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.