Scot McKnight and the completion of Israel's story

Read time: 5 minutes

Scot McKnight articulates what is essentially a “New Perspective” take on the gospel for a mainstream evangelical readership in a nicely judged cover story on the apparent tension between Jesus and Paul for Christianity Today. He gives a rather personal account of the journey that many evangelicals have made in recent years from Paul to Jesus, from the traditional Reformed gospel of “justification by faith” to a much more earthy and ethically construed gospel of the “kingdom of God”, and describes how difficult it can be to integrate these two positions:

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. I meet many young, thinking evangelicals whose “first language” is Jesus and the kingdom. Yet despite the trend, perhaps in reaction to it, many look to Paul and justification by faith as their first language. Those addicted to kingdom language struggle to make Paul fit, while those addicted to Paul’s theological terms struggle to make Jesus fit. (page 2)

Jesus completes Israel’s story

Scot suggests that the tension can be resolved by starting with Paul’s definition of the “gospel” in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4—that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. There is no mention here either of “kingdom” or of “justification”. What we have instead is a statement about Jesus and about his significance for Israel.

Behind or underneath both kingdom and justification is the gospel, and the gospel is the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story. “To gospel” is to tell a story about Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord, as the Son of God, as the Savior. (page 4)

The article is a good example of how a narratively framed theology might sound in a less scholarly context, and the comments indicate the range of likely responses. More might have been said about the emerging church’s misconstrual of kingdom and the resurgent Reformed movement’s misplaced emphasis on justification—a big part of the problem is that we have been trying to fit together two mangled pieces of theology. Daniel Kirk thinks that Scot could have come down harder on the “justification by faith as gospel” people; but equally Scot could have made it much clearer that well-meaning attempts to contextualize the gospel socially do not constitute a good hermeneutic for interpreting Jesus’ kingdom language, which, as he says, presupposes first a king, a territory, a people and a Law.

These are minor and probably unreasonable quibbles given the scope and intention of the article. It seems to me that in broad terms the central contention is correct. Both kingdom language and justification language have to be located in a prior narrative and an accompanying set of complex arguments about Israel in the first century; and if that narrative is not clearly understood, both “kingdom” and “justification” will be misunderstood. Admittedly, this is a rather circular argument, but it can circle either upwards or downwards—either towards coherence and clarity or towards dissonance and incoherence.

The ostrich is a flightless bird

To say that the gospel is “the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story”, however, hardly puts an end to debate. What do we mean by “completes Israel’s story”? In what sense is this a “saving story about Jesus”? And if Jesus is the completion of Israel’s story (rather than of your story or of my story), how does this amount to “good news” today?

The narrative definition makes the gospel a statement about what happened to a community at a particular moment in history. But there is a risk, which I think Scot narrowly slips into, that we will understand the completion of Israel’s story as, in effect, the completion of theological narrative altogether.

In my view it is a mistake to think of Israel’s story as a large bird running and flapping heavily along the ground of a historical narrative until eventually, with the resurrection of Jesus, it takes off into the air of an abstract and universalized soteriology. The narrative does not stop at the resurrection; history does not stop at the resurrection; community remains a contingent experience. The bird is an ostrich, it stays grounded. But there is considerable pressure still from the modern evangelical mindset to insist on a fundamental epistemological shift at the moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection—from contingent historical narrative to generalized ahistorical theology. I made the same point recently with regard to Douglas Campbell’s reading of Romans.

In this respect, the statement that concerns me in Scot’s article is his comment in relation to 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “the gospel saves people from their sins”. That seems to me the point at which a conventional evangelical theology illegitimately reclaims the narrative for its own ends. My argument would be that if we wish to understand Jesus as the “completion of Israel’s story”, we have to reckon with the fact that judgment and salvation in the New Testament are primarily historical rather than existential categories. Certainly all humans are sinful and have to deal—and will have to deal—with the consequences of that; but the New Testament narrative is primarily about the particular sinfulness of Israel and the particular sinfulness of the pagan world.

I don’t think that Paul somehow steps beyond the narrative trajectory determined by the words of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21: “he will save his people from their sins”. If he also has the “salvation” of Gentiles in mind, it is because they have been incorporated into the story of Israel’s salvation and by that token redeemed from the ultimate futility of a decadent and obsolescent paganism.

That becomes good news today because God remains faithful—because of Christ—to the people that was historically redeemed and reconstituted through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the whole story needs somehow to be told—including, for example, the story of the humiliation of the church by the forces of modernity—before it becomes presently and personally meaningful as “good news” again.

paulf | Tue, 12/07/2010 - 20:33 | Permalink

You bring up some good questions, but I would go even further. If god's plan was save the world, for what purpose was the initial covenant with Israel?

You could say that god gave them the chance, and they blew it, forcing him to Plan B. But since the plan was ordained from the beginning of time, there was no Plan B. So why favor Israel for 1,500 years of history?

And why wait for so long to execute the means of the gospel? If Jesus died for the sins of mankind, why not do it in the first generation? That way everybody is on a level playing field, so to speak, in terms of acceptance.

Also, I find it odd to define the "Old Testament narrative" as the sinfulness of Israel. If the point of the covenant was to expose that nobody could keep it, then god was acting and making promises on bad faith because he was asking people to do what he knew they couldn't because of the way that he in fact made them.



All good questions. I don’t think the plan was to save the world in any absolute sense. The plan was to establish an alternative creation, a world in microcosm, faithful to the creator, in the midst of the nations. That alternative community has a narrative or historical existence, and at critical moments in the narrative it becomes appropriate to speak either of the salvation of the community or of the salvation of the larger society in which it is embedded. In both cases this is not a metaphysical or spiritual salvation; it is a salvation from corporate destruction or civilizational obsolescence in order to be part of a community of creational life and blessing, reconciled to God. It is precisely a mark of the contingency of the narrative that Jesus appears at a particular historical moment, in the “fulness of time”, to save national Israel from the consequences of its sins.

The salvation of Israel is then extended in two crucial ways: first, the resurrection introduces an ontological novelty which underpins the prospect of a wholesale renewal of creation; and secondly, the terms of the community’s existence are redefined in such a way (Spirit instead of Torah) that Gentiles may be included in the community of God’s new creation.

The salvation of Israel is then extended in two crucial ways: first, the resurrection introduces an ontological novelty which underpins the prospect of a wholesale renewal of creation; and secondly, the terms of the community’s existence are redefined in such a way (Spirit instead of Torah) that Gentiles may be included in the community of God’s new creation.


Andrew:  This is flat out wrong-minded.  "The terms of the community's existence are redefined in such a way (SPIRIT INSTEAD OF TORAH)[my emphasis] that gentiles may be included in the community of God's new creation.

Perhaps it also explains why so many - Jews especially - but "orthodox" believers of both christian and Jewish faiths, don't understand how Jesus completes the Israel narrative.  

The Spirit in NO WAY is intended to replace Torah.  Torah - over and over and over again - is Paul's way.  Jesus himself abided and taught Torah principles.  Neither Paul nor Jesus EVER instructs that followers of Christ are to abandon Torah or it's principles.

And for Gentiles, Paul strenuously lays out the Holy rationale for Gentiles being grafted into the Vine; God's plan.  Jesus, of course, never distinguished between the two general communities (Jews/Gentiles) in teaching or performing His miracles.

To the issue of ChristianityToday and McKnight's article, while it is of course accurate - or evident of some kind of recognition of the difference between the teachings of Paul and those of Yeshua (here typified to be "Justification by Faith" vs. "Kingdom") - to point out a distinction, it is really just pointing out the typical foibles of "christians" and christian scholars...  let's over-analyze everything and pretend that there's something significant where there ISN'T.

That's the rub I alway get when I come to your website.  The scholarly banter here is all but unto nothing, sometimes.  Why not just recognize that Paul's MISSION was to evangelize and reach Gentiles and instruct Jews in the rationale behind letting Gentiles "into the fold" (which IS THE KINGDOM, and which is the FULFILLMENT OF ISRAEL), so to speak?  Whereas, Jesus, as the Messiah, was MUCH MORE APPROPRIATELY teaching the Kingdom.

Is this not plain to see?  Other than creating content for ChristianityToday and generating another published article for McKnight, does this even need to be debated?  I personally reject the entire premise of McKnight's piece.  

I think he invented - or at the very least highly magnified - an almost absurd and inconsequential dogma that shouldn't exist and has little to do with advancing KINGDOM principles.  

I believe Jesus himself would have some fairly incisive questions and comments were he to be confronted on such a "debate."

Isaac, I think we’ll probably just have to agree to disagree here.

My view—this is my reading of Romans 11—is that if Israel had repented after the war against Rome and acknowledged Jesus as messiah, things would have been very different. Practically speaking, Gentiles would have remained grafted by faith, exempt from the requirements of the Law, into a renewed Israel under the Law. But that didn’t happen.

The issue from Jesus’ perspective was not whether the Law remained in force for Israel but whether Israel as such would survive the coming judgment. I presume he expected his disciples to continue to observe the Law. What he does not directly take into account is the historical impact that a massive influx of Gentiles would have on the constitution of this renewal movement.

Incidentally, I don’t think Paul means that the Gentiles are grafted into Israel under the Law. Rather it seems more likely that both national, torah-defined Israel and the Gentiles are attached to the rich root of the patriarchs or the “forefathers” (11:28). Gentiles, therefore, are not dependent on the existence of torah-based Israel; they are dependent on the promises made to Abraham.

That aside, I’m sure you are right that this site is at times full of sound and fury signifying nothing. But I try my best to keep things meaningful.


I like the last thing you said about that at times the site is full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I'd certainly agree, but will wryly confess that in spite of this, it seems that the atmosphere created here is seemingly from people with an earnest desire to arrive at some kind of meaningful truth.

OK, to your main point and our area of profound disagreement.  Perhaps it's not as profound as I imagine, but let us see.

Yeshua taught that he was the fulfillment of the law. That he did NOT come to abolish it (Torah), nor Judaism.  Much of this was from His sermon on the Mount (Matthew).  Matt 5:18-19 Jesus said not the smallest jot nor tittle shall pass from the law until ALL is accomplished... he then admonishes that anyone who teaches otherwise - even the LEAST of the commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be considered least in the Kingdom of Heaven.  etc.

How is it that people - you - can interpret that Gentiles and Jews could EVER co-exist if they weren't both living under the same Torah principles that both Yeshua and Paul taught?  

To fulfill the Torah - as Jesus stated he was doing - was to OBEY the Torah.  In fact, you could easily and accurately substitute Jesus (yeah, I know I'm bouncing back and forth with Yeshua/Jesus nomenclature) as the Word - or the TORAH - made flesh.

Perhaps it's best to unpack the entire Judaism/Christian/Faith/Kingdom dogma from the standpoint of covenant.  All of the covenantal promises within the Bible are predicated upon mutual benefit, contain terms and conditions and require fidelity or faithfulness.  Kingdom principles, all.  Yeshua principles, all.  

Grace was not a substitute for the Torah (law) for Gentiles.  Jesus did NOT teach this.  Did he take occasion to label the Jewish legalist of the day as hypocrites for their UNholy focus on tradition at the expense of weightier Torah principles?  Yes.  Was this confused as Yeshua saying that the Law was abolished?  YES.  Of course, amongst MANY other misapplications of logic and interpretation.

"The Torah was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" John 1:17

The "but" in this scripture throws many off the mark. Grace and Torah are not opposites.  Because God demands righteousness of man does NOT mean that under grace, he cannot GIVE righteousness to men.  This, in fact, was what Jesus fulfilled.  Perfection.....

Paul.  Paul was an awesome proponent for God and Yeshua precisely because he was such a highly credentialed (student of Rabban Gamaliel)  Pharisee.  He was a "hebrew of hebrews." A Benjamite Jew... and scrupulously Torah observant.  

The issue from Jesus’ perspective was not whether the Law remained in force for Israel but whether Israel as such would survive the coming judgment. I presume he expected his disciples to continue to observe the Law. What he does not directly take into account is the historical impact that a massive influx of Gentiles would have on the constitution of this renewal movement.

The issue from Jesus' perspective was NOT "not whether the Law remained in force for Israel but whether Israel would survive the coming judgment."  Not this AT ALL.  Israel has a COVENANT with God.  They were perenially DISOBEDIENT, disqualifying themselves from a great deal of the blessings that they were promised.  Of course Torah (the law) remained in force for Israel... as for the entire Gentile world.  Jesus' "issue" as you put it, was to provide a redemptive path back to God.  I guess that would take care of any concern about "surviving the coming judgement."

From the standpoint of, "he [sic] does not directly take into account is the historical impact that a massive influx of Gentiles would have on the constitution of this renewal movement," I'm not sure what the significance of this statement is.  Who cares?  Ultimately, this IS what will take place.  That's a much bigger concern when Jesus returns (or before His return), I'd imagine, if it is a "concern."  It's part of God's plan, afterall.

Your incidental statement that you don't believe that Paul means that the Gentiles are grafted into Israel "under the Law" I agree with.  Gentiles are included as fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers "... of the promise in Messiah Yeshua through the gospel,... according to the gift of God's grace" Eph. 3:3-7. Acts 15:7-11; Acts 15:16-17; et al.

This was not a popular message.

Paul suffered NO FEWER than SIX trials as a result of his controversial teachings and prevailed in all of them defending the charges that he was anti-Jewish, anti-Torah, and a breaker of Roman law.

I've kind of been thinking it's a bit back towards the 'Saved for good works, not saved by good works' thing.

Or rather "Saved to bless others, not saved to be more blessed than others".  Kind of the antithesis of the Prosperity Gospel, and the fulfilment of Jesus' teaching from when He washed His disciples' feet.

All through the scriptures, OT & NT, God seems to be implying and often explicitly saying that His people are saved not 'to be better than everyone else', but in order to reach out and help everyone else to be better.

When they were ordered to wage war upon others, it wasn't just to get land to Israel, but also to punish those other nations.  I do struggle with the atrocities and genocide.  I don't understand it all - but the only way I can see currently as my next step towards comprehension and reconciliation is that God wanted a relationship with all the peoples, and chose Abraham's descendants and the people of Israel to be his hands and feet for that.  There are many commandments and references to treating foreigners well who live amongst Israel.

And to a certain degree, you can see the fruit of it.  All the "God fearing Greeks" mentioned in the NT, for instance.