N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight and the Gospel: Compared and Contrasted

Derek Ouellette —  October 22, 2011

At first glance it appears that Scot McKnight’s gospel proposal in his recent book, The King Jesus Gospel, is very much “Wrightian”. But the more I reflected on what McKnight had to say, and the more I perused much of what Wright says throughout his work, the wider a contrast between the two developed. These two scholars have many points of agreement though, and so much so that it may be suggested that McKnight’s gospel proposal was an outworking of Wright’s influence on his thinking. But Scot is a superb scholar in his own right, so it might simply be suggested that his understanding of the gospel developed independent of Wright, whom he sources simply as a scholar in agreement.

Areas of Agreement

1. What the Gospel Is Not

One of the premises of The King Jesus Gospel is that “We evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation… but these two words don’t mean the same thing” (p.29), he goes on to emphasize this distinction: “[T]his Plan of Salvation is not the gospel” (p.39). This is precisely the point N.T. Wright makes throughout much of his work. In What Saint Paul Really Said? Wright repeatedly makes this same point: “[the gospel] is not, then, a system of how people get saved” (p.10), “Paul’s gospel was not a doctrine of how to get saved” (p.90), “the gospel is not an account of how people get saved” (p.133).

Another thing that McKnight says the gospel is not is “justification by faith”. He examines John Piper’s question “Did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel?” and by that he says “Piper’s assumption is that justification is the gospel” and that Calvinist thinking among evangelicals “has defined the gospel in the short formula “justification by faith”. To this McKnight replies, “When we can find hardly any instances of our favorite theological category in the whole of the four Gospels, we need to be wary of how important our own interpretations and theological favorites are.” (p.25). But that is just about everything McKnight had to say about justification by faith not being the gospel. One page. In stark contrast but also in clear agreement, Wright says more or less the same thing, only to a much greater extent. Again in What Saint Paul Really Said? he writes, “For Paul, ‘the gospel’ creates the church; ‘justification’ defines it” (p.151), “I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’” (p.132), “I have already indicated that [justification] cannot be put right at the centre, [of the gospel] since that place is already taken by the person of Jesus himself, and the gospel announcement of his sovereign kingship.” (p.114).

2. What the Gospel Is

After clearing the debris of what the gospel is not, these two scholars more or less also agree on what the gospel is (though, as we’ll see in a moment, McKnight’s understand of what the gospel is is minimalistic compared to Wright). To put it simply, McKnight says the gospel is “declaring the Story of Israel as resolved in the Story of Jesus” (p.79). Period. To further explain he writes, “[t]he gospel Story of Jesus Christ is a story about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Savior, and Jesus as Son.” (p.55). “The gospel for the apostle Paul is the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. To ‘gospel’ is to declare this story, and it is a story that saves people from their sins. That story is the only framing story if we want to be apostolic in how we present the gospel. We can frame the ‘gospel’ with other stories or categories, but there is one holy and apostolic story, and it is the Story of Israel. That is the apostolic framing story of the gospel” (p.61). In What Saint Paul Really Said? Wright says that “[t]he gospel is, then, the announcement about Jesus” (p.157), “[the gospel is] the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ” (p.133). “The gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus” (p.45). “The good news [according to the prophets] would be the message that the long-awaited release from captivity was at hand” (p.43).

And both scholars emphasize our need to bring the resurrection in the gospel discussion, not just the crucifixion. McKnight writes, “The cross gospel requires a resurrection gospel…. Apart from resurrection the cross remains nothing more than an instrument of torture and suffering” (p.89) and “We need to recover more of that early, emboldened Christian resurrection gospel” (p.132).” In his recent book, Justification, Wright more or less makes the same point: “Paul does of course highlight the saving death of Jesus when he is giving his thumbnail sketch of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. But it is interesting that in the two crucial passages where he speaks of the faith of the Christian as embodying the faith spoken of in the Old Testament – Romans 4:23-25 and Romans 10:6-11 – it is the resurrection that takes center stage. This is not, of course, an either-or. The resurrection remains the resurrection of the crucified one, and its significance is not least that it signals that the cross was a victory, not a defeat (1 Corinthians 15:17)” (p.247).

And both scholars see 1 Corinthians 15 as a key summary text of the gospel (though, again as we’ll see in a moment, Scot takes a minimalistic approach here compared to Wright). McKnight writes: “The best place to begin is the one place in the entire New Testament where someone actually comes close to defining the word gospel. First Corinthians 15 is that place” (p.46, – emphasis mine). While per-capita it seems McKnight spends much more time in 1 Corinthians 15 as a gospel definition text than Wright, still Wright would agree that this passage is a summary gospel text. In Justification he refers to this text as “one of Paul’s summaries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3)” (p.105 – notice Wright says “one of” in contrast to Scot’s “the one place”).

Areas of Disagreement

In the forward to McKnight’s book Wright says that McKnights proposal is so massive “that I doubt whether any of his colleagues, and certainly not this writer, will at once agree with every detail. We will want to nuance some things differently, to highlight other points, or to emphasize other angles” (p.12, italics mine). The following is where I believe Wright would do just that.

What Saint Paul Really Said? was published back in 1997, and in this controversial little piece of work Wright has a chapter titled “Herald of the King”. It is in the opening portions of this chapter that Scot McKnight quotes from at the start of his book. Ironically much of what Wright goes on to say in this chapter McKnight explicitly rejects in his book, and other things he says McKnight ignores. The first is the pagan context of the word “gospel” and the second is its exile motif. I’m going to put the exile motif aside for the time being because it could be argued that since the exile motif is a part of Israel’s Story, that it is implied in McKnight’s statement that the gospel “is the Story of Israel resolved in the Story of Jesus”. Because McKnight doesn’t draw any attention to this important theme as it relates to the gospel, it is difficult to tell if he rejects it or accepts it.

Wright points out that some scholars see “the gospel” strictly in terms of a Jewish or Israel (Isaiah prophecies) term while others see it as having a broader cultural connotation, and he says that this is based on false “either/or”. But McKnight falls into the category of the first. He doesn’t deny that ‘the gospel’ may have had political consequences, but he does reject the idea that Paul (or anyone else) used the term intentionally to be subversive. In other words, to Wright’s mind, Scot is one of those scholars to propagate the false antithesis.

Scot’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel, was published last month (September 2011) and it is a cool irony that Wrights new book, Simply Jesus, was published just last week (October 2011). It is before me while I type, and in it he affirms precisely the same point he made all those years ago:

“The message was carved in stone, on monuments and in inscriptions, around the known world: “Good news! We have an Emperor! Justice, Peace, Security, and Prosperity are ours forever! The Son of God has become King of the World!… ‘Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.’ On the reverse is a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest, with the title pontifex maximus. It was a coin like this one that they showed to Jesus of Nazareth, a day or two after he had ridden into Jerusalem… After all, as the propaganda insisted, the rule of Caesar, the Roman ‘son of god,’ was the ‘good news’ that had brought blessings and benefits to the whole world.” (Simply Jesus, p.30)

For Wright, the only way to make sense of Jesus and his mission – i.e. ‘the gospel’ – is to reflect on the combination of “the cold might of empire and the overheated aspiration of Israel” (p.39).

Israel’s Story is important and Wright spends a lot of time in it, but it is not the only angle by which we look at the term “the gospel” in the first century and ask what was going on.

For McKnight, “No matter how much I’m personally inclined to want this set of ideas to be true, I’m not convinced the anti-imperial theme was as conscious to the apostles as some are suggesting. I would prefer to see the apostles just come out and say it… to proclaim the gospel entails that Caesar – in whatever guise such an autocrat presents himself – is not. But to claim the gospel was intentionally subversive stretches the evidence.” (p.144)

Another aspect of this discussion where it appears they disagree has to do with God himself. Again I believe this is where McKnight is being minimalistic. It’s not that McKnight outright rejects what I’m about to show you that Wright says about the gospel, rather it is that McKnight – because his view of ‘the gospel’ is so minimal, “Jesus’s Story as the fulfillment of Israel’s Story” and nothing more or less – doesn’t even address it.  It is perhaps this very point – that McKnight makes the gospel a message about Jesus rather than a message about God – that he also misses the imperial connection as well.

“We have studied Paul’s ‘gospel’, and have seen that underneath his regular formulae (‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ and so on) there is a carefully worked out sequence of thought, an implicit story-line, which when properly understood reveals that he both remained totally rooted in his Jewish world and was aiming his message directly at the principalities and powers of the Roman world, from Caesar downwards. Ultimately, though, this message was not simply a message about Jesus. Everything he said about Jesus was, for him, a way of talking about God.” (What Saint Paul Really Said? p.57)

I’m inclined to agree with Wright that there are more things going on – and more things meant by ‘the gospel’ – then Scot allows for. Without minimizing the centrality of Jesus’ Story as the fulfillment of Israel’s Story it is imperative to note that Israel’s Story exists as an answer to Adam’s Story and that Story is really a Story about God and about creation and about a fall and about idolatry and about earthly rulers and political leaders and false god’s and the ‘good news’ proclaimed that these other rulers are the “son of god” who bring peace to the world and that through the meeting of the Isaiah prophecies of the “herald of good tidings” that the exile – not just Israel’s exile, but the Exile of humanity – was coming to an end, that this same herald of good tidings proclaimed by the apostles that “ultimately, for the Roman point of view, there was only one Lord of the world. According to Paul, he now had a rival” (What Saint Paul Really Said? p.56)

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://nailtothedoor.com Dan Martin

    I appreciate this, Derek. I have McKnight’s new book but have yet to start it (bought 4 books at the same time). Have not gotten Wright’s latest but I can see I shall have to.

  • http://redemptionjunkie.blogspot.com HeidiRenee

    Thanks for this Derek – just working through WSPRS and New Perspective on Paul myself, this clarifies things for me quite a bit, grateful.

  • http://crispinschroeder.blogspot.com Crispin

    I am over half way through McKnight’s book. I tend to land on more of what Wright said but I have found McKnight’s contribution in this book to be very valuable to the conversation. Great contrast on these two scholars. By the way, I liked how McKnight not only took issue with John Piper for making the gospel about justification only but then turned around and used Piper’s phrase “God is the Gospel” (though he changed it to Jesus is the Gospel). It’s cool to see that even when critiquing someone McKnight was able to find some common ground.

  • http://www.thejesusagenda.net Dave Leigh

    Real nice job, Derek! To your point about Jesus fulfilling more than Israel’s story, I agree. But I have always found it curious that we use the word “fall” regarding Adam, since I have never found it used in scripture, not even in Genesis or anywhere in Paul. Yet we all use it, myself included. I wonder how our thinking might adjust if we stayed with more biblical terminology?

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      What do you suggest Dave?

      • http://www.thejesusagenda.net Dave Leigh

        Still working on it. I was hoping you’d have the solution 😉

        • http://culturalsavage.com Aaron

          FWIW, transgressed and trespassed seem to be the terms/ideas that I see in scripture when talking about “the fall”.

          • http://www.thejesusagenda.net Dave Leigh

            Death occurs as a consequence; no fall is ever mentioned. There also seems to be lots of talk about enmity and hostility and being enemies of God. Even the creation is said to be in labor. I wonder where the term originated?

  • Tom Eggebeen

    Been leading a Bible study of Genesis, trying to work through what the text (composed post-exile tragedy, seeking to find the largest possible story into which the immediate tale of Judah’s fall and exile [the God of Israel has failed; Babylonian gods won] can be fit and still point to faith, hope and love) and noting how the Christian Church often imposed latter categories of thought on the text – snake=Satan; the fall, sin, punishment (no punishment in the tex; the curse on the snake and the ground are done as a favor to humanity, and God’s fence around female fertility and male labor – to deny any attempt to find identity in these realms), etc.. I said yesterday, “The church loves to make a big deal out of sin and punishment [the English title for Chapter 3, NRSV]” and then asked “Why?” It didn’t take long for folks to quickly grasp the picture – sin and punishment, defined, of course, by the powers that be, are a means of manipulation. Wright and others are helping us return to the text, and in so doing, recovering a more accurate read rather than an anxiety-driven Reformation interpretation that equates gospel with salvation with going to heaven when we die. Not sure I said anything, but here it is, anyway. Thanks for this blog, and thanks for your hard work.

    • http://jrsheets.blogspot.com Jr

      Tom: Wasn’t it the writer of Revelation, John, who related the snake in the garden to Satan? Twice in fact.
      12:9 – “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world— he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
      20:2 – “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years”

      “That ancient serpent,” of course, referring to the garden incident. The point to show that the evil one from the beginning will meet his end.

  • http://thepangeablog.com Kurt Willems

    Excellent observation. I mentioned this very thing in my review of Scot’s book but love how you took this in to great detail. It matters quite a bit! Great post bro!

  • http://Euangelion Mike Bird

    I would point out that Scot does deal with the still-in-exile theme in his book A New Vision for Israel and Scot is dealing with the theme of Empire more globally in a forthcoming book that he’s editing with Joe Modica!

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks Mike. Scot recent told me this. I’m looking forward to reading that forthcoming book.

  • http://grantstheologyblog.blogspot.com/ Grant

    That picture of Wright and Mcknight is kinda funny. Put a beard on Mcknight or shave Wright’s beard and they could be twins

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      That’s a comical observation Grant.

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  • Jerry Sather

    First time to your site. I’ve read Scot’s book and just received Tom Wright’s new one. Looking forward to the comparison. I think both Scot and Tom are on the right track of the gospel as story through their emphasis may be a bit different. Scot seems to be in a pitched battle with the neoreformed in America. This isn’t such a big issue in England. BTW, as a Nazarene, are you familiar with Michael Lodahl’s “Story of God”?

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      No, Jerry, I’m afraid I have never come across that book.

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