No, not an alien race from a Dr Who script, but – according to a current debate within evangelical circles – arguably an alien race within the Church. The likes of Scot McKnight and NT Wright are proposing that the tradition commonly referred to as evangelical would currently be better described as soterian; and that the soterian gospel is an aberration.
Scot McKnight writes:
‘Now I want to press this harder: the fundamental orientation of the soterian gospel is about the benefits “I” get if I respond. The fundamental orientation of the Story gospel is not about “my” benefits but about Jesus. Embracing the Story gospel brings benefits, to be sure, but we embrace this Story because we embrace Jesus, not because we get something. The entire soterian approach is shaped by benefits.
‘I press harder: the God of the soterian gospel is formed around two features about God: God is judge, and God is wrathful (and will send folks to hell). Or, in some forms, the soterian gospel is framed about this: God is judge, but God loves us and wants a better life for us but God will judge if we don’t respond aright. The operating idea then is “How can I escape God’s wrath or God’s judgment against me?”
‘The God of the Story gospel is formed around these: God is creator, God is director of history, God is incarnate in Jesus, and God calls humans to live in God’s ordered kingdom world by living under Jesus. The operating idea here is “Who rules the world and do I live under that rule?” The Gods of these two “gospels” are framed differently.’
The soterian gospel is the message of the cross, or, more accurately, the cross viewed through a Calvinist or Reformed lens. In other words, everything we see in the Gospels prior to the cross is not the gospel, but merely points to the gospel. And so Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the mission he draws his disciples into, is not the gospel; and as our concern is the gospel, the things that Jesus inaugurates then are not our concern today.
The fruit of the soterian gospel is not disciples but what have been described as ‘Christian atheists’: that is, people who believe in the existence of God, but for whom that belief has little if any consequence for how they live. Such a term might describe the 65%-70% of the British population who identify themselves as Christian...
I have not yet read McKnight’s latest book (though I am keeping an eye on the unfolding debate), but I think he – and NT Wright and others – are right in their assessment, and that the conversation they are opening is one we need to engage with if we are to make disciples. The soterian gospel must be rejected as an imposter, whatever it may cost us in personal reputation.