Jesus vs. Paul: Scot McKnight on Justification, Kingdom, and the Gospel

The December 2010 issue of Christianity Today features a cover storyfrom Scot McKnight called "Jesus vs. Paul".

In the article, Scot seeks to help evangelicals resolve a common dilemma - how to reconcile and integrate the different emphases we find in the teachings of Jesus (Kingdom of God) and the letters of Paul (justification by faith). Scot's solution is to center the gospel in neither justification nor kingdom but in Christology. Paul and Jesus are united because they are both centered on Jesus - who he is and what he has done.

Scot is stopping by the blog today to answer a few of my lingering questions. I encourage you to read the article, read these follow-up questions and then discuss in the comments section.

Trevin Wax: Scot, in your article, you write: "It is not exaggerating to say that evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and that many today are choosing sides." Why do you think evangelicals feel the need to choose sides in this discussion?

Scot McKnight: You ask a genuinely interesting question and I wish I could give an answer to the "why?" question.

Instead, I see an issue here of hermeneutical inevitability. We are driven by the way we think to synthesize (or systematize) or to harmonize or to compartmentalize. These sorts of actions are inherent to how our brains work, especially for people who read the Bible as believers and who believe it is God's Word and genuinely makes utter sense.

What I find is that many evangelicals came to faith through a Pauline-anchored set of categories. In many ways it was about the gospel of the Romans Road, and if that understanding of the gospel is repeated often enough (and just listen and you will hear it all the time) it becomes reflexive. This is the context of most evangelicals, and that context is fundamentally hermeneutical.

An analogy: the Judaizing opponents of Paul in Galatians knew how to read the Bible through a Moses lens, and Paul was teaching them to read the Bible (or Israel's Story) through an Abraham lens. The Judaizing opponents couldn't make sense of what Paul was saying, and that led them to say "Why then did God even give the Law?"

I see the same thing going on today. Evangelicals have grown up with a gospel, and that gospel has become their hermeneutic, and that hermeneutic is essentially derived from a specific way of reading Paul, and by that I mean a soteriological reading of Romans 1-8. It is the way we (or most of us) think.

The minute a kingdom hermeneutic comes up, one either abandons the Pauline hermeneutic or one synthesizes or -- and I think this is most common -- one colonizes Jesus' kingdom hermeneutic by a justification hermeneutic. That is, we make Jesus talk Paul. Or, we colonize Paul with Jesus' kingdom hermeneutic and make Paul talk Jesus.

Evangelicals are worried that if we colonize Paul with Jesus' kingdom hermeneutic we will lose a Pauline soteriology. There are plenty of cases where that very thing happened. But I think many are doing the very same thing by colonizing Jesus with Paul.

What I suggest in my article is that both of these approaches fails to find the essential continuity between Jesus and Paul. Kingdom doesn't lead to justification and justification doesn't lead to kingdom. The unity is found through christology, not through kingdom or justification.

Trevin Wax: You mention that we are driven by the way we think to systematize what we find in the Bible. Some downplay the benefit of this kind of systematization of theology. But any time we try to hold the Bible, we are engaging in a systematic framework - at least at some level. Of course, there are problems in doing systematic theology, as well as benefits too. What do you think? Is it a good impulse to want to connect the dots and put the Bible together?

Scot McKnight: Putting the Bible together and doing systematics are two different things for me. Systematic theology has many definitions, and the only one that concerns me is when folks let their system overwhelm what the texts actually say. The further we let our categories stray from the fundamental story line one finds in the Apostles' Creed or Nicene Creed or Regula Fidei, that is the fundamental story line of the Bible (creation, covenant, community, Christ, church, consummation), the further we are getting from having a true biblical unity.

I think the systematized versions of Calvinism and Arminianism stray too far from this narrative line in their essential set of categories. I'm nervous about teaching theology through the classical topoi, and prefer that we teach it through the lens of the Bible's fundamental narrative.

Trevin Wax: What are the problems we face when we try to fit justification into Jesus' vision of the kingdom or Jesus' kingdom theology into Paul's theology of justification?

Scot McKnight: This could be a book or a brief answer, I choose the latter.

Fundamentally, these are two different (and mostly) parallel language games: the gospel of the kingdom is a way of saying the good news is that God's promises for Israel are now coming to pass in Jesus himself; the gospel of justification (which isn't a biblical expression) is a way of saying that the good news is that in Jesus Christ we have been declared (and made) right with God, right with ourselves, right with others and right with the world. It is forensic declaration.

Thus, the two are talking about two different things. Asking if what Jesus meant by kingdom is the same as what Paul meant by justification is like asking if a putter is a driver.

Trevin Wax: I thought your linking John Piper to Joachim Jeremias was interesting, particularly in the way that both scholars seek (albeit in different ways) to show how justification is present in Jesus' teaching. When you say that Paul and Jesus taught different things, you are speaking of emphasis - not that they had different (i.e. contradictory) visions at the fundamental level, right?

Scot McKnight: You are right. It's emphasis - not different things. As the previous question showed, they are parallel lines but complementary lines.

Trevin Wax: Your solution to this dilemma is to take 1 Corinthians 15 as primarily a statement about Jesus - who he is and what he has done. By emphasizing the centrality of Christ's person and work, you bring Paul and Jesus together. Both Paul and Jesus were all about Jesus, particularly his fulfillment of the Old Testament story. Once you've made the shift, how do kingdom and justification relate to the gospel?

Scot McKnight: 1 Cor 15 is the gospel. Flat out simple. Paul defines it there; or he states it there. Every time Paul says "gospel" he means what he says in 1 Cor 15. That gospel is the narration of the Story of Jesus as Messiah (and Lord over all) as that Story that completes or fulfills the Story of Israel, and brings that Story to its goal. That Story is about Jesus and Jesus, who is Savior, saves through what he did -- his life, his death, his burial, and his resurrection.

Now, we're back to this kingdom and justification thing again. The first way to state in the gospel in the NT, of course, is kingdom. That's how Jesus said it. He was saying the Story has now come to its completion/realization in him. When Paul talks about justification he is talking about the effects, and I prefer to say only way of speaking of those effects (others include reconciliation, redemption, etc). He's talking about the forensic-shaped effects of the Saving-ness of the Story of Jesus. To gospel is to declare this Story as the saving/justifiying Story.

A problem we need to work on more is the problem: we (evangelicals) tend to think the only problem is the personal sin, personal guilt problem. Fair enough. But frankly if "Jesus is the Messiah" or "Jesus is the Lord" is the solution, then we need to reframe or expand the problem because the problem for the Story of Israel is that it is yearning for completion in God's sending of the Messiah. Messiah, then, is a Solution to a slightly different (way of expressing the) problem.

Trevin Wax: Would it be right to say that a church without any kingdom vision or a church that denies justification by faith has - in some sense - a deficient gospel? If we say so, does it mean that there's a problem with the Christology that is then leading out to a failure to grasp kingdom or justification?

Scot McKnight: If there is a deficiency, I want to begin with where Paul and Peter and Jesus do: with the Story of Jesus fulfilling the Story of Israel. If we don't start with Jesus (christology) we will be deficient, and I find both kingdom and justification to be tempted far too often to make christology deficient. How odd, and how tragic, but so true: we get so focused on kingdom we end up thinking only of justice, and then we think so much in terms of justification we get lost in transaction, and in both cases we aren't focusing on telling the Story of Jesus.

Trevin Wax: Thanks, Scot, for stopping by to discuss your CT article.

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