All I want to contend for is that the first four centuries were shaped by a gospel culture that derived directly and profoundly from the apostolic gospel tradition. But something happened that has led to the contemporary superficial perception of gospel and reduction of salvation to personal decision and has all but wiped out the gospel culture of Jesus and the apostles.
How did “evangelicals” become “soterians”? Or, when did the “gospel” become the Plan of Salvation? It began in many ways with Augustine, but its more focused beginning was in the Reformation, though it did not happen during the Reformation. We can pinpoint the documents themselves that both provide evidence for the shift that was underway and that also provide the foundation for creating a salvation culture. Those two documents, one from the Lutheran wing and one from the Calvinist/Reformed wing, are the Augsburg Confession and the Genevan Confession.
Cutting out the inevitable nonsense that accompanies everything humans do, including Calvin’s wretched decisions that led to the burning of Servetus, Luther’s wretched beliefs about Jews and his wretched decisions about the Anabaptists, and wretched tendencies of the Anabaptist sectarian to think of themselves as the only people of God, I believe the Reformation was a profound work of God that both enlivened the church and altered Western European history for the better. The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions — Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist — was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility. This is not to deny the important and real differences between these three movements, but it is to say that the one thing that emerged in each was a heavy sense of the need for personal salvation. I do not mean that such was not found in Roman Catholicism; rather, the Reformation said, in effect, that the “gospel” must lead to personal salvation — and the rest is history. (p. 70)
But with that emphasis, regardless of how important it was and remains, came a price. The gospel culture began to shift to a salvation culture. Our contemporary equation of the word gospel with the Plan of Salvation came about because of developments from and after the Reformation. When I read today’s thin and superficial reductions of the gospel to simple points, I know that that could never have happened apart from the Reformation. I also know that it didn’t happen during the Reformation itself but as a result of the Reformation’s reframing of the apostolic gospel-become-creed. (p. 71)
Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2011)
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I am afraid this is not going to fly well with those who view the reformation in exclusively positive terms.
More will follow on this topic in next posts.