Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel

Thanks to Zondervan for a providing review copy and a spot in their blog tour.

For me, this summer has been a summer of reading Scot McKnight. I had the chance to read A Community Called Atonement (review forthcoming) and One.Life. Both of those were excellent books, so I was very excited to check out The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. McKnight is a professor at North Park University and blogs over at Jesus Creed. As both an eminent New Testament scholar, a teacher of undergrads at a Christian university, and a man deeply committed to the church he leads the short list of those qualified to address the most important question that the church faces: 'has the church gotten the gospel right?'

Before jumping into that question, McKnight begins by pointing out that we have a major problem in evangelicalism (this book isn't written solely to evangelicals, but as McKnight is an evangelical, much of it is attempting to correct common evangelical errors). It's a problem that I think evangelicals need to face head-on. "I would contend there is minimal difference in correlation between evangelical children and teenagers ho make a decision for Christ and who later become genuine disciples, and Roman Catholics who are baptized as infants and who as adults become faithful and devout Catholic disciples" (20, emphasis original). He cites some statistics to go along with that claim. 90% of non-mainline protestants claim to have made a decision for Jesus, but only 20% actually become disciples (20 - here McKnight cites research by the Barna group). Even if those numbers are a little off, it's still a massive, massive problem. Other segments of Christianity are doing as poorly or even worse. McKnight's contention is that we're in this situation because we've lost our grasp on what the gospel actually is.

McKnight then moves into asking the question, 'what is the gospel?' often asking other related questions along the way. One of them is, 'did both Jesus and Paul preach the gospel?' Something McKnight points out is usually what has been meant by this question is, 'did Jesus preach Paul's gospel - justification by faith'. At the end of chapter one McKnight gives us one of his main contentions, 'the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about "personal salvation," and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making "decisions."' (26 - emphasis original).

In the second chapter McKnight extends his line of reasoning here. He contends that the gospel is the story of Jesus as the completion to the story of Israel. We (Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox) have instead reduced the gospel down to the plan of salvation and packaged it through various methods of persuasion that we use to coerce conversions (he even suggests that Evangelicals should change their names to Soterians). Here lies the problem. What motivation do these converts have to be disciples? Why doesn't the gospel lead to more transformation in people's lives? It's because we've gotten the gospel wrong.

The next five chapters seek to correct that deficiency by taking us back to the Bible to reexamine what Paul, Jesus, and Peter (in Acts) tell us the gospel is, as well as looking at church history to see how we got to this point. One of the questions he asks in this section I think is critical and so often overlooked. Why did the early Christians feel it appropriate to call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John 'gospels?' The answer should be obvious. They all are the gospel, because the gospel is the proclamation of the story of Jesus, and not just his sinlessness, death, and resurrection. All of the gospels are the gospel because they are a proclamation of the story of Jesus as the resolution to Israel's story. McKnight also finds the same pattern in the preaching of Paul and Peter. They proclaim Jesus as the resolution to Israel's story, a story that begins with creation and ends with the consummation of all things. One point of clarification is needed here. In none of these statements is McKnight saying that what we typically call the gospel (the plan of salvation) is incorrect. He's simply (but importantly!) saying that it's not the gospel. In the end, for McKnight, the gospel isn't about 'sin management' (a line he borrows from Dallas Willard), rather it's a summons to confess and completely follow King Jesus. Jesus status as Messiah and Lord is an absolutely critical element of the gospel.

Chapters nine and ten address our contemporary setting, giving us guidance on some practical matters related to our gospeling, and develop a little further some of the elements of the gospel unearthed previously. Two points that he makes in the eighth chapter are particularly worth mention. First, we need to remember what problem the gospel is seeking to solve. It's not primarily aimed at dealing with an individual's sin (though it does do that). The main problem is that God's kingdom is not manifest in this world as it should be, and that death reigns. Second is the reiteration of what he has said all along. 'The book of Acts reveals that gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story' (134).

The tenth and final chapter brings the book to a fitting close. McKnight clearly and eloquently proclaims the gospel to us and then makes some suggestions on how we can transform our churches to have a gospel culture. Much of it revolves around, you guessed it, Jesus and story. We need to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus and see our story as the church as a continuation of the story of Jesus and the story of Israel. After the tenth chapter there are three brief but very helpful appendices that give the full text of Paul's gospel summaries, the full text of the sermons in Acts, and a short snippet from Justin Martyr.

The sketch above is a very brief overview of the book that hopefully provokes some questions, and unfortunately flattens out some of the nuance of McKnight's positions. McKnight certainly isn't the first one to say some of the things said in The King Jesus Gospel, but the depth and clarity with which he presents his view is a big part of what makes this book so important. In his main contention, that we've misconstrued the gospel, McKnight is dead on and we need to join him reexamining what the Bible tells us the gospel is.

I think it's particularly important for us to ask what the role of the Old Testament is in our gospel preaching. Why is the Old Testament part of our Scriptures? McKnight shows that it's more than just a mere pointer to Christ. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. The prophecies aren't there to primarily aid in identifying who the Messiah is, as if they were a random check list. The Old Testament story is going somewhere, and the way that plot develops is critical to our gospel proclamation.

I also really appreciated McKnight's comments on method. Our job isn't to be the most persuasive salespeople we can be. Our job is to faithfully proclaim Jesus, the king.

When reading A Community Called Atonement, I told my wife, 'if I could write a book this is the book I would want to write.' McKnight's works often seem to scratch right where I itch. The same is definitely true with The King Jesus Gospel. I found reading it to be a deeply enriching and encouraging experience. The church needs this book and I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and read it prayerfully to see how God can use you in bringing a culture shift within the church, a refocusing of our proclamation on Jesus, Israel's Messiah and Lord of all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Paul's Argument in Galatians 5:13-26

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
 19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Here Paul continues the argument begun at the start of chapter 5. Specifically, the opening verses tie back to 5:6. Paul's main goal here is two-fold. He wants to deal with actual problems in Galatia and head off criticism of his gospel. It appears that the Galatians were having problems within the community. They weren't displaying the love and other regard that communities led by the Spirit should display. Paul know he needs to correct this, especially as the Teachers had come in and seen the problems and proposed a solution: Torah. Torah would act both to restrain behavior but also act as the source of identity.

Paul will have nothing to do with that line of thinking. The Galatians were freed from the law. However, that freedom wasn't freedom to do whatever they wanted. It was to serve one another in love. The Galatians had been told this before, but it hadn't fully settled. Perhaps the explicitness of the law had appeal to the Galatians. But even then, a life of service to one another in the Spirit fulfills the law. Paul recognizes God's will in the law, but insists that it's fullest expression is the command to love (so Fee). The Galatians just needed to be reminded and buy in.

Paul goes on to contrast two lists, one of virtues and the other of vices. It's absolutely critical that we see that these identify community traits. Communities that are lead by the Spirit don't look like 'x' but like 'y.' This comes through very clearly when we look at the list of vices. Eight of the fifteen items deal with obviously interpersonal issues. Yes the individuals in the communities need to have the fruit of the Spirit for the community to exhibit it, but it must be exhibited at the community level. Discipleship is not an individual matter. The church is a discipleship collective.

I am going to refrain from commenting on the lists individually as I think it's fairly clear what most of the vices and virtues are. Paul closes by reinforcing what he said previously, but he makes an important clarification along the way. By contrasting the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit it may mislead one to think that discipleship is a passive process. Verse 24 should show how mistaken that thinking is. We are active participants, crucifying the things that would lead to a community that is out of step with the Spirit and reflects our sinful tendencies.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Scot McKnight on the Problem the Gospel Solves

But I would urge us to think much more deeply about the problem that the gospel resolved in light of our study so far. If the Story of Israel finds its completion in the Story of Jesus and if that is the gospel, we must find the problem within the contours of Israel's Story and not just in my needs in my story. We need to find the problem behind the solution Jesus offered. Jesus word for the solution is the kingdom, or, if we frame it as John did, eternal life (which, too, is more than personally living forever with God after we die). If kingdom is the solution, the problem was about the search for God's kingdom on earth and the problem was the absence of God's kingdom on earth. If eternal life is the solution, then the problem was death and the absence of God's abundant life and the worldliness of this world (The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited p. 137).
 Review coming soon...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Revamping the Masters of Divinity Degree

Seminary is something that I think about a lot. In part because I've done some course work there (at TEDS). In part because several friends have completed seminary, are going through it now, hope to go, or hoped to go. It's a frustratingly long program. Brian LePort's post a few weeks back rekindled my thinking process to the point that I would like to propose what a Master of Divinity curriculum would look like if I were the one designing the program from scratch.

First, I think we can shorten the program a little bit, trimming it down to 78 credit hours. This makes it doable in three years or less for everybody who attends full time. This is largely done by reducing the number of electives, but also by applying some trimming in a couple of places (specifics below). Second, the curriculum hopefully would have a little bit of a liberal arts type of feel. Classes hopefully would be taught and designed to encourage pastors to be life long learners. The biggest challenge is that a Master's of Divinity in some senses is a 'professional degree' and in some sense isn't. Any curriculum needs to walk a fine line there. However, seminary is not trade school. It should not seek to replace the things that churches are supposed to be doing to train their future leaders. It is an academic institution that should be seeking to give future and current pastors the training of the mind necessary to be effective ministers. I think some discussions about seminary veer off course because people don't understand or like the purpose of seminaries.

Here's how I would structure things. First, I would have two distinct tracks, one for those who want an MDiv and intend to go on for a PhD, and another for those who want to enter into pastoral ministry. The tracks would share a large core of courses together, but there would be two areas where they differ. First, introductory languages would be taught differently depending on your track. Pastors will learn the language alongside Bible software like Logos, Accordance, or Bible Works (for the record I am in love with Accordance, though I've never used the others). Pastors are going to forget the finer points of the languages over time, so give them something that will help them excel at the basics (this is no different than teaching statistics students how to do regression analysis using SPSS - something regularly done in most universities). If you're going the academic route, then you better learn the languages inside out. The second area of difference lies in the concentration. There will be a different concentration depending on your area of focus, pastoral ministry (perhaps even different focuses depending on the type of ministry) and academic ministry (definitely different focuses depending on your desired field of study). The specifics of the concentration areas as well as the specifics of the rest of the curriculum are laid out below.

Languages (12 credits following the two track approach outlined above)
Introductory Greek: 3 credits x 2 semesters
Introductory Hebrew 3 credits x 2 semesters

New Testament (12 credits)
Gospels: 4 credits
Acts and Paul: 4 credits
General Epistles: 4 credits

Old Testament (12 credits)
Pentateuch: 4 credits
Historical Books and Wisdom Literature: 4 credits
Prophets: 4 credits

The OT and NT classes form the backbone of the curriculum, where you would not only learn the texts, but also learn theological interpretation, historical exegesis, and background. For example in the class on the gospels, you would cover not just the gospels, but also 2nd temple Judaism and you would learn exegetical tools to help you understand narratives. Yes, you would learn exegesis piecemeal this way, but I don't think many pastors do hardcore Greek or Hebrew exegesis. Students going on for a PhD could take an advanced exegesis course to shore up any deficiencies.

Religion (22 credits)
World Religions: 3 credits

Church History (2 semesters): 2x3 credits
American Church History: 1 credit

Western Theology: 4 credits
Non-Western Theology: 3 credits
Development of a Doctrine (say atonement) Through History: 2 credits
Ethics: 3 credits

I think that there's a lot of 'fat' in most ST programs. The typical three semester course can be trimmed to one covering the truly major topics (creation, sin, atonement, eschatology, ecclesiology, sacraments, scripture, trinity, christology, and pneumatology). Also, every seminary needs a required course on world religions and non-western theology. Period.

Counseling/Psychology (4 credits)
Introduction to Psychology: 2 credits
Introduction to Counseling: 2 credits

Whether you're a pastor or a professor you'll be involved in counseling. Many pastors enter ministry under-prepared, often not knowing when they don't know enough.

Spiritual Formation (1 credit)
Spiritual Formation Groups: (0 credits - every semester enrolled if traditional student)
Holiness: 1 credit

Electives (6 credits)

The core curriculum ends here. Below I'll outline two possible paths for ministry focus. The first will be the pastoral ministry focus. The second will be for someone going on for academic ministry in Systematic Theology.

Ministry Focus (9 credits)

Pastoral Track
Counseling Elective (perhaps marriage counseling): 1 credit
Sociology: 2 credits
Worship: 2 credits
Denominational History: 1 credit
Field Education: 4 credits

A note on the field eds. You would have three of them, and two would also have seminars associated with them to try to integrate theory and praxis. One would be a preaching field ed. You'd have seminars on preaching, but you would also have to work with your local pastor and preach in your church. The second would be on church administration. A very significant amount of nearly every pastor's week is spent on administrative tasks, but seminaries often provide no training. You would learn the basics in a few seminars meanwhile working with a local pastor gaining an appreciation for all that goes on unseen to make everything run smoothly. The last field ed would be a traditional internship.

Systematic Theology
A Great Theologian (say Barth, Aquinas, Augustine): 3 credits
Philosophy Topic (say Language, Mind, Society): 3 credits
Field Education: 3 credits

Here I'm not exactly sure how to structure the field eds, but 3 of them have to be done says ATS. Perhaps one could be on pedagogy, with the student teaching a class session in the Western Theology course.

Is this proposal perfect? I'm sure it's not, but I think (and hope) that it still meets the goals of reducing credit hours and improving the curriculum. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Galatians: Augustine on Fornication and Love

Augustine, commenting on the vice and virtue lists of Galatians 5:
He put fornication at the head of the carnal vices and love at the head of the spiritual virtues. Anyone who takes pains in the study of divine Scripture will be prompted will be prompted to inquire attentively to the rest. Fornication is love divorced from legitimate wedlock. It roves everywhere in search of an opportunity to fulfill its lust.Yet nothing is so rightly suited for spiritual procreation as the union of the Soul with God. The more firmly it adheres, the more blameless it is. Love is what enables it to cleave. Rightly then the opposite of fornication is love. It is he sole means by which chastity is observed (Galatians 85).

I haven't come across any other commentators so far (I've only looked at Longenecker, Dunn, and Martyn) discussing if there's a possible link between the heads of each of Paul's lists in Galatians 5, and I'm curious if there is. I've been wondering why the early church chose agape as the word to use to describe love when the verb form, prior to the New Testament, was used to describe sex. Is there any sense in which Paul is depending on that meaning here? Did the word simply change meanings and the old meaning disappear? Does any sexual overtone survive in other NT uses? I have no idea, but Augustine's quote is interesting to think about.