The Great Gulf from Canon to Creed

I was reading a review of Tom Wright’s new book, How God Became King, at The Gospel Coalition site, and it was a review that was so far out of touch with the book I read in manuscript form that at one spot in reading the review I wondered if I had confused that review’s book with the manuscript (of Tom’s book) I had read. Well, no, as it turns out, I had read that very book, and so I’m doing a series on Tom’s new book — in part to set the record straight. That review simply didn’t summarize the book adequately, and it deserves a fair hearing.

Do you think creedal readings of Jesus/theology have replaced or supplanted the Gospels themselves? Have the Gospels been misread or skipped over by the church?

How God Became King is rooted in three problems:

First, not enough lay Christians read the Gospels intelligently and this is complicated by the second problem;

Second, between the canon [that is, the canonical Gospels themselves] and the creed Tom sees a “great gulf opening up” and wants to argue that the creedal confession of Jesus is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels and when one assumes the creed one skips too much in the Gospels.

Third, Bultmann famously argued we don’t need to have a “historical Jesus” because all we get in the New Testament is the faith of the Christians. Bultmann was famously criticized by conservatives who showed that history really does matter; without the history, we don’t have the faith. Tom deconstructs: those same conservatives, when it comes to theologizing, don’t need the historical Jesus because they, like Bultmann, turn everything into the Pauline faith. So creed — whether Nicea or the Reformations solas — has replaced the Gospels. Hence, How God Became King.

So Wright’s book examines “the empty cloak” — the Gospels are the empty cloak and we want to find the body that belongs in that cloak. What does the life of Jesus mean? Not just his incarnation and his death/resurrection, but his life? The simple fact is that the Gospels don’t tell the Pauline message of justification by faith, so what happens when we let the Gospels have a shaping influence?

The big point of this chapter is an important one: The creeds pass from the incarnation to the death and resurrection and exaltation and skip the life of Jesus, and Tom makes this point several times: what is most important to the Gospels, the life of Jesus [kingdom etc], is not in the creeds; what is most important to the creeds, the ontology of Jesus, is not important to the Gospels. We need both — as the early Christians did when they framed the creeds. [By the way, the relation of creeds to Gospels/canon is complex and in many ways the creeds were at work determining which Gospels were apostolic.]

The problem is not the formers of the creeds, but that the creeds came to be seen as an outline of the faith — the whole faith — and that meant leaving out much that is in the Gospels when that (creedal) faith was articulated. [This story, too, is complex and it means a history of seeing how vital the Gospels were in the church’s theology. But Tom’s not making that point.]

Just one response at this point: As I make clear in The King Jesus Gospel, there is a direct line of thinking that we can trace from 1 Corinthians 15 to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicea, namely that the Second Article of the Creed is rooted in the very framing outline Paul (correct that, the apostles) used to frame the Story of Jesus in 1 Cor 15. In other words, Yes, I agree, not enough Life of Jesus in the creed, but there is biblical precedent for that kind of summarizing Story of Jesus. Let me put this more simply: when the apostles summarized the “gospel,” if we are to trust 1 Cor 15, the life of Jesus was only implied.

Furthermore, I would argue that the central theme of the Gospels is a christological identity — Jesus as God’s Messiah/King, Lord, Son of God, Savior. And, that identity forms the central labels for Jesus in the creeds, too. So while I take Tom’s point that creed skips too much (and he contends they were meant to be read alongside the Gospels so the problem is the use of the creeds in part), a central christological identity forms a fundamental continuity between Gospels and creeds. Yes, the creeds explore ontology in ways we don’t find in the Gospels; Yes, the creeds need a more expansive kingdom theology; Yes, they are not a complete summary of our “message,” but they are gospel statements too.


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  • mike h

    So, is Wright overstating/over reacting to the issue?
    In many, if not most, evangelical protestant churches the creeds are rarely if ever mentioned. Has the ‘idea’ of the creeds simply been assimilated into the fabric of these churches in such a way that they are implied? Or, have these just not paid any attention to the life of Jesus and the kingdom language of the gospels and deferred to the “creed” that Paul mentioned in 1 Cor. 15?

  • RJS

    mike h,

    By creeds I don’t think he means only the creeds – Nicene or Apostolic or … athough he certainly includes these. The sola’s of the reformation are a form of creed. The evangelical formulation of the four spiritual laws are a form of creed.

    We have this truncated view of the purpose and shape of God’s work that doesn’t really know what to make of the Gospels other than the tale of the last week and resurrection.

  • Aslan Cheng

    I am reading this exciting book, it evokes thoughtful reading of the Gospels.

  • SWB

    Having read much of Wright’s published work, including his larger, academic texts, I can honestly say that this book feels weaker than his previous efforts. To me, it seemed as if he lost sight of his target audience. For the average lay reader, the material on Bultmann and whatnot is simply going to be confusing. And yet, his more academically inclined audience is going to encounter the same material and say, “Is that it? Is that all you have to say on that?” It was a strange text to be sure; and as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think that McKnight’s own “King Jesus Gospel” was actually the superior text on material of this nature.

  • John Starke

    Dr. McKnight, Do you have the same misgivings about James K.A. Smith’s review?

  • And reading the Gospels in this way opens to the door to genuine ecumenism. I saw this happen again as Cardinal George and I discussed what we disagree about but more importantly how we can draw nearer in the person of Jesus. If you want to see how this went you can see the video at Thanks for correcting the record on the bad reviews given to NTW.

  • Joe Canner

    mike h #1: Based on my reading of Wright so far, I agree with RJS: it’s not just the creeds but the idea that the birth, death, and resurrection are the only important features of the Gospels. Wright says that some Christians treat the Gospels as an extended introduction or backstory to the crucifixion.

    I can see this in my (conservative evangelical) church. Looking back at our sermons posted online, I can’t see any sermon series based in the Gospels over the last 4-5 years. We preach from the Gospels at Christmas and Easter and the rest of the time it’s OT or epistles. This is not to say that the Gospels are not mentioned or valued, just that there doesn’t seem to be an interest in systematic consideration of what they are all about.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I have “never got it?” why so many Evangelicals are down on Wright? He has always been one of the best Christian biblical scholars of the 21st century. He is a prolific writer and great thinker. It particularly seems like the Reformed group has the most problems with Wright.

    I live near Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and I see this happen so much. Students from there tell me how bad Wright is and how they don’t trust him (thanks to Mohler and company). Then I ask if they have read Wright and most tell me no. Later, after they read Wright, they say they like much of what he says.

    Lastly, I also want to say the church never read the creeds in a vacuum. For example, in Medieval Latin Christianity, its very pictorial and sacramental manifestations of worship depicted Jesus in the liturgy, icons, and devotional material of the church focused on things like Jesus birth, temptations, sermon on the mount, exorcisms, healings, feedings, transfiguration and so forth. The creeds were never meant to be read in isolation of the gospels or of the living practices of the church!.

  • D. Foster

    CGC (#8),

    “Lastly, I also want to say the church never read the creeds in a vacuum. For example, in Medieval Latin Christianity, its very pictorial and sacramental manifestations of worship depicted Jesus in the liturgy, icons, and devotional material of the church focused on things like Jesus birth, temptations, sermon on the mount, exorcisms, healings, feedings, transfiguration and so forth.”

    True, but I think Latin Christianity interpreted the events of Jesus’s life through the eyes of the creeds. The Jewishness of Christianity seems to me virtually lost after the second century. What Wright calls Platonic Dualism seems to run rampant in the Medieval Western Church, which I believe is the effect of underemphasis on the life of Jesus in the first few centuries of the Church.


  • When the creeds are confessed in the context of a liturgical tradition which keeps the church year and follows a lectionary, reading and preaching from the gospels each week, the creeds serve their purpose well and can be understood in their proper setting of the whole Story of the Bible and Jesus.

  • Tanya

    I’m a mainliner stopping by, who finds this fascinating, as our problem may be the opposite one from the evangelical church. Most sermons in our churches are about the Gospels, with just a smattering of Paul and the Old Testament.

    I view this as equally problematic — but I also think we share one assumption/problem. We assume that the Epistles are all “theology” and the Gospels “just what Jesus said and did.” We forget that they were theological documents, the way each gospel writer tells the story of Jesus had lots to do with how they thought salvation was to be understood.

    Your readers may be fascinated to see Andrew Sullivan’s piece in Time magazine this week. It is all about taking Jesus’ teaching seriously.

  • Here is the link to the Gospel Coalition review for anyone interested.

  • CGC

    Hi Derek,
    It is certainly true that the Jewishness of Christianity was lost (except for maybe the Ethiopian Eastern Orthodox Church) and there certainly is this radical platonic dualism going on in the church at this time. This led early on to a focus on the spiritual over the material (which is not totally off base when one considers Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit and Hebrews on the spiritual reality is the true world and not the earthly or material: Heb.8-10). Earth is a copy or shadow of the real spiritual world but this unfortunately got turned into heaven is all that matters (as if God does not want heaven on earth) and escapism theology became prevelent.

    You may be even right on the under-emphasizing of Jesus earthly life, I don’t know? All I know when I look at the iconography and the art of that period, much of it was focused on Jesus earthly life and ministry. I don’t know enough about people’s perceptions and practices to say for certainty one way or the other that they did not really care about Jesus earthly life?

    I will say my concern is when I see many of those doing HJS (historical Jesus studies) who do not have the Christian convictions like N. T. Wright that they simply want to throw out the creeds and suggest over and over that they are reconstructing the real Jesus (amazingly most of these modern portraits are not even Jewish!) while suggesting like a mantra that the early church did not care about the historical Jesus (which seems like a misreading of everything I have examined concerning this era).

  • Phil Miller

    After reading the review on TGC site, I’m not sure the authors even read the same book. I’m really about speechless. They really didn’t interact with any of the actual material in the book. It’s like they paid someone to go pull out small bits that they could disagree on and wrote about those… Really, I just don’t get the disdain for Wright that is evident in the review. Don’t these men see that Wright is helping people to actually see Christianity as something that is meaningful to real life and not just a “spiritual” exercise? I’m just really flabbergasted at how far that review is from the point of the book.

  • The main reason that the church avoids the gospels is that if people were to follow the Jesus of the gospels, they would cease going to church and instead follow Jesus.

  • T

    Couldn’t agree more with Wright’s points in this chapter. Thanks, Scot, for doing a fair review, once again. And RJS is right on. The “framing” and emphases of the gospel in reformed theology, for instance, is just not the same as that of the gospels, which is a problem if the gospels are the gospel, as we’ve discussed here before.

    And on this: “there is a direct line of thinking that we can trace from 1 Corinthians 15 to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicea, namely that the Second Article of the Creed is rooted in *the very framing outline Paul (correct that, the apostles) used to frame the Story of Jesus in 1 Cor 15.* [emphasis added] In other words, Yes, I agree, not enough Life of Jesus in the creed, but there is biblical precedent for that kind of summarizing Story of Jesus. Let me put this more simply: when the apostles summarized the ‘gospel,’ if we are to trust 1 Cor 15, the life of Jesus was only implied.”

    I know I’ve said this before, but the subject of the post bears its repetition: the life of Jesus is *only* implied and not explicit in I Cor. 15 because Paul is not proclaiming the gospel to the Corinthian church in that passage. Rather, he is reminding them of very important parts of the fuller gospel that *he already proclaimed to them* that some folks in the church were denying. Specifically, he is addressing (i) a church (ii) who has heard and believed Paul’s fuller preaching of the gospel, (iii) but are now questioning if there is a resurrection of the dead at all for anyone! One doesn’t even have to read between the lines to get this, only to read the chapter in full. Paul is neither writing a systematic summary of the whole gospel or proclaiming it to those who have not heard it. He is not, preaching “the gospel where Christ was not known.” (Romans 15:20) He is writing a specific and pointed correction to a church that has some members within it saying that there is no resurrection. For these reasons, I Cor. 15 is a precedent. Specifically, it is a precedent to leave out the life of Jesus when addressing a church that has within it some folks who, despite already hearing the full story of Jesus, are saying there is no resurrection of the dead. In such a case, we have a precedent for not mentioning the life of Jesus at all, but focusing on the central importance of the resurrection of Christ and the whole church as a matter of first importance. To argue that I Cor. 15 establishes a precedent for using its content for something else, say, as an “outline of the faith — the whole faith” is to stretch the meaning of “precedent” fairly wide indeed. Paul simply didn’t use I Cor. 15 in that way or even for preaching to the lost, but to correct a specific, serious problem within a church. To say that the resurrection is a matter of first importance or similar things in such a setting is not to say that other matters are not equally important.

    By comparison, in Acts 10:36ff, Peter is (i) proclaiming the gospel to those who have not yet heard/believed it, and (ii) is not correcting any (other) problem (other than his own hesitancy to go into a gentile home at all, which he deals with in 10:35, before preaching a true summary of the gospels to them) and the life of Jesus is not omitted.

  • Robert


    I’d also be interested in hearing what you thought of James K.A. Smith’s review of Wright. He’s a Wright enthusiast who gets annoyed by the anti-tradition, anti-creed statements by Wright. I assume you might have a similar view (we’re writing this on the ‘Jesus Creed’ after all…)

  • T

    Sorry for the length of the last bit. In sum, Scot’s (and Wright’s) thesis that “the gospels are the gospel” is much, much stronger than this sub-thesis: “when the apostles summarized the ‘gospel,’ if we are to trust 1 Cor 15, the life of Jesus was only implied.” And that’s because I Cor. 15 has a very interesting and important context, one that Paul explicitly targets.

  • Rick

    T #16-

    So you don’t think Paul was quoting from an already existing, early creed?

  • DRT

    In my RCC upbringing they concentrated almost exclusively on how Jesus is god and therefore we need to imitate him. I found NTW’s work filled in all the gaps for me in ways I never would have gotten otherwise.

    I read the GC review and the Smith review and they both seem like they are offended because they perceive Tom W to be trying to teach them something. Well, the world does not revolve around them…that is a bit self centered.

    Have not read this one yet though…

  • T


    I think Paul was quoting *selectively* not comprehensively from “what [he] received [he] passed on to [them] as of first importance.” And that he was quoting selectively to deal with the problem at hand seems self-evident.

    You tell me what you see Paul chiefly concerned about in the chapter: providing a thorough, systematic summary of the gospel, or focusing on the evidence and importance, both theological and testimonial, of the resurrection of the dead. If the latter, then our use of this passage as a precedent for us to follow to similarly only “imply” the life of Jesus in our gospel(s) is pretty unjustified.

  • Scot,

    “I would argue that the central theme of the Gospels is a christological identity — Jesus as God’s Messiah/King, Lord, Son of God, Savior. And, that identity forms the central labels for Jesus in the creeds, too.”

    It seems to me that Tom agrees that the central theme of the Gospels is Jesus’ christological identity. But the BIG difference between saying that and what the creeds are saying (and this, I think, is Wrights point) is not just that Jesus is the “Christ” in some abstract way stripped from his Jewish context so that “Jesus is God” becomes the main point (a la the creeds). But that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, which then draws fuller (and frankly more biblical) implications than what the creeds allow.

    So while the creeds use “christological” terms, they mean something somewhat different (read, gentile) then what the gospels mean.

  • scotmcknight

    I’m not much available today… but on Jamie Smith’s review. I’m reading Tom’s book now and will comment as we go through. Tom, in part, is touching on a vital issue – namely, that if we take the Creed as an all sufficient and all comprehensive sketch of what we believe, then it is not adequate. The Creed, as Tom says, was read in the context of reading the Gospels — and that means it was never comprehensive. But I will push back that the Creed is the gospel — as it takes up an apostolic gospel summary of 1 Cor 15. The Creed is inherent to the faith we have received … etc… more later as we go through this book.

    One more point: canon (of Gospels) was dialectical with framing Creed and Creed helped “select” which Gospels were apostolic. So these things go hand in hand: the canon-clers thought the Jesus of the Gospels was the Jesus of the Creed.

    More later…

  • T


    Another way to ask the question is why does Paul feel the need to remind the Corinthians (in whole or in part) “of the gospel [he] preached to [them], which [they] received and on which [they] have taken [their] stand?” IMO, verse 12 is the answer, and it drives and shapes the whole chapter.

    To put it still another way, when Paul says that some in Galatia are preaching “another gospel” among them, clearly he thinks there is a deviation in this “other gospel, which is no gospel at all” that is “of first importance.” But is the resurrection of the dead the point at issue in Galatia? No. So it is reasonable to conclude that there are matters of first importance in Paul’s gospel that are not mentioned in I Cor. 15. He has been selective, in both letters, to deal with the deviations at hand. Identifying some matters as matters of first importance doesn’t mean there aren’t also other matters of first importance. Saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection are ‘gospel’ (to a church questioning the resurrection) doesn’t demote the first half of the gospels as gospel.

  • TJJ

    I am reading the book, and am about halfway through it. I think Wright does make some really good/important thought provoking points, and I have enjoyed the read so far, if not fully on board with all that NT writes.

    I thought the point about how creeds can/have become a frame that encourages a truncated Gospel message is a good point. However, I think he makes the point, and then proceeds to over state/make the point. The subtitle/subtext of the book, that the “real” meaning of the gospels has all but been forgotten because, among other things, because of the creeds, and that he has finally “found it” gain after 2000 years, goes way too far.

    That kind of language (forgotten story of the gospels) may be a nice marketing tagline, but as an argument is so simplistic and overstated and even wrong, that yes I can see why some are more/less offended/put off by it.

    I went to TEDS back in the 80s, and yes, we did more/less cover many of these same ideas in a gospel of Mark class taught by Grant Osborne, in terms of what is the theological significance and purpose of the gospel narrative (narrative/story approach to interpretation was hot at the time).

    and dispensationalists, as wrong as they were/are about the kingdom of God as other points regarding the Kingdom of God, did raise the issue of Jesus as a real king offering a real kingdom, and caused others, such as Ladd, to wrestle with what the signicance and meaning and timing of the kingdom.

    So no, Wright has not uncovered some true meaning of the gospel lost for 2000 years and missed by every other scholar in the last 400 years.

  • In my determination to read everything N.T. Wright wrote in the past twenty years I often feel like Sisyphus pushing that big rock uphill. Every time I get thru one of his book’s he comes out with a new one.

    Absolutely I think the Gospels have been supplanted by the creeds and “Pauline” theology. Scot, I put off reading your King Jesus Gospel because I was afraid it was just going to make me angry. I have slowly fumed my way up to page 77 this morning where finally, finally, you say you are going to look at the gospel according to Jesus, which is where I believe the whole thing has to start. I feel somewhat like Charlie Brown running up to kick the football held by Lucy.

    Sisyphus or Charlie Brown, I am so grateful that Tom Wright is willing to point out the emperor’s lack of clothing in this and many other matters where the church has lost its way. I believe he will turn out to have had more beneficial impact than the Reformation itself, tho you could say he is just bringing it up to date. Scot, I also find myself gnashing my teeth at things that Wright says from time to time. Possibly in what you do here, we can get things figured out, more or less, sooner or later.

  • Rick


    I think Paul was reciting the creed, which included the Resurrection, so he could refer to it and make his point about its importance. The life of Christ is implied. Earlier in the letter Paul wrote, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel…For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (“That is, what he did, suffered, taught” per J. Wesley).

    I think Scot is right in his book that 1 Cor. 15 is a brief summary of what we see in the sermons in Acts (which mention the life of Jesus), which are, in turn, a summary of the gospels. So 1 Cor. 15 is to be read with the complete gospels in mind.

    I also think Mike H #1 is right- too many evangelicals don’t think about, or even know, the creeds (perhaps even the later “solas”). They only know the soterian gospel that Scot had thrown up red flags about. That is the bigger problem for evangelicals (at least in North America) in regards to having a fuller understanding of Christ.

  • How do we handle Jesus? This is the question reverberating in almost every corner of Western Christianity right now. “I would argue that the central theme of the Gospels is the Christological identity — Jesus as King and Lord”

    The blog post by the Gospel Coalition seems to be overly reactionary to this and wants Jesus to be mostly Savior. Meanwhile Andrew Sullivan (Newsweek) wants to remake Jesus as mostly model.

    I blogged about this pendulumitis that shows up in the recent Newsweek article >

  • Percival

    T, you are stimulating much thought in my tinker box. Thanks.

  • Alan K

    Does Tom Wright believe he can figure out Jesus by simply reading about him? Does not Jesus Christ himself testify to himself whenever we read the gospels? Is not the Holy Spirit at work when we do this? Christology from below is simply not Christology. Make friends with that reality, Dr. Wright.

  • T

    Percival, thanks. It’s interesting stuff.

    Alan K, I don’t think Wright is saying that at all. Arguing for the Gospels to be heard on their own terms and in full as “the gospel” is in no way arguing against the Spirit, or for a “Christology from below.” I recommend following the link to Smith’s critique, and then at least watching the lecture by Wright that forms the center of this book. It is not anti-Spirit. It is pro-gospels.

  • It seems one of the big factors in the disconnect between the gospels and the creeds is the importance given to Christ’s humanity in the former, and the defense of his deity in the latter. In other words, the gospels have much to say about the Jesus as a human and the creeds rightly were put together to declare his unique status as the God-man.

    Having done a fair bit of evangelism with members of cults, I have seen firsthand the tendency for me to emphasize Christ’s deity over his humanity…my ever-present Docetic tendency!

  • Bob M

    Dave (#32), that’s exactly the point Wright makes. Creeds, like most doctrinal statements, are composed at a point in time to answer specific challenge to orthodoxy. This is an historical fact. (Most if not all modern denominational doctrine statements have the same issue. I know mine does.) That’s why creeds should not be treated as objective statements of doctrine, but understood in the context of Scripture and the historical context in which it was written.

  • Bob (#33)

    Thanks. I am encouraged to hear that!

  • CGC

    Wow Derek,
    I found your post very helpful and a concise way of understanding the issues (#22).

    I have not read Wright’s recent work here but I can relate a little to what SWB said in #4. I for one at least have found Wright’s larger works much more helpful than his shorter books. For me at least, ‘Simply Christian’ was disapointing but then his ‘Surprised by Hope’ I thought was tremendous. When I started reading negative Southern Baptist reviews of his book, I thought as well, “Are they reading the same book?” Lastly, Joe Canner’s remarks really resonate with me.

  • CGC

    PS – It seems like the sub title of Wright’s book is tripping some folks up. I could be wrong but I wonder if the subtitle was even picked by Wright? Is this really what the book is about? I just know so many book publishers have a way of inserting there own titles and subtitles onto books, even at times against the author’s preferences! I have read enough of Wright in the past that I wonder for example that James K. Smith’s views on this may miss the mark even if he may be right about Wright being too critical of the creeds, etc.

  • Rick

    Bob M #33-

    “That’s why creeds should not be treated as objective statements of doctrine, but understood in the context of Scripture and the historical context in which it was written.”

    So how should creeds then be treated? Are the early creeds still authoritative in any way? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in helping shape those early creeds?

  • Bob M

    Rick #37

    I won’t speak for Wright, you’ll have to read the book. Personally, I’d have to ask what you mean by “authoritative”. IMHO, each creed helps us to understand how the church of its generation understood Scripture (through the guidance of the Holy Spirit) in response to the unique challenges they faced. Previous generations’ understanding and interpretation of Scripture as reflected in their creeds and other writings should inform our own, but they’re not a trump card.

  • Kenton

    “So how should creeds then be treated? Are the early creeds still authoritative in any way?”

    To (mis)quote NTW from “Simply Jesus”: Jesus did not say at His ascension, “All power on heaven and on earth has been given to the creeds that will be written in 400 years.”

    (Wright said it about scripture.)

  • Kenton

    Whoops. “power” should have been “authority”.

  • T


    Regarding the creeds’ authority, to me the issue is very analogous to the I Cor. passage itself. I’m not opposed to anything in that passage in the least, nor am I opposed to what is in the creeds. But when either is held up as “an outline of the faith — the whole faith” I reply, “but that’s not why they were put together originally.” Originally they were each crafted to deal with specific heresies at specific times and places. By contrast, the gospels were each written to give a full and complete account of the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” Even Peter’s sermon in Acts 10:36ff looks like an outline of the action in the synoptics. The issue isn’t whether the creeds or I Cor. 15 are authoritative; they are. The issue is whether they are comprehensive, and they are not. The gospels are the gospel and the gospels are half-full of Jesus’ activities while alive.

  • Dana Ames

    Well, T, I think a certain Scot would say that Paul is actually giving the Corinthians “the gospel” in 1 Cor 15…

    Ever since I first heard Wright speak on this, I’ve been wondering why he, who so artfully expressed the notion of packing ideas in suitcases, later to be unpacked, cannot see how the Nicene creed, at least, functions as just that sort of suitcase. I don’t think you can say that the NCreed omits the life of Jesus or the Jewishness of Christianity. The life of Jesus is there in the phrase “whose kingdom shall have no end.” The kingdom has started at some point, and that is an idea that has to be unpacked; when unpacked, it most certainly pertains to the life of Jesus. Similarly, the phrases “according to the scriptures” and “who spoke through the prophets” lead directly to the Jewishness of Jesus as they are unpacked. “Born of the Virgin Mary” in the ACreed can serve that as well. “Under Pontius Pilate” locates Jesus in history. What he perceives as not there is indeed there.

    I understand Wright’s complaint. Additionally, so many non-liturgical believers don’t really know the NCreed or how it came to be, and the life of Jesus still manages to be ignored. Such things need to be examined. However, I think Wright could make his point without dissing the ancient baptismal creeds. For someone whose thought is so congruent with ancient Christian interpretations, I think this shows his own admitted lack of depth of familiarity with them. Of course, whatever his his lack of depth is, it’s like a backyard pond compared to my Lake Superior…

    Blessed Holy Week.


  • Dana Ames

    …and besides that, the same folks who brought us the NCreed also brought us the Canon!


  • T


    You enjoy this Holy Week as well!

    Scot says this (and much else), with which I totally agree: “The problem is not the formers of the creeds, but that the creeds came to be seen as an outline of the faith — the whole faith.” I agree further that many informed folks today hear in the phrase you mentioned and/or in others that Jesus’ life and teachings are part of the gospel. And I know that Scot infers as much in I Cor. 15 so that he affirms his central thesis that the gospels are the gospel.

    But I heard way, way too many evangelical gospel presentations over the years to think that the evangelical “creeds” see much gospel at all in the first half of the gospels. To me, this point by Tom is dead on: “So creed — whether Nicea or the Reformations solas — has replaced the Gospels.” Jesus’ life is simply not “load-bearing” when it comes to presenting “the gospel” for much anyone. And that’s mainly because our “gospel” announcement centers on how to survive judgment rather than a King’s story, that includes gifts to men.

    But again, I see this as a charge against the creeds (ancient and new) being used as they have been so as to present a truncated gospel, not the creeds themselves or their makers. With Tom being Anglican to the bone, I don’t see him advocating against using creeds. I hope that makes sense. Again, blessed Holy Week to you, too!

  • Joe Canner

    Dana #42, From my reading so far, I don’t think Wright is dissing the creeds. He uses the analogy of a stereo speaker system (quadraphonic in this case) where the volume needs to be turned up in some speakers and turned down in others. He is just advocating more balance between the Gospels (particularly the post-birth, pre-death parts) and the creeds (which focus primarily on birth, death, and resurrection).

    I also don’t think he would say that the creeds are inconsistent with Jesus’ role in Jewish history, just that creeds don’t tell the whole story and that we need all of the Gospels for that.

  • DRT

    OK, so what would a Jesus Creed look like today 😉 Please forgive the rather bold assertion that I can write a creed.

    We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

    No changes there. But:

    We believe that Jesus is our Lord, the true picture of the Father in a human form. He lived as a man showing us the way that the Father would live as a human. Our Light of Light.

    For us and our salvation he was born of Mary and was truly a man. He taught us the ways of the Father and showed what true power should look like on earth.

    In fulfillment of the scriptures and the predictions of the prophets, he lived a life of faithfulness, the truly faithful Jew who is the perfect image of his people. Also according to scriptures we rejected his rule on earth and punished him with the ignominious death on a cross.

    Now I think we can go back to Nicea, with one exception that I put in bold

    On the third day the Father raised him from the dead
    in accordance with the Scriptures;
    he ascended into heaven
    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
    and his kingdom will have no end.

    We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
    and the life of the world to come. Amen.

    An interesting exercise

  • I agree with Wright that the creeds were the key decisions about the most hotly contested theological issues concerning Jesus.
    But the Creeds don’t give us our mission and the Great Commission is a much fuller statement with Wright’s thesis in view.
    Jesus is king, therefore we continue to spread the Kingdom inaugurated in Jesus’ life and tired.

  • Typo! “life, ministry, death and resurrection” it should say. Sorry
    I get that the Creeds were a test for the gospels but the gospel certainly says more than the creeds do. And somehow that has to find its way into our message and into the way we live the Christian life and even how we do church. I’m not sure it always does. At least to me, it was making a point I value in a much more complete way than I had been able to do. We don’t have to wait for the Kingdom. Jesus is reigning now. Is he reigning in us?

  • Dana Ames

    Joe, I’ve heard several iterations of Wright’s talk that became the outline of the book, so I get the quadraphonic speaker comparison. I agree we need the Gospels to tell the whole story – and the classical baptismal confessional creeds are suitcases, to use another Wright analogy, in which the church’s interpretation of the meaning of the Gospels is packed. They need unpacking, and when they are unpacked, what you basically have is the Gospels. This isn’t such a big issue in liturgical churches that follow the church year and use a lectionary, so that chunks of the Gospels are read every week. If you show up, you hear them, and then in reciting the N or A Creed you hear what it means.

    Thanks T – my Holy Week is next week 🙂

    I agree on how evangelicals view the Gospels, and that Tom is not discounting the creed altogether. But again, the problem lies with the lack of unpacking of the classical creeds. I have never regarded the “solas” as any kind of creed, and lots of “low church” folk eschew creeds entirely. I agree there’s a significant problem. But I think the answer viz the classical creeds is catechesis.


  • Derek D.

    I have a question that I would appreciate for anyone to address:

    I noticed Wright is careful always to qualify his assertions with “Western Christianity” or saying that the Gospel has been lost “in the West,” etc.

    Might he be implying that Christianity in the East has *not* lost the message or meaning of the Gospel?

    As an aside, Eastern Christians do not believe that their Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is *sufficient*. They believe it is *necessary* (given certain heresies), but not *sufficient*. What they believe is sufficient is what they call “Holy Tradition.”

  • Aslan Cheng

    Credos are bibical? Sure! Are they sufficiently bibical? Are you sufficiently bibical? Wright asks these questions and tries to answer them in his book.

  • DRT

    Derek D. – re:west vs east

    I have heard people say that many of his ideas sound like eastern Christian ideas. I have also heard Dr. Tom say that he has no idea since he has never studied eastern Christianity. My bet is that he simply feels he has not concentrated on it therefore he does not know.

  • Rick

    I agree with Dana.

    The primary creeds did not just begin to develop in the 4th Century. They began their development as early as the NT, if not before. Creedal formulations were already underway, as the heritage of faith was summarized and passed along. Such a practice went back to the Shema. 1 Cor 15, baptismal formulations, the Rule of Faith, all were developing in conjunction with the canonization of Scripture. The mindset of the earliest church had already influenced creedal development.

  • Aslan Cheng

    Wright in his book writes “The creeds were dramatic developments within early church. They stand to this day as a remarkable acheivement of brevity, dense clarity, and evocative spiritual power.
    And yet, the one thing the creeds do not do is to mention anything that Jesus did and said between his birth and death. Early Christians read and studied the gospel and tried to live by them. Their allegiance to them is not in doubt. But they saw no need to mention the central substance of the gospels in the creeds as well. This has had a massive, and I believe complete unintended, consequence. It is, in fact, one major part of the reason why Christians to this day find it so hard to grasp what the gospels are really trying to say.” this help to clarified what he is talking about.

  • Chip

    It surprises me that, although they come from very different perspectives, Wright is in very high-level agreement with John MacArthur here. MacArthur argued nearly two decades ago that the creeds are insufficient statements of faith in response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). (His most detailed argument appeared in his book Reckless Faith.) Yes, that’s agreement at an extremely general level; on all of the details, they’re pretty much opposed to one another. Still, I didn’t expect them to agree even on that point.

    In any case, it seems to me that American evangelicals by and large still need to rediscover and embrace the creeds, not worry about any deficiencies.

    DRT, I hope you were being sarcastic with your creed, as it’s no different from what probably most theological liberals in the mainline could or would affirm. I doubt Scot would agree with your summation.

  • Great explanation, engagement.