King Jesus Gospel: Part Five

King Jesus Gospel: Part Five December 2, 2011

Part of a week-long discussion of The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight

What’s the bottom line of Scot’s book?  I think it’s this:

“We want to know what the first gospel was really like.  We want to know how the first generation of apostles evangelized, and we want to know how that early gospeling compares to what we call evangelism and the gospel today.” (p. 114)

Scot wants to get back to the apostolic gospel, the first gospel.  The real question, however, is this: Is a quest for the original gospel a fool’s errand?

A long line of individuals and groups precede Scot in the quest for an originalist reading of the gospel text.  In the last couple years, I’ve spent time with folks in the Church of Christ tradition — they were birthed by the Stone-Campbell Restorationist Movement, a turn-of-the-century attempt to get back to the original gospel.

Also in this camp — also sometimes called primitivists — are the Hussites, the Amish, the Separatists, the Zwinglians, and the Puritans.  You might argue that both Calvin and Luther were ultimately interested in the original gospel.

And today, as Scot acknowledges, he’s part of a group of evangelical scholars, the dean of whom is NT Wright, who are trying to shed the accoutrements that evangelicals have added to the gospel and get back to the gospel that the apostles lived and preached.

This is a valid quest.  There’s no question about it.  But one cannot be naïve about it, and the list of failed attempts to live a primitivist Christianity should humble anyone who is on this path.  (For example, just ask a professor at Pepperdine to defend the lack of instrumental music in worship as a characteristic of the apostolic gospel.)

But I am not a biblical scholar.  My field is practical theology, which is by its nature rooted in the contemporary situation.  So I tend to be dubious about the quest for the apostolic gospel.  I don’t think it’s possible to go back, only to go forward.  In fact, I think that the Apostles were wrong about many things, like whether the Earth is flat or spherical.  We know more than they did, so our understanding of many things — the gospel included — is built upon the record they left us, but it isn’t foreclosed by that record.

Further, I tend to believe that the Holy Spirit has continued to elucidate matters of the gospel in the centuries since the canon was closed.

I don’t think Scot disagrees with any of this.  But his vocation — that of evangelical biblical scholar — drives him to text, and to uncover and recover what we’ve been missing in the text.  And, in that regard, this book is a helpful tool.  Indeed, I think that for evangelicals, this book and this quest are essential.

Do you think that “getting back to the apostolic gospel” is possible?  If so, is it beneficial?

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  • Dan Hauge

    In the absolute sense, yes it’s impossible to ‘go back’, for the reasons you state. However, I think there is plenty of value in trying to learn about the apostolic gospel as much as we can, in order to make sure what we are ‘building on’ is still in continuity with the gospel we have received, both in Israel’s history and in Jesus in particular.

    I mostly agree with you that we need to acknowledge how God has been working in and through history in the last two thousand years. But I don’t think I fully share what sometimes feels to be a reflexive optimism on your part–that our way of thinking and living is automatically getting better and better. In this way your thinking sometimes reminds me of the ‘progressives’ of a century ago, thinking which received a serious check and setback with the two world wars. (I may be misrepresentng you here, so sorry about that, but it’s the feel I often get when you comment on this issue.) I believe it is possible for any culture to ‘go astray’ and head in directions that are less humanizing or loving, and that it can be valuable to look back and see where we may have done things better in the past, and may have gotten off track.

    This is not to say that we always need to be looking back at some pristine time, or some pristine gospel, that we’ve fallen from. But I do think that Jesus in particular gives us a revelation of the divine life that we can gague ourselves by, even if we have better scientific knowledge and technological development than he did. (One can believe that the earth is round but still be a lot less spiritually or ethcially mature than Jesus.) We shouldn’t get stuck in the past but we shouldn’t be dismissing it or assuming our superiority to it either.

    • M. Horn

      I really love your response, Dan. Very well articulated.

  • While I’m not comfortable declaring such a quest completely impossible – who knows what might some day be found – it certainly seems highly unlikely.

    More importantly, I’m not convinced such a search is beneficial. But then, I’m not an evangelical biblical scholar. Or an evangelical anything, for that matter.

    Further, would soterians accept an apostolic gospel if it wasn’t solely about salvation? More pointedly, would I accept it if it didn’t favor my biases? I’d like to think I would accept it, but I suspect I’m more committed to my own understanding of how to follow God in the way of Jesus than I would be to some scholarly discovery, regardless of how authoritative that discovery seemed to be.

    I guess I’m saying I agree with you, Tony, that our understanding of the gospel isn’t foreclosed by the apostolic record. I do believe God’s Spirit is still at work in, with, through and in spite of us.

  • The actual point is to be in relationship with God, is it not? So the actual life of Jesus himself is the thing I have to keep bringing forward, making fresh in my life with the ongoing help of the Spirit. The only thing I have to go on (in an objective sense) is the accounts of the Evangelists, but I have to keep reaching past even them, stripping them away to get to the Word himself. Clearly none of the disciples really got what Jesus was doing while he was alive, and Acts shows that the Apostles started right away adding things, such as speaking in tongues and both (paradoxically) “all things in common” and the separation of the Waiters on Tables from the Important People. Not to mention from the people at the tables.

    I believe there’s lots of good valid worthwhile stuff in the Apostolic tradition (and various post-Apostolic traditions), but the question you have to ask yourself is: It’s primitive, but is it primitive enough?

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    You make some interesting observations, and I too am skeptical about the prospects for getting back to and recreating the Apostolic Gospel witness. Nevertheless, can we faithfully do other than work toward that goal? With Spirit endued grace, recognizing that there are inevitable restraints on our ability to get there both because of our rootedness in our now and the challenges of seeing more approximately through eyes of their then, can we do better than seek to see and live like those who saw and recorded what they remembered of the One who embodied and was the author of the Gospel? My own attempts to get there have repeatedly confirmed to me that the movements that more fully embodied the Words of the Canon have been those called “primitivists.” You didn’t mention the Anabaptist/Mennonites specifically, perhaps because they are having to work so hard at getting back to their first generation experience on the road toward becoming more of what it might mean to live and preach like the first generation in the New Covenant Spirit-lead Church, but I highly commend their efforts.
    I was taken aback and a bit shocked by your critique of the Apostles’ dividing the tasks during the first days of their post-Pentecost ministry, describing that as a “separation of the Waiters on Tables from the Important People.” That is certainly how it has played out through most of the history of the Church, and given that it was mere months previously that the Apostles were arguing about which of them was the greatest, you may have a point. This is, of course, precisely why we need to honor and encourage all who sincerely seek “to shed the accoutrements that evangelicals [and all Christians] have added to the gospel and get back to the gospel that the apostles lived and preached.” Or, under this perhaps valid critique, the Gospel they recorded and did their best to live and preach.
    I think this line I quoted from you does a better job of stating “the bottom line” of Scot’s latest book, and most everything he has tried to do in his work and ministry.
    I don’t think it is either wise or possible to strip away the Apostles to get to the Word himself as though we can or should leave their subjectivity behind to get to an objectivity regarding Christ the Word. Suggesting that it was the Apostles rather than the Spirit of God that added glossolalia is an example of why this approach is inappropriate.

  • It’s a fools errand if we think we can get back to a direct unmediated apprehension of the events of 4 B.C. to 100 A.D. Can’t do it. The only access we have are the texts which have interpreted those events for us. And now we interpret the texts, not the events.

    I am disturbed by any false dichotomy of the Spirit versus the texts, or Jesus versus the apostles, or the Gospels versus the Letters. For 20 centuries the witness of the church has been that this is our Spirit-inspirated canon. This does not mean it’s self interpreting. Far from it. It DOES mean we embrace it and wrestle with it – ALL of it.

    With that said, we must go back to the Gospel as presented to us by Jesus’ apostles and other New Testament writers. It’s our DNA. We have to refresh, argue about, write about, reflect, reform ourselves . . . and then turn and face our culture in our time. But it would be a horrible mistake to ignore or dismiss any part of our canon. Don’t you think?

  • @Richard,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I do believe that the fact of the Incarnation is the primary thing and whatever we add to that is stuff added to that. Surely the facts of the matter stand above anybody’s subjectivity (most especially mine). As is said, the reflection in the water is not the moon. Maybe I am over the top about Acts 2 … I admit to being a baby Christian careening about in my baby way; I apologize if I give offense.

    Let me say that my church might be characterized as Reformed Pentecostal (I call myself Evangelical) and praying in tongues is a valuable part of my (our) regular practice. But the meaning is different; the meaning taught to me is that I myself don’t know what I should be praying for, so I let the Holy Spirit within me pray on my behalf: on the other hand, when the Spirit speaks to me, I believe I understand it well enough. In Acts, the miracle was that “each one was hearing them speak in his own language”; the miracle was in the hearing; so I take it to be a sign about preaching to all nations. Be that as it may, apparently the practice originated during Apostolic times and rather than during the Incarnation of the Christ, whom I believe provided in his proper self all things necessary for our salvation. I believe that Spirit spoke during Apostolic times as it continues to speak today, but that’s our daily bread, not the fixed point about which the world revolves.

  • Josh Hetrick

    I am just a lowly youth pastor, and I haven’t even been at that very long. But I am reading Scot’s book, and I have read many of Scot’s books; I even use one he co-authored in one of my middle school small groups. I like Scot’s work. I like this book.

    As a pastor I get to see kids who get excited at an emotionally charged moment and make a “decision” for Christ. These same students, usually students who don’t have any other ties to the church, are also the usually the same ones who come a few times then leave because they’re bored or they have lost interest after they “got what they came to get” – meaning their salvation. On a small scale, this is the issue that Scot is dealing with.

    From my understanding of the Scriptures, this type of Christianity isn’t working and it never would have been tolerated in Jesus’ or the apostle’s day. This is basically the equivalent of the prosperity gospel – You come to get God to give you something and when he does, then you’ve had enough…until you need him again.

    The issue here that Scot is addressing to me is this: Where is the power that is supposed to be accompanying the gospel the way it did in Acts, the way it did when Jesus lived it, when it really changed peoples lives? To me, his answer is this: It lies in understanding the fullness of that fact that the Jewish people (“the story of Israel” as Scot puts it) lead to the story of Jesus (salvation), which in its fullness leads to his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, which then leads to a new “people of God” -the Church (disciples,not just converts). The argument isn’t so much in the “knowing” it is in the “doing”. Our problem isn’t an informational problem, it is a functional problem. We have missed the fullness of the information, so we lack fullness in our presentation.

    Any (true) disciple of Christ, most of them walking with the Lord for many years, would tell you there was a moment where they knew they had been saved – and that is great! But most of them (that I have talked to anyways) would also say that wasn’t where it ended; that is where it began. The Gospel doesn’t reach its climax at Salvation; it reaches its climax when a convert becomes a disciple and doesn’t just stay a convert. Why? Because Jesus came to make disciples who would make disciples who would build the Church, not just a building full of consuming converts.

    The King Jesus Gospel starts by understanding what God’s plans were for Israel – to reach the world. It builds up when Jesus comes as the Messiah to the Jews – in ways they didn’t expect – and continues to build with his death, burial, resurrection and ascension – all done to reach the world. It then culminates with the Apostles being sent out to build the Church and fill it with disciples – reaching the world. The plan was always to reach the world. The Jews didn’t do it, that’s why they needed Jesus. The Church (at least the Church in American) has not been doing it justice, and that is why we need a fresh look at the Gospel of Jesus.

    Those are just my humble thoughts. Sorry I am like 3 months behind the curve on this post.