TWL is narrative theology. But a better example of a similar approach to TWL, which does mention all the things you require, is The World We All Want, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

      • http://mgpcpastor.com Gary Ware

        Robrob.
        The dispensational tendency to divide God’s promises and people into two groups, Israel and the church, is one of the true antecedents to the Gospel emphasis McKnight identifies.
        TWTL does what every tract presentation does, rehearses the main beats of its message in way that seeks a personal response. It’s not meant to be exhaustive of biblical theology, just identifying the main beats. (‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’, type of thing)
        Again, it is produced by a culture that has been relentless in championing a movement of biblical/narrative theology.
        As someone who’s currently preaching the theme of God’s redemptive leading and protection of His people from 1 Samuel I found KJG a great encouragement to continue to focus on a whole Bible gospel.
        thanks.

  • http://mgpcpastor.com Gary Ware

    I can’t find my copy of KJG, and I’m trying to recall Tom Wright’s cute illustration in the foreword about the Gospel being a helicopter and justification being the rotor blades.
    Now you can’t fly too far with just a set of blades, but ‘soterians’ keep getting pasted for simply pointing out that some very shiny helicopters don’t have anything to get them off the ground.
    The notion that ‘the Gospel’ takes four hours and a set of charts to explain is not going to fly too well. But consider the Sydney Anglican/evangelical tract ‘Two Ways To Live’, which unfolds a narrative theology and a personal appropriation of redemption in concise form. And that from a group of lousy soterians.
    I felt that Scot was arriving at a place where some theologies have been for a long time, and didn’t engage too deeply with the historical antecedents of the problem he identifies (‘soterianism’) because their origins are too close to home.

    • Robrob

      Hi Gary,

      Two Ways to Live? Really? Any narrative theology that has no place for Israel, the Church, the New heavens and New Earth, the life of Jesus and the Kingdom of God and filters everything through a penal substitution metaphor seems seriously deformed. Isn’t TWTL a classic example of the very thing McKnight is warning against?
      I thought you read KJG ;-)

      • David

        Robrob – I’d say that TWL is narrative theology. But a better example of a similar approach to TWL, which does mention all the things you require, is The World We All Want, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

      • http://mgpcpastor.com Gary Ware

        Robrob.
        The dispensational tendency to divide God’s promises and people into two groups, Israel and the church, is one of the true antecedents to the Gospel emphasis McKnight identifies.
        TWTL does what every tract presentation does, rehearses the main beats of its message in way that seeks a personal response. It’s not meant to be exhaustive of biblical theology, just identifying the main beats. (‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’, type of thing)
        Again, it is produced by a culture that has been relentless in championing a movement of biblical/narrative theology.
        As someone who’s currently preaching the theme of God’s redemptive leading and protection of His people from 1 Samuel I found KJG a great encouragement to continue to focus on a whole Bible gospel.
        thanks.

  • Tom

    Is this another case of friction between systematic and biblical theological categories? The systematician refers to justification as vitally central in any Gospel presentation because they are refering to the pivot on which everything turns, both in terms of historia salutis and ordo salutis. It is the death and resurrection of Christ that is the crux of the narrative in the historia salutis and believers’ death and resurrection in Christ our Represtative that is the vital turning pointing in our ordu salutis. So when the Reformed systematician joins the fight they are wanting to fight for the decisive importance of that moment in the Christ-story and our in-Christ-story. They don’t want it to be forgotten in our zeal to explain the individual, corporate and cosmic transformation it unleashes.

    But the Biblical theologian notices that justification is not the only set of terms the Bible writers use. They have more camera angles for viewing the story and the decisive crunch moment in the story and their choice of them will depend on their purposes in telling the story and the ones to whom they are telling it. Christ as Representative in Death and Resurrection and our experience on union with Him in those events may be the turning point but like any good sports broadcaster they know that the game-changing moment deserves to be replayed from many angles to grasp it most fruitfully. Whether the focus be on Satan’s defeat as his hold on man, through successful temptation and subsequent accusation is broken as Christ does not succumb and bears the blame Himself. Whether it be a case of sacrifice, as Christ offers true worship to His Father and bears His consuming fire as He approaches stained with our uncleanness that He might rise to enter the heavenly Holy of Holies on our behalf. Whether our plight as those given over to slavery to sin in judgement for our idolatry answered by redemption of Christ as He brings us through that judgement in Himself so that we are released to new life on the other side. And so as the biblical theologian gears up to fight they are not trying to take away from the decisiveness of that moment but rather preserve the rich multi-angle presentation. And they are serving the Bible reader as they seek to open up the full array of camera shots.

    And both of these aims are helpful but when it comes to the language of “justification” conflict arises at least partly because for the systematician they most naturally use it to flag a point in the sequence whereas the biblical theologian attaches it to a camera angle. Of course it’s not quite that simple and as lines get drawn these things become more complicated, but what it possibl means is that each set of interpretters needs to do translation work when they hear the other. While I might like to change the systematic label to something like “death and resurrection with Christ as representative”, something tells me it won’t catch on and I need to try to hear their label for the kind of thing they are using it to refer to. It’s not that a reformed systematician is in anyway unaware of these terms but they often end up slipping under the wings of “justification”.

    The word “Trinity” may be an analogy here. We use it confessionally very happily despite the fact that it isn’t in the Bible because what it corresponds to conceptually is. And I’m happy to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is central to the message of the Bible. So when someone from a Reformed systematic background says that justification have a vital and decisive place in a presentation of the Gospel, I don’t feel uneasy agreeing, if what they essentially saying is that this decisive turning point and it’s representative nature is essential. Similarly when people use “sanctification” to refer to the Christian’s lifelong transformation by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ it would be pedantry to point out that sanctification can equally refer to becoming a Christian, being set apart as saints. We might like to rewrite the terms, but part being the church is showing our continuity with those who have gone before, holding to the common faith. And part of how the systematician does that is by using their labels.

    None of that makes the biblical theologian’s work of showing how the Bible uses those terms and shoots from that camera angle any less vital. For systematic theology to continue to sharpen our grasp of those doctrines it will be hugely dependant on that work. But the biblical theologian doesn’t need to be as worried by their “misuse of terms”.

  • Tom

    Is this another case of friction between systematic and biblical theological categories? The systematician refers to justification as vitally central in any Gospel presentation because they are refering to the pivot on which everything turns, both in terms of historia salutis and ordo salutis. It is the death and resurrection of Christ that is the crux of the narrative in the historia salutis and believers’ death and resurrection in Christ our Represtative that is the vital turning pointing in our ordu salutis. So when the Reformed systematician joins the fight they are wanting to fight for the decisive importance of that moment in the Christ-story and our in-Christ-story. They don’t want it to be forgotten in our zeal to explain the individual, corporate and cosmic transformation it unleashes.

    But the Biblical theologian notices that justification is not the only set of terms the Bible writers use. They have more camera angles for viewing the story and the decisive crunch moment in the story and their choice of them will depend on their purposes in telling the story and the ones to whom they are telling it. Christ as Representative in Death and Resurrection and our experience on union with Him in those events may be the turning point but like any good sports broadcaster they know that the game-changing moment deserves to be replayed from many angles to grasp it most fruitfully. Whether the focus be on Satan’s defeat as his hold on man, through successful temptation and subsequent accusation is broken as Christ does not succumb and bears the blame Himself. Whether it be a case of sacrifice, as Christ offers true worship to His Father and bears His consuming fire as He approaches stained with our uncleanness that He might rise to enter the heavenly Holy of Holies on our behalf. Whether our plight as those given over to slavery to sin in judgement for our idolatry answered by redemption of Christ as He brings us through that judgement in Himself so that we are released to new life on the other side. And so as the biblical theologian gears up to fight they are not trying to take away from the decisiveness of that moment but rather preserve the rich multi-angle presentation. And they are serving the Bible reader as they seek to open up the full array of camera shots.

    And both of these aims are helpful but when it comes to the language of “justification” conflict arises at least partly because for the systematician they most naturally use it to flag a point in the sequence whereas the biblical theologian attaches it to a camera angle. Of course it’s not quite that simple and as lines get drawn these things become more complicated, but what it possibl means is that each set of interpretters needs to do translation work when they hear the other. While I might like to change the systematic label to something like “death and resurrection with Christ as representative”, something tells me it won’t catch on and I need to try to hear their label for the kind of thing they are using it to refer to. It’s not that a reformed systematician is in anyway unaware of these terms but they often end up slipping under the wings of “justification”.

    The word “Trinity” may be an analogy here. We use it confessionally very happily despite the fact that it isn’t in the Bible because what it corresponds to conceptually is. And I’m happy to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is central to the message of the Bible. So when someone from a Reformed systematic background says that justification have a vital and decisive place in a presentation of the Gospel, I don’t feel uneasy agreeing, if what they essentially saying is that this decisive turning point and it’s representative nature is essential. Similarly when people use “sanctification” to refer to the Christian’s lifelong transformation by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ it would be pedantry to point out that sanctification can equally refer to becoming a Christian, being set apart as saints. We might like to rewrite the terms, but part being the church is showing our continuity with those who have gone before, holding to the common faith. And part of how the systematician does that is by using their labels.

    None of that makes the biblical theologian’s work of showing how the Bible uses those terms and shoots from that camera angle any less vital. For systematic theology to continue to sharpen our grasp of those doctrines it will be hugely dependant on that work. But the biblical theologian doesn’t need to be as worried by their “misuse of terms”.

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  • Charles Twombly

    I love stimulating Horton-McKnight-Bird “discussions” like this. Really helps to sort out key issues and options. (I could say, “Saves a lot of time reading too,” but that’s not what writers of books really want to hear, is it.)

  • Charles Twombly

    I love stimulating Horton-McKnight-Bird “discussions” like this. Really helps to sort out key issues and options. (I could say, “Saves a lot of time reading too,” but that’s not what writers of books really want to hear, is it.)


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