Dialogue with Scot McKnight on 'King Jesus': Part Two

In this post Scot and I will have a dialogue about points I want some clarification on, and points in which we may have some differences.   Let me say from the outset,  that I think this book is fundamentally right in what it objects to about the soterian Gospel, and in what it asserts is the real full Gospel, focused on Jesus,  not just on his soterological benefits.

Comment and Question One:  On pp. 35-36 you say that the story of the Bible is the story of Israel.  I do not entirely agree with this.  The story of Adam and Eve is the story of human origins and it is not merely the story of the origins of Israel.  Israel doesn’t come into the story before at least Abraham.   The reason this becomes important is because in the NT both Luke and Paul wanted to relate the story of Jesus not merely to the story of Israel, but to the earlier story of creation and Adam and Eve.   Jesus did not come to just complete or fulfill the story and the mission of Israel.  He came to bring the story of humanity in general to a conclusion, to resolve the human dilemma of all human beings, both Jew and Gentile.    Thus while it is true that Jesus brings the story of Israel to a climax and some fulfillment in his ministry, he is also bringing the larger human story to a climax and some correction.   I guess my question is,  why subsume the story of Adam and humanity under the heading of  the story of Israel?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Scot Responds:

This is a good and important question, and is of benefit for all of us to ponder. A few thoughts:

  1. When I say Story of Israel, I have colonized and incorporated the story of humanity into it. I don’t do this by way of violence but by way of precedent: God, according to our Bible, chose to redeem humanity through Israel. So, the Story of Israel is the Story of God in this world, beginning with Adam and Eve but taking a new and covenant form with Israel, so that Israel is elected missionally to be a blessing to the nations. So, yes, there does appear to be a reduction in moving from humanity to Israel, but the order of the Bible now is from Israel to the world.  And there’s more here: the Story of Christ is directly tied to the Story of Israel in almost every way possible. God chose to incarnate his plan through a people, Israel, and then to incarnate his Son through an Israelite son, Jesus. The incarnation itself is involved in this Story of Israel, and it is important for us to embrace God’s chosen plan – Israel, Messiah, church – as the means through which God works missionally and the locations in particular where God redeems.
  1. I come back with this: Indeed, Luke and Paul (Jesus, too, in the divorce text) connects back to Adam, but the gravity of emphasis in the NT is not Adam but Abraham. But I don’t want to be forced to choose: Adam is in Abraham and Abraham is in David and David (and Adam and Abraham) are in Christ etc..
  2. If my book comes off as not focusing on the world, then that is my fault, but one of the themes of The King Jesus Gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord for Israel and the Gentiles.

Comment and Question Two:  On page 44 you say “One of the reasons why so many Christians today don’t know the OT is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!”  Let’s talk covenant theology for a moment, and I am simply going to take a particular line to prompt a response  (not because I agree with NT only Christians)—  If Christians are under the new covenant, and not any form of the old covenant,  and if the new covenant is not simply a renewal or continuation of the Mosaic covenant, then why exactly should Christians need the OT to do theology, or tell the story of salvation?   What is the value of all those 39 books of the OT to the Christian hoping to seek and save the lost?  (I am posing this question as if I took that view, but I don’t).

Scot Responds:

Let me count the ways…. But I won’t because it would involve a hundred or more items.

Americans face a constant battering of political options, but the wisest decisions made are the decisions made by those who know who we are as a people and where we have been as a people and what our story is. This is why the work of someone like John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? shows us the way: it’s easy to argue what one politician thinks vs. another politician, but John takes us through our history to see each issue in its fullness.

So also with the Bible. We can’t make sense of anything in the NT, well maybe a thing or two, without knowing the Old Testament and the Story of Israel that gave rise to that thing in the NT. Thus, why begin Matthew 1 with a geneaology? Well, because of the geneaologies in Genesis and, even more, because the Jewish Bible ended with Chronicles … so that’s a nice tie. And how can we even being to comprehend the temptations of Jesus apart from studying Israel’s testings in the wildnerness? And how can we begin to understand what Paul means by salvation or justification without knowing the covenant history, beginning with Abraham, that gave rise to those terms in those specific ways in Paul’s day?

That so many today think we can do these things without the Old Testament tells us something neither about what these NT texts mean nor what they meant but about us today – it is only our arrogance that leads us to think we know what the New Testament means who cares about the Old Testament?

And there’s the issue of Story: we make sense of our lives because we narrate in our minds the flow of our story, and who we are and where we’ve been and what we’ve experienced, and that leads us to see a tragedy or a victory in context. Without Story we fall apart. The Story of Jesus, of Paul, of the Christian is the Story that begins with Adam, Abraham and through David … and if we are Christians, this is our family’s deepest story. We need to see these folks as our ancestors and our elders, and imagine them sitting around the table in the evening reminding us of where we come from, where we’ve been, and what God has done in our past.

Comment and Question Three:   Certainly one of the important themes of your book is salvation, but from a Wesleyan point of view, it seems you don’t get around to talking about either sanctification or final justification as parts of salvation.  I know you don’t agree with ‘salvation refers to justification by grace through faith plus imputed righteousness…’  as a way of adequately defining salvation.   Do you agree that ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling’ means that discipleship and obedience and good works of piety and charity are actual part of the process of our being saved?    Shouldn’t we be talking about three tenses to salvation— I have been saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved?    And if this is correct, isn’t there a false dichotomy in the soterian and particularly in the Reformed form of the soterian Gospel, between grace and faith, and between faith and works, and between salvation and discipleship (not to mention between Law and Grace in the Lutheran form of things)?

Scot Responds:

On this one, Ben, we agree. In my James commentary I got to work on that famous text in James 2, and I know you have done work there too. Genuine saving faith works. Nothing to debate here. Yes, I’m all for the three tenses of salvation, and G.B. Caird sketches this better than most. Yes, I do agree that in some Reformed circles, not all [as Ken Stewart’s recent book about the myths of Calvinism reminded me], there’s too great of a chasm between faith and works as if works aren’t as necessary as they are in other schemes of theology. Sometimes I think some Christians, and here I’m not thinking of the Reformed but more old-fashioned Dispensationalism and the grace-only folks and there are others … well, some of these folks break out into a rash when the word “works” comes up. As if it’s naughty to exhort people to do good, which sure gets Jesus and Paul and Peter and John and Hebrews and everyone else in the Bible in trouble.

But my book does not delve much into the theme of salvation but assumes these sorts of observations. I don’t think the fundamental problem is which theory of salvation is best, and we’ve not quite emphasized the Anabaptist and pietism themes in the preceding two paragraphs as we might have, but the equation of gospel with salvation. Regardless of how salvation is defined, equating it with gospel gets us in trouble. Even if we had had Anabaptist or pietist or Wesleyan theories of salvation at work, and if the Reformed voice was silenced, we’d still have the same problem if we equate salvation with gospel. The gospel, again, is to declare something about Jesus and salvation flows from that.

Now I want to explore what I think you might be getting at. Do I think a better understanding of gospel, as I seek to clarify in The King Jesus Gospel, would have led to a more robust theory of salvation? Ben, if this is what you are getting at I want to thank you for the observation because I think you are right. A gospel that declares Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and who saves out of that Messiahship and Lordship, will not develop a salvation theory that avoids the three tenses or somehow concocts the thoroughly disgusting and God-non-glorifying notion that we have in so many soterian circles, where it’s all about a simple reduction of the gospel to God loves you, Jesus died for you, and you can just open your heart to him and it’s all over. A “king Jesus” gospel never leads to that kind of salvation or any other reductionistic soteriology.

Comment and Question Four:  Sometimes in the book one gets the impression that you are saying that Jesus and Peter and Paul preached the same thing,  because Jesus did in some ways preach himself.   Wouldn’t it be better to say there is a great deal of continuity between the way Jesus viewed and preached about himself, and the way later Christians viewed Him and preached about him?  After all,  Jesus mainly refers to himself as the Son of Man, but outside the Gospels this almost never is a title applied to Jesus.

Scot responds:

Yes, that’s fair to say. This book presses into the question that has so dominated the Paul vs. Jesus debate for years: Jesus preached kingdom and God and the apostles preached Jesus and justification. Well, yes and no.

I was sitting with a well-known NT scholar at lunch one day when he said the first real gospel preaching was Acts 10 by Peter. He obviously meant that it was first Peter who preached Jesus. So I asked back, Did Jesus not preach himself and talk about himself and tell others of his significance often? I think he hadn’t thought of it that way often enough and he had to admit that Jesus did.

In The King Jesus Gospel I want to say that Jesus and Paul and Peter preached the “same” gospel in these sense that they all preached Jesus as the completion of the Story and Jesus as the Messiah, Lord and Savior. It’s not identical in every detail but the same in terms of substance or identical in terms of substance.

Yes, I agree with you Ben, we need to brush the strokes of nuance of all over that canvass… there is variety here.

Comment and Question Five:   One of the important distinctions you make in the book is between the story of the Bible, the story of Jesus, the plan of salvation, and methods of persuasion.   It led me to wonder— do you think we can reproduce either the exegesis of the earliest Jewish Christians, or that we should follow their methods of persuasion today?

Scot responds:

On the exegesis: we got into this with Richard Longenecker way back when we were youngsters, and Longenecker said no. But the theological interpreters today are telling us we have been caught up too much into the historical critical method and we’ve become intoxicated with our own reconstructions, and we’ve started listening too much to ourselves and not enough to the Bible’s narrative (you Wesleyans call this the plain sense of the Bible) and not enough to the church’s fundamental conclusions.

In some ways, I think we would do ourselves some favor in learning how the early Jewish Christians read the Bible, and we’d find that we’d not be that far from the early church Fathers (though they did some new things, and not all of them perfect or even all that great), and we’d be onto how the regula fidei shaped reading the Bible and not the reconstruction of history. I’m for this brother, and I’m honored that Zondervan asked me to be the General Editor for a new series of commentaries called the Regula Fidei New Testament Commentaries.

On persuasion… here’s my concern. We have chosen to reframe evangelism through the doctrine of salvation, and then we’ve sorted out the major elements of salvation, re-ordered them into a compelling package and then said, “There, that’s the gospel.” I’m convinced this is not the gospel and I’m not convinced this method of persuasion is nearly as effective as many think.

But, no, I doubt we can follow to the end of the line the rhetoric of Acts 2, 4, 7, 10-11, 13, 14, or 17. But we can learn from them that what we need to learn to develop – and I didn’t develop this in the book as much as I did one day at a lecture at Ashland Theological Seminary – more of a declarative rhetoric than a persuasive rhetoric. Put simply, the apostles announced Jesus was who he was (and they did this in a number of ways) and then summoned people to respond. That’s declarative rhetoric: declare and then summon. Our preferred method is persuasive rhetoric, and what we do is we figure out what is most emotively effective and affective in precipitating decisions and re-arrange all we have to say into that model of persuasive rhetoric. It does produce decisions, but it is neither biblical nor any where near as effective as many think. Decisions are not a good measure. Decisions are not enough. Our method is too much shaped toward decisions.

Comment and Question Six:   You suggest that Jesus chose Twelve disciples to be ‘the new Israel’  however one may define that.    While I recognize the number 12 has Israel valences, I wonder if it is adequate to say Jesus chose 12 disciples.  In fact he chose far more than that, or at least acquired far more than that, not the least of which were the women mentioned in Lk. 8.1-3.  Would it not be better to say he chose 12 apostles or agents or leaders amongst the disciples?  Yes, I think 12 is a symbol of Israel alright.   But Jesus chose these 12 to free Israel, not to be Israel.  They are his changes agents meant to go out and proclaim the kingdom to a lost Israel.    Comment on the above and explain briefly why it is important to note that Jesus doesn’t include himself among the 12.

Scot responds:

The Bible clearly calls out twelve as apostles, and that is why I mean by calling twelve as disciples. They are both apostles and disciples, and perhaps I generalized too much or assumed that folks would know I mean “apostle” when I mean “disciple.”

You will also know I’m using the profound studies in the 70s and 80s by such scholars as H. Schürrmann, B.F. Meyer and E.P. Sanders, not to forget either G.B. Caird again… that scholarship is behind that set of observations. Alongside that I did a longish article in BBR on the historical significance of the choice of twelve, and from that I concluded that Jesus’ use of “twelve” was a powerful symbol of a claim on Israel. To be sure, they are missional agents of Jesus, but they are as the “new” Israel in some sense. The choice of “twelve” fascinates me, and my conclusion is that it has powerful symbolic weight as well.

So fascinating that Jesus is outside and above the twelve. We have to guess because he doesn’t tell us. It is not really even much guesswork: he’s not one of them because he is above them. He is the final judge, they will get to rule under him (Matthew 19:28). He sends, they go. He dies for them, they die in him; he is raised for them, they rise in him. He is the true Israelite and they gain their identity and status in him. So, he’s not one of the Twelve; he’s the Messiah and Lord, the king.

Comment and Question Seven:   On p. 123 you say the titles of Christ are terms drawn from the story of Israel?  And you add “but they are more than clever titles; the use of these terms interprets the entire story in a way that recasts the whole.”   In what way, and to what degree?

Scot responds:

When I look at Jesus as a 1st Century Jew I have to decide “who” he is, and the way I would have done was use terms that work in a Jewish world. If I say “false prophet” I interpret him and label him and dismiss him. If I say “prophet” I do the same but decide to listen to him. But I go further, and say he is “Messiah” or “Lord,” then I not only have interpreted him but have (in effect) forced myself to decide what to do with this Son of man, this man from Nazareth doing mighty deeds, this one who makes all these claims for himself, and then I have to decide either to live in that label for him or opt out of that label.

What we call Jesus, then, calls us to decision.

Comment and Question Eight—- I quite agree that we cannot understand the story of Jesus without the story of Israel.  But we also need the story of Adam to understand his story as well.   On p. 154 you focus on the temptation story, but I would insist it has to be both the story of Adam and the story of Israel in the background.  For one thing, Jesus is being tempted as only the Son of God can be tempted.  His temptations are frankly not of the same order as those facing Israel.  Jesus was being tempted to act in a way that destroyed his true humanity, not his connection with Israel.  Were he to succumb to these temptations he would be defying the limitations of time, space, knowledge, and power we all face, not to mention our mortality.  So it’s both/and— we must hear the echoes of the Adam and Israel story here.    Most importantly, this temptation story reveals Jesus to be Adam gone right, and on a lesser note,  Israel’s representative getting it right.  Not the other way around.   Jesus did not come to be Israel, he came to free Israel and to some extent fulfill its mission, since Israel failed to be the light and savior of the world.   Do you agree, or what nuances would you want with this statement?

Scot responds:

Well, on this one, Ben, we might disagree. Yes, by all means. Jesus came to free Israel and, yes, Jesus revolutionizes the “Adam experiment.” But what strikes me in this text as I read it is that every time Jesus quotes the Bible it is from one single narrative: Deut 6-8 and it’s experience in the wilderness.

Jesus doesn’t explicitly connect himself to Adam with any of his words. He doesn’t even allude to the Genesis 1-3 story. Instead, he’s got himself connected to the Israel wilderness experience.

To be sure, Ben, I agree Jesus is Second Adam and a Second Adam theology, first explicitly taught in Paul, can be used to read this text, but if we restrict ourselves to textual warrants in the text and especially if we go to the texts Jesus cites, I think there is an orderly emphasis given to the Story of Israel here.

But again, I don’t want to dichotomize Adam and Abraham, or Adam and Israel. As I read the Bible, the Adam story found a new chapter with Abraham but it’s the same story. And Abraham and Israel are the way God redeems all the Adams and Eves in this world. For me, I can suggest perhaps you have an either-or on the Adam vs. Abraham that I don’t, and perhaps I have the dichotomy in the Adam vs. Israel temptation narrative.

Comment and Question Nine:   Towards the end of the book you point out  on p. 156 that the story of Jesus continues in the story of the church?  How so?

Scot responds:

Ah, the big hermeneutic one. Yes, in John 14-17 Jesus tells his disciples the Spirit will guide them into the future, and that is all I mean by the Story of the church. You and I are called to live out the Story of Jesus into our world – and nothing tells us better how to do this than Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where he tells us he becomes all things to all humans in order to win them to Jesus. That’s what I mean.

Concluding Remarks:

Scot thanks so much for writing this good book, and for stressing the importance of our focusing on Christ and his lordship, rather than just on the salvation benefits he offers to us.   I think you have done the church a good service in writing this book, and I hope and trust it will have an impact, make a dent on those who have settled for less than the whole Gospel of King Jesus.

Ben, a personal note now. It means much to me to have you say this. You are well known as one who cares about the Bible and it is Bible people that I appeal to in this book: what does the Bible say about “gospel”? And it means much to me to have you say this because you are one of two, at least that I know of, in our day who has written a commentary on every book in the Bible. (Ben and Tom Wright for those who may not know.) I’ll never do that; I’m too slow at commentary writing to accomplish that. But with that background to your statements, I can say that I’m humbled and encouraged that you say these things. This year in San Francisco!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks this conversation to clarified many critical points. But I don’t satisfy to put Adam under Isarel title.

  • Katoikei

    How could I have missed this? Ben, have you written about the kingship of Jesus? Peace.

  • Rob

    Check the date of this post. Great song by PM.


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