Ben Witherington turned in this set of questions on points at which he wanted clarification in my The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, and you can take it from there…
In this post Scot and I [Ben] will have a dialogue about points I want some clarification on, and points in which we mayhave 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?
This is a good and important question, and is of benefit for all of us to ponder. A few thoughts:
- 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.
- 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..
- 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).
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?
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)?
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.
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.