A lot of conversations about the gospel in recent years seem to go back to whether the gospel is a proposition or a story.
Several years ago, I kept hearing people pit God-man-Christ-response (proposition) against creation-fall-redemption-consummation (story). Few people—I hope—still try to make those butt heads, but recognize that they serve different purposes.
More recently Scot McKnight has offered a similar dichotomy, pitting what he calls soterianism (which emphasizes the plan of salvation) against the gospel (which he says is the announcement that Jesus is the resolution to the story of Israel). McKnight gets both “announcement” and “story” into his definition, but the rhetorical force of his whole argument is to leverage this same proposition vs. story dichotomy. That is, it rests entirely on the assertion that the soterians “empty the gospel of its Story” (117) with their step-by-step plan of salvation. That assertion is what gives the book what journalists call “an angle” and makes it what publishers call “marketable.”
Lose the dichotomy and you lose the angle, as well as the reason for the book.
My goal here is not to evaluate McKnight’s assertions about soterians, though anyone who is familiar with his two examples of “soterianism” (Gilbert and Piper) know that they both have a robust understanding of the biblical story and how it shapes the gospel. And Michael Horton and Trevin Wax have both offered helpful reviews of McKnight’s book here and here.
I would like instead to offer a metaphor (call it my angle) that I hope will be clarifying for all parties: the gospel is like a news story. It’s news, and it’s news shaped around a story. Or as McKnight helpfully puts it, it’s an announcement that depends on a story.
Go back to junior year high school journalism class with me. Lesson number one in writing a news story, we learned, is to tell the whole “story” or “news” (these words are interchangeable for a reporter) in a single sentence. Then you retell it using several sentences. Then you tell it again using several paragraphs.
So sentence one should read something like, “Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was surprised to learn this week that he’s not supposed to throw the ball to the other team.” That’s the whole news, and if you don’t read anything else, you still have the news.
But sentences two and three should then repeat the news with more of the story behind it, perhaps something like this: “After Sunday’s most recent loss, the Cowboys coach staff confronted Romo over the high number of late-in-game interceptions. To their surprise they learned that Romo had been intentionally throwing interception. In Romo’s words, ‘I thought we get bonus points for niceness. Don’t we?’”
Then you tell even more background details in the paragraphs that follow, making the reader turn from page 1A to 16A of the newspaper, unless it’s USA Today. All told, a news article, we learned, should be constructed like a pyramid, with the one sentence summary on top, with longer descriptions of the story comprising the middle and the bottom.
Appropriately, McKnight, too, employs a pyramid image to describe the relationship between the announcement and the story in the gospel, with the announcement at the top and the story underneath. As I wrote in Reverberation, you call tell the gospel news story using the millions of words that constitute the sixty-six books of the Bible. Or you can tell it in thirty-one words: “The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Just like reporters use the words “news” and “story” interchangeably, so the New Testament writers use the words “gospel” and “word” interchangeably (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:1-2; 1 Peter 1:23, 25.). The whole Bible or Word is the bottom of the pyramid which, when you sum it up, becomes the tip of the pyramid in the word of the gospel.
For all these reasons, I don’t think we should get too bent out of shape when someone summarizes the gospel in a few words, whether it’s “Jesus saves” or “justification by faith” or “Jesus is Lord” or whatever you might put into the plan of salvation. Nor should we rhetorically pit salvation against the gospel, as McKnight has done, even if there is more to the Bible’s gospel storyline than individual salvation. Now, if you don’t want “cheap grace” and “easy believism” and “nominal Christianity” and “holy huddles” and all those things that people like McKnight rightly worry about, then you need pastors who will teach the whole counsel of God, week after week, through every book of the Bible…
[Insert commercial break for biblical-theology-driven expositional preaching here.]
…That way people know how to unpack “Jesus saves” or “Jesus is Lord” rightly. The real problem is that too many pastors never ask their congregations to do anything more than read the headlines.
Ultimately, there’s no real dichotomy between the news and the story, and I don’t think there ever has been. Even your most old-school soterians rest the gospel announcement on a story, as you can tell in the old-school hymnody. All we have are better and worse versions of the story, and therefore better and worse versions of the news. But all the best versions of the story, I dare say, place at the pyramid’s tip the gospel that Luther and Calvin preached.