For nearly two thousand years, the Gospel has stood at the center of the Christian faith. This is especially true for a certain segment of American Evangelical Christianity, which remains committed not only to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also to the careful definition of the meaning and implications of the term “gospel.” It is this conversation that Matthew Bryan engages in Forgotten Gospel: The Original Message of a Conquering King (Selmer, TN: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014).
Bryan’s thesis is essentially this: American Protestantism unduly emphasizes an “Atonement Gospel” and neglects the “Kingdom Gospel,” an inaccurate and problematic understanding which fails to recognize the true nature of the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, Christianity has become too focused on locating salvation and justification in the New Testament at the expense of seeing the good news of Jesus as King proclaimed. Bryan consistently and carefully notes that he does not wish to overturn the Protestant tenants of justification by faith alone, sola scriptura, or substitutionary atonement, but rather to recognize these doctrines within their more robust context of a Gospel centered on the proclamation of Jesus as King.
Forgotten Gospel is divided into two major sections: Kingdom Gospel and Kingdom Transformation. The first of these is the most compelling and theologically insightful, thought the entire book contains numerous nuggets of truth and value. Central to Bryan’s thesis is the linguistic shift which has occurred in Western Christianity, where “Christ” (Christos) has transitioned from meaning “Anointed” or “Messiah” to simply functioning as Jesus’ last name. Another important facet of his argument involves the corruption of the Kingdom Gospel message by none other than Martin Luther, who Bryan argues combatively emphasized the atoning features of the Gospel in his championing of “justification by faith.” Throughout Forgotten Gospel, Bryan does a solid job of appealing to well-known and critically-based scholarship to support his arguments.
Most surprising—and pleasing—is Bryan’s consistent reliance on the history of the Church. On numerous occasions he cites Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Thomas Aquinas. He also does an admirable job tracing the history of gospel proclamation through the first fifteen hundred years of the Church, where he considers the writings of Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas. These citations situate Bryan’s presentation as not just another Protestant innovation, but as a return to an earlier understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus.
On the all-important topic of Biblical interpretation, Bryan carefully handles proof-texts which suggest an “Atonement Gospel”, casting these passages as important but ultimately non-central for the Kingdom Gospel of King Jesus. Considers at length John’s Gospel, specifically how that Gospel’s different purposes help explain John’s lack of a “kingdom-centered” gospel message. While this chapter contributed to Bryan’s overarching argument, he regrettably neglects to treat John’s emphasis on sonship and Jesus’ divinity, which would more than make up for his lack of kingdom-gospel language. The second part of Forgotten Gospel focuses extensively on the interpretation of Pauline writings and theology and their relation to the Kingdom Gospel. While occasionally Bryan makes some interpretive “leaps” in his exegesis, his overall treatment of the Greek and contextualization of terminology remains helpful for thinking through the Gospel.
Bryan sometimes offers very short chapters on topics which are perhaps tangential to his overarching project. He chapter on the “Secret Kingdom”, for example, was interesting, but too short (four pages) and too unfocused to meaningfully contribute to the general strength of the Forgotten Gospel’s message. Additionally, at times the structure of Bryan’s project was unclear. Why one chapter follows another, how they relate to one another, and the general flow of the book were “structural” issues which, unfortunately, ultimately detracted from the readability and value of this book. Finally, Forgotten Gospel lacks a firm and convincing conclusion, and regrettably tapers off with a “Postface” and then appendix. A clear summary and restatement of the overall message of the book would have been a clear signal to readers of Bryan’s argument. However, these concerns are not serious enough to undermine Bryan’s total presentation, which remains a solid and convincing counter to the over-proliferation of the “Atonement Gospel” in the American evangelical context.
Bryan’s book remains written for an evangelical audience and serves as a useful tool for Christians wanting to engage more robustly the meaning of the Christian Gospel. Many of his points will not surprise a thoughtful, non-evangelical, Christian reader, though much of what he says may shock evangelicals who have not given much thought to Church history or gospel-theology. The reflections in this book are extensively shaped—as we all are—by personal experience. This especially comes across in Bryan’s concerns for unity and a humble presentation of the truth, qualities too often disregarded by American Christians. This tactic further enhances the value of the Forgotten Gospel: The Original message of a Conquering King not only as a tool for evangelical theologians, but also as potentially useful for Christians in a variety of other settings as well. In the end, all followers of Jesus can affirm that, “The primary truth in the gospel of scripture is the Kingship of Jesus. That truth has never been forgotten. His followers have always proclaimed, ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
I received an advance copy of this book from Greatest Stories Ever Told in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.