The great gulf from canon to creedBy Scot McKnight
I was reading a review of N. T. Wright’s new book, How God Became King, and it was a review that was so far out of touch with the book I read in manuscript form that at one spot in reading the review I wondered if I had confused that review’s book with the manuscript I had read. Well, no, as it turns out, I had read that very book, and so I’m doing a series on Wright’s new book, in part to set the record straight. That review simply didn’t summarize the book adequately, and the book deserves a fair hearing.
Do you think creedal readings of Jesus/theology have replaced or supplanted the Gospels themselves? Have the Gospels been misread or skipped over by the church?
How God Became King is rooted in three problems:
(1) Not enough lay Christians read the Gospels intelligently, and this is complicated by the second problem.
(2) Between the canon — that is, the canonical Gospels themselves — and the creed, Wright sees a “great gulf opening up” and wants to argue that the creedal confession of Jesus is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels, and when one assumes the creed, one skips too much in the Gospels.
(3) Bultmann famously argued we don’t need to have a “historical Jesus” because all we get in the New Testament is the faith of the Christians. Bultmann was famously criticized by people who showed that history really does matter; without the history, we don’t have the faith. Wright deconstructs: Those same people, when it comes to theologizing, don’t need the historical Jesus because they, like Bultmann, turn everything into the Pauline faith. So creed — whether Nicea or the Reformations solas — has replaced the Gospels. Hence, How God Became King.
So Wright’s book examines “the empty cloak” — the Gospels are the empty cloak, and we want to find the body that belongs in that cloak. What does the life of Jesus mean? Not just his incarnation and his death/resurrection, but his life? The simple fact is that the Gospels don’t tell the Pauline message of justification by faith, so what happens when we let the Gospels have a shaping influence?
The big point of this chapter is an important one: The creeds pass from the incarnation to the death and resurrection and exaltation and skip the life of Jesus, and Wright makes this point several times: What is most important to the Gospels, the life of Jesus [kingdom, etc.], is not in the creeds; what is most important to the creeds, the ontology of Jesus, is not important to the Gospels. We need both — as the early Christians did when they framed the creeds. (By the way, the relation of creeds to Gospels/canon is complex, and in many ways the creeds were at work determining which Gospels were apostolic.)
The problem is not the formers of the creeds, but that the creeds came to be seen as an outline of the faith — the whole faith — which meant leaving out much that is in the Gospels when that (creedal) faith was articulated. (This story, too, is complex, and it means a history of seeing how vital the Gospels were in the church’s theology. But Wright’s not making that point.)
Just one response at this point: As I make clear in The King Jesus Gospel, there is a direct line of thinking that we can trace from 1 Corinthians 15 to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicea, namely that the Second Article of the Creed is rooted in the very framing outline Paul (correct that, the apostles) used to frame the story of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. In other words, yes, I agree, not enough life of Jesus in the creed, but there is biblical precedent for that kind of summarizing story of Jesus. Let me put this more simply: When the apostles summarized the “gospel,” if we are to trust 1 Corinthians 15, the life of Jesus was only implied.
Furthermore, I would argue that the central theme of the Gospels is a Christological identity — Jesus as God’s Messiah/King, Lord, Son of God, Savior. And that identity forms the central labels for Jesus in the creeds, too.
So, while I take Wright’s point that creed skips too much (and he contends they were meant to be read alongside the Gospels so the problem is the use of the creeds in part), a central Christological identity forms a fundamental continuity between Gospels and creeds. Yes, the creeds explore ontology in ways we don’t find in the Gospels; Yes, the creeds need a more expansive kingdom theology; Yes, they are not a complete summary of our “message,” but they are gospel statements too.
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