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The December issue of Christianity Today features a cover story from Scot McKnight called “Jesus vs. Paul”.

In the article, Scot seeks to help evangelicals resolve a common dilemma – how to reconcile and integrate the different emphases we find in the teachings of Jesus (Kingdom of God) and the letters of Paul (justification by faith). Scot’s solution is to center the gospel in neither justification nor kingdom but in Christology. Paul and Jesus are united because they are both centered on Jesus – who he is and what he has done.

Scot is stopping by the blog today to answer a few of my lingering questions. I encourage you to read the article, read these follow-up questions and then discuss in the comments section.

Trevin Wax: Scot, in your article, you write: “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.” Why do you think evangelicals feel the need to choose sides in this discussion?

Scot McKnight: You ask a genuinely interesting question and I wish I could give an answer to the “why?” question.

Instead, I see an issue here of hermeneutical inevitability. We are driven by the way we think to synthesize (or systematize) or to harmonize or to compartmentalize. These sorts of actions are inherent to how our brains work, especially for people who read the Bible as believers and who believe it is God’s Word and genuinely makes utter sense.

What I find is that many evangelicals came to faith through a Pauline-anchored set of categories. In many ways it was about the gospel of the Romans Road, and if that understanding of the gospel is repeated often enough (and just listen and you will hear it all the time) it becomes reflexive. This is the context of most evangelicals, and that context is fundamentally hermeneutical.

An analogy: the Judaizing opponents of Paul in Galatians knew how to read the Bible through a Moses lens, and Paul was teaching them to read the Bible (or Israel’s Story) through an Abraham lens. The Judaizing opponents couldn’t make sense of what Paul was saying, and that led them to say “Why then did God even give the Law?”

I see the same thing going on today. Evangelicals have grown up with a gospel, and that gospel has become their hermeneutic, and that hermeneutic is essentially derived from a specific way of reading Paul, and by that I mean a soteriological reading of Romans 1-8. It is the way we (or most of us) think.

The minute a kingdom hermeneutic comes up, one either abandons the Pauline hermeneutic or one synthesizes or — and I think this is most common — one colonizes Jesus’ kingdom hermeneutic by a justification hermeneutic. That is, we make Jesus talk Paul. Or, we colonize Paul with Jesus’ kingdom hermeneutic and make Paul talk Jesus.

Evangelicals are worried that if we colonize Paul with Jesus’ kingdom hermeneutic we will lose a Pauline soteriology. There are plenty of cases where that very thing happened. But I think many are doing the very same thing by colonizing Jesus with Paul.

What I suggest in my article is that both of these approaches fails to find the essential continuity between Jesus and Paul. Kingdom doesn’t lead to justification and justification doesn’t lead to kingdom. The unity is found through christology, not through kingdom or justification.

Trevin Wax: You mention that we are driven by the way we think to systematize what we find in the Bible. Some downplay the benefit of this kind of systematization of theology. But any time we try to hold the Bible, we are engaging in a systematic framework – at least at some level. Of course, there are problems in doing systematic theology, as well as benefits too. What do you think? Is it a good impulse to want to connect the dots and put the Bible together?

Scot McKnight: Putting the Bible together and doing systematics are two different things for me. Systematic theology has many definitions, and the only one that concerns me is when folks let their system overwhelm what the texts actually say. The further we let our categories stray from the fundamental story line one finds in the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed or Regula Fidei, that is the fundamental story line of the Bible (creation, covenant, community, Christ, church, consummation), the further we are getting from having a true biblical unity.

I think the systematized versions of Calvinism and Arminianism stray too far from this narrative line in their essential set of categories. I’m nervous about teaching theology through the classical topoi, and prefer that we teach it through the lens of the Bible’s fundamental narrative.

Trevin Wax: What are the problems we face when we try to fit justification into Jesus’ vision of the kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom theology into Paul’s theology of justification?

Scot McKnight: This could be a book or a brief answer, I choose the latter.

Fundamentally, these are two different (and mostly) parallel language games: the gospel of the kingdom is a way of saying the good news is that God’s promises for Israel are now coming to pass in Jesus himself; the gospel of justification (which isn’t a biblical expression) is a way of saying that the good news is that in Jesus Christ we have been declared (and made) right with God, right with ourselves, right with others and right with the world. It is forensic declaration.

Thus, the two are talking about two different things. Asking if what Jesus meant by kingdom is the same as what Paul meant by justification is like asking if a putter is a driver.

Trevin Wax: I thought your linking John Piper to Joachim Jeremias was interesting, particularly in the way that both scholars seek (albeit in different ways) to show how justification is present in Jesus’ teaching. When you say that Paul and Jesus taught different things, you are speaking of emphasis – not that they had different (i.e. contradictory) visions at the fundamental level, right?

Scot McKnight: You are right. It’s emphasis – not different things. As the previous question showed, they are parallel lines but complementary lines.

Trevin Wax: Your solution to this dilemma is to take 1 Corinthians 15 as primarily a statement about Jesus – who he is and what he has done. By emphasizing the centrality of Christ’s person and work, you bring Paul and Jesus together. Both Paul and Jesus were all about Jesus, particularly his fulfillment of the Old Testament story. Once you’ve made the shift, how do kingdom and justification relate to the gospel?

Scot McKnight: 1 Cor 15 is the gospel. Flat out simple. Paul defines it there; or he states it there. Every time Paul says “gospel” he means what he says in 1 Cor 15. That gospel is the narration of the Story of Jesus as Messiah (and Lord over all) as that Story that completes or fulfills the Story of Israel, and brings that Story to its goal. That Story is about Jesus and Jesus, who is Savior, saves through what he did — his life, his death, his burial, and his resurrection.

Now, we’re back to this kingdom and justification thing again. The first way to state in the gospel in the NT, of course, is kingdom. That’s how Jesus said it. He was saying the Story has now come to its completion/realization in him. When Paul talks about justification he is talking about the effects, and I prefer to say only way of speaking of those effects (others include reconciliation, redemption, etc). He’s talking about the forensic-shaped effects of the Saving-ness of the Story of Jesus. To gospel is to declare this Story as the saving/justifiying Story.

A problem we need to work on more is the problem: we (evangelicals) tend to think the only problem is the personal sin, personal guilt problem. Fair enough. But frankly if “Jesus is the Messiah” or “Jesus is the Lord” is the solution, then we need to reframe or expand the problem because the problem for the Story of Israel is that it is yearning for completion in God’s sending of the Messiah. Messiah, then, is a Solution to a slightly different (way of expressing the) problem.

Trevin Wax: Would it be right to say that a church without any kingdom vision or a church that denies justification by faith has – in some sense – a deficient gospel? If we say so, does it mean that there’s a problem with the Christology that is then leading out to a failure to grasp kingdom or justification?

Scot McKnight: If there is a deficiency, I want to begin with where Paul and Peter and Jesus do: with the Story of Jesus fulfilling the Story of Israel. If we don’t start with Jesus (christology) we will be deficient, and I find both kingdom and justification to be tempted far too often to make christology deficient. How odd, and how tragic, but so true: we get so focused on kingdom we end up thinking only of justice, and then we think so much in terms of justification we get lost in transaction, and in both cases we aren’t focusing on telling the Story of Jesus.

Trevin Wax: Thanks, Scot, for stopping by to discuss your CT article.


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12 thoughts on “Jesus vs. Paul: An Interview with Scot McKnight about the Gospel”

  1. Josh B. says:

    Why can’t we have the kingdom AND justification? Are these things mutually exclusive? Could it be said that Jesus, before his death, announced to us the characteristics and “laws” of this kingdom, while Paul made it personal in each of his letters?

    I’m no theologian, but it just seems like there’s not a problem integrating these two aspects of Scripture.

  2. Josh B. says:

    I actually posted that comment before finishing the article; I just wrote based on your interview.

    After finishing the article, it seems Scot McKnight comes to a fairly elementary conclusion that Jesus is the center of God’s story – of course that’s true! Granted, many Christians today don’t necessarily believe that in their heart of hearts (for they believe we are the center of God’s story).

    Still, I can’t help but think that comparing and contrasting Jesus and Paul in the way that has been done previously hasn’t helped anyone understand the overarching messages of the New Testament. Although this might be taken as a radical statement, I’ll throw it out there anyway: not every book in the New Testament needs to say the exact same thing.

    Now I think it should have the same foundation, but James is certainly speaking of different things than Paul, and Paul’s letters contain different information than does the gospel of Matthew. The 4 gospels are different, although they have their harmonies – designed to corroborate each other but also paint a whole portrait of Jesus. Could the rest of the New Testament Scriptures not be serving a similar function in defining God’s plan for His people?

    So, even after reading the article, I still feel like I was holding the view of “kingdom AND justification” without all the fancy theological gymnastics that required a definition of the gospel. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling Scot McKnight’s writing; I just don’t understand why this controversy is so weighty.

  3. Christiane says:

    The ‘justification by faith’ in relation to ‘the Kingdom’ are also current topics in my own Church:

    Benedict XVI recently said this:
    “At the moment of his (Paul’s) encounter with the Risen One, he understood that with Christ’s Resurrection the situation had changed radically. With Christ, the God of Israel, the one true God, became the God of all peoples.

    The wall as he says in his Letter to the Ephesians between Israel and the Gentiles, was no longer necessary: it is Christ who protects us from polytheism and all of its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity within the diversity of cultures.

    The wall is no longer necessary; our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is He who makes us just. Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices.

    Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.

    Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to His life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into His love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St Paul speaks of faith that works through love (cf. Gal 5: 14).”

    (excerpt is from the sitebelow:)

    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20081119_en.html

  4. Seth Odom says:

    That was one of the most informative interviews I have read in a while. I look forward to reading the entire article. I am really challenged on my Christology now. Scot seems right on.

  5. Well done on this interview, Trevin. Very helpful!

    Scot’s proposal is intriguing, but not altogether satisfying to me. I’m not ready to give up on finding a synthesis between kingdom and justification.

    I would like to see judgment or “salvation through judgment” discussed more often as a point of contact. It seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom vision is ultimately the restoration of the entire creation. And such restoration requires judgment, a cleaning-up of God’s creation. And thus, it requires salvation through judgment if any of us are to experience it.

    I hear this in Jesus’ and John’s call to repent. The at-handness of the kingdom means the at-handness of judgment, hence the call to repent (John mentions judgment explicitly; Jesus does in his later ministry). I see it in Revelation, when judgment precedes the new heavens and new earth. I see it typified in the OT, where the flood (judgment) creates a prototype new creation (kingdom). I see it in the Exodus, where creating a new people in a new land (kingdom) means they must be brought through Passover (judgment).

    Then we arrive at Romans. What is Paul’s framing narrative in Romans? Judgment is coming! Where did he get this idea? Probably from the flood and passover and John and Jesus! Surely Paul understands that if the kingdom is at hand, judgment is at hand. The solution? Justification by faith. So justification is the means by which we pass through judgment and enter the kingdom.

    This would mean that in explaining the gospel (say to a non-Christian), it’s perfectly OK to start with Jesus and a “kingdom gospel” and a vision of the restoration of all things (I usually find a better starting point for postmoderns than “you’re a sinner”). But if I’m faithfully explaining how the kingdom comes, I’m going to have to talk about judgment – just like John and Jesus. Which then means I’m going to need to talk about justification too.

  6. Alan Hirsch says:

    Soctt is spot on in his analysis. The answer is found in Christology. Many Evangelicals have simply collapsed their Christology into soteriology. The end result is that Jesus is my savior but not my Lord. But surely it is heretical to separate the person and the work of Christ?

    Thanks for posting.

    1. Adam says:

      “Many Evangelicals have simply collapsed their Christology into soteriology. The end result is that Jesus is my savior but not my Lord.”

      What an awful straw man argument… Let’s try a better argument. Perhaps something like this makes more sense…

      Romans 1:20-
      For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

      Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

      Now doesn’t that better explain the shortcoming of the church rather than the teaching must be wrong?

      I’ve been reading the claims of McKnight, and frankly I’m sickened by where he draws his end conclusions and where they point to. That a vastly large percentage of Christian preachers, teachers and pastors are heretics. Granted, heresy is a huge part of the church as we speak (just watch your television on Sunday morning). He doesn’t come right out and say it, but he implies that humanity has been more or less “lost” without his type of Christology. Like he’s uncovered some lost precept from 1600 years ago and numbers of generations have flat out missed the point. McKnight claims suggest that the likes of Spurgeon, Wesley, Luther and numerous other staples of faith were moreover damning rather than helpful in the area of Christian ideals and theology.

      His claim are however, wrapped in obvious Christian truths, ideals and theology. But then his “bread-and-butter” points lead to a dissemination of Christianity from the center of the foundation outwards.

      I seriously question his purpose and motifs.

  7. Theodore A. Jones says:

    “Why did God even give the law?” Scott McKnight’s question is a corruption of the statement “What then was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions” Gal. 3:19, but translators thinking as you do, used “was” when they should have used “is”. Paul makes a similar correspondent in Rom. 5:20, “The law was added”, but again “was” has been used, but for our “modern” minds to understand Rom. 5:20, needs to read “The law has been added so that the trespass, murder against Jesus Christ, has increased.”
    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    The writings of Paul are always translated and interpreted incorrectly whenever the translator or interpreter assumes that the word law in Paul’s writings is referencing OT law.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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