Jesus, John Piper, and the Gospel of the Gospels

This past week the Gospel Coalition posted a discussion with Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, and John Piper on whether Paul preached the gospel. Here’s the video:

I love Piper, Carson, and Keller dearly. Their insights (both in sermons, lectures, and books) have been a great influence on me. Much of what is said here is helpful and edifying. Yet, I am uneasy with Piper’s approach here. I think it’s too susceptible to the kind of criticism of N. T. Wright or Scot McKnight that this is an individualistic message. Both Wright (in What Saint Paul Really Said, and other works) and McKnight (in The King Jesus Gospel) claim that an approach like the one here presented by Piper

  1. downplays or ignores the Old Testament story of Israel (Piper is especially guilty of this), and
  2. functionally elevates the Pauline corpus into a canon within a canon, making Paul the cipher through which we interpret the Gospels.

I think these charges are worth considering (even if, at times, they are overstated). I would humbly add 1 more criticism to Piper’s approach

3. a lack of redemptive-historical emphasis.

That is to say, Piper focuses more on, in John Murray’s terms, the “gospel applied” (ordo salutis) than the “gospel accomplished” (historia salutis).

Here are some excellent discussions that basically land where I do.

As Carson pointed out, Paul does preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (ex: Acts 28:31). Likewise, as Piper correctly noted, the emphasis for Paul on kingdom gets centered on the reign of the king, king Jesus. The differences usually set forth are overblown (more blow). But there is a difference. Jesus doesn’t need to teach double-imputation (a doctrine I embrace) in order to “preach the gospel.” Jesus is the gospel. The Gospels are called the Gospels for a reason. Jonathan Pennington of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary makes this point wonderfully here:

As I understand the Bible the theme uniting Jesus and Paul is eschatology. Both proclaim (in their unique way, historical circumstances, and wording) that in Jesus YHWH is now at work to redeem Israel and hence the world.  Jesus is the messianic embodiment of YHWH’s return to make good on his promises (albeit in surprising ways), and Paul is the messianic herald, explaining and proclaiming how Jesus fulfilled Israel’s story and how the Messiah’s victory is applied to those united to him by faith. Jesus taught the inauguration of the kingdom in his own prophetic message and messianic actions. Paul reflects back upon the accomplishment of king Jesus and applies that to the various issues of his (largely Gentile) church plants.

Let’s quickly return to my [added] third critique of Piper’s approach, his lack of a redemptive-historical emphasis (especially the kind championed by Richard Gaffin, G.K. Beale, Thomas Schreiner, and others).  N. T. Wright states the redemptive-historical

It should be clear from all this that if Paul had simply trotted out, parrot-fashion, every line of Jesus’ teaching – if he had repeated the parables, if he had tried to do again what Jesus did in announcing and inaugurating the kingdom – he would not have been endorsing Jesus, as an appropriate and loyal follower should. He would have been denying him. Someone who copies exactly what a would-be Messiah does is himself trying to be a Messiah; which means denying the earlier claim. When we see the entire sequence within the context of Jewish eschatology, we are forced to realized that for Paul to be a loyal ‘servant of Jesus Christ’, as he describes himself, could never mean that Paul would repeat Jesus’  unique, one-off announcement of the kingdom to his fellow Jews. What we are looking for is not a parallelism between two abstract messages. It is the appropriate continuity between two people living, and conscious of living, at different points in the eschatological timetable. (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 180-181)

PS: Here’s the article Keller-recommended by Simon Gathercole on “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom” from the book God’s Power to Save.

PPS: I’ve taken my swing at defining the gospel in light of the whole drama of Scripture here and especially here. My approach there still leans in direction of an individual application. This is fine, but I recognize I could have done more to incorporate the Old Testament and the Gospels. I hope to do that in a future post.


Posted on September 3, 2012, in The Gospel, Video Clips and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Patrick Williams

    Very Good, Joe! Keep up the good work!

  2. Nice post, Joseph. I basically agree with your critique of Piper. The only push back that I would offer here is that I don’t think McKnight and company sufficiently appreciate the place of the apostles in progressive revelation following Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Jesus himself says at the end of Luke, he was especially appointed to suffer and rise and the apostles where especially appointed to preach repentance and forgiveness in his name (Luke 24:45-28). So, perhaps if it is fair to say that Piper fails to sufficiently appreciate Jesus’ role as the climax of Israel’s story, McKnight fails to sufficiently appreciate the apostles’ special role in proclaiming the saving significance of that story. Just a thought.

  3. Good insights Joe! I appreciate your thoughtful critique of Piper’s position. As I listened I found myself agreeing with what both Carson and Piper said, though I think Carson clearly painted a better big picture of inaugurated eschatology and the relationship between Christ’s kingdom proclamation and Paul’s. It seemed to me that Piper was trying to address the argument that Paul’s gospel of individual salvation and justification by faith alone are absent from Jesus’ message in the gospels. In that respect, I’m not sure we can say from this that Piper has a deficient understanding (or at least a one-sided emphasis) to Jesus’ message. It could simply be that he was focusing on that single apologetic task: to find Pauline justification by faith in Jesus’ message. Thanks again for your good thoughts! Keep up the good work; I wish I had more time to harvest your insights from past blogs. Peace!

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