Jesus or Paul?

I return today to Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.  Tony Jones is blogging on the book each day this week, and while I’m taking breaks to think about The Hunger Games and other matters, I’m trying to stay involved in the conversation there.

**DISCLAIMER:  I am not a New Testament scholar.**

McKnight builds his whole argument around the idea that modern evangelicals have truncated the breadth of the true gospel.  What was meant to be the “good news” about the fulfillment of the story of Israel, an elevation of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the resurrection, and the final culmination of all things in the eschaton has become simply about Jesus as MY personal Saviour.  The result is a sad emaciated gospel devoid of much of its power.

His is an interesting approach.  But while an important reminder, after reading the book I can’t help but feel that he promises a more radical insight than he actually delivers.  Yes, the gospel is about more than us individually.  It concerns the story of God and God’s Creation.  I get that.  Tell me more.

McKnight builds his case first from 1 Corinthians 15 before defining his perspective on this broader gospel.  He then turns to ask whether Jesus preached the gospel (uh, yea…) and how the early apostles proclaimed this news.  His investigation asserts marked similarity and agreement between these approaches.

Theoblogy asked a great question yesterday regarding McKnight’s starting point: “one has to wonder why Scot is using Paul as his entrée into the gospel.  Why not start with Jesus?”

Why start with Paul?  To be sure, Paul’s words (especially 1 Corinthians) are widely considered to be the some of the earliest canonical Christian writings.  1 Corinthians certainly predate the gospels and Acts.  So there is an argument to be made there.  I’m more than a little uncomfortable with this, though, because my longstanding policy has been that everything else needs to be read through the lens of Christ (not vice versa).

While the gospel accounts are certainly four different perspectives on the gospel and the life of Christ, they point directly to him and his sayings and agree frequently on a lot of this.  Since I’m a Christ-ian and not a Paul-ian, it makes sense for me to listen to Christ first, and then read what Paul is saying in light of that.

If McKnight had begun with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God arriving in Luke 4 or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 as the hallmark of “gospel,” his perspective may have changed somewhat.  If historical precedence is important, then he could just as well have turned to Mark’s gospel.  Widely considered to be the first gospel written, it begins as follows:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” before explaining throughout the book exactly what that means.

It is quite possible that one will draw the same conclusions as McKnight by starting this way.  But even if you didn’t, you would be drawing them from the words of Christ.  So I ask, then,  what’s to lose?

My question of the day:  Jesus or Paul?  Which is a better starting point?  Poll away:


5 comments on “Jesus or Paul?

  1. I’ll argue that the starting point is less important than the thoroughness with which one engages the topic. It may be possible for the academic to separate Paul’s “take” on the Gospel from the Synoptic and Johanine proclamations of the Good News. It’s not possible for the Christian to do so. No matter where the Christian starts his or her exploration, the end result has to incorporate the whole of the Biblical witness if it is to be a faithful exposition of the hope we’ve received.

    • Brian:

      Yes. I agree. We can’t start throwing out parts of the Scripture we don’t like. However, I do think it matters where we start. We come to the text, of course, with certain lenses. If we take a purely Pauline lens (not even necessarily his perspective, but perhaps only his lines of argumentation or style of argument) and apply it to the gospels, we may get a different picture than if we take Jesus’ lived ethic and read Paul through it. I know we probably disagree on this, but I think the issue of women in ministry is one that is applicable here.

      • brianegelston says:

        It sounds to me like you’re not just talking about selecting a starting point, but also about prioritizing those texts with which you start over others. Am I understanding you aright? If so, I think that adds another layer to the discussion. If we accept that Scripture sits in judgement over us, rather than the other way around, we have to use all the lenses we’ve been given to bring the truth into focus. We can’t just pick one that we happen to like and declare it to be the dominant one. We have to maintain a proper tension among the different viewpoints in Scripture.

        I’ve been playing with a Constitution/Bill of Rights analogy. The Constitution lays out the basic principles and structure of our our political system, and the Bill of Rights spells out the specific application of this vision in certain areas. Likewise, the Gospels give us the story of Jesus, including His proclamation of the Kingdom, His actions, His death, and His resurrection, while the Epistles (Pauline and otherwise) spell out the specific implications of this story in certain areas of belief and practice. In each case, both parts are equally necessary pieces of the whole foundational document. Not sure how well this analogy would hold up to close scrutiny by Constitutional scholars, but I’ve been finding it helpful thus far.

      • Hmm. Well, if you’re not a Constitutional scholar, I’m not one either…or an NT scholar. Just a lowly Church historian and practitioner. 🙂

        I agree that we cannot just pick what we like and go with that. Though this can be a temptation at times…

        I’m not sure that Bill of Rights/Consitutional analogy quite fits with what I’m saying. I guess what I’m thinking is this: Paul is not always clear. At the very least, he’s debated. Think of the issues regarding predestination, women, spiritual gifts, etc. If looking to the life and teachings of Christ helps us clarify some things in Paul, that makes sense to me. Since Paul is so much about the “practical,” in those areas where I’m not sure I understand, looking to Christ will help. If a possible interpretation of Paul goes against the core of the gospels, then we know it isn’t appropriate.

        I think that Gordon Fee may have said the same thing in “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,” but I can’t find the reference right now.

  2. […] interacting with the arguments made in The King Jesus Gospel, including series by Tony Jones, Joshua Ziefle, Joe McGill, and Chris […]

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