The King Jesus Gospel – Ben Witherington asks, Scot McKnight responds

Scot McKnight’s latest book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, occasioned an interesting dialogue between the author and Biblical scholar Ben Witherington, that Scot published HERE and HERE on his blog. I paste them here below, in the interest of the Romanian reader.

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Q.  Let’s start with a question I get asked a lot which usually takes the form—- ‘What!  Another book by you?   What prompted you to write yet another book and why this book in particular?

Yes, I get asked that question at times, and as we enter into … what do we call this part of our careers, Ben?, because we don’t want to admit we are starting to be the veterans in the circle … the writing habit has become part of how we live. But, each book has its own genesis and this began for me years back when I began to ask myself what the “gospel” would look like if I began at the beginning of the Bible and not with Paul’s letter to the Romans. I developed that into Embracing Grace but was not entirely satisfied, and a good reading of the last two chps it may have been clear that I was probing some themes for which I did not have final answers but was exploring some things. Then I wrote A Community called Atonement to explore how atonement and gospel work together.

But I was still not satisfied and I’ll tell you exactly why: working out a more robust theory of salvation, which is what those two books did, does not fit as well as we might like with the sermons in Acts. So all along I kept saying to myself: “Scot, you’re OK on this salvation and atonement stuff, but you still need to think through the gospel sermons in Acts a bit more.” So when I was invited to Stellenbosch to speak to an academic conference on the Book of Acts, I gave a paper on the gospel in Acts and it pushed me beyond where I thought I would go. I realized I was part of the problem in equating gospel with salvation, and Acts said “You’re wrong.” This book is the book that sets the record straight for me on the meaning of gospel.

Q.  You talk a lot in this book about the difference between the ‘soterian’  Gospel which is not a full presentation of the Gospel  and what you view as the full Evangelical Gospel.  Can you explain this distinction and what you are wanting to stress by making it?

In part that is answered in the first one, but now I can say it differently. The fact is that if  you ask most of us what “gospel” means they will give us something to do with salvation, and that will involved God’s love and grace and holiness and Christ’s atoning death and our need to believe. And if you ask people to present the gospel they will order a rhetoric that seeks to compel people to get saved. But the gospel – the Greek word is euangelion and we get the word “evangel” and “evangelical” and “evangelism” from that Greek word – cannot be reduced to salvation in the New Testament. So The King Jesus Gospel seeks to show that salvation is not the same as gospel, that salvation needs to be seen as something that flows from gospel, but that gospel is something bigger and different. The gospel is to declare something about Jesus, from whom our salvation comes.

Q.  I can see that one of the immediate misunderstandings or objections to your book will be—- Are you really saying that the Gospel is not mainly about soteriology or salvation?

I’m really saying that, but I’m saying that because that is what the New Testament really does teach.

Q.  What precisely is wrong with someone who says ‘Paul preached the Gospel, but Jesus actually didn’t?’

Nothing I suppose, if what we are talking about doesn’t matter. If we say Jesus didn’t even talk about elders and Paul did, I can’t say that I think it matters that much to have a word from Jesus about elders and their qualifications. And I’m not sure it matters if Jesus talked about spiritual gifts. But we are not talking, when we talk about “gospel,” about something that is of secondary importance. We are talking about top shelf, first order theological truths that we embrace. It is exceedingly hard for me to think Jesus taught and taught and did and did but neither talked about nor did gospel in his day. It is this tension that has animated so much of the struggle in composing a New Testament theology: it is the instinct of Christians to want Jesus – after all, we claim he’s God, he’s the truth, he’s the one on whom we rely and under whom we live et al – to be on the side of Paul or Paul to be on the side of Jesus when it comes to first order theology.

Here’s my instinct: if we think something is cardinally important and we think Jesus never talked about it, I think we want to ask if we have got what’s cardinally important right.

The most exciting thing about the work for this book was the discovery that Paul’s gospel and Jesus’ gospel are not just connected, but virtually identical. Jesus preached Paul’s gospel because Paul preached Jesus’ gospel.

Q.  Explain what you mean by Kingdom of God?   What has that got to do with human salvation?

Ben, I think we’ve got kingdom a bit blurry today. And I may write a book on this some day, and I may not. We’ll see. Here’s how I see it, and I say a few things about this in my book One.Life. The liberals saw kingdom as little more than God’s work in the world to progress society toward the good society. Now that’s simplistic and it needs to be nuanced a hundred times. But culture and kingdom are not that far apart for liberal theology. On top of this, Schleiermacher famously shaped religion in the direction of the sense of being utterly dependent upon God and this got connected in liberalism to kingdom of God. Kingdom happens when we utterly depend on God, personally and socially. Then along came George Ladd, whose biggest theological and intellectual battles were with the Dallas folks who were defining kingdom more along the lines of an eschatological Davidic kingdom, and Ladd – so it seems to me – unintentionally but ultimately landed on the same side of the fence as the liberals in making kingdom of God the “reign” of God as a dynamic relationship. Ladd was more nuanced than this, but his successors have more or less made kingdom mean what the liberals more or less meant: that is, it means to enter into a saving personal dynamic with God as king, personally (and then socially). But the one thing Ladd wanted to avoid was any suggestion that the kingdom was that future Davidic kingdom. That Davidic kingdom would be a social arrangement, to be sure. David, Land, temple, etc..

It is my contention that when Jesus said “kingdom” his contemporaries didn’t think “good then, now we can get saved.” They thought, “Where’s David? Why are the Romans here? Let’s get to Jerusalem.” In other words they thought in terms of a socio-political reality. Jesus, oddly enough, said “It’s already breaking in.” But too many then want to equate “breaking in” with “spiritual” and the next thing “kingdom” means what it could not simply have meant: a purely spiritual thing.

So, Ben, this is getting long and I’ll end it with this: kingdom for Jesus is closer to “church” than many of us have been thinking. I don’t want to equate the two, but I do want to see the church, the local one, as the outcroppings and advance stations of the kingdom of God in the now as societies wherein the will of God – God’s shalom – flourish now as anticipations of the Day when it will be complete.

So salvation is connected but kingdom and salvation are not the same thing.

Q.  One of the repeated themes of the book is— the story of Jesus is the completion of the story of Israel.  Explain what you mean by this.  Completion in what sense?  Does Israel not still have a future in the plan of God?

Good on you for asking this Ben. By “complete,” and I have some explanation of this at one point in the book, I want to sum up terms like fulfill, salvation historical fulfillment, not supersessionism but fulfillment, the way the cross completes the sacrificial system and the way Jesus’ ethics complete the Torah, that sort of idea. It is front left right and center about the plan for history coming to what God designed it to do.

Yes, I think Israel has a future (and a past and a present). That was not discussed in the book, and it could have been done, but that would have meant one or more chapters, and that might mean even more. I’m not in total agreement, but I like much of what I see in Kendall Soulen on this.

Q.  You seem to put a lot of weight on 1 Corinthians 15 as giving us clues as to what the original Gospel preaching looked like.  Can you unpack this for us?   In what sense does this become normative for our preaching today?

If we ask “what does gospel mean?” and we want to answer that by probing the Bible, then I suggest that the one place where someone up and “defines” gospel is 1 Corinthians 15. Everyone, so it seems to me, admits this, even if they then swarm what Paul says with a soterian approach. 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, or 15:3-8, or 15:3-28, defines the gospel. This is the outline that we find expounded in the sermons in Acts and then the outline that is developed completely in the Gospels themselves.

Well, if we want to preach the gospel today then I suggest we have to give full weight to this trajectory or matrix of meaning: 1 Corinthians 15, the sermons in Acts, and the one and only gospel in the Gospels.

Q.  One of the major ways you connect all the stories in the Bible is by highlighting the fact that God created human beings to be kings and priests on the earth, beginning with Adam, then Abraham, then Israel, then Jesus, then the church.   What does it mean for us to be a king or priest on this earth, especially as Christians since Christ is our heavenly high priest and our king?

Our responsibility, according to Genesis 1 (as image of God), is to represent God on earth. But we chose the way of usurpation. Instead of being images or under-representers of God, we chose to be gods and goddesses, which is disastrous. God worked with us and let one of us be king, folks like David and Josiah, but we still failed. So God gave us the one true king, who is also – not accidentally – the one true image of God, and that image is the true king of the world, Jesus of Nazareth.

We are kings and priests, which I haven’t developed above much, when we live below Jesus as king and let his kingship and priesthood flow through  us to others in this world, when we rule and mediate on God’s behalf, etc..

Q. Another major stress in this book is that the four Gospels in fact contain the Gospel, and that Jesus and Peter and Paul preached basically the same thing— namely King Jesus, and his becoming King on earth as in heaven.    This will seem strange to the soterians who thinking the Gospel is justification by grace through faith.   Are you simply focusing on the person of Christ rather than on his soteriological benefits?

Yes, I think – with John Dickson, that fine young evangelical pastor down in Sydney, and Pope Benedict’s exceptional study on gospel – that the Gospels are the gospel. Dickson even says the fullest preaching of the gospel in the NT is the Gospels. I agree.

Here’s a big point, and I’ll move on: these books were not called “gospel” because they did a search in the library on genre questions and decided that “gospel” is a little more accurate than “biography.” No, they called these books “The [one and only] gospel according to Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John.” They were not giving us a genre classification so much as a substance declaration. They were saying these books tell us the gospel. Liturgical churches make this clear every week because they not only stand for the reading from the Gospels, and they sit for everything else, but they call that reading not a “reading from the Gospels” but simply “The Gospel.” That’s exactly right.

Q.  At various points in the discussion a good deal of this sounded like things Tom Wright has also been stressing.   How would you distinguish your views from his, if you would, when it comes to the story of Israel and the story of Jesus?

Tom and I are on the same wavelength, but no two scholars would ever want to agree totally – would we? Frankly, Tom’s work has been very influential on me. First, as a young professor I read his The New Testament and the People of God and liked it a lot; then I discovered, and one time Tom and I talked about this, G.B. Caird’s incredible little booklet called Jesus and the Jewish Nation, and it was that book that influenced me to write A New Vision for Israel, and after I had sketched much of that book Tom came out with Jesus and the Victory of God.

I became convinced from Bible reading that the soteriological scheme for reading the Bible left a lot out, not the least of which was why in the world we even needed the history of Israel. I’ve often said most skip from Genesis 3 to Romans 3 anyway. I wanted to know why God, page after page, wanted us to know the Story of God’s ways with Israel. And Tom’s approach here, which revisions some of what I had read in Gerhardus Vos years back as a college student, crystallized the thoughts of many: the way to tie the two testaments together was not best done with soteriology or even a historical-critical approach, as if it is nothing but history, but an interpretive grid for understanding the ways of God in history, and that history is for the world through Israel as completed in the Story of Jesus and the church.

How do we differ? Well, I’d have to give that more thought because I don’t spend much of my time thinking about the details of difference but more on the substance of similarities.

Q. How exactly do we explain why the preaching of the Gospel got so truncated, limited to the plan of salvation?   Are we Protestants in fact the major cause of this ‘limited edition Gospel’?

No, not really. The Orthodox and the Catholics and we Protestants are all culprits in narrowing the gospel to the plan of salvation, in their case more sacramentally and in our case more decisionally. So it’s not just us.

But it is us, and maybe we are more to blame than them. Here’s how I see it, and I trace this in the book. I’d pin two major moments: the Reformers, and I’m with them here, chose to reframe theology and the creed through the lens of confessions, Luther’s Augsburg (and subsequent developments alter the details) and Calvin’s Geneva Confession. Read the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed and then those confessions and you will see the dramatic reframing of the whole through the lens of soteriology.

To be sure, Augustine’s Enchiridion did this some, and there are glimpses of this in Aquinas, but the big point is not historical nuance but the substantive reframing of the whole through the lens of soteriology that was done so powerfully by the Reformers. Before I get to the second moment, this: Luther and Calvin both sustained a serious interest in the Nicene Creed, or the creeds in general.

But the second moment didn’t: revivalism led not only kept that soteriological reframing but reduced it dramatically into what is now the four or five point scheme of the plan of salvation.

When we compare current “plans of salvation” with 1 Corinthians 15, we have to admit something really dramatic has happened. So much so that many today wonder if we should even call 1 Corinthians 15 the gospel. I contend it is we who are wrong on this one, and we need to go back and rediscover that original gospel.

Q.   Towards the end of the book, you talk about creating a Gospel culture?  What do you mean by a Gospel culture, and how do we go about doing it?

A gospel culture is one that is shaped by 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts and the Gospels, not to exclusion of soteriology or to the rest of the NT, but one that genuinely lets that gospel reorder our thinking into genuine, apostolic gospel thinking.

I suggest this means we have to recover the Old Testament as our story and let that story over and over shape us so that we see the profundity of what God has done for us in sending Jesus as Messiah, Lord and Savior – for all of us.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

4 thoughts on “The King Jesus Gospel – Ben Witherington asks, Scot McKnight responds”

  1. It looks like simplifying the way we understand and present the Gospel (as a pure soteriologic phenomena) it is by shrinking or rather truncating it.
    Who to blame IF we are to blame somebody is secundary to how much you and I can do to change the paradigm


    1. Could you be a bit more explicit, Sam? You tend to be quite elliptic sometimes. I think it’s part of your charm :-), but sometimes it stays in the way of clear communication.


  2. Sorry, mea culpa
    A possible translation 🙂 :
    I happen to agree with the author that stressing the Salvation side of the Gospel could be detrimental to presenting the full Gospel (which includes the Kingdom as being as important as Salvation)
    Second paragraph: it is not big deal to find the culprits 🙂 for this situation (of stressing the Salvation in the Evangelical missionary culture) but to act differently once you aknowledges it.
    Just expressing my agreement using my ‘charm’

    If still lost in the mist of my Romglish take it with Nurofen and it will clear away 🙂


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