In his new book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited Scot McKnight starts out by arguing that the “gospel” has to be distinguished from the “plan of salvation” that lies at the heart of modern evangelical theology and preaching. The gospel is not a formula for personal salvation; rather it belongs to “the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story” (44). Only once we get this difference sorted out will it become possible to ‘develop a “salvation culture” that finds its only true home in a “gospel culture”. The urgency of this correction lies in the fact that only a “gospel culture”, in Scot’s view, can inform and sustain discipleship.
There are actually, I think, two important distinctions at play here. The first is between “gospel” as we find the term used in the New Testament and the supposed “plan of salvation”, which most people today unthinkingly confuse with the gospel.
The second is between narrative as the proper setting for “gospel” in the New Testament and the more “abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical” way of doing theology (62) in which the “plan of salvation” finds its home:
Because the “gospel” is the Story of Jesus that fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s Story, we dare not permit the gospel to collapse the abstract, de-storified points in the Plan of Salvation. (51)
I agree with both these distinctions, but I fear (I am only part way through the book) that Scot will truncate the narrative structure of New Testament thought prematurely. The problem lies in the argument that Jesus completes Israel’s story, because what it gives with one hand, it takes away with the other: it is an argument both for narrative and for the termination of narrative.
I will try to explain this perhaps rather difficult contention by setting out three ways of framing the idea of “gospel”. The first is the traditional approach, which Scot rejects. The second is Scot’s own position, at least as I understand it; and it is a substantial improvement on the traditional view. It is also, I think, Tom Wright’s position—not surprisingly, since Scot openly draws on Wright’s understanding of the gospel as “the narrative proclamation of King Jesus”. The third position is a consistent narrative-historical approach to understanding how “gospel” functions in the New Testament. I think that Scot, like Wright, moves things in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.
The theological gospel
Modern Reformed and Evangelical theologies have mostly forgotten their narrative-historical origins. They have been profoundly shaped by a European intellectual tradition that is not comfortable with truth until it has been rationalised—and “de-storified”—to the point of abstract universal application. So theological truth is a plateau, elevated above the surrounding plain of human knowledge by revelation, but open to exploration and mapping. The “plan of salvation” theology of which Scot is rightly critical is one rudimentary way of mapping this landscape.
The gospel between history and theology
The recognition that Jesus—and the gospel about Jesus—cannot be properly understood apart from the story of Israel has changed this picture, but only to a limited degree. We have begun to grasp the fact that our theology has its origins in a journey along the narrow ravine of Israel’s history. But the “completion of the story in Jesus” model carries the implication that this is an upward journey and that eventually we arrive at the top of the ravine of Israel’s story and find ourselves on the level ground of a plateau. Paul then represents the point at which the narrative about Israel gets translated into a story of universal salvation, which then becomes the stuff of European or Western theology.
So it is not simply the story of Israel that terminates here. The whole narrative construction of the self-understanding of the people of God comes to an abrupt halt and is replaced by a generalized theological definition. Jesus brings Israel’s story to a climax, and then becomes the saviour of mankind. Gospel as an announcement about the completion of Israel’s story gives way to a plan of salvation. The thought of the concrete, limited existence of a chosen people in covenant relationship with the creator, in the midst of the nations, gives way to a universal religious option predicated on the need for personal salvation.
The historical gospel
This shift from history to theology certainly happened—for better or for worse. But I don’t think it happened with Paul. Paul set out to claim the Greek-Roman world for the God of Israel, who had raised Jesus from the dead—a thoroughly political undertaking—but he did so as a Jew, not as a proto-European Christian.
So Scot is right to highlight the illogicality and bias of John Piper’s question, “Did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel?” “Isn’t the more important question,” Scot asks, “about whether Paul preached Jesus’ gospel?” (25). But it’s not just a matter of whether Paul preached Jesus’ gospel. It’s a question of whether Paul shared Jesus’ whole mindset about the historical and narratively constructed existence of the people.
The central categories of Paul’s theology—wrath, gospel, salvation, justification, faithfulness, suffering, righteousness, parousia—are historically determined. They cannot be understood apart from a projected but realistic story about the future of the churches in Asia Minor and Europe—any more than Jesus’ gospel regarding the coming kingdom of God can be separated from the story of Israel in crisis. They all presuppose decisive future events through which the persecuted churches would be delivered from their enemies, vindicated for their faith in Jesus, and the one true God would be shown to be right in the eyes of the nations.
What Paul announces is not so much the completion of Israel’s story in Jesus as the continuation of the story of the people of God under Jesus. The story has a future, and it is not so different in kind from the story that led up to Jesus.
To put it slightly differently, the story that is completed is the story of Israel and the nations, and this cannot be understood as a simple termination. On the one hand, it is only preemptively completed in Jesus: it still needs to be worked out historically, through a narrative of crisis and suffering that will culminate in the conversion of the empire to the worship of YHWH and of his Son. On the other, even this momentous event is not the end of history for the people of God. The progressive marginalization of the church since the Enlightenment has served to remind us that we are a people subject to the vicissitudes of history, not merely proponents of abstract theological truth.
I suspect that this realization goes some way towards explaining our attraction to the idea of the gospel as the “narrative proclamation of King Jesus”. But I think that we need to have the courage of our narrative-historical convictions and follow the argument through, not pull up short when we get to Paul.